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Caleb Crain’s Lambda Literary Award nominated novel, Necessary Errors, follows a group of clever 20-somethings who are living, working and musing in post-Communist Prague. It’s a detailed rendering of their lives—they drink Pilsner Urquell, eat knedliky (Czech dumplings) and goulash, long for each other, and teach English—from the perspective of Jacob Putnam, an earnest, young gay man who’s just coming of age.The book, which has been listed as one of the best books of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal, Slate, Salon and more, is the first novel published by Crain, who has written for The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, The Nation, the New York Times Book Review, and The New Republic. Crain recently talked via email with Lambda Literary about his work.
You’ve written short fiction, a scholarly work about friendship between men in early American literature, as well as book reviews and cultural commentary for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books. Necessary Errors is your first novel. Was it difficult to transition into writing a long work of fiction? And was the editing process much different?
Necessary Errors is actually my fourth or fifth first novel; it just happens to be the first one decent enough to publish. It’s only from the outside, therefore, that it looks like I’ve made a transition. But writing fiction is indeed different from writing criticism. The process feels a lot less intentional. This will sound horribly mystical, but with fiction I’m not always aware exactly which part of me is making the decisions, which can be a little unsettling. Also, some days, all you can do with fiction is sit at the desk and draw pictures of your stapler. Whereas with criticism, I know that once I’ve done the reading, taken the notes, and drafted an outline, I’ll be able to do the writing. If I follow all the steps, the work gets done. No such guarantee with fiction.
I’m an old hand at having my nonfiction edited, and fairly calloused about it. When I was an editor myself, one of my colleagues nicknamed me the Knife. Still, I was quite nervous about having my fiction edited. I didn’t even really understand how such a thing was possible. But it turned out well. I gave the manuscript to half a dozen friends at the same time that I handed it in to Allison Lorentzen, my editor at Penguin, so when it came time to revise, I had a divergent chorus of voices to listen to. A sentence that one reader wanted me to axe, another had starred as a favorite. But even if my readers didn’t always agree on a diagnosis, I could see pretty clearly which pages had a problem.
My friend Lorin Stein, who edits the Paris Review, was particularly helpful. I’m the sort of writer who hears voices when he writes, and in my first draft, I wrote down everything the voices said, even unto “Hello” when they entered the room, and “See you later” when they left. Lorin persuaded me that readers didn’t need a record quite that complete. In movie-making, when a director shoots a scene from a number of different angles, the multiple shots are called coverage. The more coverage, the more options the editor has later. No one expects a finished movie to make use of every inch of film exposed. My first draft had a lot of coverage.
In James Wood’s review of your novel in the New Yorker, he says, “Necessary Errors is a very good novel, an enviably good one, and to read it is to relive all the anxieties and illusions and grand projects of one’s own youth.” Why do you think certain coming-of-age novels have such power?
It’s exhilarating and terrifying to be in charge of one’s life for the first time. Everything seems within reach, at least until one reaches for it. I don’t think life is ever quite so plastic again. For many people it’s also the time of life when one first falls in love in a serious way, and if one’s sexuality isn’t a conventional one, there may be a lot to sort through.
What drove your interest in writing about post–Velvet Revolution Prague?
At the time, the city was neither fish nor fowl. Communism had left, but capitalism hadn’t arrived. The revolution was over, but a new political system hadn’t been entirely worked out. The country had broken with the East but hadn’t yet joined the West. The mood was somewhat melancholy, and it seemed like an appropriate setting for a novel about a character who is also between states of being: no longer a child but not yet an adult, no longer straight but not quite reconciled to being gay, no longer on a conventional career path but not sure what he’s going to do instead.
Necessary Errors fully reveals life in 90s Prague—its streets, statues, bars, public transportation, housing, culture, political climate. What was your research process like?
I lived in Prague for a while in the early 1990s, so I was able to draw on memories, as well as on photos I had taken, some of which I’ve posted to my blog. I also had guidebooks, maps, and museum catalogs that I had saved. They were invaluable, because the Internet is very good at showing what a place looked like last week or last summer, but very poor at showing what it looked like twenty years ago. After I came back to America, I studied Czech at Columbia and then worked for a little while as a translator. The place has never been far from my mind.
Though it’s set in the 90s, the novel, which follows earnest 20-somethings philosophizing about life and love, seems more early than late 20th century in its straightforward, non-postmodern style. At one point, Jacob even notes how he hates postmodernism (which may be the only meta comment in the book). Is the literary realism in Necessary Errors your response to a glut of overly meta, ironic fiction?
I’ve been accused of being a magpie about postmodernism—stealing a few of its literary effects that I thought were pretty. You’re right that the style of the book is quiet overall. Different problems require different tools, so I hesitate to say that one way of writing trumps another. I think my concern with cleverness is that sometimes it can be merely defensive.