a conversation with Arthur Phillips      


Bold Type: What intially inspired you to write Prague?

Arthur Phillips: I suffer from recurring hyperglycemic nostalgia, with a mean onset period of between one and three years, peaking into an almost unbearable stage about four to five years after the original trigger event. In these months or years of maximum pathology, the symptoms are nearly untreatable, and my family and friends tend to quarantine themselves voluntarily rather than risk exposure to such a sad, slobbery case. So, in this one instance, as my prognosis grew increasingly dismal, I tried a radical cure. The printed results of my treatment are now yours for a mere $24.95.

BT: What was your own experience in Budapest like, and what led you there?

AP: My own experience there gets better every day. It has now been ten years, so in all my recollections of the place I am practically a national hero. My departure day I now recall as an official day of mourning; the Danube ran salty with the tears of local children. More likely, I lived there immediately after college, holding a variety of jobs, for none of which was I qualified. I liked the parties and the decay and the puzzled expression of old women when they saw me. I liked living in an alternate-universe Europe which looked just as good, but cost nearly nothing. It was a nice place to try on any number of careers and personalities.

BT: How did your experience there inform the novel?

AP: I'm afraid the relationship between actual memory and art is a trade secret.

BT: Some artists set out to create a work that defines their generation, while many others run screaming from any assertion that that's what they've done. Some are now saying that your novel captures or epitomizes a generation, how do you respond?

AP: First I respond by saying, "Thank you." Then, I'm sorry, but I have to be a big party-pooper on this one. I did not set out to do such a thing, because I do not believe it can be done. Tell me a book is about me and my generation and I am pretty well guaranteed not to read it. That said, people who are saying that my book "captures a generation" are definitely trying to say something very nice, and I appreciate it, of course. I might differ with them in technical terms, but the spirit of the praise is nothing to shake a stick at. I hope I don't sound like a big weiner. Do something in the HTML formatting so I don't come off like a big weiner.

BT: Too late. Is there a new Prague, or is that whole notion part of a bygone era?

AP: As soon as you in New York or I in Paris can say for sure where the new place is, my guess is it's probably already over. Pressed to pretend to be an expert, I would bet there are places in China that feel pretty cool right now. New countries have a lot to be said for them, so East Timor's got to be rocking.

BT: When did you first start writing? Did you have an epiphany, or was it something that you always knew you'd do?

AP: March of 1996. Epiphany.

BT: OK, I have to ask—how did you come up with the game Sincerity?

AP: Sincerity (created in solitude, July, 1997, at the Café Pamplona in Cambridge, Massachusetts) traces its proud heritage to a word game called Fictionary, in which players try to forge convincing definitions to obscure words. The game Sincerity just leaves behind faux-lexicography in favor of plausibly deniable emotional violence, but to each his own.

When I started the book with five characters and certain rules for their behavior, the game just followed logically; Sincerity is a ritualized, scored form of these characters' "normal" interactions. Oddly enough, a few people have told me they recall playing the game in their youth, and one woman was even angry at me for having gotten the rules wrong.

BT: What role does the city of Prague play in your imagination? Why name the book Prague when its setting is Budapest?

AP: Pre-1990, Prague was for me the not-quite-conceivable setting of history books (defenestrations, Springs), spy stories, Kafkan shadows and Kunderan compromise. It was litero-historico-symbolic, because those were my only glimpses of it. Then, when I lived in Budapest, Prague became a place where I visited friends for the weekend. It was indescribably beautiful and colorful, closer to the sunny city I had imagined hosting counter-reformation autos-da-fé than the gray squalor where horny Kundera characters confronted rumpled, grouchy Communist enforcers. But, it was also a place I was happy not to live; for a weekend, Prague beat Budapest, but for a life, I loved Budapest. So, I didn't long for Prague, although I do now. Unfortunately, I long for the Prague of 1990, which has since slipped free of maps. And that's why the book is called Prague: a place, an era, a life that must have been great, must have been magic in a way the present can't match. And the title is also a little tip of the hat to one of my heroes, Milan Kundera, who in his Life Is Elsewhere, imagined a character for whom Prague was the insupportably boring hometown to be escaped at all costs, for whom 1880's Paris was Prague and 1940's Prague Peoria. Or New Prague, Minnesota (pronounced New Prayg, by the way).

BT: I meant to be in Prague back then, but somehow I ended up in Seattle. I'd wager you had the better adventure. How has your relationship to Eastern Europe changed since living there?

AP: Well, I haven't been back in ten years, so my relationship is increasingly fictional, except for my real Hungarian brother-in-law and my friendships with Hungarian expatriates in the west. Until I go back and get refreshed by Eastern Europe's current reality, it becomes more and more a Prague-ish place for me, beautiful, fading, a locale for improbably happy (because lost) youth.

BT: There exists a long tradition of expat fiction; were thoughts of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in your mind when you were writing Prague?

AP: Who?

BT: Cut it out.

AP: Okay. You cannot write about Americans in Europe without considering Ernie and F., among others. The fact is, you can hardly live as an American in Europe without considering them. After all, they were here first, they did it better, their acts became legend, et cetera, et cetera. In writing the book, I had to consider them, not just so I didn't imitate them, but because the characters in Prague (though not writers) live in an expatriate community in which Hemingway and Fitzgerald are almost literally present, doing their jazz-age best to stifle originality. The spectral omnipresence of these ur-expatriates is part of the characters' milieu, and these old ghosts have an influence over the shape of the characters' daydreams, and, of course, everyone is also aware of that, and finds the whole thing rather embarrassing. I'm a writer in Paris today (just like Hem!) and I often feel more than just a little silly about it all. Little French children see me scribbling in my notebook and they pull on their daddy's sleeve and point: "Regarde, Papa, dans le café! Un écrivain américain! Oh, oh, comme il est amusant!"

BT: You've lived abroad for a number of years in Eastern Europe and now in Paris. What drove you to choose the life of an expatriate and how has that decision impacted your life?

AP: Somehow expatriate seems too grand a word for what I am. I've just been a particularly clingy tourist, asking for another coffee long after the locals want to go home to bed.

BT: The novel goes off on a tangent for awhile that uses a family who own a publishing house to weave historical context into this contemporary tale. As I read it, I kept thinking to myself that it was a risky move, though it was deftly pulled off and eventually helped tie everything together. What made you stop halfway through this thoroughly modern story and delve so deeply into Hungary's past?

AP: It's probably not good interview material to say, "Beats me." So, I'll try to do better. I like history, and if the book was going to be, in part, about people without history trying to make a meaningful life for themselves in a place battered by history, it was not out-of-line to show how history could determine a character's life, and to show history lurking behind the cafés. Imre Horváth is a character who made himself in response to the limited options a bullying History gave him. In contrast, some of the American characters think they travel in a vacuum, self-made men in an ahistorical world. It seemed like we had to have a chunk of real, honest-to-goodness HISTORY in the book. Ideally, without boring the bejesus out of readers.

BT: Do you share the feeling of some of your characters that success and happiness is just around the corner, one city or job away? It seems like there must be a Yiddish word for this syndrome.

AP: I have suffered from that at times. I seem to be in remission at the moment.

BT: One of your characters is an obsessive student of nostalgia. Are you still nostalgic for the recent past, when Eastern Europe was just opening up to us interlopers and the world seemed a safer and less-complicated place?

AP: There's something about a wave of non-violent revolutions in which democracy triumphs over tyranny that should make everyone nostalgic. As for whether you should also be nostalgic for the resulting incredibly favorable exchange rates and good dance music in uncrowded nightclubs, that is less clear.

BT: Do you have a favorite from amongst your cast of characters that might surprise us?

AP: I don't want to play favorites and spoil anyone's fun. I like all of them, more or less. Some of them I would want for friends, some of them I would only put up with for a while.

BT: Did you have an "ideal reader" in mind when you were writing this novel, or did you write it simply to please yourself?

AP: For me, for me, for me. I wanted to write a book I would want to re-read and re-read. I got my wish, since in the process of writing, editing, and then copy-editing, I have read some version of Prague at least fifty times. I can tell you it really doesn't hold up for more than forty.

BT: What do you say to the critics who have recently proclaimed the death of irony?

AP: That's a stumper. Why not the death of laziness? The death of red? The death of metaphor? Irony is an undeniable attitude of certain people, so how can literary representations of such people be declared off-limits? I find the statement so inexplicable, I am beginning to suspect I don't understand it, and had better shut up now.

BT: Why should readers rush out to buy a copy of Prague?

AP: Because, in a few months, when they feel like reading, and they have forgotten that they bought Pragueor even heard of it, they will reach for the pile of books next to their bed and find Prague. It will be late at night, and for whatever reason they will have trouble sleeping. They'll switch on the bedside lamp and tell their mumbling bedfellow to go back to sleep. And they will read the first lines of the book, and they will want to know what happens next.

BT: What's next for Arthur Phillips?

AP: A light lunch. Some afternoon bullfighting. Wagner-karaoke into the wee hours.

interview by Larry Weissman

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    Photo credit: Peter Turnley