Jeffrey Condran is the author of two story collections, A Fingerprint Repeated (Press 53) and, most recently, Claire, Wading into the Danube by Night (Southeast Missouri State University Press). His debut novel, Prague Summer (Counterpoint), received a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award’s Silver Medal. His fiction has appeared in journals such as Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, and Epoch and has been awarded the Missouri Review 2010 William Peden Prize. He is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and co-founder/publisher of the independent literary press Braddock Avenue Books. I first met Jeffrey in 2010, and we’ve corresponded ever since. Recently we talked about his new collection, the challenge of launching a book during a pandemic, his novel in progress, and his enduring fascination with Prague.
Evelyn Somers: You completed your MFA at the University of Pittsburgh and then went on to teach. In the beginning you were struggling under a heavy course load and trying to write. Then there was a point when you decided you had to free up time and pursue your writing very seriously. Was there a catalyst for that decision?
Jeffrey Condran: I spent four years working as an adjunct—sometimes at as many as three different colleges. One semester, I taught seven classes. I was married and had a young son. As you can imagine, there was very little time to write. Eventually, I was lucky enough to find full-time employment as an English instructor at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. In many ways, it was a wonderful piece of good fortune: I was making a living wage teaching what I loved. Unfortunately, the school was on a quarter system and offered courses year-round. We were teachers first, and if we managed to sneak in a little creative work or scholarship, that was celebrated but not prioritized. Two things happened to change my situation. The first was that I in 2008 I went to Prague and was simply overwhelmed by the place. It was inspirational in a way I can’t quite express. But I returned from that visit with a new level of motivation. I was thirty-eight. I said to myself, if I’m ever going to live as a writer, it’s got to be now. I found another level of commitment to the craft and pushed myself beyond what I had previously thought possible. The first tangible result was the publication of a story titled “Praha,” which was published in the Missouri Review and was subsequently selected by Steve Yarbrough for the William Peden Prize. Just about that time I had applied for and been given a sabbatical at the Art Institute—three months—during which I finished my first book, a story collection, and wrote the first 150 pages of a novel that would eventually be sold to Counterpoint, Prague Summer.
Somers: Can you talk about how “Praha” the story became Prague Summer, a novel?
Condran: My writing process for Prague Summer was interesting but not one I’d recommend. I’d originally drafted a novel set in Pittsburgh in which a real estate agent rents out the top floor of his house to a Yemeni couple. It was meant to be a political allegory that traded on the idea of the Heisenberg effect—that we change the outcome of an experiment simply by observing it. In this case, the American protagonist negatively influenced the Yemeni couple’s relationship. I received many nice notes from agents, but they all said the same thing: the observational element had a negative impact on the story’s momentum. For a while, I put the book in a drawer and thought of it as simply failed. I consoled myself that I’d gotten my “bad novel” out of the way, the one everyone supposedly writes before they find themselves stylistically. Then I went to Prague. When I came back, I was writing the stories for my first collection, A Fingerprint Repeated, and wondered if I couldn’t figure out a way to salvage a short story out of that novel manuscript. I took my characters, envisioned them again, this time in Prague, and the result was “Praha.” When that story came out, so many of my writer friends said the story “felt like a novel.” To which I said some variant of “Oh, God.” I then sat down and expanded the story into Prague Summer, the novel that became a story only to become a novel again.
Somers: Your new book, Claire, Wading into the Danube by Night, which was just published by Southeast Missouri State University Press, is another collection. As with your first book, it contains international themes and settings, notably European. As a writer, why are you drawn to other places and cultures?
Condran: My experience of extended travel or of expatriate life is that a person enters into this beautifully liminal space. We leave home and almost immediately shed some of the identity we’re compelled to inhabit in our daily lives. At the same time, we’re not able to fully inhabit the place we’ve journeyed to. The result is an emotional and intellectual space that we have unprecedented control over. Not a blank slate, but one with more room for self-invention than we’re used to. From a narrative perspective, it’s exciting territory that almost always adds some unlooked-for element regardless of whatever else might be at stake. And I find this particularly true of Americans, who so often strike me as complacent when we’re at home, especially in terms of language and identity. Travel doesn’t just make people empathetic; it also compels introspection. What did Flaubert famously say? “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
Somers: Any thoughts about publishing a new book in the middle of a pandemic? Were you able to do any touring or reading?
Condran: I was lucky and managed to do two or three events, including a launch at the Argenta Reading Series in Little Rock and an event at AWP in San Antonio. I also did a Zoom event with Sanderia Faye’s LitNight Dallas. However, all my in-person engagements have been postponed or canceled. It’s disappointing. Not only in terms of promoting the book, but also for that sense of connection you feel with readers when you meet them in person. I truly believe the real magic of reading happens in solitude between a reader and her book. But I also believe that reading aloud to an audience, no matter the size, is an open-hearted act of connection. In an essay I wrote a few years ago called “From the Diaphragm,” I referred to reading aloud as an act of love. I’m sad to miss the opportunities of those connections.
Somers: I’ve read quite a few of your stories—enough to know that you write firmly in the realistic tradition and are interested in your characters’ inner lives and conflicts. Do you ever feel con
strained by the demands of realism? And what are the particular joys of that mode of rendering experience?
Condran: I came of age as a writer in the “Dirty Realism” of Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, and James Salter and still believe that a successful realist work is a true achievement. Competence in literary realism is relatively easy, but to manage something special in that style is truly wonderful. I admire magical realism and stories of the fantastic, and I love the experimental fiction of writers such as Matt Bell and Lance Olsen, but often these genres simply make a gesture toward deep metaphor.
Having said this, I’ve recently become fascinated by the life and work of Franz Kafka. It’s impossible to admire Kafka and not appreciate what stories of the fantastic have to offer. This recent obsession may shift my interests in new directions. We’ll see.
Somers: You’re also on the creative writing faculty at the University of Arkansas–Little Rock, and you’re the founder of a small press, Braddock Avenue Books. How have the teaching—and in particular, editing—affected what and how you write?
Condran: Without question, teaching and editing have made me a better writer. Partly it’s because I’m constantly immersed in language. Teaching makes me think and rethink my assumptions about narrative, structure, and language on a daily basis as I discuss these elements with my students. There’s also something inspiring about the never-ending conversation that goes on when you teach creative writing. Ideas that might otherwise lie dormant are constantly placed before you. Publishing and editing put me in a similar position. What a deep pleasure it is to discuss, often line-by-line, a manuscript that someone has spent years of their life and untold amounts of emotional energy on. There’s something incredibly exciting about that work that translates into excitement about my own work. And there’s nothing better than the moment when you make someone an offer of publication. To enable that is something special. Better maybe even than being published myself.
Somers: Tell me about the vision and mission of Braddock Avenue Books.
Condran: Braddock Avenue Books began life in 2012 with the publication of Salvatore Pane’s novel Last Call in the City of Bridges. Robert Peluso and I founded the press when we
realized that so many truly wonderful books were being passed on by the big New York publishers—books that in the past would have easily found a home. Maybe a little like the American economy, the middle was shrinking, and the victims were more often than not works of literary fiction. For years the conglomerates used their popular bestsellers to fund books of greater cultural merit. That may still be the goal, but the last two decades have seen an emphasis on profit first, art a distant second. As a small press, publishing about half a dozen titles per year, we can provide a home for literary fiction—I use that term broadly—that would otherwise be overlooked. It’s a labor of love.
Somers: Your new novel-in-progress is taking you back to Prague, and the life of Franz Kafka. What discoveries have you made as you’ve researched the place and the writer?
Condran: What strikes me most about Kafka is that he’s a thoroughly twenty-first century figure. The vision of life that he saw at the beginning of the twentieth century has become a virus in full bloom in our age. Kafka is the Zeitgeist. Unable or unwilling to make his way in the world as his entrepreneurial father did, Kafka lived with his parents until age thirty-two—and even then still came home for dinner most nights of the week. More importantly, though, he saw the utter meaninglessness of most work: The way it sapped people’s energy and vitality and left them alienated from themselves and the larger culture, desperate to find some meaningful way to make an identity in the world. For Kafka the path to meaning was literature, not as work but as a vocation. It was a spiritual calling that he spent most of his life trying to live up to. That and the idea of love. Kafka felt himself to be a victim of his parents’ mania for material wealth, one that kept them from showing him the attention and affection that he craved. In one of his letters to his fiancée, Felice Bauer, he tells her that each night he kisses her photograph, her whole face, and that she should understand how special this is because his lips never kissed another person—not father, not mother, not sisters. Sadly, this dysfunction stopped Kafka from ever marrying, despite being engaged four times. He craved intimacy but simply couldn’t manage to live it.
All of this takes place in Prague, then a provincial outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a loosely multicultural state rife with nationalist, anti-Semitic tensions. The public and the personal in Kafka’s life come together in a way that a novelist could only dream of. I’m specifically interested in the year 1913, just after Kafka wrote “The Metamorphosis” and just before the outbreak of World War I. I certainly find it engrossing. I’m hoping that others will too.
The following story excerpt from Claire, Wading into the Danube by Night appears here by permission of Southeast Missouri State University Press. The complete story “Death of the Writer” originally appeared in Epoch.
Death of the Writer
The winter sky is spectacular above the Vltava, and I know you can imagine it, so like the sunsets we watched together from your father’s house in Chaumont. It’s the same sun, I tell myself, the Earth only a couple thousand revolutions older, as we are too, and it is the sudden awareness of time passing that has me thinking of your father tonight. Nostalgia, maybe, or something more? I’d like to think so. I need not say that I wish he were not dead and that you were not in New York and so very far beyond my ability to know as I once did. I need not say it, but there I have.
I am standing on Charles Bridge looking west. A different man would surrender the bridge to the tourists, but they have thinned now that it’s cold and so I have reclaimed it. A caricaturist approaches me to do a portrait. Twenty crowns, he says, and I laugh thinking of how you might dismiss him with just a look. I tell him to draw me while I watch the sunset.
You must be at work now, maybe having one of those business lunches that Wall Street knows how to put on—even when times are bad. It would be the perfect moment, I think, to interrupt you with a love message because there’s something about the sky and the light this evening that brings me back to the last time I felt safe, the last time I could without a moment’s hesitation say I knew myself. What would we talk about? I have such vivid memories of the memorial lunch that we gave for your father in Paris. I might say how clearly I recall the cut of your black dress and the simple way you styled your hair, the way I could feel you smiling encouragement to me as I spoke about your father. The Beaujolais blanc we drank. I know the double pain you felt that your father was gone, but also that with him would end these gatherings, all the parties, his name and reputation drawing four generations of literati to houses and restaurants and bookshops. How you reminded me that each generation in the Bible became slightly less strong, less powerful, and shorter lived. Do you remember me trying to make you smile, telling foolish stories of how much I loved your father’s old Citroën? What was it I’d said? 1970, French blue, part insect, part bird’s wing. I couldn’t believe he’d sold it. There was a bet about how many women he’d seduced in that elegant French car, the distance between the man and his novels being, it was felt, too exciting not to collapse. It was your former stepmother who sidled up to me after the meal was over and whispered in my ear, “I made him sell that fucking car.” But she smiled as she said it, having grown up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and having ideas about how such moments should be handled.
You know what it’s like for me, having to draw attention to myself in this way. So pathetic, you’d say. And I know it. But I also remember the way you would sneak up behind me and wrap your arms around my waist and rest your head against my back. I have probably not said that you are the only woman who has ever held me, that even remembering the warmth of your body and the gentle press of your breasts against me brings tears of self-pity to my eyes. I have never told you this, but there, I’ve told you now. If I called you, you’d listen to all of this until the moment came when you’d say, “Yes, but what do you want?” And what could I say in return except, “Nothing.”
I hadn’t been in Prague for more than a month. It was the year of the NATO missile defense system debate. I didn’t even have my own place yet, still sleeping on a friend’s couch in the Nové Město. I was telling myself I wanted to know the city for a while before committing to anything. I don’t know how long I thought I was prepared to sleep on that couch. I had only two suitcases with me—one with my clothes and one filled with the books I felt I couldn’t part with. When my friend was gone at work I often opened the suitcase beside the couch so that all I needed to do was blindly dip my hand in to pull out another title. You know how susceptible I am to lost time, the sparks of days and hours when a person might be alone with their own mind and a good book. After a few days it’s possible to become sympathetic to changes in light and shadow running against a wall or the weight and texture of a book in your hand, the susurration of your own breathing and the beating of your heart. The very last thing I wanted to do was talk to anyone, and so I always left my friend’s flat before he returned home from work. Prague is a city that should be seen on foot. I walked, I looked, I encountered. But I spoke to no one. I let my cellphone die.
And so while I was reading and walking and thinking and talking to no one, I could not have known that your father had suffered a heart attack while riding his bike, had fallen and broken more bones than I care to remember, even now. I did not yet know that you had been calling and calling, leaving frantic messages.
It was only one night, not yet late but darkness had fallen, when I returned to my friend’s flat to find Marcel sitting in an armchair across from my couch waiting for me that I learned what had happened. He held a cup of tea in his hand, untouched and gone cold. He sat with his perfect posture and his graying hair and mustache, his dark suit pressed, a white carnation in the buttonhole of his jacket that was just beginning to brown and curl at the edges. I was shocked to see him there because I didn’t think there were more than three people who knew where I was. I should not have doubted Marcel’s abilities, though, and knew enough even in that moment to not bother saying anything. “Hello, Monsieur John,” he said in that old fashioned way that nobody could ever break him of, and handed me my cellphone that he had charged while he waited. And of course that was when I heard you explain what happened. The first message choked and nearly hysterical, your voice in a register that I had never heard before. Though almost as bad was how each successive message became colder and colder, your voice almost dead in my ear until the last message was simply an angry sigh. The situation was this: the old man refused to go to the hospital and there was fear of internal bleeding and the possibility of a second heart attack. Would I go to Chaumont and get him to a hospital? I would. Of course, I would. Marcel was here to fetch me.
I used the landline to call you in New York. I couldn’t imagine you there. New York for me was still only an idea then: La Guardia, a couple of restaurants, and the Blue Bar of the Algonquin Hotel. When we finally spoke, I couldn’t help wondering who wanted me in Chaumont. Had your father asked for me? Of all the people he might have reached out to, had it been me that he’d thought of? There was nothing like that in our conversation, though. It was all the details of what the local doctor had suggested was possible and that needed to be confirmed or denied in hospital. You were sure that he was in terrible pain and couldn’t he be convinced to drop all the Hemingway-tough guy-grace under pressure-bullshit and take something so that he could be at ease and give his body a chance to heal? Apparently, he wasn’t sleeping, and didn’t I know how crucial sleep was to the healing process? I agreed that I did know. Marcel and I would leave on the first possible train.
There was no way to leave until the next morning, and as there wasn’t enough room in the flat, Marcel checked us into a hotel for the night. We ordered room service and each drank a glass of wine in silence. It was late and the hotel had a view of the river and the castle. The lights from the bridges lit the water and I spent a long while on the little balcony thinking about your father. Until you could arrive, it would be me who would have to make difficult decisions. Don’t think that it did not cross my mind that by the time you found me you could already have been at your father’s side. It’s not as though you were stranded on a ship at sea or doing sensitive work for the government. I know Wall Street is filled with egomaniacs, but don’t corporations really manufacture their own emergencies? And the real emergency was that your famous father was dying. That, however, was a conversation for another day. Marcel would have me with him by tomorrow afternoon. Where were you?
Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared widely in journals. Her two concurrent writing projects are a supernatural novel-in-stories about two dueling female divinities and a comedy about a single-mom empty-nester and her unusual pet.