First-time novelist Arthur Phillips was born in Minneapolis and attended Harvard University and Berklee School of Music. He lived in Budapest from 1990 to 1992. He is a five-time Jeopardy champion and has recently published his debut novel, Prague. Phillips lives in Paris with his wife and young son and is working on his next novel.
Robert Birnbaum: You grew up in Minneapolis and attended Harvard. Is there anything else we need to know?
Arthur Phillips: I had a nice family and a nice life, and I was spoiled and got to do anything I wanted to do. I usually wanted to do offbeat things. I wanted to try acting, and I was in plays from eight years on. I wished I was a baseball player and was no good at it and played bad junior varsity baseball.
RB: Did you follow Rod Carew and the Twins?
AP: I remember he was at .406 at one point in ‘78 or ’79 and we were out at Met Stadium watching him just fumble at the last few games. Rod Carew was really big. There were the Twins when I was a little kid and the Twins when I was in college who, of course, were World Champions. And then in high school—let me see, I was an actor for a while and then I was a good student, which was embarrassing at the time, and now it seems better.
RB: Embarrassing to who? To your peers?
AP: Yeah, embarrassing to me, in front of my peers. It was just a dreadful thing to be. Even in the nice community of nice, reasonably well-achieving kids.
RB: Did you grow up in the city?
AP: Yeah, I did. But that makes it sound gritty, and there just isn’t much gritty in Minneapolis.
RB: I always marveled at the instances of pro athletes like Kirby Puckett and Terry Steinbach taking less money than they could have gotten elsewhere to play in Minneapolis.
AP: Kirby Puckett is a god in Minnesota and will forever be. As it turned out, even if had come to the Red Sox for whatever they were offering that year, he didn’t have much of a career left, unfortunately, because of his eye. Still, if you make however many millions of dollars, to turn down the last five still hurts, but you’re going to be okay.
RB: Admirably, he made a quality-of-life decision.
AP: Also, he did it out of a respect for Minnesota. Ever since he started, they just loved him. They never stopped loving him. He got great treatment, and now he’s a Twins executive, and that’s also a tough job as they try to melt the team down for scrap.
RB: Why did you come east?
AP: For Harvard. My brother had gone to Harvard.
RB: Any other universities you might have attended?
AP: No, I wanted to be my brother pretty badly. So I was going to go to Harvard. My sister went to Yale. I loved her, but she wasn’t my brother.
RB: You were at Harvard from ’86 to ’90 and then went to Budapest. Why did you go there?
AP: Mostly I wanted to see the world in motion, and I wanted to see history and whatever that meant, and at the time the place, very clearly, to go for someone of my tastes was Eastern Europe.
RB: How about Central America?
AP: It’s funny, they were both political statements in a way. Central America, was you still had faith and the Sandinistas needed farm help. I don’t know what year that first election was—
AP: Eastern Europe, which was a year later—you never bought. Or in my case, I wasn’t very politically minded. I was very interested to see what seemed to me historically fascinating and in retrospect inevitable, but of course no one would have ever guessed it could have happened. So I was young, and I wanted to see the world, and that’s where the world was, right then. I got a job, and I was going to be sent to Prague, and I thought, “That’s great.” I went out and bought a bunch of Czech language books and Czech tour books, and then at the last minute I was sent to Budapest instead, threw away my Czech books and bought Hungarian ones. I didn’t know the difference at the time. So, I was happy to go.
RB: You stayed two years and seem to have a checkered C.V. suggesting that you better continue your writing career. Except for your five-time Jeopardy whatever. What is Jeopardy?
AP: It’s a game show, on TV.
RB: How do you get to be on it five times?
AP: You have to keep winning. It’s a general-knowledge trivia show and for whatever reason, stuff just sticks to my head. Important things don’t, but trivia does. Somebody said, “Oh, they’re coming to Boston, you should go try out.” So I did and it went very well. It was my first year of marriage, and my wife was despairing of my employment possibilities.
RB: Okay, you were in Budapest from ’90 to ’92 and then what?
AP: I came back to Boston to go to the Berklee School [of Music]. At the end of my time in Budapest, I decided I wanted to be a musician. I was singing and played saxophone and came here and went to Berklee and played around Boston for a while…I got married at the end of that time, and it didn’t seem that appealing traveling around and trying to make a living as a jazz musician, married. And I wasn’t that good and was never going to be better than good enough, and I didn’t like performing that much. I never liked what I made as much as I liked the records that I ended up listening to records. So I came back to Boston, met a nice woman and got married, ended up on a game show.
RB: All ingredients for being a writer.
AP: Exactly, then I started making a living having to write everyday. I was doing PR stuff, speech writing, freelance marketing and a little bit of freelance journalism. I was writing everyday and realized that I could write everyday and I could maybe write something more interesting than—I mean speechwriting is basically fiction. You are writing monologues for characters that these people would like to be in real life.
RB: How did you keep yourself from going to a writing program?
AP: Umm, I am trying to think of a polite answer.
RB: There’s no need to be polite here.
AP: These things turn up online and they live forever, and then I get angry letters from people who went to writing programs. I didn’t go to a writing program because I didn’t like the idea of it for me. Obviously, they produce great writers because you see hundreds of great writers who went to writing programs. I can’t say a word against it. It just didn’t seem l like the right chemistry for me. I had just been in school for all kinds of stuff. I went to jazz school to learn how to be a jazz musician. I realized I can learn how to be a passable jazz musician by going to school but I am never going to be a great one whether I go to school or not. So I’d rather see what I can come up without going to writing school and read books. People manage to write books just by reading them. So I thought I’d give it a try. Not to say anything against writing programs.
RB: Where were you when you wrote Prague?
AP: I wrote it in Boston and Cambridge. It took about four years to get to a point where I could sell it.
RB: Was it hard? Not to sell, to write it?
AP: Was it hard? Umm, there days when it was hard. There are days still when the book obviously sucks, and I don’t understand why more people aren’t saying so. And there were days when it was great, and I was a genius. There were days that I couldn’t write a sentence that didn’t sound like it was written by either a child or one of my favorite writers—or somebody imitating one of my favorite writers. Yeah, there were hard days. Hard—you have to compare to actually holding a hard job, and writing is not a hard job. Writing is a pleasure. Whatever the frustrations are, they are nothing compared to having to go to a real job. So, I can’t ever say writing is hard. I’d be ashamed of saying that.
RB: No soul-torturing anguish?
AP: I’m sure that some people—for good or bad reasons—torture their souls. It was a soul-cleansing thing. I lived in Budapest for two years and I loved it and I missed it. I’m a very nostalgic person, and I thought, “It would be nice to try to write about what I am nostalgic for without writing an autobiography. If I can yank myself out of the book and at the same time…”
RB: Were you in the book as a character?
AP: I have a cameo appearance. I am the bald, out-of-tune saxophone player. So if I had any autobiographical impulses I headed toward that lightening rod and the rest I tried to write fiction and at the same time infuse it with the things that I remember or miss or miss but don’t remember.
RB: I’ve looked at Daniel Mendelsohn’s review [7-08-02] in The New Yorker and Gail Caldwell’s review [6/30/02] in The Boston Globe.
AP: Two different views, I would say.
RB: Yeah, I thought the Caldwell was a bit unusual for her comments on the publishing industry.
AP: She seemed pretty upset about the book. [the phone rings] If that’s her I can’t take the call.
RB: Let me quote:
Every summer brings its hipper-than-thou contenders from the publishing industry, and one of this season’s purported Zeitgeist novels is “Prague” – a global-culture spin on the old romantic expatriate novels from nearly a century ago. Sprawling and champagne-fizzy smart, “Prague” is also self-consciously ironic and dazzled by its own self-consciousness. That’s not necessarily a surprise in a first novel, nor is a certain brand of long-winded intelligence. With his own particular expat experience to guide him, Arthur Phillips – Harvard, Budapest for two years, now Paris – tells a sophisticated bad-boy story about a group of mildly disaffected Americans in Budapest in 1990, the year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it speaks to the oh-so-American sensibility of the novel that its title refers to a city (or never-never-land) where no one ever quite manages to go. In “Prague,” everybody’s hopes and dreams are made restless by the adrenaline-rush fantasy of someplace else.
AP: It seemed odd that the book review was a review of her relationship to the publishing industry. I don’t think of myself as being part of the publishing industry because I’m just a guy who got dead-on lucky. Maybe I’m being used for malevolent purposes beyond my understanding.
RB: That seems right. You simply wrote a book. How it’s marketed or what buzz is created, that’s not your doing. Globe columnist Alex Beam has observed that the culture seems only to be able to support a few books at a time and clearly more than a couple good books are published at one time.
AP: The other thing was—I don’t know her, she may be a savvy member of the world of journalism and publishing but she—I won’t argue with any reviews, but I will argue with being called on factual and credibility things that I feel that I was right about. She questions whether one of the characters could have gotten the job that he got. Maybe I should have written it so that question didn’t come up. But there can be no question about what Americans with college degrees could be hired to do in Budapest in 1990. Which is one of the charms of the place. And I’m sure it doesn’t exist anymore.
RB: I actually only read the beginning and ending paragraphs. It seems that she ended with much kinder assessment of Prague than I expected given the opening remarks.
AP: I didn’t understand it. It seemed so credible based on having lived there. Maybe it’s a criticism of not having expressed why that was a credible position for him to be in?
RB: I brought it up because I expect that the word ‘irony’ may dog you.
AP: It’s okay. It’s a book about irony.
RB: Well, if you hear it often enough, it’s not going to be okay.
AP: I don’t mind. I set out to write a book about irony. And that requires using irony. I have to take exception to one other thing. That because a cynical character is depicted doesn’t make a book cynical. Or the author’s intention’s necessarily cynical. It’s a hard book because it plays with those ideas. It makes you decide, do you like this person? If not why not and are they justified in their actions and what is their use of irony? Those are questions that interested me a lot to write it. It seem to put her [Gail Caldwell] off a little bit. So.
RB: The more admirable characters are not the Americans. In fact, I’m tempted to say that Americans come off as ugly. Charles—what does he say to one of the brothers?—“I swear by the God of your unpleasant and afflicted people.”
AP: And yet, between friends you can say that with a smile.
RB: That wasn’t the worst thing he says.
AP: The thing about irony is that among friends you can say anything and they know you don’t mean it.
RB: What was not greatly in evidence was a sense of emotional connection. On the other hand the characters are pretty young. Where any of them over 30?
AP: No, none of those five. I think that’s a fair point. A reliance on irony can be helpful and it can be harmful. It can make an emotional connection to things very difficult. I wanted to write a book about trying to find emotional connection when you are surrounded by people who use and overuse irony. So, I think it’s okay for that feeling to come through that people are not finding much connection because that’s much of what it was about for me.
RB: Did people play this game, Sincerity, that you introduce very early in the book?
AP: I made it up in Cambridge in 1997.
RB: Sounds like an amusing game to play.
AP: If you feel like playing with little emotional fires like that. It’s got its charms.
RB: You’re living in Paris. Why have chosen the expatriate life again?
AP: It’s hard to call it an expatriate existence. I’m a tourist.
RB: Do you eat at McDonald’s everyday?
AP: No, but my son loves it. He’s three and loves it and wants it on special occasions. The expatriate existence—boy, I went a lot in Budapest—you can only have so much paprikash before you need a Big Mac. And then can have only so many Big Macs before you want some paprikash. I don’t know what expatriate existence means. I live in Paris, and I will live there a while longer, and I speak okay French and have French friends. But I’m a tourist. I’m not married to a French person. I’m not intricately involved in French family or political life. I’m a long-term tourist because I like Paris.
RB: Why did you choose Paris?
AP: Half for very stereotypical reasons. It’s a nice-looking place and I’ve enjoyed being a tourist there. I like the idea of sitting in Paris and trying to write another book. So those are cliches that feel so good to me that I can’t resist them.
RB: Did you ever spend time in Prague?
AP: A bit. Never longer than long weekends.
AP: My brother lived there for several years, so I was there.
RB: Since you wanted to be like him, you could have gone there.
AP: Unfortunately, I forgot to take Spanish. For the record he’s a journalist, he writes for the Wall Street Journal and covers Treasury and World Bank and things like that. He’s the lead-off hitter in Floating off the Page. It’s the best Wall Street Journal center column pieces. Also, my wife happened to get a job offer in Paris, and it was a good time to try it, so we jumped at it.
RB: You went there not looking for work but to write this next work that you won’t talk about?
AP: I’m in a very lucky position. For the first time in a long period of wanting to be a full-time writer, I get to be a full-time writer and dad and chef for the household. So I get to write three or four hours a day and take care of my son. My wife handles the health insurance for us and the legalities through her job. Mostly because Paris is nice, is why we decided to do it.
RB: So what’s happening with your novel?
AP: I don’t know. My tour starts tonight. It’s in its 2nd printing, which can’t be bad. I don’t know how big the 1st printing was, so who can say? And people are talking about it, which is great. I’ve been instructed that even a bad review is a good review because it gets talked about.
RB: And the all-important NY Times review?
AP: The Times was good.
RB: Who reviewed it?
AP: Janet Maslin, bless her heart. She’s a genius and a princess among women.
RB: There you go—you’re a made author.
AP: So it’s going great. It’s such a funny experience because—
RB: Which experience?
AP: The whole being-published experience. I wrote the book because it was my hobby. The only way I could ever finish it was to say, “No one is ever going to buy it, no one will ever publish it.” It’s just a fact, you can’t get an agent, even if you get published if you are really lucky, the University of Whatever will print 500 copies and your mom will buy 400 copies and a 100 will get remaindered. And you are published author and isn’t that great? Even when I was a little drunk and fantasized, “Wouldn’t it be great if this happened or that happened?” I hadn’t gotten to things that have actually happened. It’s got a great publisher. They have put their publicity might behind it. People have not resisted that and people have read it and reviewed it. I’m going to go on a book tour and get to talk to people who paid $25 for it. It’s really extraordinary, especially because I look back and I really wrote it thinking there is no chance. So the pressure starts now, of course, because my next book will suck.
RB: So if it sucks, what are you going to do after that?
AP: It depends how much they pay me for my sucky book. If they pay me enough I’ll write a third one; otherwise it’s back to the day jobs.
RB: It appears that everyone who is aligned with you is a genius, including your mother and the people who haven’t quite caught up—
AP: Misguided at least and quite possibly Satanic.
RB: Still salvageable?
AP: I can only hope. I have faith in the human spirit.
RB: You started in ’97. Finished last year with no sense or even hope of whether there would be any interest?
AP: I finished it and liked it enough that I though that I would really have to get an agent. Then I called everyone I knew who knew had agents, and I tried desperately to get their attention and then had their attention briefly, and it flickered away, and I talked to their assistants. Then somebody said, “Well, my friend is just moving now from the publishing industry to agenting, you could try her.” [Marley Russof] She was in marketing and publicity, which is a great credential. She had been in publishing for 25 years, which meant she knew everybody and knew everything. And yet she had just gone into agenting, which meant she had time to talk to me. So, it was a lottery ticket. She was a fairy godmother who appeared out of nowhere. She worked on it a little more with me and we sold it. I worked on it more with Random House.
RB: Who was your editor?
AP: Lee Boudreaux. A genius, as a matter of fact.
RB: How long before you return home and get back to work?
AP: I’m on tour until late July.
RB: How big was the manuscript that you turned in?
AP: 532 pages which ended up at 478.
RB: Was much cut out?
AP: For my own pride I’d like to say we cut out vital bone. Nothing, came out that I wished had stayed in. She had good suggestions. I dreamt that should the day ever come that I would give my editor a manuscript and she would say, “I tried. I spent months, I can’t find the comma that needs to come out of this book.” I’ve read a lot of Kundera and lot of his essays and complaints about editing and translators. So I said. “I want to be like Kundera. He quit a publisher because they touched a semicolon once.”
AP: So he claims. Maybe he was joking.
RB: Do you believe him?
AP: I don’t know. I’m a big fan of Nabokov. And, he certainly made it sound like he was a genius that no editor would know what to do with. So they just typed whatever he handed them and sold it.
RB: That’s what happened when he turned it in Russian. English might have been another story.
AP: That’s what I wanted to be, the guy you couldn’t touch.
AP: Before I tell you why—I wasn’t that. I’m not even the guy who thinks he was wrongly edited.
RB: I don’t think anyone is that.
AP: Why I wanted to be that is that the people I admired seemed to be that or claim to have been that. It seems to me a mark of excellence.
RB: I don’t think it is.
AP: Or a mark of originality or uniqueness or rigor.
RB: Maybe uniqueness because I don’t think many writers can go without editing. I have a fundamental belief that everyone needs an editor. And even if nothing is changed or removed, that another sentient being vets a piece of writing is a good thing.
AP: I’m growing convinced of it, but at the time, at least, it seemed a mark of self-discipline and self-rigor. I edited like hell, and there’s nothing left to do. When I thought there was nothing left to do, I went back, and I did it again. And I did it again and again. I’m a perfectionist, and I wanted it to be perfect, and lo and behold the editor from the publishing house stamps it perfect and off it goes. But, she cut 50 pages that could afford to go. And made good suggestions of things to add that are better for being there.
RB: Do you read the book now?
AP: I have only done it to decide what to read. No, I haven’t looked at it very much.
RB: As you look for a reading selection, anything disturb you?
AP: It’s funny, it depends on my mood. When it bothers me it isn’t that I wish I cut that bit. It’s much more like this whole thing is a pile of crap. Maybe, don’t put that on the top of the web site—“Arthur Phillips reviews Prague, ‘whole thing pile of crap.’” So when it bothers me it bothers me en masse rather than in the detail.
RB: Can you sum up your feelings after having dedicated a good part of five years of your young life to something?
AP: People keep asking me how I feel, and I am ashamed to say how little I know. I’m very grateful, which is kind of stupid, but I am. Everything has gone very well and continues to go well, and I had very helpful geniuses at all stages along the way. I have to admit an editor I worked with before we sold the book is another genius, a guy named Toby Tompkins.
RB: It was more than 500-plus pages before you got to him?
AP: To give the real story, in early drafts I was up around 800 pages. On my own I got it down to 682. He and I brought it down to 532, and Lee and I brought it down to 470 or whatever, which is what it ended up being. It’s been a thick book. Often the negative comments are, “Boy, it should have been edited.” Which it was.
RB: Are there more stories to come from your Eastern European stint?
AP: I’m sure there are. I haven’t thought of them. The things that I am working on now are pretty different.
RB: But you won’t talk about them?
AP: I better not. I can say that I had a couple of ideas for books, and I had one I really liked, and so I plunged into start writing and didn’t realize then how really vastly ignorant I was about the topic I was about to write about. I was used to the crutch—of not precisely autobiography—but awareness of location and the types of people who were around. Now I have plunged myself into a place where I have virtually never been. So I am really writing fiction as fast as I can and throwing away the bad parts.
RB: What moved you create this faux history of the Horvath family?
AP: I thought of Imre Horvath first. I wanted to give him some background, and as I poked around at the idea of writing background for him it got longer, and I went back and I said, “What would the generation before him been involved in?” And then I did some research on Hungarian history. This was a very long section of the book and a lot of the editing came out of this. The structure of the book, to me, was an obvious choice. If I’m going to start with young, callow Americans in Hungary, I wanted to depict them, and then I wanted to depict some of the things they are up against—lack of callowness, vast history, serious oppression, overbearing tradition and constant questions of compromise and political pain—put them right next to each other. So the character of Imre Horvath occurred to me and then I wanted to give him some background and that background got longer.
RB: What was it that the character Mark studied? Cultural anthropology?
AP: He had gotten a Ph.D. in cultural studies, specializing in the history of nostalgia.
RB: So he extols his discovery of the origins of cafe society tracing it back to a letter in 1607 by a Dutch artist, Jan van den Huygens. Was there such an artist?
AP: No. That was all horseshit. (laughs)
RB: It was a wonderful diversion.
AP: I like it, but it was imaginary. The thing is, I discovered now, when you write a soft scientist putting forth his discoveries, there is almost a sense that at least it’s an argument that the author is making. To me it’s just…
RB: So when one of Scott’s students says, “Irony is a resting place between two creative high periods,” that’s not your belief?
AP: No, that’s just something that sounded like what he would say. I don’t have strong opinions about any of this, really.
RB: Oh I see, people say to you since it’s in the book then you must believe it.
AP: One of the things that made me start thinking I might be good at fiction as opposed to other kinds of writing.
RB: Other kinds of writing?
AP: Truth, I guess. My brother, who is great journalist and a very smart guy, is able to convince me of things. He assesses and analyzes and sifts all of the information about a political point. It’s not just that he is a good arguer, he can see the whole of a situation. I’m just not so good a that.
RB: So, therefore you rely on fabrication.
AP: So therefore I rely on fabrication and like to hold things up and say, “It could go that way, I suppose.”
RB: Was Einstein lactose intolerant?
AP: (laughs) No, not that I know of, no.
RB: Okay, I don’t know why you put that in the book? Was Chou En-lai gay?
AP: Not that I know of, no.
RB: You refer to the trolleys in Budapest as ‘funicular.’ Why not just call them cable cars?
AP: It’s called a funicular in my Hungarian-English dictionary. And it is a word often used in Europe to refer to things that take you up the side of a hill. I wish you could show a demonstration of my hand movement…
RB: Arthur is moving his hands back and forth. When somebody asks you about funicular on TV, you’ll be ready. Another one of the interesting observations in the book is that if you don’t know the language then you are immune to all sorts of toxins. Hostility, as you say, is a language-borne virus. On the other hand, you live in Paris, city known for its antipathy to people who don’t speak French.
AP: It goes both ways. If you don’t know the language in some places you get people mad at you for not learning the language. And yet, I spoke some Hungarian—quite bad Hungarian—and yet you could get along.
RB: Hungarians don’t expect you to learn Hungarian, do they?
AP: They don’t, and they are very nice about it. If you produced one word of Hungarian, they were just flabbergasted. They also assume if you know one word that you knew the rest of the language. You’d get in a cab and I would perfect little thing like my address, “Take me to my address.” And they would speak Hungarian back. I would say actually I don’t speak Hungarian. And they would laugh because you had already said, “Please take me to my address.” And then they would go on and on in Hungarian. I learned the phrase that would end conversations and depending on the tone of your voice you use it for anything. It was, “Milyen szomorv a vilag.” which means how sad the world is, which most Hungarians believe anyhow. There is a great book in set in Hungary called Under the Frog, which is a shortened version of “down a coal mine under a frog’s ass.” That’s the Hungarian description of—just about “How’s your day?” ”Well, I’m down a coal mine under a frog’s ass.” But to get back to your original question, you could live in Hungary and not really speak any Hungarian and you did feel like no one was going to get mad at you because you were a dumb foreigner. As opposed to places where they will get mad at you because you are a dumb foreigner. You get by with very little language and there was something pleasurably detached about being in a place where if you didn’t feel like talking, you couldn’t anyhow.
RB: You’ve said this city doesn’t exist anymore.
AP: Specifically Budapest in 1990, 1992. I haven’t been there in 10 years and it was very much on the verge of becoming something very different, as was Prague. Besides the fact that I’m sure it’s been cleaned and refurbished and painted and all kinds of Gaps and Banana Republics are to be found there and prices are higher and people have different daily concerns than at the birth moment of democratic capitalism. One of the things that I remember fondly was that you could take vast liberties living there that were just unique. You could get a job because you were American and had an English degree that you could not get in the US. They needed people who spoke English. They needed Americans willing to live in Budapest. They needed people with a certain amount of attitude. One of the first big financial success stories was a chain of express photo development stores. That’s all it was and people loved it. It made money hand over fist. The guy who started it has become one of the richest men in Hungary. One of the things he said, to some controversy, “I don’t hire people who held jobs under communism.” Because, he said, they were lost, ruined. They didn’t know how to treat a customer, they didn’t know how to take their job seriously.
RB: Did he only hire teenagers?
AP: He hired teenagers and really young people who were willing to work hard for not a whole of money but knew how to treat a customer, open the store on time, how to dress properly and if you had those skills, you could get jobs above your station.
RB: Who would he hire in this country?
AP: Exactly. So, it was a time because you were an American and knew how a business was supposed to run, just because you bought things before in a business that was run properly you were valuable. You had marketing experience. You knew what it was supposed to feel like when you walked into a western store.
RB: What happened to other Europeans? The French and Italians?
AP: I didn’t know as many of those. But the place was really a German and Austrian marketplace much more than an American one. I’m answering, longwindedly, why this place doesn’t exist anymore. Having bought a hamburger no longer qualifies you as a marketing expert, as it did maybe 10 years ago. There was something about the big American stamp on your head that was magic still, in Budapest and Prague, to some people, right after communism fell that couldn’t possibly still—they have to have more well-rounded views of what it means to be American than they did. Being American, at least for a while had an aura of capability, which is a fascinating and heartbreaking statement.
RB: When you come back to the US, where will you live?
AP: We don’t really know. That’s actually the closer thing to an expatriate existence is moving to another city in the US where you can blend in, fit in but also you don’t know how things are done.
RB: Do you have any sense of how different your life is living in Paris, in a European capitol, as opposed to living in New York City?
AP: It’s probably not that different. In well-functioning capitalist democracies, you have pretty much the same concerns anywhere. Issues of health care, getting my son to school and which school to pick, how much rent to pay or mortgage to assume, those things are pretty standard. There is a different rhythm of life in Europe, and there’s a different diet and a different standard of things that need to be done well as opposed to things that you can let slide which are so much different than in the States. Politically, Western Europe is generally fond of and tolerant of Americans but by no means enamored. You don’t automatically assume anything good about an American and nothing necessarily that bad. So I feel basically welcome and safe. Despite recent brouhahas, I’m Jewish and I don’t feel there’s any particular Jewish problem to be worried about. Certainly not in Paris, and the problems that do exist are of a very different nature than they were 50 years ago. People who say otherwise are frightened, maybe understandably, I wouldn’t be nervous about being a Jewish-American in Paris.
RB: There seems to a need to extol the European lifestyle, life is better they have more style and joyfulness of life…
AP: It maybe true for some people. I have never bought into national character. There are certainly national habits and deals that people have made wit their government which change the way life feels. The closest generalization that seems to make sense to me is the public life is a little better and private life is a little worse. But, I’m out of my league. That’s Adam Gopnik country. By public life I mean, more care has been taken to make the public transport system work and the parks look great and the city look consistently beautiful and public treasures and museums are made more available. Public education is held to a higher standard and public health—there are tradeoffs in health. The National Health has a lot to be said for it in France, but I have not been in a position of terrible need or urgency for the best specialist or the best technology. If that were the case I might understand why people are fond of the American system. I like my life there, but I wouldn’t want to live there forever.
RB: As you are writing your next novel, are you doing any other kind of writing?
AP: I don’t intend to. I like to write short stories and sometimes veer off and can’t stop myself from doing one or two of those.
RB: Any interest in teaching? I’m trying to get a feel for how much of the writer’s life you are taking on.
AP: I’ve taught some strange things in my life, I’ve taught English as a second language. I taught fencing. It’s all caught up in my prickly feelings about teaching writing. I don’t think you can teach writing, I think you can teach reading. If you can teach writers to be better readers you can get better writers out of it. I’d be tempted to teach reading to writers if they were interested in hearing about it. But it takes time out of your day and I have a dog to walk and a little boy to pick up from school and book to try to write.
RB: Other than Ian McEwan’s Atonement, what are you reading?
AP: I do like this a lot (holds up a copy of Atonement). This is great. I’m in a death match with Proust. Between each volume I go off and read something else. I just finished the 5th volume. I try not to read people who are alive because I get so jealous of their good idea and wish I had thought of them. I also just read Everything is Illuminated, which is a great book. And irritating that it turns out you can be a first novelist at 24, let alone 17.
RB: Oh yeah, Terry McDonnell’s son has a new novel.
AP: And I have another Alan Furst with me.
RB: Why are you reading Proust?
AP: I feel like I should read everybody who has been called great and is dead. So things I haven’t read and should read I put on a big piece of paper (unfolds a piece of paper with a lengthy list of books).
RB: Wow, I’ve read all these.
AP: I knew you did.
RB: Well. Arthur, until your next book…
AP: Thank you very much.
RB: No, thank you.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing