Caleb Crain’s rich debut novel, Necessary Errors, focuses on Jacob Putnam, a young American man living in Prague in the early 1990s.
You’ve been writing primarily essays and criticism for a while now, in the New Yorker and New York Times Book Review; what inspired you to write your first novel?
I’ve actually been writing novels for years; this is just the first one that anyone saw fit to publish. I wrote a novella a number of years ago that was published in the journal n+1. That got some attention—not a lot, but people liked it—and I think that may be what encouraged me to try to write another novel.
How is your writing process different for fiction and nonfiction?
I tend to be pretty matter-of-fact about my nonfiction writing. When I’m working on a piece, I’ll just read and take lots of notes in a kind of manic way for four-to-six weeks, chew the notes over for a while in the form of outlines, and then I’ll just start writing. The writing happens very quickly. For fiction, I hate to sound mystical or anything, but you know when you block on a word or a name and then you don’t think about it for a while but it comes to you? A lot of the work is like that. Your conscious mind knows that you need to solve a problem, but when the solution arrives, it just pops into your head. And you know it’s because you were paying attention to the problem yesterday or the day before, but how exactly it got there you may not ever know.
What about the time you spent in Czechoslovakia prompted you to set the novel there?
I think that transitions are very rich, and there were just a lot of transitions intersecting at once. The country was moving from communism to capitalism; I was very young and so, like Jacob, I was between youth and adulthood, and also between growing up with whatever sort of nonspecified sexuality I had and then discovering that I was gay.
Have you gone back to Prague more recently?
No, I haven’t been back since 1993. I’d like to go back now, but I didn’t want to go back while I was working on the novel, because I thought it would affect my memories of it. Doing research was really complicated, because finding out what something looked like in 1991 is actually really hard to do on the Internet. It’s not old enough for it to appear in a database or an archive, but it’s not new enough for people to have posted it in their vacation photos. I actually found myself going to the library to find Czech picture books published in the late 1980s or early 1990s, just to look at pictures.
As a frequent book reviewer yourself, do you have any anxieties about sending your novel out into the world to be critiqued?
Well, you know, live by the sword, die by the sword. I think I have the normal anxieties that any novelist has. I guess I have the consolation of knowing that reviewers are merely human, so whether it’s good or bad, I sort of know how it happens. —Norah Piehl