A Sense of Where You Are -- A Talk With Prague's Arthur Phillips on Irony, Writing, and Life After the Book Tour

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Arthur Phillip's debut novel Prague was one of the most critically praised works of 2002. A July/August Book Sense 76 pick, it was also a Book Sense national bestseller and an enthusiastic handsell among independent booksellers nationwide. The story of young expats in the heady days of early 1990s Eastern Europe -- when the prospects of new beginnings in a post-Cold War world sparkled with optimism -- chronicles a generation's coming of age, and coming to grips with the unexpected results of pursuing a dream. BTW recently interviewed Phillips via e-mail from his home in Paris.

Q: On the Web site for Prague, you note in an essay that "I wrote this book out of affection for my own past (although I surgically excised myself from the final product), and out of frustration with my congenital disorder, hyperglycemic nostalgia." Why do you think some times and places are so suffused with nostalgia?

A: I think there is some magical combination of four elements. First, something real did happen: artistic accomplishment (Paris in the '20s), or bravery and valor (Normandy), or easy decadence (Summer of Love), or some obvious infamy against which you could hold moral certainties. Then, second, somebody has to do some PR, make the myths, talk it up, explain how great it all was and why. Third, there is an aesthetic element: the look of berets in Paris or tie-dye in Haight-Ashbury or Vespas in Rome looks cool to you, although maybe the PR helped you see it. Finally, there's just the mysteries of fashion, which none of us will ever plumb. Right now, it's World War II movies, but why right now precisely?

Q: One of your characters -- Scott Price -- is an English-language teacher, and one of his pupils notes that "it is my belief that irony is the tool of culture between creative high periods. It is the necessary fertilizer of the culture ..." Do you agree? Do you think that for those in Budapest irony is a tool? Or is it a defense?

A: Oh, that's one of many opinions that sneak up in the book in lots of different voices, so I think I won't ruin anyone's fun by saying what I agree with. I will say that for the main characters, each of them uses irony differently, and it has sunk in, or stained them, to different depths.

Q: "Part Two: The Horváth Kiadó" initially seems like quite a detour in your story. Was it a difficult decision to introduce the history of Imre Horváth and his family's publishing house into the novel?

A: No, I knew I wanted it there and at that level of detail/detour. One of the strands of the book is the clash of people who feel they exist outside of history with people who are drowning in history, and, so, the history of the press, which is also Imre Horvath's history, seemed a very necessary element. I wanted Part I to be about the history-less, Part II to be about the history-rich, and Parts III and IV to be about their meeting.

Q: The details of the Horvath Press are enveloping and convincing. Were they the result of much research or firsthand experience when you were in Europe?

A: No, and I'm quite proud of this. I made it up and then I checked it and then I changed the little I got wrong. I did some reading about daily life in turn-of-the-century Budapest, and I had a fair grasp of Hungarian history, but I knew nothing about publishing. I'm still waiting for my fraud to be noticed.

Q: In the end, Imre Horváth lapses in and out of a coma, and his publishing house has been sold to an international media corporation. Do you think it's too nostalgic to think that there is still a place for a small, independent publisher in the current media scene?

A: No, that's not too nostalgic. It might be hopeless to save a given individual small publisher, but the idea as a whole is hardly doomed. Speaking as an ignoramus, it seems to me that the future of publishing is far from determined. I'm not an economist, but the marketplace of artistic ventures continually evolves, alternating the power of large establishments and small. Music, books, films, theater: artistic people go where they can, where they feel comfortable, where the market lets them go. But, if the existing outlets don't work for the artists, then they create new ones. Independent films, independent record labels, small publishers -- I don't think these will ever disappear as a whole, but they will ebb and flow, and individual ones will die, as will giant conglomerates. That's natural, isn't it?

Q: Has the post-publication, interview/book tour drill made you any more or less ironic in your view of publishing?

A: Well, like most things, the more informed you are, the less real the clichés seem. I was completely thrilled with the care, passion, love of literature, and business savvy I found in my giant media-conglomerate publisher. Where were the penny-pinching illiterates? Well, they may well be there, but I didn't see them or feel their bite. Similarly, the vast majority of bookstores I visited (probably more than a hundred) seemed to me staffed by friendly, informed, book-passionate people. And that was true of independents and chain-stores alike, which to me was the big and pleasant surprise. Again, I may be ignorant or blinkered, but the doomsday projections on bookstores don't seem accurate to me.

Q: Are you at work on a new project?

A: Yes, a novel.