Caleb Crain is a writer whose work has frequently appeared in places like The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Magazine. He writes about literary arcana with eloquence and wit. My favorite columns of his include this one on how Keats spoke, in which he notes Keats’ spelling errors, and this one on how the Great Depression changed American color. His first novel, Necessary Errors, comes out on Tuesday, and it’s already receiving enormous plaudits, including a rave in the NYRB from the novelist Norman Rush, who called the book “very well put together, polished, dry but tender, ferociously observed.”
The book is about a young 20-something named Jacob Putnam. Having graduated college, Jacob has gone abroad to figure out what to do with himself, as a person and as a writer. And the way Crain tells his story somehow makes this account of aimless youth a page turner; I found it difficult to put down the whole weekend I was reading it. Crain was kind enough to answer a few questions for Flavorwire about the writing of his fabulous book.
Flavorwire: I really like the book. How long did it take you to write?
Caleb Crain: I started it seven years ago. It took me five years to write, and then I gave it to my editor and some friends and ended up with six different marked-up drafts. I spent about four months revising, with six stacks of pages spread out on my desk, turning over one page from each stack at a time.
That’s a long gestation period.
I guess so, yeah. I don’t know how long it takes people to write these things. I’m always a little terrified when I read that Melville wrote Redburn in six weeks or something.
Yeah, I know. It seems like they just had less distractions to deal with back then or something.
They didn’t have email.
Right. Or television, so no The Wire binges or anything like that. In the past you’ve mostly written criticism, right? Were you thinking of writing the novel all along?
Well, the awful truth is that I was trying to write fiction all along and even produced some wretched manuscripts along the way, which fortunately no one was willing to indulge. A few years ago, I wrote a novella called “Sweet Grafton,” the first thing in a long time that I liked. After the journal n+1 published it, I ended up with a new agent. This was around the time I started writing for The New Yorker, and I think the combination of these things gave me a little bit of confidence and made me think maybe I could try one last time to write an actual novel.
You spent some time in Prague when you were younger, right?
I did, yeah.
Then here comes the dreaded question: Would you say that this is a bit autobiographical, or not at all?
I’m going to dodge that. I did spend a year in Prague in 1990 to 1991, and I did draw on my memories in writing the novel, but it is fiction. The exact quotient, I’m just going to draw the veil of discretion over.
That’s fine. There’s been a lot of talk about these novels drawing from real life that have been going on in young Brooklyn literary circles lately, like the Sheila Heti novel and Tao Lin and all of those people. Someone at the New York Observer wrote this whole thing about “post-fiction.” But I think the funny thing about that debate is that it’s not like the novel hasn’t always been drawn from real life.
It’s definitely part of the history of the novel. If it’s not from the novelist’s life, it’s from somebody else’s.
Speaking of the history of the novel, I think one of the things I liked about this novel is that it was kind of a flaneur novel. Is that a fair way to describe it?
Flaneur? Like Baudelaire? Yeah, that’s great.
And I liked it because usually the flaneur is some young straight guy, and in this case, it wasn’t, which alters the sexual dynamics somewhat.
It’s always weird to hear what other people are seeing in your book.
No, no, no! I’m just thinking.
Do you have any views on whether the flaneur novel needed to be sort of, well, tweaked to include a greater spectrum of identity?
It’s a little hard for me to say. I didn’t think, “Oh, I’m writing this kind of a novel.” I just said, “Oh, I’m writing this novel.” Do you know what I mean? On the other hand, I was certainly aware of novels of serious young men who want to be writers and aren’t yet, and I was aware of novels of young innocents who lose some of their innocence. I think Jacob [the novel’s main character] is trying to figure out where he fits into the world and also has these ambitions that he doesn’t know quite what to do with yet. He’s trying to figure out where he fits into the literary tradition, and his being gay is kind of an obvious problem for him — or obstacle, or opportunity. I think I loaned him some of my own fascination with Melville as somebody who is a great American novelist but who does seem to have something not quite orthodox about his sexuality.
What other unorthodox novels were you thinking of?
Christopher Isherwood and Henry James and, gosh, what else in that vein? Even something like David Copperfield was there in the back of my mind, though there’s nothing remotely homosexual about David Copperfield.
It’s interesting that you’re naming mostly 19th-century models. Is that something you’re interested in?
The 19th century? Yeah, I’m a little obsessed with it. But Isherwood is 20th century, and I was also fascinated by 20th-century writers like Henry Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett, as models for the way I wanted to tell the story. I feel like other names will come to me as soon as I get off the phone.
Did you try to model this as kind of a 19th-century novel? I know you said you didn’t think about what kind of novel it is, but it’s interesting that it does have some of those sprawling social realism elements. I definitely detected the Henry James in it, probably from the expat thing. But the language, generally, is spare and very… contemporary-sounding.
The other writer whose name I’m trying to remember is Sybille Bedford. She has a book called A Legacy. It has five parts, and each one is its own story, but the characters overflow from one part to the other, and when I read it, I thought, “Aha! That’s what I’ll do. I’ll tell three different stories that are set in Prague, and each story will have a slightly different cast of characters.” So that was an influence.
The 19th century and I go way back… In grad school I studied early American literature and I’ve written a lot about Melville, and I did wonder often while I was writing whether I had lost my mind in thinking that anyone would want to read a novel that was structured or phrased in quite the way I was doing it — whether what I was writing would seem too old-fashioned. So I’m glad to hear you say that the spareness of it, at least, sounds reasonably contemporary.
I didn’t set out to write a pastiche. I wasn’t trying to be ironic by writing this way. This is just how it came to me to write it. Telling a lot of the story through dialogue, though — I thought of that as being actually a fairly 20th-century thing to do.
I thought it was interesting how your pace was very leisurely. It feels like a lot of contemporary novels are so frenetic, especially when they’re as sprawling as yours — it covers a long period of time, there are a lot of characters — yet it felt very calm. That seems to be in a bit of opposition to where literary trends are going. You’re not really a postmodernist, are you?
I don’t know if I get to say, but I guess not really. There are a few postmodern elements in the book — I mean, quite a few of the characters want to be writers, and they comment on each other’s writing. And the narrative makes reference to a number of other texts, not always openly.
The way time passes is a problem for Jacob: “Why am I here? Shouldn’t I go home? Aren’t I supposed to start my life? But I don’t want to start my life.” Time is a dilemma he’s trying to live out. I think I loaned him some of the feelings that I myself was having as a person in his 40s writing a first novel: “I should be doing something more grown-up. I should get on with it. I can’t believe I’m letting all this time go by.” There’s something a little, I don’t know, incommensurate about spending five years writing a novel about one year. Within the chronotope of the novel, 12 months go by, while in the life of the person writing it, five years go by. There was this feeling that I would get every spring, looking out the window: “Ha! I got lapped again.”
It’s funny, because when you’re as young as Jacob, you think that one day, you’re going to grow up and stop having these feelings about wasting time and not getting things off the ground. It feels like, if anything, they only intensify.
The whole time you were talking, I was thinking, “I have that feeling about my life right now.”
I think everybody does! Especially if you have some ambition, which is a good thing to have.
Writing in particular is one of these ambitions that is susceptible to the feelings of time-wasting, which is one of Jacob’s central dramas. How do you become a writer when you’re not really writing all that much? Which was definitely a very recognizable feeling for me when I was starting in writing. That’s what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t really convince myself to sit down and do long pieces, and it took me a long time to get there.
Right. Writing always takes more time than you thought it would. If you knew how long it would take ahead of time, probably nobody would ever do it.
One elemental choice in the novel that I found interesting: you left Meredith’s story out of the book, more or less. Do you want to talk about why you did that? It was interesting to do that with this character that the main character is thinking about so much.
It wasn’t planned. I just reached this point and realized, “Oh dear, this other story, Meredith’s story, is casting a shadow on the story I’m trying to tell, and the shadow of her story is part of this story but her story itself isn’t.” There were technical reasons why I didn’t feel like I could tell her story. I didn’t want to break the frame, for one thing — by design there are hardly any glimpses of Jacob’s life before he comes to Prague. But also it’s just in the nature of a story like Meredith’s that it’s hard to tell. It resists telling. Still, it seemed important for Jacob to struggle with it.
Do you have another novel in progress?
The process of publishing a book is a little discombobulating, so I don’t know what’s going to happen next. But yes, I hope to write another one someday.