Jeffrey Condran is the author of two story collections, A Fingerprint Repeated and Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night. His debut novel, Prague Summer, received a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award’s Silver Medal. His fiction has appeared in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the The Missouri Review’s 2010 William Peden Prize and Pushcart Prize nominations. 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. http://www.braddockavenuebooks.com
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night. It’s a great-looking book. The journey to publication, especially in the small-press world, can be interesting. Can you tell us how you came to work with Southeast Missouri State University Press?
Jeffrey Condran: I first became aware of SEMO as a fellow at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. One of my workshop mates, David Armand, had just published his novel, The Gorge, with them. I thought it was a beautiful book and started to pay attention to what the press was doing. When I heard that James Brubaker had taken over directorship of SEMO’s press, it felt like a good match, as I knew James to be a friend of Salvatore Pane—a Braddock Avenue Books author (Last Call in the City of Bridges and The Theory of Almost Everything.)
CS: I’ve always enjoyed your writing style. Your sentences and descriptions achieve a nice balance of being both understated and rich. I think some of this is rooted in language, but I believe it’s also rooted in pace, which I think is an underappreciated aspect of writing. I think this richness is enhanced because you allow your eye to linger, and I think that really draws a reader in. It made me think of the movies I enjoy most—how often it’s those long, slow shots that intrigue me and make me feel. Is this something you think about as you write—your pace and the benefits of slowing down and going deep in a moment? It’s also kind of tricky—lingering also means putting the brakes on a story’s momentum. What rules do you have for yourself in keeping that balance of painting a rich world while also moving the piece forward?
JC: Thanks for the compliment. I’m a devoted reader of James Salter—A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years, Dusk and Other Stories—who I think was an absolute master of craft, including pacing. His awareness of what to leave to the mind of the reader and what to show in deep detail brought to his writing a wonderful dynamic energy to those moments he chose to linger on. He never held the reader’s hand moving from Point A to Point B, but once you arrived, the language was startling in its texture and beauty—but that effect was only possible within the context of pacing that commanded the larger structure. If there’s even an echo of that feeling in my writing, I’d be pretty excited.
CS: And part of the book’s elegant vibe comes from the European/American abroad elements in a number of the stories. I think you do a nice job of making these locales both real and exotic. These kinds of backdrops can bring a lot to a story—a sense of contrast, a glimpse into character as they navigate the unfamiliar. What about this scenario appeals to you? How have your own experiences abroad influenced the desire to write about the traveler?
JC: Many of the characters in Claire are, for various reasons, dissatisfied by American life. They don’t at all believe in American Exceptionalism and are looking for new ways to make an identity for themselves, often turning to other cultures for help. Sometimes they return to the countries their ancestors emigrated from and sometimes they try to take on the role of cosmopolitans—hiding in a place between cultures, not wanting any longer to be American but also not assimilating into a new culture either. It’s an idea we’re used to seeing when East comes West, but I hope it has a new energy when West goes East. Certainly, Central Europe has captured my imagination most of late, which is no surprise considering the time that I’ve spent in Prague.
CS: I found an undercurrent of miscommunication among these stories. I think of the Johari window model—and often what is most satisfying to a reader are the different levels of awareness in a story. Is this something that’s in your thoughts from the outset—or do you discover these different layers of interaction and understanding as you work?
JC: The Johari Window is an interesting way to conceive of the way that information is presented to the reader. My stories are often “quiet” or at least the drama is personal, emotional in character. I’ve found that the best way to make a story like this truly engaging is to, on some level, manipulate the way that information is given to the reader—and when. Often I find myself using some version of dramatic irony or, at least, leaving breadcrumbs that a good reader will pick up. I want you to feel both a little off balance, but also, ultimately, have you feel smart, too. For there to be a kind of “of course” moment, where what is revealed about the character seems inevitable. I’ve always been attracted to these kinds of stories as a reader, and so probably unconsciously assimilated their moves and structures. And of course, once I have a draft and can see what I’ve done, then it’s possible to enhance that kind of effect in revision.
CS: Many of your characters seem like they’re struggling to discover something about themselves. I love the scene in the first story where the main character undresses to see herself naked in a near-stranger’s mirror—or the last story where a man retraces the steps of a doomed relationship only to find himself alone on a bridge overlooking the Danube. And I can’t say if all the characters discover the answers they’re looking for—but maybe if they’re lucky, they come to realize the proper questions they should be asking of themselves.
This whole inner world/outer world dynamic is very satisfying—and the two scenes I mentioned above were so striking that I wondered if perhaps these stories—or some of the collection’s other pieces—started with a single image? If not, can you think of a place where most of your pieces start? A situation? A place? A conversation?
JC: Many of the stories in Claire did begin as images—though not necessarily the ones you’d think of. The inciting images are usually much quieter, somewhat buried in the story, but often then act as gestures that resonate through the rest of the story. The first story you mentioned, “In Costume,” began with an image of the protagonist sitting on the couch watching classic movies with her mother and eating potato chips. It’s a scene in which her mother becomes upset by something in one of the movies and begins to cry, saying, “It’s terrible what women have to do, just to live,” an idea that looms progressively larger as things move on. And in the second story you mentioned, the collection’s title story, the inciting image is of the protagonist following behind Claire on the street of an unnamed European city, seemingly forgotten by her as she’s apparently overwhelmed by what she’s seeing, her careful hair beginning to come undone in her excitement, when she turns back to him—suddenly remembered—and smiles. That moment of excitement and of forgetfulness, eventually can be seen as a pretty good representation of the truth about their relationship.
CS: And while we’re on the topic of process, let’s go a bit further down that road. This is your second story collection—and between them came your first novel. Some folks have trouble shifting between novels and stories—or some start exclusively as story writers, but once they start publishing novels, they find it difficult to return to story writing. What’s your experience been? Now that you’ve published both, what do you see as the challenges and rewards of each?
JC: Writers always say that each book is different, a whole new test or set of challenges that your previous success still can’t prepare you for. And I think that’s right, but I have started to learn things about myself and my process. I’m still out to sea as a novelist, but I find in the case of both Prague Summer and my current novel project that the book has come out of situations and characters that I’d already written about in stories. In the case of Prague Summer, it began as a failed novel manuscript from which I then salvaged a story called “Praha” that was published in The Missouri Review. After that success, I revisited the story and expanded it into the manuscript that later became Prague Summer. My new project pulls from a couple of different characters from various stories in Claire, especially from the protagonist of “Black Dog.” So for me, I seem to need to explore characters and situations first as stories, and only then, after I have a chance to know them, am I able to begin to see what a novel might look like. So there’s a truly interesting relationship going on between the forms for me.
CS: Can we talk about your involvement in the literary scene outside of your own work? You teach creative writing and, along with Robert Peluso, run Braddock Avenue Books, an independent press. I know these endeavors take time away from your work—but at the same time, I imagine they’re also quite rewarding and inspiring. Can you talk about the impact these pursuits have on your work?
JC: I truly believe that in order to succeed, writers need mentors who believe in their work and are willing to advocate for them. I’m incredibly grateful to have my small place in the literary world, and so my greatest satisfactions come from helping to develop and promote the writing of others, both as a teacher and as a publisher. Constantly reading students’ work and the work of Braddock Avenue Books authors keeps me immersed in language and ideas about writing that makes me excited about the world and feeling creative. And because I’m so constantly in conversation with people about their writing, it has the wonderful effect of sharpening my own language about craft. Certainly, my ability to “see” the issues in my own writing has been developed because of the other work that I do. It’s a blessing.
CS: What’s next?
JC: As I mentioned above, I’m working on a new novel project featuring the protagonist from “Black Dog.” I’ve been trying to use being sequestered by COVID-19 as something positive, and have been writing more than usual. And Braddock Avenue Books is looking forward to the publication of new novels by Karin Cecile Davidson and John Vanderslice. Now if health conditions could only permit me to sit at the bar and sip a freshly made martini, the summer would truly be something to look forward to.
Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).