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"Necessary Errors," by Caleb Crain

Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain
Liza Johnson,Penguin Group

Jeff Glor talks to Caleb Crain about, "Necessary Errors."

Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?

Caleb Crain: I wanted to tell a story about a group of people who were all more or less in love with one another and who were trying to figure out who they were, and I wanted to tell it mostly through dialogue. I had lived in Prague two dozen years ago, and the betweenness of the city then -- it was no longer communist and not yet capitalist, it was neither east nor west -- seemed like it would make for a good backdrop. The city's name is the Czech word for "threshold," as it happens. Like the novel's main character, Jacob, I arrived in Prague a year after the Velvet Revolution, which overthrew the Communist regime, and I felt at the time that I had arrived too late. But as I started to write the novel, and to borrow from my own memories in constructing Jacob's, that sense of having arrived too late began to seem like an asset rather than a drawback. Jacob regrets it, but it's part of youth. You got here late. You're not prepared. The story around you has been going on for a long time and you haven't yet found your way in.

JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?

CC: I was surprised by how little conscious control I had over the act of writing. I've written a fair amount as a critic, a scholar and a journalist, but this was a different kind of writing. I had to wait until I heard voices speaking, and some days the voices didn't. I was also surprised by how long the book became. My editor told me that my first draft was the length of "Moby-Dick," which she knew was my favorite novel. (We did manage to whittle it down by about a sixth. So now it's only five-sixths the length of "Moby-Dick.")

JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?

CC: I've been a Czech-to-English translator and a professor of early American literature (well, an adjunct assistant professor, anyway), so I suppose I could resume those roles. Once, while I was writing about Andrew Jackson's experiment with martial law, I came pretty close to understanding how lawyers think -- how 19th-century lawyers think, anyway -- so maybe I could learn how they do it in later centuries, too. As far as a fantasy career goes, I think I wish I were a photographer.

JG: What else are you reading right now?

CC: That's classified, unfortunately, because I do a fair amount of book reviewing, and if I answered, I'd give away the names of books under consideration. But in terms of recent reading done purely for pleasure, I loved Marco Roth's memoir "The Scientists," an account of his relationship with his late father, an AIDS researcher and a brilliant, difficult man, in part through an exploration of the literature they both loved. I'm nearing the end of a long-term project of reading through Henry James's novels in the order he wrote them, and I've discovered that, though it isn't widely known, James wrote a vampire novel, "The Sacred Fount." I can't really recommend it unless you're a James fan already, but if you love James enough to be willing to lose your way for his sake, it's fascinating because it's narrated by a character who's so delusional that it's more or less impossible for a reader to figure out for sure what's really going on. The new books on my bedside table are pretty nerdy: Princeton University Press is publishing a new edition of Thoreau's correspondence, and they've just released the first volume. I've also just started D. T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace, "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story."

JG: What's next for you?

CC: I've gone back to writing review-essays, and I have a couple of notebooks of ideas for new fiction.

For more on "Necessary Errors," visit the Penguin Group website.

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