Having debuted in 2002 with the national bestseller Prague, Arthur Phillips continues to impress with startlingly original novels that have earned him accolades, awards, and a growing audience of appreciative readers.
It takes a lot of guts to call your first novel Prague. The name alone has become shorthand for a temporary fantasy world populated by overprivileged, post-collegiate Westerners trying to find themselves. It takes even more guts to call your first novel Prague and set it in Budapest.
Luckily for Arthur Phillips, the confidence is backed up by talent. His 2002 debut became a national bestseller that landed on several critics' year end "best of" lists, including Newsweek, Publishers Weekly, and The New York Times.
The seeds for Prague were planted in 1990, when Phillips graduated from Harvard and moved to Budapest. After the fall of Communism, Central Europe became the latest stopping point for would be bohemians looking to recreate the spirit of Paris in the ‘20s. Phillips spent the next two years working a variety of odd jobs, including stints as an executive assistant, an entrepreneur, a jazz musician, and a repo man.
While in Budapest, Phillips was struck by the radically different communities living together in the Hungarian capital. On one side were the expatriates: young, carefree, self-consciously aware of their role in history. On the other side were the natives: experienced, distant, routinely suspicious of the invading foreigners, yet smart enough to exploit the boon for their own benefit.
The gap between and necessary collision of the two worlds resonates throughout Prague. As Phillips writes on his website, "For some people I knew, the ear-popping pressure of so much history and self-consciousness made it hard to get up in the morning, to justify your lunch, let alone your existence. What does it mean to tell a girl you ache for her as the two of you stand in front of a building with bullet holes in it? What does it mean to fret about your fledgling and blatantly temporary career when the man next to you managed to get himself tortured by the secret police of two different regimes?"
In 1992, Phillips returned to the States to study music at Berklee in Boston. He graduated after a year and a half and started playing music professionally. Shortly thereafter, he got married. It did not take long for his wife to become "increasingly dubious about [his] abilities to make any money," so Phillips did what any man in his situation would dohe tried out for Jeopardy. Six months later, Phillips was on the show, earning enough money as a five-night champion to fund his next few years of exploits.
He began work on Prague in 1997. "I had been back in the States for about 5 years, and I felt so overwhelmingly nostalgic for that time and place, that I really was kind of a drag to be around," Phillips said in a 2002 interview with NPR's All Things Considered. "And my wife and others would ask me to stop talking about Hungary. And so I thought, well, maybe I could write about this time and then maybe I can work through some of my nostalgic issues."
It took Phillips four years to write the book and another six months to find an agent. Random House picked up the novel and published it to nearly universal acclaim. Janet Maslin praised it in The New York Times as "an ingenious debut novel." Other critics called Prague "devilishly clever" (Publishers Weekly), "hilarious and scathing" (Salon.com) and "astonishingly good" (Minneapolis Star Tribune). Phillips, it seems, had finally found his niche.
Two years later, Phillips published his second novel, The Egyptologist. Phillips came up with the idea for the novel when asked by his sister to describe the writing process. To Phillips, writing is like, "an archaeological expedition. You think you're describing the main chamber, but then you discover another door and you go through it and find an even larger room, and what you thought was your goal turns out just to be a piece of a much larger structure you hadn't expected to find."
Phillips has gone on to write Angelica, The Song Is You, and The Tragedy of Arthur, all to critical acclaim.