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 do--he 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."
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In the fall of 2004, Arthur Phillips took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?In Search of Lost Time Marcel Proust -- Get to the end, and you feel like you've lived an entire life in someone else's body.
Life, a User's Manual by Georges Perec -- Endless entertainment, brilliant structure, heart and comedy. It felt like I was hanging out with a friend.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis -- Prose so funny milk comes out your nose, even if you're not drinking milk.
Middlemarch by George Eliot -- An entire world (and the heart and personality of everyone in it) created down to the last detail.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville -- He could not be limited in what he wanted his novel to be. He wanted it to be everything, and you can feel it.
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov -- The most incredible interplay of plot, structure, theme, and language; entirely unique. Only one human in all of human existence could have written this book.
The Ambassadors by Henry James -- James at his best. I felt he could almost describe the change in air pressure when one character's inner state changed.
The Collected Stories of Franz Kafka -- I can't separate them. It is the body of his work that matters most to me. Again, the unique world of a unique individual -- my highest praise.
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene -- I was 15, and the creation of a mood so persistent it entered my own surroundings seemed like Greene's special magic.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann -- Philosophy, coming-of-age, Euro-decadence, humor. The ultimate "nothing happens but everything happens" book.
The Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert -- Trumps Bovary for me. Every word in just the right place to create a sympathetic failure symbolic of the specific society around him, yet timeless 130 years later.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway -- Every time I read it, I have a different experience and a different opinion of the characters. That means he did a great job.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas -- I was 12 and wanted to live in this book.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera -- His ability to dig out meaning under meaning under action, to relate character to philosophy is amazing. His voice is unique and provocative.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf -- An entire story in which the action is the zing of feeling and reaction back and forth -- and it feels like an action movie. It feels like she reinvented English for her needs.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
This is pathetic of me, but I haven't really thought about it. That must sound insane. I go to movies often, and I often like them, and sometimes love them (I laugh, I cry, I ponder, etc.), but as I sit here now, no film jumps to mind as "unforgettable," and yet ten seconds ago, I whipped off that list of books with a smile on my face, and my head full of unforgettable moments.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I love a wide variety of pop, jazz, and classical and have been into music since before I was able to read. I don't usually listen to music when I write, but occasionally I'll put on something that is either literally in the scene I'm writing or is of the milieu.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Whatever I happen to want to read next, and nobody else would get a vote. I have a must-read list that is already too long for me to finish before my death.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
To get -- nothing (see above). To give -- novels, but it depends entirely on what I think the recipient will like.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Sorry, these are trade secrets.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It took me four years to write Prague and probably six months to find an agent, and I got lucky pulling it off in six months.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
This is a business, filled with very busy people who don't need you as much as you need them. That's the sad truth. Since you are likely to need an agent first, be ready for them. 1) Get your manuscript to the point where you feel you simply cannot improve it at all, but 2) be willing to believe that someone else might have suggestions that could help you improve it further, then 3) concentrate on a different piece of writing: your query letter. You have a paragraph or two to knock the socks off an agent (or, more likely, their overworked, prematurely jaded assistant, who is, probably, an aspiring writer, too).
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