The protagonist of Matt Henderson Ellis's new novel Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café is John Shirting – quiet young Chicagoan, wizard of self-medication – who not long ago held down a beloved job as a barista at Capo Coffee Family, a coffee chain and global business powerhouse. When he is deemed "too passionate" about his job, he is let go. Shirting makes it his mission to return to the frothy Capo's fold by singlehandedly breaking into a new market and making freshly postcommunist Prague safe for free-market capitalism. Unfortunately, his college nemesis, Theodore Mizen, a certified socialist, has also moved there, and is determined to reverse the Velvet Revolution, one folk song at a time. After Shirting experiences the loss of his sole "new-hire" – a sad, arcade game-obsessed prostitute – it is not long before his grasp on his mission and, indeed, his sanity, comes undone, leaving him at the mercy of two-bit Mafiosi, a pair of Golem trackers, and his own disgruntled phantom.
A dazzling combination of Everything is Illuminated and Don Quixote, with a jigger of Confederacy of Dunces, and Lord of the Barnyard, Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café is the first novel to so exquisitely capture the ambiance of expat Prague. Poised to be an underground classic, it asks: what does it mean to be sane in a fast-changing world? (Paul Olchvary)– Writer-journalist Sándor Jászberényi interviewed the author.
You've just returned from the States, where you were on a book tour for your debut novel Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café. How was it? How was the reception? Did you enjoy going on the tour or this was the first and the last tour you’ll make?
I felt very lucky because book tours are almost a thing of the past for any author. It’s really only the writers with huge marketing campaigns behind them that ‘tour.’ Paul Olchvary of New Europe Books, the publisher of Bedlam and I put together a bare bones tour that relied on the kindness of friends and a few famous writers, like Arthur Phillips, who staged events with me. All in all, it came off pretty well and got me back to New York City, so that was just fine.
You told me you worked on the novel for about ten years. I did some research and found another version online. What made you change the novel? Is the published one the final version?
I wrote three or four versions of Bedlam over three years. It took another ten to find a publisher. In the intervening time there were great strides made in self-publishing technology. I put it out on Amazon under the title Lumpen. Paul found it there. Nothing I write ever comes in a single draft. The protagonist, John Shirting, didn’t even appear in Bedlam until the second draft, nor did the pills, phantoms, golem hunters, or most of what makes the book what it is. I did save some of the original angst, however.
After rereading your novel I just realized there are several layers in it for interpretation. You can interpret this novel as a drug story, a story of solitude, a post-Soviet era expatriate story or a story of a mission statement for the lost. How would you read it?
Perhaps my novel could be called a search for identity on a national and personal – not to mention, pharmaceutical – level.
All the characters in the novel (Gus, Bunny, Hard Road, Monika) are close to Bedlam, there is not a single OK-seeming character in the entire novel. Was this your general experience of expatriate society in Prague as a writer? Did you use many nonfictional elements in the novel?
It’s not a very literal Prague, though all these characters have germs of real people in them. Shirting’s Prague, and the Prague of the novel, shouldn’t be confused with what an Easy-Jetted-in tourist should expect of that city. It is very much a place of the protagonist’s own neurotic creation. Prague kind of lends itself to neurosis; and Shirting’s is so prominent that it bleeds into every aspect of his experience.
I think that the more fictional the character, the more the author reveals themself, so I guess you could say that it is all me. On a more practical level, I did live in Prague, did work at a corporate coffee giant, and am tied by my past to Chicago. It is no secret that exploiting personal experience is convenient when undertaking the arduous task of writing a first novel.
As for the medication, a friend and I did do some experimenting with self-prescribing loads of sedatives and anti-depressants when it was easy to get them online from Indian pharmaceutical companies. That all happened after the book was roundly rejected, however, so in that way, Shirting influenced me.
The protagonist, John Shirting is almost always on mood pills, which changes his perception of reality. There are certain elements in the novel which remind the reader of magic realism – the reader can't judge whether something is really happening or if it is only happening in Shirting’s mind. The narrator never gives a clue. How do you relate to magical realism? How did you develop this writing technique and who do you consider as your masters in storytelling?
There is a degree of magic realism there. Or magic-surrealism. I like Eastern European writers like Brohumil Hrabal and Bruno Schulz. I came to both writers after having lived in Europe, where this kind of evocative writing is more popular. I never had much interest in writing minimal realistic stories like those of Raymond Carver, which were so popular when I was at school. Nor have I really been able to write anything in a straightforward way, I always tilt off into some alternate reality, fantasy world, or hallucinatory projection.
As someone who was born and raised in Eastern Europe I found the scene of the transition period fascinating and well written, especially when we consider that you're 'just a foreigner dog'. Was everything just so obvious or did you get involved in capitalizing the ex-Soviet era?
Dogs – even foreign ones – have good noses. Of course Shirting’s pedantry and hypochondria are more American than anything.
As a writer, why did you decide to move to Eastern Europe? How much time did you spend in Prague?
I lived in Prague on two separate occasions in the early 90s; first for nine months and then for only a few months a few years later. I was glad to have not stayed on and seen the city gradually change. The Prague I remember, a very wild west, anything goes sort of place, doesn’t exist on the street level anymore. I have very vivid memories of that exact time and place – ones that are crystalized in my mind – which made it easy to return to as a setting. It would have been more difficult if I had stayed longer.
How do you spend your life as an expat in Hungary? You are the founder and editor of Pilvax Magazine. Why did you start this project?
It doesn’t take long to assimilate to any new environment, so life is much the same here as it was when I was living in New York. I don’t think a lot about expat life, or what it means to be an expat, and by the same token I don’t miss the States all that much. People have the impression that you can lose a bit of your self when you move abroad, but the self only becomes thrown into sharper focus in foreign environments.
Pilvax came to be because I needed to publish something, even if it was other people’s writing. You have accused me of working for free, and that is true, there is no money in it, but it is done out of selfishness, or rather, it gratified aspects of my own personality. But publishing a small literary review is an uphill battle, and it may be a while before you see another issue. Of what has been published, I was particularly proud of discovering Zita Berbuch, a kid from the countryside and the only Hungarian zinester I have met. I was also thrilled to get László Sárközi’s poetry into print and a handful of writers who work outside of traditional publishing circles here.
Now that the book is out, how is it received in Europe, especially in the Czech Republic?
I have no idea. Americans who were in Prague at that time are pretty excited about it, but that’s the only pulse I’ve taken. I will be in Prague in the summer to promote the book, and will get a better sense at that point. The book is at the London Book Fair, so we will see if anything comes of it.
What are your plans for the future? Have you already started writing a new novel?
It was a nice little break from reality, this author tour and the book publication, but now it’s back to the daily grind. I continue to edit at wordpillediting.com, work as a paid blogger, and give the odd English lesson. Feel free to seek me out, as I am taking on new projects and students all the time. “What are you working on now?” must be the number one most detested questions for anybody who just finished something. Let’s end on a high note, and say I am working on translating more of Sándor Jászberényi.