Caleb Crain took a 25-year detour through literary criticism and journalism en route to the publication of his first novel, Necessary Errors. And those are his words, not ours. “I’m only slightly exaggerating,” he says.
Crain, whose literary criticism has been widely published, stands by the nonfiction he wrote all those years. But, he says, he cannot vouch for the “horrible” fiction he was producing then, too. “I have many un-publishable manuscripts in a box in the basement to prove it,” he says. “I think there are four complete novels, but they never should see the light of day.”
Then, in 2008, N+1 published his novella Sweet Grafton, about a 12-year-old boy named Jacob Putnam. Five years later, we meet Jacob Putnam again in Crain’s first novel, Necessary Errors, as a young man living abroad with a group of ex-pats in post-Velvet Revolution Prague, though Crain says readers needn’t read one story to understand the other.
In part, the story is set in Prague because Crain spent more than a year living there, on the heels of a summer work program, in 1990 and 1991. But the setting is thematic, too—Jacob struggles with his identity, sexual and otherwise, as Prague struggles with its own during the transition from communism to capitalism.
“Prague actually means threshold,” Crain says, “and those years were sort of intermediate. It wasn’t clear where things were going and that seemed like a good background for Jacob’s problems and place in life. He’s not sure whether he wants to leave childhood for adulthood, or whether he wants to really become gay rather than just liminal and ambiguous.”
Though Crain’s own time in Prague was more than 20 years ago, he saved guidebooks, photographs, and maps—“I’m kind of a pack rat,” he explains—and referenced them as a kind of research. But he also remained engaged with Czech culture, first working as a translator when he returned to the United States and later keeping up with Czech movies, books and history. So he didn’t have to do a wealth of reporting to come up with what feels like a real wealth of information to the reader.
“I haven’t been back since 1993,” Crain says. “I would love to go back now. I deliberately didn’t want to go back for the years that I was writing the book because I thought that it might interfere with my memory.”
Crain wrote the novel in five years, turned it over to an editor and a few trusted readers and then completed revisions in just four months. His original manuscript came in at 215,000 words; his editor wanted it shorter. But rather than cut whole chapters, Crain asked to tweak it line-by-line. “I basically had five or six or seven different copies of the manuscript in front of me and would sort of turn over one page of each and had a master copy and went through it,” he says. Though the editing was painstaking, it worked—he cut about 1/6 of the original manuscript. And he says the extra effort was worth it: “It’s a lot cleaner and the pace is a lot brisker, if you can say that about an introspective bildungsroman.”
When asked whether his other career as a critic ever creeps into his life as a fiction writer, Crain first responds that the question is a red herring. “When I’m writing criticism, I’m trying to empathize with the work and then also to understand why that empathy won’t happen if it won’t happen or where it does succeed, why it succeeds,” Crain says. “When I’m writing fiction, I’m just trying to do the best job with whatever tools I have, and I feel like if something’s not working, then I cross it out, but I don’t think I spend a lot of time coming up with elaborate indictments for why it’s not working. If it’s not working, I just stop it, and I don’t think of that as unhelpful to me—that actually is helpful.”
But he’s given the question a lot of thought, too, he says, and adds that there was actually a way in which he was able to fold his own critical voice into the narrative. “Jacob is a very self-critical person and he’s often trying to understand himself and creating partial representations of himself and then trying to interpret them,” Crain says. “And some of those are actually my own critical voices that I just allowed Jacob to become somewhat aware of and maybe chew on for a little bit, and then they themselves became somewhat fictionalized.”
Though Crain and Jacob share a history, Crain says the novel would never have worked as memoir. “I think that there’s a freedom in knowing that something is made up,” Crain says. “You’re free to disbelieve in the character a little bit, you’re free to dislike him a little bit if you need to, you’re free to laugh at him instead of laughing with him if you need to. And you can see more, I think, with a fictional narrative than you can with a nonfiction narrative.
“With a memoir, a reader feels more like they have to decide about the person,” Crain says, “and I think that need to decide about people brings you up short.”
Jaime Netzer is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas. The 2012-2013 Clark Writer-in-Residence at Texas State University, her fiction has been published in Twelve Stories and Corium Magazine.