[This blog first published on Huffington Post, November 13, 2017.]
When it comes to books, I lean toward nonfiction—specifically memoir. But there was something about Jessica Keener’s novel Strangers in Budapest (Algonquin Books, $26.95) that made me want to read it. Maybe it was the cover, which is gorgeous and intriguing, or maybe it was Keener herself, who I know only through her intelligent and passionate Facebook posts. Whatever the reason, I’m glad to have not only read this suspenseful novel, but to have had the opportunity to talk with Keener prior to her book’s Nov. 14 release. From her home in the Boston area, she talked about the writing process and what it is like to be on the receiving end of accolades from entities, such as Chicago Review of Books, Real Simple, Boston Magazine and Publishers Weekly.
Talk about the process of writing this book. It sounds like it took a long time for it to come to fruition.
I probably started this about ten years ago. It went through a lot of iterations. At one time, I had more points of view. I had more emphasis on a few characters. I pulled a whole kind of thread out of it at one point. I reorganized it. It went through all kinds of challenges and hair pulling and things like that. I put it away for a while, which is sort of typical of me. I usually get some kind of draft going and then I don’t know what I’m doing, and I have to figure it out, and I write. And then finally, I got it to a place where it was making sense…. It’s been a long time coming.
What was it like for you to hold it for the first time and see all that hard work come together?
There are all these different stages. The stage of finally feeling like the draft is ready to show an agent. Then it’s ready to show an editor. Then the editing is finally done and then it goes into the copyright stage. So, each stage has its own thrill. (Seeing) the cover is a huge moment as well. All those years in the story and then to have someone capture that in an image. As soon as I saw it, it just felt right. I was so happy with it. And then when the final book came, I just love it. I think it’s beautiful. They did a gorgeous job with the way the cover feels. I think it’s a nice size and the weight is nice. I’m very happy with it.
What kept you going?
I guess I’m learning that I’m an incredibly persistent person. If I’m hooked on an idea for a novel and I’m engaged in the characters and their lives and their dilemmas, I just want to get it right. I don’t like to give up.
What is the difference between this and your other books?
The difference here for this novel is there’s a gun involved and that’s a big deal for me. I’m always ultimately invested in the psychological drama between people. That’s really what my deepest interest is. But I was thinking a lot about situations in life where people are asked to go well beyond what they could imagine was possible or believable. I had met this woman who had lost her son from a bullet. He was walking to a teens against gang violence (event) and he got caught in some crossfire one afternoon right before Christmas and he was killed. I met his mother. I wrote a story about her son and about the peace institute she had started for him. It was hard to imagine. What could that possibly, possibly be like to lose your child in that way? How do you get up and keep going? I had this kind of ‘what-if’ question that was really bugging me and I think the more I thought about it, the more I really wanted to imagine that situation.
Your book is set in Budapest, where you lived in the 1990s. The city felt like a character in the book. The book felt personal to me.
I do like a book to feel personal. That is something that I strive for. I want the reader, I want myself, to feel really engaged with the characters in an intimate way. I wanted to tie in on some level how society, culture, history, kind of bleeds into the personal and the intimate private life of people because I think it does. It does shape us in ways that we’re not always aware of. I did live in Budapest for a year, so that certainly had an impact on me. My husband and I wanted to live overseas. We wanted not just to be visiting but to live somewhere and Budapest was just an opportunity that we took. It was so different. They were coming out of a period of Communist rule for 50 years. It was still sort of European but different enough. We were fascinated by that difference and what did it really mean as Americans being there. I learned a lot about who I was as an American—the assumptions that I made—and I wanted to bring that to the book.
In the writing of the book, did you revisit Budapest?
I haven’t been back yet. I’m ready to go back now. I didn’t want to clutter my mind up with how much it’s changed since I’ve been there. It was nice not to be there since then (the 1990s) because my memory can only go there. I didn’t have to push any sort of more modern or more recent memories out of the way. That was good, actually, for the writing of it.
Did you imagine that you would write about it some day in this way?
I’m someone who does like to pull from my own experiences as a starting point. I wondered how I might use this at some point, but it was definitely not clear to me until years later, until I was back, and these things happened when I was home. The woman who lost her son. And I met a neighbor whose daughter had died under funny circumstances, she thought. One day I just went, ‘How does this all tie in with my experience with Budapest?’ It seemed to me that Budapest offered itself as a really great landscape setting to explore these questions.
Was your intention to shed light on Budapest, too?
I just saw that as a backdrop. I don’t have an agenda about Budapest. I do think it’s a beautiful city. It’s an interesting city. It’s mysterious. All the things I tried to capture in the book. And I guess because I lived there, I had some ownership around it. It left an imprint on me. It also just seemed to fit.
What brought you back to the U.S. after a year?
I really wanted to put some roots down. I wanted our son (now 24) to be closer to grandparents and that wasn’t going to happen if we were in Hungary. I really didn’t want to establish myself in a new life in Hungary. The year was enough for me really in terms of that. It made me realize that I was sort of led to find a more permanent home. I’ve lived in Miami and Atlanta and Portland, Maine. I was ready to put some roots down. I’m from Boston, so I came back to Boston.
What did you figure out about people through writing this book? What did you figure out about yourself?
I think people are often driven by things they’re not entirely aware of. That we all carry things that either are unresolved and that we’ve either been avoiding them or we think we’ve tucked them away. Some people are good at tucking things away for the rest of their lives, but it affects choices that we make. It also made me think about people with an emotion that’s so extreme—like if you lose your child because someone you think has murdered your child, it’s such an extreme emotion. I wanted to understand better why humanity is repeating the same cycles of killing and revenge. I don’t have an answer, really, except that I hope people think more about it. I’m tired of seeing the same cycles over and over again. If we understand that it’s something we can begin to do something about—starting with ourselves—maybe that was my hope, at least, in writing the book.
What is your hope for the book and for readers?
I hope they will look behind the veil of what people present. Like, for example, (the character) Edward is a cranky guy and he’s kind of unfiltered, but I think he’s struggling to find justice. I hope people will think more about what is this behavior either hiding or revealing and go one step beyond the surface judgment of people.
Your characters are so strong. Everything is so vivid. I know that’s what you strive for, but how do you do that?
I am fascinated by a character. I really love thinking about who a person is, what makes a person, what motivates a person, what’s that person afraid of. I don’t know why I’m fascinated by those things. How a person talks. How they look. What they selected for their dress. What does that say about them? How they walk. What does that say about them? All those things are manifestations of who a person is in my opinion. That’s what I try to capture when I am creating a character. And then at some point, the character has a voice. When I’m writing about Edward, then I get into who he is and I hear him. I hear his voice in my head and I hear how he would talk or how he would perceive things. It’s almost like being an actor, but I don’t go on stage. I have to get inside that person and feel what they’re feeling. That’s what I love about it and also what can make it hard, too.
What is it like to have this book out in the world now?
It’s like solving a puzzle in a way. Finally, I got that last piece in there. It’s incredibly satisfying. It’s a wonderful feeling. It also can be scary when you get to that point. You know it’s going to be reviewed. I start biting my fingers and all that. I’m probably still doing a lot of that right now. But then it will be up to readers. It’s completely out of my hands at this point. I wrote this novel. I’m happy with what I’ve done. It’s an incredible feeling to work so hard for so long.
How do you feel about the accolades that are coming your way about Strangers in Budapest? For example, it’s on the December 2017 Indie Next List Great Reads.
They’re like little miracles. They just came out of the blue. It almost shocks me, so I feel a little bit stunned and a sense of unreality about it, actually. But I’m grateful, for sure. Really grateful.