Evanston RoundTable, March 14, 2013
Like many first-time writers, Matt Henderson Ellis’s first novel, “Keeping Bedlam At Bay in the Prague Café” is heavily drawn from his own experience – working at Starbucks, living in Eastern Europe, and creating characters based loosely on friends and acquaintances.
The novel, published in February by New Europe Books, has received highly favorable reviews. The main character, writes novelist and commentator Andrei Codrescu, “stands in the good company of Ignatius J. Reilly, Chauncey Gardener, and Forrest Gump.” The character is John Shirting, and like Mr. Ellis he is an American expatriate scrambling to find acceptance, clarity and a decent job in the frenetic post-Communist years on the fringes of the former Soviet empire.
Like a lot of first novels, the book had a long and difficult gestation that may be said to have begun in Evanston.
Mr. Ellis moved here with his family from Philadelphia when he was an infant. “Evanston was a great place to be a kid,” he says. “I attended Willard School. It was right when they were starting to bus kids in from poorer neighborhoods. It got pretty heady and interesting.”
After he finished Willard the family moved to Wilmette, which he called “a difficult transition.” He says Wilmette was “less laid-back, less open and fun. I kept my Evanston friends, however, and returned on weekends. The diversity, the punk and rap music scenes were alive in Evanston, but alien to Wilmette. Most of my coming-of-age moments – from the first kiss to trying magic mushrooms on the Northwestern landfill – happened in Evanston.”
After graduating from Bennington College he moved to Prague “on a whim” and spent a year there, then returned to the States and worked at Starbucks, which, transformed as “Capo’s,” figures prominently in the book. He also worked at Doubleday Publishing for a year, which encouraged him to write. “After reading manuscript after manuscript, you develop an idea about what is engaging to a reader.”
Mr. Ellis returned to Europe in 2000. “The plan was to travel around and find a nice place to live for a few years, like Berlin or Sophia, but everything came together – job, apartment – here in Budapest, so I just stayed.”
Being an expat, he says, gives him a lot of insight into the U.S. He likes living abroad, but the recent rise of an extreme right ideology is “disconcerting.” On the other hand, he adds, “societies in transition are good material, and exactly the kind of backdrop that makes for compelling fiction.”
The path to “Prague Café” was anything but straightforward. The book started as a conventional coming-of-age story in Prague. “It was kind of predictable – especially in the ‘first novel’ way – so I began again when I felt myself becoming attached to the comic possibilities of having an American in a former Soviet Bloc country.”
Subsequent drafts featured techniques not taught in writing programs. He completed one draft with two pens, one black and one blue, writing sentences in alternate colors. This approach “was meant to keep me paying constant attention to the life of each sentence. I really wanted the writing to be original, down to the word choice and sentence structure.”
When he encountered a block, he says, he opened a bottle of Hungarian Tokaj Aszu wine. “Something about the sweet/rot flavor infuses the novel, I believe.”
Draft followed draft for several more years. “I have a stack of about ten spiral bound notebooks filled with ‘Prague Café’ material.”
Mr. Ellis admits the protagonist, John Shirting, who is portrayed as a confused, sometimes drug-addled character, is based to some extent on himself. “Like most debut authors, there are many details that I cribbed from my life. But Shirting is quite distinct in his worldview, and far more settled in his ideals and personality than I am. He is also far more innocent and a genuine outsider. There are more differences than similarities, and for this we are both grateful.”
As to the book’s being compared to the Pulitzer-prize winning “Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole, Mr. Ellis says the similarities are deliberate. “Shirting shares vital DNA with Ignatius J Reilly. If you look farther back in their shared ancestry, you will also find Gargantua, who was an inspiration for Toole’s Reilly. There are also allusions to Jaroslav Hasek’s protagonist in “Good Soldier Svejk,” writers Brohumil Hrabal, Bruno Schulz, A.A. Milne, Nelson Algren, J.P. Donleavy and George Orwell among others.”
Mr. Ellis has another novel in the works, which he says takes place in Illinois, but offers no further details. He also has other manuscripts floating around, including a memoir about being a 1980s music fan. And a book he describes as a young adult fantasy, “Petra K and the Blackhearts” (set in a mythical city that resembles Prague) is self-published on Amazon Kindle.
Writers he admires, he says, are the ones that “once read, will whisper over your shoulder throughout life.” He lists Flannery O’Connor, Bruno Schulz, J.D Salinger, Stephen King, Carson McCullers, and Haruki Murakami.
Mr. Ellis is currently traveling in the U.S. on a book tour. He will be at the North Branch of the Evanston Public Library 3 p.m. April 6 to read, discuss and sign copies of the book.