Yahoo! interviewed me about Extraordinary Renditions

I forgot to post this interview I did with Yahoo! a few weeks back.

Andrew Ervin’s Multi-Sensory Language Brings Budapest to Life in “Extraordinary Renditions”

By Tracey Romero

Andrew Ervin, author of “Extraordinary Renditions,” is impressive in the way he orchestrates sensory words to engage the imagination of his readers. From the city streets to the sound of a live musical performance, his descriptive language recreates the texture of Budapest. Recently, he opened up to me about the road he took to become a writer and what inspired him to write his first book.

“Extraordinary Renditions” is a collection of three novellas which explores the complex relationship between America and Central Europe. In “14 Bagatelles,” a Holocaust survivor living in Philadelphia returns to Budapest to face “dybbuks” of his past while in “Brooking the Devil,” a black U.S. soldier endures racism and corruption in the army. “The Empty Chairs” explores an epiphany when a bisexual musician realizes she is dissatisfied with her expatriate lifestyle. One of the first things that struck me about this collection was the way the characters are all intertwined in some way. Harkalyi, Brutus, and Melanie have their own stories to tell, but together they are all a part of the larger tapestry of life in Budapest. Here in the States, we don’t always pay attention to people and events across the globe. These stories make us more conscious of America’s effect on other countries. In an interview, Ervin explained to me that it was his time spent living in Budapest that compelled him to write these stories. “That was the period of rapid Westernization. The kind of rampant commercialism it took the United States two hundred years to perfect happened in ten in Central Europe, and there’s no question that the American expatriates like myself contributed to that process in ways that were positive and negative,” he said. “This collection speaks to my hope that the American influence in Europe in the twenty-first century will go beyond fast food and military might.” During our interview, I also asked him to share his development as a writer. He said, “I can’t remember ‘not’ wanting to be a writer, but for the longest time I had no idea whatsoever what that meant. Maybe I still don’t.” Not surprising considering the sensory nature of his fiction, Ervin has always been interested in the visual arts as well as the written word. In high school he always had a sketchbook in hand. “I still have a nice easel that I break out when I feel like I need to step away from my fiction and do some painting, but that hasn’t happened in a few years,” he said. In college, again, he took a more circuitous route to becoming a writer by majoring in philosophy instead of English. As Frost would say, he took the path less traveled by. Ervin wanted “a different well from which to draw.”
“I did take one undergrad writing class, however, which was co-taught by the novelist Madison Smart Bell and the poet Elizabeth Spires. That was an amazing experience, to say the least,” he explained. “A story I wrote in that class went on-literally seven years and twenty-five rejections and twenty or so drafts later-to be the first one I published. I hope to include it in a story collection some day soon.” It wasn’t until his experiences living in Budapest that he had the material for what would become his first book. He moved there in 1994 to be with his college girlfriend (she later on became his wife) who traveled there to study music at the Liszt Academy. While in Budapest, he did some freelance work with one of the English-language newspapers and started out as a music critic. His critical ear would lay the groundwork for his lyrical description of the Budapest Opera Orchestra’s performance in “The Empty Chairs.” In describing his time there, he reminisced, “There was no internet yet, of course. We didn’t even have a phone for the first year or two, and there was little access to English-language books. I started ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ on the plane over, and I remember Gilbert Sorrentino’s ‘Mulligan Stew’ being very important to me that first winter.” “I tried writing my own novel in those days, but had no idea what I was doing and it wasn’t until I moved back to Philly – in fact, it took a few years after I got back – that I was able to begin writing what would become ‘Extraordinary Renditions’.” When creating the characters for the three novellas, Ervin drew from some of his own feelings and experiences:
“All of my characters-and I bet this is true of many fiction writers-are to some extent autobiographical. We’ve all had the experience of feeling trapped in a job we didn’t like, or in a toxic relationship. In trying to create characters so outwardly unlike myself I’m actually looking closely at the countless things I have in common with them.” “It’s a process of identification,” he continued. “I don’t purposely mine my friends or the people I meet for stories, but I do keep my eyes open to what’s going on around me. Even realistic, mimetic fiction is full of exaggeration and deceit and imprecision. I’m willing to move entire towns and timelines if it means serving the story I want to tell.” To help shape Brutus’ story, he collected material from conversations he had with soldiers who were frequently on leave in Budapest. He also sent a draft to an acquaintance, a published author who had served in the army. “He gave me some tremendous feedback on military life, things that I never would have known on my own. For example, the U.S. Army doesn’t use Jeeps any more, only Hummers. But I wonder to this day if he was upset about what I wrote, because he only sent me back a part of the manuscript and then I never heard from him again. I can only speculate.” Other reactions he has received centered on how he portrayed the European city: “I’ve heard from strangers who are livid about my depiction of Budapest, particularly the pollution and alcoholism. My father-in-law is Hungarian, he’s an intellectual in the greatest, old-world sense of the word and I idolize him in many ways, but he has never spoken a word to me about the book. And I get it: it’s easy to get mad at an outsider-at an American or a civilian-who seems to be critiquing the system.” “But here’s the important part: even though it’s set in Hungary, ‘Extraordinary Renditions’ is one hundred percent about America,” he explained. “Any critiques I have made-and criticism was not a motivating factor in writing it-aren’t really critiques of Hungary, but of the U.S. and our global, imperialistic influences. If anything, I want Hungary to be itself, not an American colony, and that’s what I hope my book gets at.” He reassures his readers that it is love of America that compelled him to write: “Living abroad gave me a whole new perspective and I love this country very much, truly, which is why I came back and why I want to see it continue to improve.” Ervin currently resides in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia where he continues to write. What can we expect from him in the future? Well, he is putting together a story collection tentatively called “Everything Is Name Brand,” after a photograph by Zoe Strauss. “Her recent exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was incredibly inspiring. There’s a level of craft, a vision and unique voice that come through in every image but they never feel forced or artificial. She relies on story and strong characterization instead of irony and that alone is a good wake-up call,” he noted. For the past few years, he has also been writing a novel he is calling “Burning Down George Orwell’s House”. He explains that “it is about a Chicago advertising executive who gets burnt out after creating an ingenious campaign to sell SUVs and attempts to get off the grid by moving into the remote Hebridean house where Orwell wrote ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.” “I think I’m almost finished with it. It’s ‘this’ close,” he teased. “If ‘Extraordinary Renditions’ used ‘Julius Caesar’ as a thematic backbone, ‘Burning Down’ is more in the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ realm. It’s aware that the real and the mythic aren’t all that different, that various kinds of corruption exist in even the most bucolic settings, and, most importantly, that moments of real transcendence are still possible here under the watchful eye of Big Brother.”