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New novelist Caleb Crain offers insight to writer’s mind

By Andrew Elmers

Section: Arts

April 4, 2014

The Brandeis Creative Writing Department and History of Ideas program sponsored their last novel reading of the semester this past Wednesday. Professor Steven McCauley (ENG) introduced the featured writer—Caleb Crain—a few minutes after 5 p.m. in the Shapiro Admissions Center presentation room.

It was somewhat thrilling to hear McCauley list the reviews of Caleb Crain’s first novel, “Necessary Errors,” and begin to understand what exactly the novel consisted of. Crain mentioned during the interview with John Plotz (ENG) toward the end of the event that he was fortunate to receive good reviews on his work, and that’s an understatement. Most of the great literary critics have lauded Crain’s work, some mentioning that this is the best novel written in the past 10 years. People are always looking for that next classic piece of American Literature, something to be taught along side Steinbeck and Hawthorne. And for that potential classic to be read at Brandeis is a treasure.

After McCauley turned the podium over to Crain, he gave a humble response to the great amounts of praise he was given. He then quickly went into reading a passage from the novel. “Necessary Errors” is about a young man with an artistic spirit and an awakening sexual freedom. It takes place in Prague, a town undergoing political transformation during the early 1990s. Crain acknowledged that the setting was a major theme of his work; the changing city and political landscape affected his character, who is going through changes on his own.

Crain’s reading covered a section where the main character, Jacob, gets familiar with his new apartment building after buying some books. While writing a character’s inner monologue, Crain refrains from overextending his use of detail to set the scene and describe what the character is thinking. He moves the pace along quickly while still leaving the reader with enough of an idea of how to envision what is happening. Too often writers feel like its their duty to accurately paint the scene in fear of the reader not getting out of it what they hope. Crain doesn’t follow this trope, however, and gives the reader the freedom to make what they want out of his writing.

Audience members could tell Crain wasn’t very comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. For a former professor, this was unexpected. He failed to look up while reading from his hardcover edition and stumbled over his words a few times. These were his own words he was reading, yet he wound up making numerous mistakes. While this didn’t take away from any of the content of the novel, it was a noticeable flaw in Crain’s presentation.

After this initial passage, Crain narrated his own text while four drama majors played the parts of characters sitting in a bar having a conversation. Offering a different aspect of fiction than the earlier scene, dialogue presents different challenges for the written word. Here Crain was visibly more comfortable off to the side providing the narration for the scene.

He was even more at ease during the question and answer period with Plotz. Old college classmates at Harvard, these two old friends transformed a somewhat complacent reading into a fireside chat. Covering aspects of the writing process and their previous experience in Prague, Plotz and Crain really drew the audience in with their subtle banter. They also fielded questions from audience members, some of whom have evidently read the book already. Crain brought great insight into the writing process. He mentioned his feelings on submitting his work to others to review and criticize it. A former literary critic himself, he rationalized it by claiming he never intended for this novel to be published. Crain also made note of his obsession with page length. Previously he had problems trying to get a novel-turned-novella published because it was too short. He had no difficulty this time around, as “Necessary Errors” weighs in at an impressive 480 pages.

All told, Crain makes a strong statement with his initial foray into novel writing. He is bound to become a well-read name in English classes the world over.

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