Q&A with Jessica Keener, Author of Strangers in Budapest

Jessica Keener is the author of the bestselling novel Night Swim and a collection of award-winning short stories, Women in Bed. She has also contributed to O, the Oprah Magazine, Redbook, the Boston Globe, and Agni, among other publications. Ms. Keener earned her B.A. in English from Brown University and later received a master’s degree in creative writing (fiction); she has taught English literature and writing at Brown University, Boston University, the University of Miami, and GrubStreet. Her most recent novel, Strangers in Budapest, draws upon the experience of living in that city in the early 1990s. Ms. Keener now makes her home in Brookline, Massachusetts.

The author graciously entertained questions on topics including how fact informs fiction, the diversity of mystery novels, why the juxtaposition of past and present resonates, how short stories and full-length works are both similar and different, and what of craft can be learned vs. what is intrinsic. She also shares a glimpse of what comes next. 

You lived in Budapest in the early 1990s. In what ways did that experience inspire this book, and how do you think the passage of time allowed you to revisit that backdrop in a way that you may not have been able to previously?

When I lived there for a year, I was captivated by the cultural and social changes Hungary was experiencing. It was truly a unique time to be there. The Russians had left after a 50-year rule, but the place felt like a time bubble from Communist 1950s. The city didn’t have ATMs. Most Hungarians didn’t have landline phones in their homes. The city was in disrepair—bullet holes from previous wars and battles were in full view on building facades.

At the same time, there was a feeling of things breaking free, a great sense of excitement for a new world order that created a bubbling current of restlessness. And restlessness is an intriguing state because it can go in any direction—positive or negative. When I was formulating my novel, my memory of Budapest at that time presented itself as a natural and ideal backdrop for my main characters—all of whom were dealing with dark issues from their past—with a restlessness that mirrored many of the issues Hungarians were dealing with at that time: an unclear sense of identity, shame about the past, and a yearning for something better.

I have not returned to Budapest since living there, but that made it easier to rely on my memory. I didn’t have the clutter of more recent images in my head. I felt free of the confines of current events and was able to shape the plot and use the setting as needed to highlight and reveal the secrets of my characters.  

This novel can be described as a literary mystery. How does such a construct lend itself to the themes (grief, guilt, redemption, etc.) you wanted to explore, and in what ways does the juxtaposition of past and present create a heightened sense of suspense? 

When writing a novel, I must feel that something in the story is unresolved, some emotional or psychological puzzle—or mystery—that must be worked out and has enough high-stakes power to drive my protagonist and the main players toward disaster or revelation. To manifest this, I look for a personal predicament that puts my characters in jeopardy—whether real or imagined. Guilt, grief, and the need for justice are powerful emotions that play havoc on the heart and certainly for my characters in Strangers In Budapest.

As for the past—history is a powerful force, both personally and culturally. For instance, historically, Americans have a tradition of winning. We battle and conquer. Hungary doesn’t have this kind of history. Hungarians have been on the losing side of wars—repeatedly. This affects how they think and respond to personal challenges. In my novel, the past haunts my main characters—Annie, Edward, and Stephen—and takes over how they manage and mismanage their lives in the present. This creates dissonance and tension because the experiences of the past shape the way each of my characters makes decisions—decisions that indelibly affect the rest of their lives. 

In what ways do Annie and Will’s circumstances speak to the more universal experience of assimilation? How does this book explore the notion of redefining “home,” and why is that particularly resonant given the current world climate? 

When I lived in Hungary, Yugoslavia was breaking up. Refugees were streaming into southern Hungary. I saw families walking through town carrying bags on their backs, lugging suitcases, looking bedraggled, and covered in dirt and dust. This was more than 20 years ago.

I remembering saying to our Hungarian friend, Laszlo, “If you ever need a safe place to escape to, come to America. We’ll shelter you.” At the time, I had no doubt that was true. Today, the memory of that conversation haunts me. It never occurred to me that Laszlo might not be welcome in my country if his life were in danger. As an American, it also never occurred to me that I might need to leave my country to escape an oppressive government. (Did I just put myself on a watch list by saying this?)

When writing my novel, I wanted readers to feel Annie and Will’s sense of “otherness” and alienation in a foreign country as well as experience Annie’s struggle to find her sense of home—which ultimately is really about finding your center and feeling comfortable and secure in who you are. I also wanted readers to come to know Budapest and see and realize that people are people—regardless of where they live or what language they speak.  They like to stroll on hot summer days. They like to gather in cafes with their friends and family. They like to visit parks. Humans are humans. And home is really about your heart and not letting fear blind you because of external differences. 

You write short stories in addition to novels. How do you know which format an idea requires, and what are the unique challenges and joys of each discipline?

I love the short story form. It’s intense. It demands that you strip things down. It’s not about plot, per se, but character and emotion. Short stories are like microscopes. They look at the tiniest and often unseen emotions and magnify them so the reader can see them. In that way, short stories can be shocking. They reveal invisible underpinnings of life—like discovering gravity has waves.

Guilt, grief, and the need for justice are powerful emotions that play havoc on the heart and certainly for my characters in Strangers In Budapest.

A novel does that too, but it’s obviously a bigger landscape and more unwieldy, demanding that the writer create multiple scenarios. A novel is like a wall-sized tapestry or a house with rooms aplenty, which gives you space and time to explore the rich, multi-dimensional aspects of life.

You have taught English literature and writing. In your opinion, what of the craft can be learned vs. what is intrinsic, and how can tenacity factor into the equation?

There is craft, for sure, which comes with practice. You have to make a mess over and over again and revise. But, it’s also about seeing. I’m not sure you can be taught how to see. I think that comes out of your experiences and how you process them. So if you put the two together—vision and craft—you have a chance of creating something memorable.

As for tenacity? That’s 80 percent of the game. Nothing happens if you give up. Most writers I know have been working on their fiction for years. Most have a novel that never made it into the world—I have one of those. And all of them keep going. We don’t stop.

Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?

I’m working on a new novel, tentatively titled Leap. It’s set in Boston, present time, and is about a family in crisis trying to make sense of a savage world.


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Jessica Keener is the author of the national bestselling novel Night Swim and a collection of award-winning short stories, Women in Bed. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah MagazineRedbook, the Boston GlobeAgni, and other publications, and she has taught English literature and writing at Brown University, Boston University, the University of Miami, and GrubStreet. She lives in the Boston area. Learn more at www.jessicakeener.com.

John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.