by Len Lear
The May 31, 2015, issue of the New York Times Book Review included a review by novelist Christopher Buckley (son of famed conservative thinker William F. Buckley) of “Burning Down George Orwell’s House” (Soho Books), written by Roxborough resident Andrew Ervin, that was a virtual panegyric. Here is an excerpt:
“’Burning Down George Orwell’s House’ is a sweet book full of delights. Since many of its best passages are rhapsodies on single malt whiskies, one is tempted to call it a wee bonny dram of a tale … But how nice to come across a novel set in contemporary times where no one is texting or tweeting or Facebooking or Skyping, or even using a cellphone.”
If you Google the book, you will find a buffet of similar encomiums from book reviewers all over the country. And Ervin, 44, was greeted with a similar chorus of acclaim that would undoubtedly warm the heart of even the most successful best-selling authors after he wrote “Extraordinary Renditions,” a collection of three novellas, in 2010 (Coffeehouse Press).
Ervin grew up in Nether Providence and graduated from Strath Haven High School. His backyard was adjacent to a park that was eventually torn apart by the construction of the Blue Route, which now runs through what used to be Ervin’s playground. The destruction of the natural world in the name of progress is a theme in both of Ervin’s books.
Ervin has lived in Budapest, Illinois and Louisiana. He has a degree in philosophy and religion from Goucher College and completed his MFA in fiction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His short fiction has appeared in numerous publications. He currently lives locally with his wife, flutist Elivi Varga.
Here is part of an interview we recently conducted with the much-acclaimed author:
How long did you work on “George Orwell’s House?”
I started writing a novel in the fall of 2006. I’m sure some DNA from other early drafts survives in “Burning Down George Orwell’s House,” but I’m not sure I could identify it at this point. As it exists now in print, I think it took about five years. My next book will go more quickly.
How do you feel about the amazing reviews the book has received, especially the one in the New York Times?
Here’s the thing, Len. There’s not one good review or one bad review that can change what is written in a book. Getting a tremendous review in the New York Times and on NPR and elsewhere feels great. To know that the hours and hours I put in at my desk, alone and unsure if anyone would ever read what I was writing, have found a receptive audience is wonderful and still very surprising. I’m extremely lucky.
How is it that you lived in Hungary for five years?
I had a girlfriend in college who immediately after graduation moved to Budapest to study music at the famous Liszt Academy. She was kind enough to invite me to join her, and I did so with the idea of staying for nine months (the duration of my round-trip ticket). Nearly five years later, we moved to Manayunk and got married. After living a few other places for graduate school (downstate Illinois) and work (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), we moved back to this area and now own a small rowhouse on the border of Roxborough and Manayunk.
(Ervin also said in an earlier interview:) I arrived in Budapest in November of 1994. What little money my girlfriend and I had still featured hammers-and-sickles. There weren’t many western cars on the roads. Our apartment was in a prefab, Communist-era ghetto on the northern edge of the city. We didn’t have a telephone, much less email. I didn’t speak the language. We knew very few people. Every comfort I had grown up with was gone. The first few months were without question the most difficult time of my life. Maybe it was the first difficult time of my life. Being a foreigner and, at times, an illegal immigrant at that, certainly changed my perspective about a lot of things. I only brought a few books with me. I read “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Mulligan Stew” that first winter, two books that affected my experience in Central Europe in countless ways.
Are you fluent in Hungarian?
I can speak just enough to get by in a market or restaurant and to make terrible jokes.
Do you still teach creative writing at Temple?
I’m taking a year off to work on other things, but I hope to teach there again at some point. It’s a terrific school, and I’ve been very impressed with the students. I do most of my teaching there in the Honors Program, and they let me teach some interesting things, like a course on J.R.R. Tolkien and one of the filmmaker and animator Terry Gilliam, who is a lifelong inspiration. My boss there at Temple, the incomparable and indefatigable Ruth Ost, lives in Chestnut Hill, so perhaps I shouldn’t admit that I had never read Tolkien until she asked me to teach the class. I had to cram pretty hard, but it turned out that I enjoyed the material and was able to fill a big hole in my own intellectual life while also teaching material the students cared about. The trauma of wartime is a huge element in his seemingly bucolic fantasy world.
— To be continued