2011 National Book Award Finalist,

Andrew Krivak

Andrew KrivakThe Sojourn

Bellevue Literary Press

Interview by Bret Anthony Johnston

Bret Anthony Johnston: Congratulations on The Sojourn being named a Finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. Do you remember your original idea for the novel?

Andrew Krivak: My original idea for what became The Sojourn wasn’t far from the central theme that runs through the book—a family’s return to Eastern Europe from America and a young boy’s coming of age—but I had initially thought that the book would be a work of nonfiction. As a boy I had always heard stories about “the old country” from my grandparents, and so as a student I studied the Slavic languages and the history of that part of the world, and then got to visit several times the village in Slovakia where my grandparents lived and were raised. My first book was a work of nonfiction, and I thought that once you were in a genre you had to stay in it. As early as the research stage, though, I was having trouble connecting many of my family’s disconnected dots, so my agent encouraged me to begin thinking about the book as a novel. That was the freedom I needed.

BAJ: How closely does the finished book correspond to what you first had in mind?

AK: When I say that the permission to write a novel was the freedom I needed, the book didn’t exactly write itself from that moment. I still had a great deal of research to distill, and more yet to do, especially on the Austro-Hungarian army and the First World War, once I had decided to make the main character so intentionally a sharpshooter. He is really an amalgam of several family members, hard individuals whose survival seemed improbable, and whose stories were nothing short of fascinating. With each re-write, the book resisted the sprawling epic I had first envisioned and became a more and more pared down sliver of a thing.

BAJ: How did the writing of The Sojourn compare to the work you’d done previously?

AK: I hadn’t done that much work previously. A small book of poems and my memoir, A Long Retreat. But I will say this. Writing a memoir taught me the importance of story. My editor for that book told me something that I always go back to: Everyone has a subject, the question is: What’s the story? For that first book, I struggled to find and articulate the story. When I sat down to write The Sojourn, I knew the story from beginning to end.

BAJ: In the Fiction category this year, four of the five Finalists explore countries and cultures outside of America. What was it about Austria-Hungary that most captured your imagination?

AK: Austria-Hungary, “the ol’ kawntree,” as my grandmother always used to call it, has captured my imagination for as long as I can remember. It came to life in the beautiful Slovak and blithely broken English that she spoke each time she told me and my brothers and sisters some other memory about a place she loved and feared and oftentimes hated (she was raised by a stepmother who tried to starve her), and yet could not forget. She did this, too, in a kind of American spirit. She was like a frontier woman who could do everything and anything to survive. And had done. So, I became interested in the Austria-Hungary not of the Hapsburgs but of the frontiers, the Slovaks, the ethnic Rus, all of the Slavs, really, who felt at one time or another both the grandeur of culture and the boot of oppression. It was such a strange, wild, and disparate jumble of peoples and nations, languages and histories, and most of the people living there only saw a corner glimpse of the big map, the big picture, which would dramatically change all of their lives by 1918. That’s what I tried to create in The Sojourn, those little glimpses my grandmother and grandfather no doubt caught and missed, things they could see and couldn’t see, about their lives and the world in which they lived.

BAJ: What role does setting play in your writing?

AK: This is a very interesting question because while I insist that I am a story-driven writer, setting is the flesh to the skeleton of story. As I said, I really tried in The Sojourn to create—conjure almost—not just any particular place but an entire atlas of that particular world in that particular time. I pored over maps and photographs and memoirs and histories. I traveled to most of the places I write about in the book. And I tried to weave it all together as a traveler would, so that setting becomes almost like another character.

BAJ: Do you have a reader in mind as you write?

AK: I think maybe what I have is an ideal listener in mind. I mean, the kind of person who will sit down with, say, Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad from beginning to end, not skip a single track, and then, when the last song is over, remain in the quiet for a few minutes. Just listening.

BAJ: The Sojourn is a short and rich novel, and much of the richness seems to come from the precision of your prose. What is your revision process?

AK: After I get most of the clay of the story on the table, I begin the process of re-writing. Writing is re-writing, and it takes me a long time. But the revision process for me is also an aural one. I will literally go sentence by sentence and speak each one out loud. I want to know how it sounds as much as I care about what it says. So, you see, my notion of someone listening. I listen for tone, balance, echoes from previous sentences, allusions to previous sections that I hadn’t even thought of or considered, and slowly, slowly, the source of the writing and the sound of the writing begin to become one. If richness and precision come out of that, then it’s been worth every labored minute.

BAJ: How much of the story do you know before you start?

AK: Well, I guess there’s where you want the story to go, and how you think the story’s going to get there. The great surprises in writing are when the story you think you know makes you go in a direction you never thought you’d go. The character of Zlee, for instance, was actually quite a late edition, after my mother and I exchanged a series of letters in which she began to tell me things about her father and the local village that I had never heard about. I knew then that my main character needed a brother, a double.

BAJ: What was the biggest surprise you encountered while writing The Sojourn?

AK: In addition to those surprises within the writing of the story, I think it always surprises me that the work of the imagination is so much more capable of and inclined toward creativity than I believe that I am capable of as a human wanting to become some sort of artist. That’s what surprises me. When it works. When the imagination makes me better than I am.

BAJ: What was the biggest challenge?

AK: I know that you mean those writing challenges within the novel, but I’ll tell you what was, is, and remains the biggest challenge for me: raising three kids and trying to find time to write. The immersion time, you know? It used to be that I could shape a day around the work of writing. Now I shape the hours. But I’m okay with that. It’s what’s been given to me, and I am an immensely grateful man. So I tell myself when I sit down at my desk, “Let’s see now what can be done in these next couple of hours. What can be made from what’s been given?”

BAJ: Another similarity among many of the Finalists this year is the use of history and war. How much of a direct influence has our current moment in history had on your writing?

AK: It’s had a great deal of influence. I reached back into the past and into another country for this novel precisely because I wanted to hold a mirror up to what’s happening around us right now. The father-in-law of a good friend of mine fought in Vietnam and saw some bad stuff. He’s an intensely reflective and religious man who is also, I discovered, a fan of my writing. And he said to me once when I told him about the novel that was to become The Sojourn: “Finding your self is hard. Finding your self in a war is very hard.” Fitting words for a man, a writer, and a nation. That’s why, too, I dedicated the novel to my mother, Irene, who passed these stories on to me. Much has been made about the book as a war novel, but “Irene” is also the Greek root of the word “peace.” I want that ideal reader to see that this book is really at heart a peace novel.

BAJ: What is the role of the writer in the world today?

AK: To remember, to remind, and to provoke.

BAJ: This is the 62nd year of the National Book Awards. How do you feel about your book being honored in the tradition of the previous Finalists and Winners? Are there previous NBA honorees that you’ve found yourself rereading over the years?

AK: Wow, I can’t tell you how honored I feel to be on this list of finalists. Especially having been chosen by other writers. And, yes, there are many previous NBA honorees who have been the writers whose books I’ve read in order to learn how to write, writers I continue to reread over the years. John Williams, Cormac McCarthy, Peter Matthiessen, Denis Johnson. Just to name a few. To say that I’m humbled wouldn’t even come close.

Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories.  His work appears in magazines such as Esquire, The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, and Tin House, and in numerous anthologies, including Best American Short Stories.  In 2006, he was named one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35, and he is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard. www.bretanthonyjohnston.com