2012 National Book Award Finalist,
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956
Interview by Mira Ptacin
Mira Ptacin: What are some techniques you employ to make your books appealing to a wider range of readers, rather than just, say, history buffs?
Anne Applebaum: If my history books do appeal to a wide range of readers that may be because I am interested in a wide range of human behavior. To me, the point of writing history is to transmit the sense of a particular time and place—to explain why people in a particular era thought, spoke, acted, and felt as they did—and not just to say what happened.
To do so, one of course needs to do more than just find the bare facts. One has to speak with people who lived at the time if at all possible, to read their memoirs, to read archives (in order to find out what they said at government meetings when they thought no one else would ever find out), and then to put all of that into context so that contemporary readers can make sense of it. When doing research, I am always looking for stories, anecdotes and quotations, which illustrate different aspects of a given historical moment. I always prefer to let people describe what is happening in their own language. After all, it’s their history, not mine.
Though I should also say that I don’t really like the division people make between “history buffs” and everyone else. Anyone who reads fiction is a potential “history buff.” At base, history is just a collection of stories, which happen to be true.
MP: Like Katherine Boo, you are married to a person who happens to be a native of the country you’re writing about. What were the ways your husband, Radek Sikorski, affected your understanding and opinion of your subject?
AA: It’s not easy to answer that question, because I’m not sure I can separate my husband’s influence from that of so many others. For the past two decades I’ve watched Eastern Europe evolve while living some of the time in Eastern Europe, and all of the time with Eastern Europeans. I know Poland from the perspective of my parents-in-law, from the perspective of my husband’s generation, and from the perspective of my own children—they are bilingual, and have gone to Polish schools—and their friends. I’ve heard my own friends talk about their family histories. Everyone I know is affected by the legacy of the war and the communist period, and thus I too am probably affected by all of them. Perhaps it helps me to empathize?
MP: Do you see any differences between the Polish and American views on the ethical and professional guidelines of journalism?
AA: Not really, no. Given that the press has been free in Poland for only twenty years, since the collapse of communism in 1989, Polish journalism is amazingly diverse and varied. It ranges from the worst and most mendacious tabloids to very sophisticated foreign correspondence and investigative reporting—just like in the United States. The main problem with Polish journalism is that it tends to be very self-focused. Polish journalists sometimes have trouble seeing the broader, international context of their politics, and they can become obsessed with minor scandals and events which don’t matter much in the long run. But I suppose the same can be said of the American press too.
MP: What is it about you, Anne-Applebaum-the-person, that inspires you to write about larger events, rather than write about just one person? Or for that matter, why not write about yourself?
AA: I am very conscious of my own luck—of the fact that I was born in 1960s America and not, say, 1930s Russia or 1940s Poland—and I have always been attracted to the stories of people who lived at less lucky times and in less lucky places. Journalism and history both allow me to investigate societies quite different from my own, and both have made me want to know why they were different. Sooner or later, I always find that what you call the “larger events”—the revolutions, wars, mass murders—are an important part of the explanation. That leads me to the story of the Gulag, or Stalinization.
I could imagine writing a book about one person if that person’s biography was capacious enough. But I can’t imagine writing about myself. Other things are so much more interesting.
MP: What helps you write?
Coffee. And rain.
Mira Ptacin is a creative nonfiction and children’s book author, New York Times bestselling ghostwriter, as well as the founder and executive director of Freerange Nonfiction Reading Series & Storytelling collective. She currently teaches nonfiction writing at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. www.miraptacin.com