April 08, 2011
On my desk I kept a photograph I have of my grandfather, a boyish-looking seventeen, posing with three other “gunners” of the Austro-Hungarian army with what I would discover later was a makeshift anti-aircraft gun, which the Austrians used unsuccessfully against the British Sopwith Camels that wreaked havoc among the Central Powers troops on the Italian front. The picture is dated spring 1918, just before the battle of the Piave River. In a matter of months, the other three men would be dead and my grandfather would be on a forced march across Italy to his internment on the Island of Sardinia. I knew the villages in which these men had grown up. I traveled to the battlefields where they died. The Isonzo, the Piave, the Carinthian Alps, the Bainsizza Plateau. Like Jozef (the protagonist of The Sojourn) my grandfather also grew up with a stepmother, who said to him when he walked through the door, “Why aren’t you dead like all the rest of them?” That question has haunted me ever since I heard it told around the stove in my grandmother’s kitchen so many years ago. My grandfather’s survival, his coming-of-age story in another place, another country, is the reason why I can think of what it means to come of age, to have a history, to reflect on a past in another place, and to write about it. In my novel, I wanted to take the survival spirit of my grandparents and great aunts and uncles—that spirit which is identifiably American—and place it back in the old country, in the mind, heart, and body of one man, and see how it was that that spirit survived in the sojourn of its youth.
April 07, 2011
Q: This kind of story is one that could fill volumes. How did you manage it in so few pages? What kind of research did you conduct?
A: When I first conceived of The Sojourn, it seemed impossible to write anything but an epic work that teemed with characters and spanned generations. But when I considered the lives of my grandparents and thought of how they both out of necessity learned as much how to surrender as to resist in order to survive, the work began to pare itself down quickly, until every tale and anecdote I had ever heard morphed into an amalgam of a single person, the young man named Jozef Vinich (“Vinich” is “the vine” in Slovak), who is American by birth, but by the accident of his mother’s death goes with his father back to the old country and is raised there, until he is called up to fight for the Austro-Hungarians in that empire’s final days.
The novel had on one level to be a war story. But on another level it also had to be a coming of age story, as so many of those men and women who managed to survive their lives in the old country, did so as children. And finally, because I believe in the efficacy of love on both the physical and the metaphysical level, this work I was creating had to be a love story. Because how else does one learn to resist and surrender, if not through the persistence of love? And so I took on the task of trying to make this story all of these, while I feared making it none.
Much of the shaping of the story’s language comes out of my immersion in the genre of the World War One memoir, especially those written by the English and German greats, like Sassoon, Blunden, Graves, Remarque, and Jünger. But I also found myself going back to books that sought to tell a story about the efficacy of love in the midst of that Great War. Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March , and David Jones’s beautiful poem “In Parenthesis” are perhaps the three most powerful influences on my own novel. I turned to each of these in order to hear not just the language of the War, but the voice of those writers and poets who used the first person point of view to speak, as it were, out of a kind of deep spiritual as well as physical loneliness.
Q: Can you tell me more about the family stories you turned to for inspiration?
A: The Sojourn is based loosely on the experience of my grandfather, who fought for the Austro-Hungarian army in the First World War, was captured in Italy, imprisoned, and walked home to Czechoslovakia after the Armistice. More broadly, however, the novel has its origins in the many stories passed down to me from my grandmother when I was a boy growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania. My grandmother and her husband, my mother’s father (dead before I was born), grew up in “the old country,” that part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which later became Czechoslovakia, and emigrated to America after the First World War. My grandmother and her brothers and sisters were all born in America because her father was working in Leadville and Pueblo, Colorado. But when her mother was killed by a train on a trestle in Pueblo, my great-grandfather took his four children (including his 3 month old son, my great uncle, who was thrown into the river below the trestle by his mother just moments before she was killed by the train) and moved back to a tiny village in that forgotten corner of the world. My grandmother came to America by herself when she was sixteen, with the help of her father, who wanted at least one of his children to make a life for herself outside of the poverty and starvation of that village.
Q: You’ve published a memoir, but this is your first novel—what drew you to the form?
A: Along the road of college, graduate writing program, a detour into the study of philosophy and theology, and finally back to literature for a PhD, two things of significance happened: I traveled, finally, to the place where all of the stories my grandmother had told me happened, learned the Slovak she spoke, stood on the ground she grew up on, saw the eyes of my own distant aunts and uncles and cousins, and in all of this the stories seemed to cross over from the “made things” (that is, the “poetry”) of her imagination to the possibility that they might become things made out of my own literary imagination. The second thing that happened was my sitting down to write A Long Retreat, the story I felt I had to tell about my own spiritual coming of age before I could create a story about someone else’s.
It was in writing the nonfiction account of moving into, through, and out of the religious life of a Catholic seminary in the Jesuit Order that I discovered this about writing: Everyone has a subject. The question is, what’s the story? I had been listening to stories my whole life, and now the time had come not just to see if I could speak the language of storytelling, but if I could do the work of telling a story. Did I, in the first-person narrative voice of the memoir, have a story to tell?
That question remains open for anyone who may want to read what became A Long Retreat. Excised, however, from the middle of that spiritual memoir are facts that I would eventually weave into the fiction of The Sojourn. In my work of nonfiction, I talked a great deal about the genealogy of faith that my grandparents had passed along, and my opportunity as a Jesuit to travel to and live in Eastern Europe, so that I could taste and see the reality of the lives that populated the mythological “old country” I had heard about as a youth. But when those chapters hit the nonfiction cutting room floor, I thought, “Okay, maybe not here, but they belong somewhere, and maybe my next project ought to find out where.”
Q: What does fiction make possible that memoir doesn’t?
A: Cormac McCarthy said about fiction and writing, “The ugly fact is that books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” Why McCarthy believes that this is an “ugly fact” I don’t know, but it points to the path in which I’ve come to writing, which is to say, along the path of books. And not just books as things picked up and put down but the power of story.
Like I said, I had grown up hearing stories about my grandmother’s life in “the old country,” and about my mother’s and father’s lives as the children of Slovak immigrants trying to realize the promise of America during the time of the Great Depression. Those stories always followed the arc of a beginning, middle and end, recreating a scene of a place and a time that I knew nothing of, and yet knew was real because people I could touch had come from there. As a student of literature, I began to understand that the power and the beauty of these home-grown stories partook of a more universal template of “Story,” and so the stories in which distant family members had a part lived easily in my imagination next to the likes of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Paradise Lost and War and Peace , because the differences seemed only differences of scale in language, not, though, in the simple desire to be a story.
Language fascinated me, I suppose, because the stories I heard had to come through the barrier of translation, emerging in the broken English of my grandmother’s tongue. I didn’t speak any Slovak at all as a child (my grandmother often turning to my mother in an attempt to find words for the tale she had set out to tell), so I knew that I was getting the bare bones of what remained in my grandmother’s imagination as a fully realized narrative in her own tongue. Attempting a finer sound, a better song, was what I believed I might get the chance to do.
In time, there emerged a great and complex warp and woof of what is real and what is not real, of what is given and what—in my desire to tell a new story and to speak a new voice—has been made out of the whole cloth of a private history and a poetic imagination.
Q: As you’ve mentioned, The Sojourn is a not only a war story and a coming of age tale, but also a love story—especially between a father and son and between brothers (or, in this case, two boys who were raised as brothers). As the father of three, was it difficult to write about their struggles?
A: No, not at all. In fact, quite the opposite. I found myself grateful for that training in those “particulars” of parenting so that I might be able to think of them, and write about them, somehow, as universals. I should mention, too, that I was the sixth of seven children, so I often (perhaps more often than I realized at the time of the writing) thought back to my own father’s life and his relationship with me and my brothers, the joys of that, the difficulties, the plain truth that a father loves his sons regardless. My father’s father died when my father was three. It was a mining accident in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and he was just another Slovak miner brought home in a pine box to his wife, my grandmother, who was three months pregnant with her fifth child. So, my father and his brothers had to figure it out for themselves. And where did they become men? On the battlefields of World War II. My father was an eighteen-year-old in the South Pacific. So, as I said, I thought a lot about him when I was writing, his own accomplishments and failures. I loved him.
Let me tell you an anecdote, though, on the subject of writing out of one’s experience as a father. I had been at the birth of my two sons prior to my writing The Sojourn. And so the birth scene in the third part of the novel was something that I didn’t want to shy away from. Well, one month after the novel was accepted by Bellevue Literary Press in May of 2010, our daughter was born . . . en route to the hospital, in the front seat of our car. My wife delivered and I assisted, with the help of 911. She’s a happy, healthy, amazing baby. But I will say that—after things calmed down a bit, and I got the manuscript back for edits—I went back and changed a few things, because there’s nothing like that stark reality of life from the first kick to keep you honest.
Q: On her bookconscious web site Deb Baker, a bookseller at Gibson’s Bookstore in New Hampshire and an early reader of The Sojourn, praised you for taking readers “through the dark night of the soul and back into the light of hope.” Was this your intention? What do you hope readers will take away from the novel?
A: The novel was written, as the dedication says, “For Irene,” my mother, without whom I wouldn’t have heard a word of those stories she heard from her own parents. But “Irene” in Greek is also the root of the word for “Peace.” So, one thing I will admit to is an intentional desire or hope for peace, which necessarily rises with conflict. And I am speaking to the present moment in which we find ourselves, and not simply to some past. But I also hope that readers will take away from the novel the presence, uniqueness, and importance, of what Deb Baker also calls the “small acts” that weave in and out of the narrative and—in some instances—ultimately affect life and death. These moments of giving over, surrendering, opening our arms and hands in order to embrace life—this is the kind of truth, for lack of a better word, I hope readers will glimpse in the book. To me it’s the essence of Beauty, and it’s at its most powerful when there seems no possibility whatsoever that it could possibly survive, let alone prevail.
Q: Do you think this time period—or any of these characters—will find their way into your future work?
A: Not the time period, but the characters—what few are left by the end of the novel—most definitely. But I don’t want to give anything away right now. Let’s just say that what I’m working on currently is much different in point of view, setting, and scope, although the subjects of love and loss, fathers and sons, and War and Peace , persist.