Artist of the Month interview with Andrew Krivak as told to Andrea Read
Congratulations on the recent release of Like the Appearance of Horses, the third and last book of the Dardan Trilogy. How did the story come to you, and did you conceive of it as a trilogy from the beginning?
AK: When I started the first book of the trilogy, The Sojourn, back in 2008, I did, in fact, conceive of it as, if not a trilogy, a sprawling epic. I had always wanted to turn the stories my grandmother told me about her own coming of age in “the old country,” and of my grandfather’s time fighting in WWI, into a novel. So that was the initial impetus. As I started to write, though, the singular story of the fictional Jozef Vinich took over, and The Sojourn honed itself down into a story told about the first World War from the perspective of an old man in 1972. By the end, though, I still had a great deal of text and ideas, both of which I knew I would want to use. So, it was pretty clear to me that, by the time my second novel, The Signal Flame, emerged, there would have to be a Dardan trilogy. And Like the Appearance of Horses pulls it all together, while still standing alone as a novel.
Where do your stories come from? Have you ever experienced a character who took the story you’d originally conceived in a different direction? Which of your own characters have affected or changed you most meaningfully?
AK: Everything began with the stories I heard from my grandmother as a boy growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I always loved literature and reading, I think largely because books became an escape for me from a place I found kind of stultifying as a boy. Not a lot of creativity there in rural Pennsylvania in the 70s, and not a lot of people who fostered it. My parents did, though, and I owe a lot to them for letting me study literature and philosophy in college. At a certain point I just decided that all of what I had been given would become the clay out of which I would create something uniquely made. As far as characters go, I’m always reconceiving characters and storylines, not for any reason, however, other than that they don’t work. A lot a novel writing is problem solving. If a character or a plot line doesn’t work, you have to kill your darlings, as the saying goes. There is a character, however, I stuck with right from the beginning: Zlee Pes, who appears in The Sojourn. He was a bet I had with my mom when we were in Prague and saw a sign on the door of a courtyard. “Pozor! Zly Pes!” Translated, it means “Warning, Bad Dog!” She bet me I couldn’t use that name for a character in my novel, and I won. Zlee became a kind of standard bearer for doing what is right, no matter what, and his spirit persists throughout all three novels. There’s lots of moral ambiguity in war. Those standard bearers cut through it, even if only for a moment.
Who are the writers who’ve been most influential in terms of your own work? Mentors… ?
AK: So many. I studied Classics, so I could go as far back as Homer and Dante, if only for the beauty and power of their journey narratives. In contemporary literature, though, I would have to put Cormac McCarthy up there at the top. His novels have taught me a great deal about what’s possible in writing, how language can be precise and beautiful, and how that moral ambiguity is a good and powerful thing in writing fiction.
You’ve published two chapbooks of poetry, Ghosts of the Monadnock Wolves and Islands. What prompted your shift from poetry to literary fiction?
AK: I just wanted to tell stories. Stretch out the narrative. Poetry taught me a lot — and still teaches me a lot — about language, but fiction gives me the space to tell stories, and to think of the sentence in the same way that I think about a line of poetry. You know, “stanza” means room in Italian. Or “station.” A place where you stop. And I realized one day that I didn’t want to stop. So, I opened the door to that room, walked out, and started writing prose.
What are you currently reading, seeing, watching, and listening to?
AK: Currently, I’m reading a few things. I just finished Septology, the brilliant novel sequence by the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse. I am now in the middle of Percival Everett’s intense novel The Trees. And I am also reading Shakespeare with my son, who is a junior in high school-- Hamlet, Othello, Julius Caesar, and Henry V, because we can.
What most nurtures your writing life? What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
AK: So, from the artistic to the quotidian, I am a stay-at-home dad in Somerville. I retired from teaching in order to write and be the on-point caregiver for my three kids. Essentially, my wife and I flipped the script. She works, I keep things ship-shape at home. That gives me life. Seriously. If someone said, “Choose between being with your children or writing,” I wouldn’t have published a single book. Otherwise, when I get the chance, I go for long bike rides, and I’m often in New Hampshire where I open-water swim in the summer and Nordic ski in the winter. Some of my best writing ideas have come to me while swimming or skiing.
What would make for a more robust, thriving literary scene in Somerville?
AK: I am going to say that the mayor, or someone, really should appoint a poet laureate, or representative of the arts, a 2-year stint, each appointee doing what he or she thinks needs to be done with and for the arts. Then pass it on to someone else. Somerville has an incredible amount of artists. It’s almost ridiculous how many great artists live in Somerville, and the city has no clue. I can throw a stone into the back yard of a Pulitzer Prize winning art critic right now, Sebastian Smee. I walk past the graphic artist Brad Johnson’s house every day. That’s only two, from a group I could not count on both hands. The city could do a lot, if they wanted to. But I think there has to be the desire to understand, the commitment to acknowledge, and the knowledge to commit to the arts first, over and above Honk, and Porchfest, both of which are great, but don’t get at the particular lives and presence of professional artists who live and love and work in Somerville. It’s all about awareness.
What brought you to Somerville? What are some of your favorite haunts?
AK: My wife and I moved to Somerville from London in 2008. We bought a house on Willow Ave because we could afford it. My haunts have changed over the past 15 years. I love the bar at Redbones, and it’s nice that it’s opened up again. Bronwyn’s in Union is a favorite for Eastern European food and a beer. And recently I’ve been venturing into East Somerville, to La Brasa.
What does your writing routine look like, day to day?
AK: I am up early. 5:00. I write what I can, new stuff or edits, until 6:30, at which time I have to get kids out the door to school. Then it’s back to the desk for more writing, research, or working on that one passage that just needs to be perfect before I can move on to the next. It’s almost like I cannot not write. I feel a lack if I don’t.
What are the most memorable books you read as a child? Did you think as a child that you would become a writer?
AK: I loved books as a kid. Where the Wild Things Are awakened me. Then the usual. The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, those kinds of books. I had older brothers and sisters, so by the time I was in middle school, I was into The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and then by high school it was On the Road, Catcher in the Rye, and books by the likes of Richard Brautigan and writers who were pushing the envelope. I think that secretly I always knew I would be a writer. That’s at least what I figured was going to make me happy. But one thing I would say to younger writers is this: Read as much as you can. If you’re going to be a writer, you’ll be a writer. But it’s not going to happen unless you’re a reader. Because you need to know what the language is capable of.
Artist website: www.andrewkrivak.com