Interview with Adam Hochschild: The Imaginary Cemetery
Adam Hochschild is a writer of journalism and history. Born in New York City in 1942, he graduated from Harvard in 1963 with a B.A. in history and literature, having spent a summer working at Contact, an anti-Apartheid newspaper in South Africa. Later, he was involved in the anti-war and civil rights movement in Mississippi. After two years as a reporter on a daily newspaper, he went on to writing and editing magazines, including Mother Jones, of which he was one of several co-founders. In 1986, he published his first book, Half the Way Home: a Memoir of Father and Son which he followed with a series of journalistic meditations on history. In 1998 he published King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa which won the Mark Lynton History Prize. He followed it with Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves published in 2005, and, in 2011, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. His books’ broad appeal, despite not featuring staples such as George Washington or Robert E. Lee, have engendered interesting conversations on how historians can reach wider audiences with their writing.
His shadow lies heavily across The Appendix, so for our first interview, the our executive editor, Christopher Heaney, turned to him for a conversation on his work; why we write and read history; how we use sources when we do; and how that process changes us.
Christopher HeaneyWhen people ask what you do for a living, what do you tell them?
Adam HochschildI usually just tell them that I write books, and that I write about subjects that I’m interested in. In recent years these seem to have been mostly about the past, but it’s quite possible that at some point a subject will come along that’s happening in the here and now, and I’d be happy to write about that too. I don’t like to limit myself as either an historian or journalist. I’m just a writer who writes about what interests him.
CHDo you think that labeling yourself as an historian would bring a certain expectation to your work?
AHNo. Although my last three books and the one I’m working on now [are histories], the two prior to that were a combination of history and interviewing people as a journalist, and then another book and portions of yet another were first person memoirs that don’t quite fit into either history or journalism. Plus I published a children’s book. So that’s why I just prefer ‘writer.’
CHAcademic historians can sometimes be defensive about their titles. I think it has to do with labeling their work, which encompasses not just writing history, but also archival research and teaching. But perhaps there is also a feeling that writing, on its own, isn’t enough. Which begs the question, why then write about history?
AHI think what has drawn me to the subjects I’ve written about is that I find it interesting and challenging as a writer to look at times and places in the past where I can see people wrestling with profound political and moral dilemmas. You’re living in the age of slavery: do you regard this institution the way most people did and take it for granted, or do you become one of those who oppose it? And if you do become one of those who oppose it, what consequences does that have? Those are some of the things I talked about in Bury the Chains. In King Leopold’s Ghost I addressed colonialism in Africa, which in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century almost everybody in Europe assumed was part of the natural order of things.
Yet in the face of a particularly brutal colonialism in the Congo there were a number of people who very bravely fought to expose what was going on. In earlier books I looked at South Africa. There, I was drawn to write about people who had been active in the opposition to apartheid. For my book on the Soviet Union I was also fascinated by the few people—and it was very hard to find them—who had taken part in some kind of resistance or opposition to Stalin. These moments when people are engaged in political and moral struggles [are compelling] to me. I’m certainly not the first writer to be interested in good and evil—that’s been a subject since the ancient Greeks—but it still is one that draws me today.
CHIt’s a theme that’s run through your career, perhaps. You began in journalism, didn’t you?
AHI did. My first two years of employment were as a daily newspaper reporter, which I found exciting, enjoyable—good training in how to write quickly, but definitely not something that I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing, especially for the not-very-good newspaper at which I was working at that time.
Then I spent a total of probably eight to ten years as a magazine editor and writer. That was very good training for what I’m doing now. One of the things you have to do as an editor of a magazine is constantly make judgments about other peoples’ writing. You have to figure out which articles are worth publishing, why, and at what length. Plus, you’re figuring out how to edit articles and shape them in a way that will attract the reader who wasn’t interested in the subject to begin with.
CHThis was your time at Mother Jones?
AHYes. I first worked for a year or so in the late 1960s and then again for some months in the early 1970s at a magazine called Ramparts, which in many ways was a predecessor to Mother Jones. And then in the mid-1970s Richard Parker, the late Paul Jacobs and I started Mother Jones and I worked there as an editor for seven or eight years.
CHDid your work there shape the projects you chose when you started working on larger subjects in your books?
AHI think it did, because both these magazines were ones that were very concerned with issues of social justice: in the case of Ramparts, stopping the Vietnam war; in the case of Mother Jones, campaigning against US intervention in Central America, and a whole range of issues which are still very much with us, unfortunately.
I think I was also very shaped by being a child of the 1960s, by coming of age at the beginning of that very tumultuous decade. Any young man at that time in the United States was faced with a question: if your health was good and there was nothing to excuse you from the draft, were you going to allow yourself to be drafted into the army and possibly fight in Vietnam, or were you going to chose an alternative? Furthermore, these were the days when the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak and I very briefly spent some time as a civil rights worker in Mississippi. Later I was involved in the movement against the Vietnam War, so I felt very shaped by that too. Another experience that shaped me was that when I was in college I spent a summer in 1962 working for an anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa.
CHThat awakening and those changes seem very much the subject of your first book, Half the Way Home, your memoir on your relationship with your father and the politics it involved. Why was that your first book project? Did you think it was important to plant that very personal flag—to share that political journey with readers?
AHNo, it didn’t exactly happen like that; what had happened was that I had actually spent some years when I was in my twenties writing a novel, and I was absolutely devastated that I couldn’t get it published. I felt like there’d been a great crime against American literature committed by publishers. After awhile I thought about it and decided, ‘Well, they might have been right.’
Then I went back to my previous trade as a magazine editor and writer. When I burnt out on that I still had dreams of being a novelist but could not get started. I had in the back of my mind for many years the idea that at some point I would write a personal memoir, but my plan had been to first become well known as a novelist, and only then would somebody want to read a personal memoir about the guy who had written those novels. But because I was blocked on the novel I thought, ‘Well, I’ll write this personal memoir, and then I’ll put it away for some years.’ But when I was writing it I thought ‘No, I think I’ve got a story to tell here and I think I’m going to publish it now.’ Some years after that, it dawned on me that the unpublished novel I’d written years earlier had really been a sort of first draft of the memoir.
CHWriting about oneself and where we’ve come from can be pretty formative to writing style. I didn’t really find my voice, I don’t think, until the end of the book on Machu Picchu that I was writing somehow turned into my grief at losing a friend. Did Half the Way Home help you find your voice?
AHIt’s a strange business, the business of finding your voice. I didn’t find my voice until I was in my mid thirties, and then I followed a progression that’s sort of the opposite of what people usually do. The next two books were a mixture of history and reportage, and then the next three books were purely history—those last three, except for an introduction, feature no first-person [narrative] at all. So my writing has become less personal, I suppose.
CHDo you always try to find personal entries to your projects?
AHWell I always have to have some connection to the subject. It takes me anywhere between three to six years working pretty much full time to write a book. If you’re going to be working on something for seven or eight hours a day for however many years, you better have a connection with it, a fascination with it: it has to strike some personal chord in you. And I also feel that I’ll communicate better with my readers if at some point in the beginning I can tell them what that personal connection with my subject is, because it’s something that I always wonder when I pick up a book: ‘What drew the writer to write this book?’ Especially if it’s on an unusual topic that seems far away from home, and it took them years to do it. I always try to share that with the reader in my preface or introduction.
CHIt closes a lot of the distance between the reader and writer. For example, it’s very effective in Bury the Chains, where you talk about visiting places where the abolition movement gathered steam. It also demystifies history, to some degree. There are many people out there who left high school, or college, and became a little anxious at the idea of picking up a history book again.
AHYeah, I like your phrase ‘closing the distance’ between writer and reader, I think that’s really true and that’s what I’m trying to do. And I’m always attracted to writers who tell me what drew them to the subject. I think there are too many academic books where you sense that what drew the writer to the subject is the fact that nobody else had studied that particular angle of it; and, you know, good studies may result—but I still am more interested to read something where the writer is open about his or her personal connection to the subject.
CHBetween Half the Way Home and King Leopold’s Ghost you wrote your book on Stalin and Siberia, The Unquiet Ghost, which was a mixture of history and reportage on historical memory. Did you hope to do something similar with King Leopold? Or did you know it would be a straight-ahead history?
AHHere’s how that evolved. In the Stalin book, The Unquiet Ghost, I structured it as a journey across the country that ended up in a place called Kolyma, in the far northeast corner of the Soviet Union, right across the Bering Strait from Alaska, where the worst labor camps of the Stalin era were. The book is essentially a series of interviews with people I meet as I go across the country.
Well, two weeks before I left Russia, in that journey across the country, I went to a place called Kolpashevo, a little town in central Siberia, where a couple years earlier a river had overflowed its banks, and disclosed a mass grave from the 1930s, from the Stalin era. [It was a] very traumatic thing for the villagers in this place to suddenly see a mass grave opened up at their feet by the spring flood of the river. And furthermore because there’s permafrost—the ground is frozen after you get ten or twenty feet down—a lot of the bodies at the bottom of this grave were still frozen and people who were in the village could recognize the people who were taken forty years earlier. It had all been covered up at the time because it was still the Brezhnev era. But a couple years later Gorbachev came in and people were free to talk about this. I went there and in the space of a day or two I interviewed several people whose fathers had been buried in this mass grave, and a woman whose father had been the chief of this secret police station under which this mass grave was buried. He had signed the death warrants of these other people’s fathers, and she was absolutely devastated to see this disclosed.
It suddenly occurred to me that the way I really should have written that book—about Russians under Stalin—was just to spend that six months in Russia in this one town, and then I could have told the whole story of Stalin’s reign of terror in Siberia through a connected network of people who all knew each other, and whose children knew each other.
It was too late for me to re-conceive my book because I’d been interviewing people [for] five months with a different plan in mind, and my very tolerant family had come with me to Russia and we had to go home to the United States two weeks later. But I vowed in the back of my mind that in the next book I did, I was going to try to tell the whole story through a closely connected network of characters, such as I had found in this town.
That’s the method I’ve used in the three books since then—to try and find an issue or time or era that I want to bring alive, and tell that story through a network of characters who are, in one way or another, each connected to one or more of the others. That shaped how I told the Leopold story. It was easy: you have a world class villain in King Leopold, and then some extraordinarily heroic figures, some of them flawed, the way many heroes are, who did their best to expose what he was doing. And each of the eight or ten principal figures in the book crossed paths with at least one or two of the others at one point or another.
It’s not an unusual mode of storytelling. When you stop and think about it, every novel is written this way, every film is written this way. No novel, no film, is just a disconnected series of character portraits.
CHIt’s something we see frequently in art, but less often in history. I’m not embarrassed to say that as I read To End all Wars, your book on the First World War, I was reminded of the structures of Tolstoy’s novels, whose interlocking families cross pass with each other. They offer solace to each other at times, but they also break apart. And it’s wonderful to have history do that, because I think people have gotten so used to that effect in fiction that there’s doubt that real life is that interesting.
AHLife is just as interesting as anything that a novelist could invent. I mean you look at the characters who were there in King Leopold’s Ghost. What amazes me is that there haven’t been a thousand books written about this group of people. But if I had invented people like that for a novel, people wouldn’t believe them. If I had written a novel about WW1 where the sister of the commanding general was an ardent, flamboyant pacifist, people would say ‘Oh this is ridiculous—couldn’t have happened—it’s not believable!’ Somebody once said that the nice thing about non-fiction is that it doesn’t have to be plausible—it just has to be true. And you can find these people if you look hard enough.
CHHow did you do the looking for King Leopold’s Ghost? Was that the first time you’d done heavy archival research?
AHWell, yes, although I have to say that for King Leopold’s Ghost I spent lots of time in libraries, but not much in archives proper, for this reason: when King Leopold was forced to relinquish the Congo state he personally owned to Belgium, he ordered the archives burned. Whole records of that state literally went up in smoke. Luckily for me was there was a very fine Belgian historian who I talk about in the last chapter of the book, Jules Marchal, who had spent twenty years hunting carbon copies of some of the records that burned, and had written an extraordinary and little read four volume work on Leopold’s Congo, which came out just in time for me. For my following books, however, I spent quite a bit more time working in archives.
CHAs personal as you make your histories, it’s clear that you care that readers know where your information comes from. You use footnotes, which is the norm for academic history, but something you don’t often see in histories written for general audiences. When did you make the decision to use footnotes? Did you know when you set out on King Leopold’s Ghost that you wanted them to be part of the structure itself?
AHGood question—you know, The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin was written without footnotes. But when it was translated into German, the German publisher started putting in footnotes, and I realized, well, if a publisher wants a book to be taken seriously in the academic world, it perhaps should have footnotes. With King Leopold’s Ghost I knew without doubt that I wanted that to be very carefully footnoted because there are still many people in the world, particularly in Belgium, who are in a state of denial that anything horrible happened in the colonial period in their beloved Congo. And then I kept on doing that because I think it’s a good practice.
CHIt suggests that one of the book’s goals was to be useful to further conversations—in that case Belgium’s discussion of its historical complicity in colonialism. That’s something that academic history does well. But did you get any resistance to the footnotes from readers? In general, what was it like getting King Leopold’s Ghost published?
AHPeople didn’t object to the footnotes or seem to have strong feelings about them. One guy who teaches at Berkeley told me that when he assigned King Leopold Ghost to his students he told them to first read the source notes to just get an idea for how thoroughly you have to look around to get the information for a book like this. That pleased me enormously.
But it was interestingly difficult to get the book published. When you write a book for a trade publisher—not an academic press but a trade publisher that’s trying to get the book to a wider audience—you do a book proposal that lays out what you plan to tell, how you plan to tell the story and so forth. And I, or rather my agent, distributed that book proposal to ten New York publishers. Three were people I knew personally. I had at that point published three books, two of which had been New York Times notable books of the year, and had won one or two minor awards. Of the ten New York publishers who got the proposal for King Leopold’s Ghost, nine of them turned it down! ‘Well, why don’t you try this as a magazine article first and we’ll see if there’s any interest in it,’ one of them wrote. ‘There isn’t even a African history shelf on most bookstores.’ ‘Nobody’s gonna be interested in this.’ But there was one publisher smart enough to see that this wasn’t a story for people who necessarily had an interest in Central African history, but a story about human rights activists, about good and evil, and about exposing a horrendous instance of mass murder. And he was right, and the book has sold extremely well.
CHWhat was the most unexpected part of watching King Leopold’s Ghost go out into the world?
AHGod, there were so many things that were unexpected and fascinating to me. The most interesting thing has been the reactions in Belgium and in the Congo. In Belgium the book was published in both languages of the country, French and Dutch, and it actually became the number one bestseller in both—the first and last time any book of mine will be the number one bestseller anywhere.
When I went there on my book tour to publicize it, the reviews were very friendly, because newspapers tended to give it to their Africa correspondent to review, and any correspondent who’s worked in Africa and who has read the history knows something about what happened in the Congo one hundred years ago. It’s like how you can’t study European history without learning about the Holocaust.
But there was a tremendous reaction from conservative Belgians. There were some seventy thousand Belgians living in the Congo in 1960 when it became independent, and most of them had to come home in a hurry, losing homes and businesses. They formed well-organized fraternal societies afterwards, as former employees of one company or another, former army officers or former police officers. There was a federation of these fraternal societies of old colonials and they issued a long strident denunciation of [King Leopold’s Ghost]. They published it on the Internet, which only brought the book more attention. A conservative magazine wrote that ‘Poor King Leopold would be turning over in his grave if he knew about this book by this dreadful American,’ and so forth.
So all of that was much fun to see.
At the same time I had many friendly contacts with Belgians, many of them younger people who really care about getting this history exposed. And I’ve had a lot of contact with Congolese. A year or two after the book came out I came home one day and there was a message on my machine from a guy with an accent saying “I need to talk to you, my grandfather was worked to death as a porter by the Belgians.” I got to know him and various other Congolese, and when I went there three years ago I was able to bring along a box of copies of the book in French and give them to various schools and libraries there. Some people had already read it and were eager to talk about it. So that’s been fascinating to me. I’ve learned a lot more about Congo’s history through those contacts.
CHDid King Leopold’s Ghost make it easier to publish histories about human rights?
AHWhen a book sells lots of copies, publishers are very receptive: they want you to do exactly the same thing again. But I think King Leopold’s Ghost also showed that if you really take care in how you tell a story and think long and hard about the best way to convey this story to people who don’t necessarily have an interest in the subject to begin with—and you pick something that really matters, where there are great issues at stake—then people will read it.
CHI think it’s also because you focus on the heroism of individuals or groups, but in situations a little different from the norm: instead of fighting wars, they’re trying to change systems that others take for granted, like slavery, war, and economic and colonial exploitation.
AHWell I think a lot of people write books of this sort, but they usually pick more conventional or fashionable heroes. Think of all the books that have been written about the founding fathers, about the generals and foot soldiers who won World War II. These are books about people that the writers conceive of as heroes. But it’s just a more conventional picture of heroes than I would like to do. And I’m not convinced that all the founding fathers were that heroic, either.
CHBut there’s a great appetite for them.
CHIs that a little discouraging sometimes?
AHWell, I think in all phases of life, people’s tastes follow certain conventional patterns. I wish that history reading were an exception. But it’s not. And if you look at the number of history books sold in the United States I bet you that half or two-thirds of them are either about the founding fathers, the American Civil War or World War II. And I just feel pleased to have gotten people to pay attention to some other subjects as well.
CHHow do you feel about the label ‘popular history’?
AHI prefer ‘narrative history.’ ‘Popular history’ carries the implication that if you popularize something you are dumbing it down. I believe strongly that if you write something in a way that reaches a wide audience but is at the same time thoroughly documented, that there need be no difference between history that can be read and enjoyed by the general reader and history that can be taught in college courses. One of the things that pleases me about King Leopold’s Ghost is that the book is regularly assigned in high schools, college courses, and in graduate schools. That’s what I aspire to and why I prefer the phrase ‘narrative history.’
CHBut do you see a gulf between narrative history and academic history?
AHI don’t see the gulf as always being there, because there are certainly some people—and I’m thinking, for example, of people like Jill Lepore at Harvard, and Simon Schama at Columbia—who write beautifully and reach a wide audience, but who are also very much in the academic world and have tenured positions at top-ranked universities. And there are some historians who are very successful at reaching a wide audience who are outside the academic world, like David McCullough. A lot of people in Britain both inside and outside the academic world write for a wide audience.
I had a very sweet thing happen when I wrote Bury the Chains. When I finished the manuscript I asked six historians, all of whom had spent most of their lives working on issues dealing with slavery and in particular slavery in the British Empire, if they would read it and give me their frank comments. Almost all of them said yes, and all but one of these people were in the academic world. What really touched me was that their comments not only were about errors of fact that I had made, but also included suggestions of a literary or narrative nature, such as, ‘You make a lot of this character in later chapters. Don’t you think you should introduce him earlier?’ These were not people who themselves write that way, but they saw what I was trying to do and wanted to help me do it.
CHLet’s talk about craft and good writing. How have your own reading habits influenced you?
AHWhen I’m working on a book, most of my reading is about the period and people that I’m writing about. But for pleasure, when I’m not taking notes and I’m reading in the bathtub, or late at night, and so on, I read more fiction than anything else. It’s not only pleasurable but useful. When someone writes a non-fiction book, he or she can always count on at least some readers that want to know something about that particular subject. But when a novelist writes a story, he or she has to write in a way that holds the attention of readers that have no interest in the characters to begin with because they don’t know them. A writer has to make readers interested by the quality of the writing: pacing, construction, evocative detail, characterization, and more. I always tell my writing students: read fiction. That is really where you’re going to learn how to do it.
CHYou’ve also suggested elsewhere that fiction and drama offer us the tools of plot, scene, and character. That’s different from academic history, which is built around argument and proving a point. With novels and drama there might be a larger point lurking back there, but it’s subsumed in the way they’re written.
AHRight, I don’t think that the books I write are driven by any particular argument. I’m rather just trying to tell a story that has some echo of moral and political significance to it, and to keep the reader’s attention as tightly focused as possible.
CHOne of the ways you do that is by bringing many characters into the mix. What’s that research process like?
AHWhen I begin a book, I feel that I need to have my cast of characters pretty well established. That means finding people whose lives somehow wind through the subject I want to talk about. It also means finding people who have left some sort of record behind them: letters, diaries, other documents, things they’ve written, things that have been written about them by people they’ve met. That gives you the data on which to base your book. This is limiting of course, because rich people always leave many more records than poor people, masters more than slaves, men more than women, colonizers more than the colonized. That was a real disadvantage in writing King Leopold’s Ghost. There isn’t a single full autobiography or oral history of one Congolese from during the Leopold period.
CHWhat was one of the more interesting moments of researching King Leopold’s Ghost?
AHWell, I knew from the beginning that Joseph Conrad would have to be part of the story because he spent six months in the Congo as a steamboat captain and it changed his whole way of viewing the world. It darkened his view of human nature and, of course, he wrote Heart of Darkness. Yet Heart of Darkness had previously always been looked at by people as a figment of Conrad’s imagination: ‘Yes, he was in the Congo, but in creating the character of Mr. Kurtz, he was exercising his imagination.’ Particularly in the famous scene where Marlowe on the steamboat is approaching Mr. Kurtz’s outpost in the jungle, looks through his binoculars, and sees severed heads on fence-posts outside Mr. Kurtz’s house.
Well, after I had been doing my research for a year or two, I started coming across example after example of white men, in the Congo, in that period, who boasted about collecting severed African heads. One of these possible models for Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz was a Belgian officer in the Congo named Leon Rom. I learned that Rom, like Kurtz, had written a report on “savage customs.” I don’t think Conrad knew about the book because it was published in Belgium the same year that he wrote Heart of Darkness, but it was an extraordinary coincidence. I learned from a museum that Rom, like Kurtz, was a painter, and I also knew from his journal that he and Conrad were at the same place at the same time. August 1, 1890. Did they meet and talk to each other? Did Conrad know he painted pictures? I have no idea. But it would be unlikely if two white men, in the same place and the same time, didn’t have some contact with each other at a time when there only about four or five hundred white men in this entire vast territory. Heart of Darkness is much closer to reality than most people realize it is.
CHThat story shows two of the other struts of narrative history: reasonable leaps of imagination and the understanding that history happens in a place, and it happens to people. Not disembodied ideas or generalized actors but people who literally pass each other on ships in the night, or sit in a room together. You always take great care to describe settings and people physically when you can, don’t you?
AHThat’s right, and if I’m describing a scene or an event I try to do it through people taking part in it.
CHHow do you choose the scenes to write about?
AHOften it depends what you have available data about. In King Leopold’s Ghost, two of the most important people are Edmund Dene Morel, and Roger Casement—a muckraking British journalist and an Irish patriot who was in the British consular service. We know something about the first time that they met each other because each of them wrote a description of it. So that immediately becomes a scene. Sometimes, if it’s a public event, there were newspaper reporters there—maybe many newspaper reporters. To stick with King Leopold’s Ghost, for a second, Henry Morton Stanley’s wedding was covered as thoroughly as the wedding of Charles and Diana. Every newspaper in the world had a correspondent there, so we have a very precise description of what everything looked like.
There are other occasions where you wish people had been there who had left an account. But you can only go with what you have. You can’t make up details.
CHSometimes you have to triangulate them too. For example, with Bury the Chains, you do that to give a fuller description of a meeting of abolitionists.
AHThat’s right. There, the only description of the meeting we have is a diary entry reading, ‘I got on my horse and I went to London for the meeting of the Anti-Slavery Committee.’ And then we have one page of minutes for the meeting, from which a lot of things can be deduced. We also have pictures of the little courtyard it took place. And we know it was in a Quaker bookstore printing shop. There are no images or descriptions of that particular printing shop but there’s an awful lot about printing shops of that era in general. So I was able to use some of that to build this scene while acknowledging that we don’t have a more precise description of what this particular place looked like.
CHWhy is it important to write and to read history now?
AHIt’s always important to try to understand what people in earlier times did or didn’t do. It helps us understand the world we live in better. And I think if we study enough history, we can avoid some of the follies of people who lived in earlier times. When I look at the tremendously ineffective and costly wars the United States has fought in the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, I wish those people had studied World War I a little more carefully and realized that when you launch a war it invariably doesn’t come out the way that you expect. It has all kinds of unanticipated consequences. Victory is never as quick and easy as predicted.
CHDo you think there’s a wide audience for history right now?
AHYes, I think there’s always been. It’s reflected in all kinds of ways. On cable television there’s a History Channel—there isn’t an anthropology channel, or a biostatistics channel. But there’s a History Channel. A lot of the stuff on it is not very good, but I do think there’s an audience for it. I hear from people all the time, in letters and emails, who’ve read my books, who want to know more, and want recommendations of more to read on the subject. Sometimes they tell me facts that I didn’t know.
CHDo you know what your next project will be?
AHI do. I’m about a year of work into a book about Americans who were involved in the Spanish Civil War, some as soldiers, some as journalists.
CHOne last question. There’s a wonderful phrase you use as the title to your last chapter in To End All Wars, in which you wind up the story by creating a literary memorial not only to the soldiers of World War I, but the many who tried to stop the war. You call it “The Imaginary Cemetery.”
I found that immensely moving, and maybe even a larger metaphor for one of the things history can be: an imaginary cemetery. I also think it’s something that readers of history don’t always realize: how emotionally draining and exciting it can be to research and write history; how attached we get to particular individuals; how sad we can get when we get to the end of a particular archive, or a document, and we know it’s because somebody has died, or a career is over, or they have been lost forever. (Or how happy that moment might also be—archives are often creations of the powerful, and when a person disappears, that might mean they’ve escaped a plantation or a gulag.) We write and read history to remember them. It’s like how we used to share and listen to stories around the fire—to remember the dead—but in a way that extends the boundaries of our ‘tribe’.
What’s been the most powerful experience, in a personal way, that you’ve had in your while researching and writing about history?
AHWell, if I had to point to a particular moment, it would be this. I was working on my book about the Russians under Stalinism and I found a woman who had taken part as a teenager in an anti-Stalinist group in the Soviet Union in the early 1950s. This was extremely rare. There was almost no public opposition of any kind during Stalin’s reign because he was so ruthless and shot so many people and imprisoned millions. But there were a couple of groups of teenagers in different parts of the country who put out crude homemade leaflets, this kind of thing. This woman had been a member of one of these groups. And I went to interview her, in her apartment, and she described what had happened. She described how they had gotten hold of a mimeograph machine somewhere, and half a dozen of them had put out, I think, two leaflets. And they’d been caught and arrested very quickly. And several of them had been shot. She was one of the survivors, but she was sent away to prison. It would have been a very long term, except that after Stalin’s death the government released some dissidents like her. So after about five years she got out.
An extraordinary, brave, forceful, impressive woman with sort of an aura about her. And I talked to her for about two hours in her apartment in Moscow. At the time she was about sixty years old and, as we’re talking, there were a few photographs around the apartment and there was one that was a photograph of a girl of about fifteen that was on the table next to us. I assumed it was a relative. Near the end of our conversation I asked her: ‘Who’s that a picture of?’
She said, ‘That’s me, around the time that what I’m telling you about happened.’
And I just had this amazing experience of feeling that past and present had been brought together. And that I was in the presence of somebody who had done something extraordinarily brave forty years earlier, as a teenager, and that I was talking both to her today, and to that teenager, in the same room. It was a beautiful moment.
CHIt’s wonderful when you’re able to talk to the participants of such hard histories, and get a sense of their emotion and their bravery. Their stories not only push other people on to do similarly brave acts, but also can be testaments to the people whom we can’t talk to, that are just standing outside the edges of what we can know.
AHThat’s right. And there are a lot of them.