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July 01 2011


A new way into an old story: Adam Hochschild on “To End All Wars”

Adam Hochschild, a longtime supporter of the Nieman Foundation’s narrative program, published a new book last month, “To End All Wars.” A former editor of Mother Jones magazine, Hochschild lives in San Francisco and teaches writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has also written several narrative books about history, ranging from the abolition of slavery in England to King Leopold II’s devastation of the Congo more than a century ago. We talked with Hochschild by phone about his latest book and some of the narrative strategies he used to tell the story. The following excerpts from our discussion have been lightly edited for clarity.

You have a history of writing about historical issues related to human rights and dissent. When did you decide to write about the pacifist movement in World War I?

I had always been interested by these people. The first time I began learning about them was when I was a teenager. Bertrand Russell was a big hero of mine, and I read a biography of him that described how he went to jail for his opposition to the war. Somehow that moved me and stuck with me and remained there in my memory as I learned a little more history and realized how terrible this war was, and how brave someone had to be to defy the patriotic hysteria in the air.

The more I learned about how the First World War really did shape the 20th century and remake our world for the worse in every conceivable way, the more I got fascinated by the people who refused to fight or who spoke out against the war – like Russell and E. D. Morel, the crusading journalist who was a hero of King Leopold’s Ghost, who were beyond draft age but who nonetheless spoke out very clearly and went to prison for doing so. Of course they existed in all of the warring countries. But for various reasons there were a lot more of them in England than anywhere else. So that’s where I decided to focus.

Could you discuss a little how you identified Charlotte Despard and John French as two of your main characters for this book?

I knew that there were two types of people I wanted to have in the book. One was the pacifists and war resisters, people who refused to fight, or people who spoke out against the war and of course almost all of them suffered in one way or another for it. I wanted to have them in the book, but I also wanted to have the generals, the cabinet ministers, the people who actually fought the war, and the propagandists who were part of the crusade, who helped shape public opinion and felt the war was noble and necessary and had to be fought. For the longest time I knew that these were the two character types that interested me, but I could not figure out how to get them into the same book.

I didn’t want to do a series of portraits, first one type, then the other, because that’s kind of boring. I think what makes people read history – or at least one thing that makes them read history – is if you can talk about a period of time or a movement or a phenomenon through a group of people who are connected to each other in one way or another.

Then one day I was reading about Charlotte Despard, ardent pacifist, a radical who joined every progressive cause of the day, a big backer of independence for Ireland and independence for India, went to jail four times in the battle for women’s suffrage, spoke out very loudly against the war, wrote a pamphlet that sold 100,000 copies. In this very dull scholarly article I was reading, the writer in one sentence, in passing, said something like, “Of course these activities were deeply upsetting to her brother.” And the writer mentioned his name, Sir John French, which of course I recognized – he was British commander in chief on the Western Front! I thought, “This is a relationship that I can really have some fun exploring.”

The moment I saw this, I thought, “Divided families – that’s the way to do this book.” I knew that I could find divided families because in Britain, because there were more than 20,000 men of military age who refused to go into the army. Many of them as a matter of principle also refused the alternative service that was offered to conscientious objectors, driving an ambulance at the front or working in a war industry. More than 6,000 went to prison. I knew those people had to have friends, brothers, family members who felt differently than they did. My job was to find divided families and to tell the book through them.

Your sympathy for the pacifists’ cause becomes apparent in the course of the book. Did you have to work to maintain sympathy for those who fought, in terms of keeping them human?

It’s funny. On a personal level, there are at least one or two of the warmongers whom I would much more enjoy spending time with than some of the pacifists. Among the pacifists, Charlotte Despard was totally indiscriminate in the causes she embraced, including, unfortunately, the Russian Revolution, which she was totally star-struck by. She thought that paradise had appeared in Soviet Russia. I’m not sure how interesting a person she would have been to hang out with.

On the other hand, her brother, the field marshal, seems to have had a great deal of charm, a real common touch, an ebullience and enthusiasm that would have made him a much more enjoyable dinner companion than his sister.

I think you do have to have a certain human sympathy with your characters even when their politics are not your own. In this story, the two young men whose deaths I talk most about are George Cecil – grandson of a former prime minister and the son of one of my major characters – and young John Kipling. Both sets of parents were totally in favor of the war but were absolutely devastated by their sons’ deaths. How can you not empathize with that? Poor Rudyard Kipling was so distraught that he got British fighter pilots to fly over the German lines and drop leaflets asking people to get in touch if they knew anything about where his son’s body might be found. A poignant, poignant story. You can’t help but sympathize with someone who’s bereft or grieving.

You have these large characters – Kipling, Bertrand Russell and Arthur Conan Doyle – who make appearances in your book, sometimes more than once. How do you balance the celebrity cameos to energize rather than upset the applecart of your narrative?

Generally, I tried in the book to focus on people whose lives were not familiar to most readers, especially most American readers. So that’s why in focusing on people like Despard, French, the Hobhouse family, and Alfred Milner, I hope I was bringing something fresh to American readers, even those who are familiar with the First World War. But I wanted to have a few well-known figures in there as well. Like Winston Churchill, for instance, who invariably pops up in the middle of any great historical event that happened during his lifetime, and who always has something marvelously quotable to say.

There have been a lot of good books written about the First World War. I think some of the best in recent years have been done in fiction. Pat Barker has done some extraordinary writing.

She’s amazing.

Yes, wonderful. But I stayed away from the people she talked about, because she’s written about them so beautifully that there’s nothing more to add. Those people are familiar to readers now. I’d rather introduce people to characters they don’t know about, like my wonderful lion tamer John S. Clarke, for example. You couldn’t invent somebody like this. He’d been the youngest lion tamer in Great Britain when he was a teenager, then went into radical politics, opposed the war, went underground, and published this clandestine newspaper. And then in his old age, whenever he got bored with politics, he went back into the ring and was the oldest lion tamer in Great Britain. I take great pleasure in introducing somebody like that to readers.

You have a war of several years, with activities on at least three continents. And so much of the war was this static thing in which people were continuously dying, but not much larger change was going on. How did you work to keep the narrative pacing so that those long static years on the battlefield didn’t slow the book down?

Even though it was indeed static, and the front line on the Western Front really didn’t really move in a big way in more than three years, when these great battles started, like the Battle of Loos, where John Kipling was killed, and the Battle of the Somme in 1916, everybody expected and hoped that this was going to be the big breakthrough. You can use that to build a certain tension and suspense. You can quote peoples’ letters, saying, “This is going to be the smashing blow that will win the war.” You can build the suspense and not reveal right away that it isn’t how things turned out.

But there were so many other things going on that I felt I could use to generate some suspense and narrative tension. For example, just in the weeks before the terrible Battle of the Somme began, there was the group of some 50 British conscientious objectors who were forcibly taken to France and threatened with death. Their friends and family and supporters in England had no idea whether they had already been shot, whether they would be shot, whether they would be saved.

Anytime in real life where there’s a period of days or weeks when people don’t know something desperately important like that, a writer can very easily use it to generate suspense in the narrative. There were so many things like that that I felt allowed me to build narrative tension. Similarly, when the Russian Revolution, or revolutions, the February Revolution and the October Revolution, happened, in each case it was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by the pacifists and war resisters, because they hoped it would finally be the thing that would end the war. So I show that enthusiasm without of course immediately revealing that it didn’t end the war, although the reader probably knows that to begin with.

Did you always approach writing nonfiction using narrative devices from fiction, or did you have a conversion on the road to Damascus?

I have always liked the idea of trying to write as interestingly as I could, in a way that would hold people’s attention. And I think that anybody who does that very quickly sees that he or she needs to steal techniques from the novelists, because they know how to do this better than anybody. Someone writing a news story for a newspaper or a piece of reportage for a magazine will always get some people to read what they write because even the most poorly written story, if it’s got information you want, you might read it. But novelists have a higher standard, I think, because they have to make readers care about people that they don’t know and aren’t interested in to start with. So there’s much more to be learned from studying them.

I can think of one episode on that road to Damascus. My third book, “The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin,” was about how people in Russia were dealing with the Stalinist period. It had become possible in the late 1980s to dig up the buried bodies, to read the forbidden books, to think about what had happened. The book contains a long series of interviews with people across the country and was structured as a journey to the far northeast corner of Siberia, where the worst of the Gulag concentration camps were. It was a reasonable structure for a book; a narrative based around a journey is certainly an ancient way of telling a story.

But you think another approach might have worked better?

Near the end of that journey, I suddenly realized that I should have done it differently. That realization came when I went to a place in Siberia where a river had overflowed its banks and disclosed a mass grave. The mass grave was under the site of a secret police prison from the 1930s. And the village was still full of people who knew men and women who had been arrested then, and now their bodies had been disclosed by this overflow of the river.

I interviewed two people from the village whose fathers had been shot in this prison and were in the mass grave and another woman whose father had been the secret police commander of the prison. These people knew each other. And I realized, “Wait a minute. I should have done this whole book based on this town.” In one small town, I could have told the entire story of Russia experiencing this horrible self-inflicted genocide in the 1930s and then dealing with it today, could have told it all through a network of people who knew each other in this particular place.

Unfortunately, this discovery came at the end of six months of research, and I knew I was not going to be able to persuade my tolerant and forgiving family to continue to live in Russia for another six months. And I didn’t want to throw away six months of research. So I told the story the way I had first designed it. But the idea of talking about a piece of history through an interconnected network of people in one place stuck with me, and that’s what I ended up doing in my three subsequent books.

For more on craft from Adam Hochschild, see our four-part series taken from a talk he gave at Vanderbilt University earlier this year.

March 25 2011


Meanwhile, back at the ranch (part 1)

[This four-part series on storytelling and historical narratives is based on a talk given at Vanderbilt University in February 2011.]

Half a century ago, the novelist and physicist C.P. Snow wrote about how these days we live in two cultures, where scientists and humanists seem to have lost the ability to talk to each other. I think today writers and intellectuals live in a different world of two cultures – one that has to do with whether you are writing for your fellow specialists or for a wider audience. There’s almost an assumption that writing is either academically rigorous and directed at fellow scholars or that it’s less careful and directed at a wider audience.

I encounter this assumption in all kinds of strange ways. A number of times I’ve received letters or emails from people who’ve liked a book of mine and have written me to say “how much I enjoyed your novel.” I always bristle, because even though I wish I were capable of being a novelist, I’m not, and I immediately want to write back and say, “Wait a minute! That book had 850 footnotes! Didn’t you see them? I wasn’t making anything up.”

People seem to assume that if they find something readable or lively, it’s likely to be a piece of fiction. Similarly, I think there is sometimes an assumption among scholars that your work will not be taken seriously if it sounds too accessible. I’ll give you a curious example. Years ago, there was the famous Masters and Johnson study of human sexuality. I remember that, in an interview at the time, Masters and Johnson said that they had deliberately written their first book, “Human Sexual Response,” in a cumbersome style so that it would be taken seriously by health professionals.

I’ve never actually read the book, but I looked it up the other day and just copied down a couple of sentences. And boy is it cumbersome! You wouldn’t think people could write about sexuality this way, but they do:

In brief the division of the human male’s or female’s cycle of sexual response into four specific phases admittedly is inadequate for evaluation of finite psychogenic aspects of elevated sexual tensions. However, the establishment of this purely arbitrary design provides anatomic structuring and assures inclusion and correct placement of specifics and physiologic response within the sequential continuum of human response to effective sexual stimulation.

If you know what that means, you’re doing better than I am.

They also wanted their findings to reach a larger audience, so they specifically arranged for somebody to write, with their cooperation, a popularization of these books. It’s ridiculous to me – why can’t you write the same book for both audiences?

Of course, we didn’t always have two cultures of writing this way. For example, someone who also had a good deal to say about human sexuality, Sigmund Freud, wrote in quite a beautiful way that was accessible to people far beyond specialists in the field.

Historians from an earlier time, like Francis Parkman or Henry Adams, expected their work to be read by the general public. When Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote his “History of England,” he said he would only be satisfied if it displaced the latest novel from women’s bedside tables.

How did these two different cultures of writing come into being? I think most of it has to do with the rise of universities and of specialized departments within them.  There is, of course, a vast amount of good that happened with all this: Knowledge was advanced; standards of scholarship and research were raised. But aspects of the way all this happened have exacerbated the divide between two cultures of discourse, two cultures of writing.

First of all, when you look at how universities operate, there’s always the question of what gets rewarded. What gets you tenure? What gets you a promotion? It begins, of course, with writing a proper dissertation, and then with scholarly publication in your field. And almost always, in every academic field, the proper object of study is considered to be something, or some aspect of something, that nobody has studied before. Now, that can be all very well, but, on the other hand, why not study something that others have studied or written about before, but write it better? Why not write it for an audience that didn’t know about this subject before?

Furthermore, the kind of writing that is usually most rewarded in the academic world is writing for peer-reviewed scholarly journals and university presses. Again, I think there is a good side to this. I know that when I write history and I’m relying for some material on secondary sources, I tend to trust something that’s in an academic journal more than I would an article that appears elsewhere, because I know it’s been through a careful filtering process.

And I also think that whether they’re in the academic world or not, all writers should, and all really good writers do, get some kind of peer review on their work. They show what they do to other people who really know the subject and get their critique. That’s all fine. But writing for scholarly journals and presses inherently creates a pressure for a kind of writing that is heavily studded with complimentary references to other scholars, because you never know which reviewer the Podunk University Press or the “Journal of Ephemeral Phenomena” is going to send your manuscript to. So you put in references to everybody else who’s had anything to do with the topic you’re writing about, so you’ve got your bases covered.

In the particular field in which I do most of my work – history – there’s another explanation that I came across recently for something that may have exacerbated the divide between writing cultures, advanced by University of Chicago historian Peter Novick. I don’t know enough to know whether this is true, but it’s an interesting thought. He says he believes the divide between the two types of writing in the field of history was exacerbated following the Second World War when the wealth of foundation grants newly available to historians meant that a university historian who wanted to earn extra money on the side could apply for a grant as opposed to trying to earn that money by lecturing to the general public.

I do take encouragement from the fact that there are many people who bridge that gap that gap between writing cultures, and who do so very successfully. They are bilingual, so to speak, producing work that is taken seriously by other scholars and that also is accessible to the general public. I can think of many such people, some from the academic world: the late Stephen Jay Gould, an important paleontologist who also wrote beautifully for a wider audience; historians like Simon Schama, Jill Lepore and Joseph Ellis; a literary critic like James Wood; and Jared Diamond, professor of both geography and physiology at UCLA, whose book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” became a longtime national bestseller.

Then there are people who came from outside the academic world but who are also respected within it: a particular heroine of mine, the late Barbara Tuchman; historians such as Hugh Thomas and Thomas Pakenham; and there are plenty of others one could name.

What does it take to bridge that gap? It doesn’t require a peerage, though both Pakenham and Thomas have one. It doesn’t even require being British, although they, Schama and Wood are British. I think it takes mainly the strong desire to do both things. That is, to be both accurate and careful and deep – if that’s not too pretentious – in what you write, and to reach a wider audience.

And to reach that audience, it’s very important to think long and hard about how to tell the story. Now Paul Kramer suggested that I talk to you about some of my own experiences in trying to do this, in using storytelling techniques in writing history, and I’m going to do so, but I want to stress in advance that none of this is in any way whatever original with me. Most of it goes back thousands of years, back to the ancient Greeks, where playwrights were using these same techniques – Aristotle wrote about them in his “Poetics.”

When I think about the principal storytelling techniques, I begin with what my high school English teacher told me to pay attention to when I read a novel: setting, characters and plot. These are absolutely vital building blocks of storytelling, and they are much too important to leave to the novelists. Any of us who are interested in writing history or nonfiction that reaches beyond specialist readers have to use them as well. The only difference is that we have to play by a different set of rules than novelists do. We’re not allowed to make anything up.

A former editor of Mother Jones magazine, Hochschild has written several historical narratives, including “Bury the Chains” and “King Leopold’s Ghost.” Check back next week to read part 2 of Hochschild’s talk, on the importance of setting and scenes in storytelling. Or watch the hour-long video in its entirety.

February 17 2011


Death, truth and memoir: the debate over Joyce Carol Oates’ “A Widow’s Story”

What is it that we really want from memoir? The kerfuffle this week over “A Widow’s Story,” a narrative from Joyce Carol Oates about the loss of her husband and their many years together brings this question front and center again.

Oates was married to Raymond J. Smith for nearly five decades; in addition to their separate careers, they worked together on the Ontario Review literary journal. Smith was sick for one week in the hospital before dying in the middle of the night while Oates tried in vain to get to him in time to say goodbye. (Those with a subscription can see an excerpt of her account in The New Yorker.)

Oates is known for her speed and productivity – she has a staggering 50 novels to her name, not to mention many other kinds of writing and more than 30 years of teaching at Princeton. Yet Oates’ speed in producing this memoir and her exclusion of material about getting engaged 11 months after her husband died did not play well with The New York Times’ Janet Maslin, who wrote in her review of the book that it “willfully taps into the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market” and shows “worrisome signs of haste.” A Salon.com piece written in response by Nikki Stern addressed both Maslin’s review and comments made in another Times op-ed.

Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” comes up frequently in these discussions, although there is a wide range of accounts of such loss. John Bayley wrote multiple works about his marriage with writer Iris Murdoch during her struggle with Alzheimer’s and after her death. And the New Yorker ran a short narrative about love and death just last month, in which novelist Francisco Goldman wrote about the loss of his young wife, the writer Aura Estrada, after a mishap at the beach.

Setting aside “A Widow’s Story” and any particular tale, what makes these stories compelling or forgettable? And why does memoir provoke such strong reactions?

The first hurdle for a memoirist is knowing which story to tell. We all feel compelled to share our stories, but what makes a story worth sharing beyond the circle of people who are already connected to it? And what parts of a life are relevant?

In an essay on this site, Adam Hochschild describes memoir as both more and less than the summing up of real life: “Many memoirs don’t work because the things that most of us tend to celebrate about ourselves are less interesting than those things that hold readers’ attention.” Of course, as soon as the writer begins shaping the story by walling off certain experiences, those decisions affect the narrative: Did the author leave something out that should have stayed in? This is in part Maslin’s critique of Oates’ account.

Memoir relies on more than one kind of truth, but memoir is nonfiction, so facts come first. (For more on this topic, see the Roy Peter Clark essay “The Line Between Fact and Fiction.”) While a certain anxiety about correctness and what can be proven has flattened the language of more than one autobiography, how much worse it is to give up on facts altogether.

James Frey has earned his spot as the perennial whipping boy on matters of accuracy, but it could just as easily be Misha Defonseca, with her story of surviving the Holocaust living among wolves. Or Margaret Seltzer’s invented account of a gangland coming of age.

A predictable fury arises over the clear-cut con, but there is more than one kind of honesty. People telling ostensibly true stories have long defended the idea of a deeper truth – one that somehow permits making stuff up. The CBS show “The Good Wife” mocked this notion of truth this week in a parody of Aaron Sorkin and “The Social Network,” suggesting that sometimes lip service is paid to truth by those who really want latitude with their story.

Still, as “Liar’s Club” and “Lit” author Mary Karr said last year, “the least of my problems as a memoirist, as a writer, is getting my facts right.” Even if the standard of factual accuracy is met – and no one seems to be suggesting that Joyce Carol Oates, for example, is making things up – what additional accountability to truth does the memoirist have?

Writing about atrocities, Vanderbilt University professor Kelly Oliver describes the value of testimony. She argues that bearing witness is not just the presentation of a series of facts, or even the revelation of true but unknown information. If accuracy were all that stories relied on, then it would be enough for anyone to present those facts, and we would not value testimony the way we do. In spite of the tendency for factual errors to be part of eyewitness accounts, such stories have a complex cultural value.

Extending Oliver’s ideas, I would say that powerful nonfiction writing comes from a kind of truth-in-story that maintains accuracy while simultaneously accomplishing even more. Oliver argues that bearing witness speaks to the very events that facts alone can’t illustrate, a kind of path into another’s experiences accompanied by the realization that those experiences cannot be fully comprehended.

While Oliver writes about epic horrors of history, her ideas also apply to the domestic tragedies of parental cruelty, the loss of a child or the death of a spouse. The best memoirs recount loss and change in a way that offers more than thrills based on peeking into someone else’s suffering. Instead, the most powerful stories say something unknown about the person’s life, touching on universal experiences while giving us a glimpse of the ultimately unknowable aspects of another’s existence.

Beyond not making stuff up, we want to know that a deeper honesty is in play – that despite the impossibility of complete understanding, the author is permitting us to be present for the serious examination of a life.

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