WAG: In the Foreword to The End of War,
you write that your new novel
is constructed along the
lines of a Greek tragedy: the gods discuss the
affairs of man, then their Olympian intents are
played out at human level. In this novel, the
gods are Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and
Franklin Roosevelt. Lesser deities include General
Dwight Eisenhower and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
The book's corresponding mortals are three
fictional characters—one Russian soldier,
one German civilian, and one American photojournalist.
It's a great way to structure
a novel that must, by necessity, humanize war and
politics without shortchanging their complexities,
but I'm curious: where did you get the idea? And
how early in the planning stages did it come?
The paradigm of the Greek tragedy was
there at the beginning. It seemed to well replicate
the way historical events affect the common man;
a president or a premier decides there will be a
war, or he decides there will not, and millions
of lives necessarily follow. In every culture, including
the Greeks, this is the way we attribute the impact
of the will of our God(s) on ourselves.
Also, I've always been impressed
with how great events—the ones we call 'historical'—are
often, when you scrutinize their beginnings, the
offspring of innocuous, even petty, human moments.
In The End Of War, I describe how the Iron
Curtain fell across Germany after World War II simply
because Roosevelt wanted to curry favor with Stalin,
over the objections of Churchill. Add to that Eisenhower's
loathing of the British general Montgomery, and
Ike's favoritism for his West Point classmate Bradley,
and you begin to see why Berlin was ceded to the
Russians when it was very available to our forces.
The decision to halt at the Elbe was partially military,
but a closer look suggests that Ike and FDR did
not want Monty in Berlin. Stalin certainly did not.
So, the final result was that Berlin was captured
by the Soviets, and America had nothing with which
to bargain at war's end. Thus began in Eastern Europe
a half-century of oppression under the communists.
I elected to write The End
Of War because, on close examination, the cunning
and chicanery between the Allied leaders—Churchill,
Stalin and Roosevelt—rivaled anything I'd
ever read in fiction for twists and turns and manipulation.
The egos of the Big Three are absolutely Shakespearean.
To flesh the tale out, to enable the reader to view
the events from multiple perspectives, I invented
three corresponding fictional characters and placed
them into the maw of the 20th century's defining
conflict. Then I turned the story loose on itself.
As a literary device, history is wonderful for that.
One problem with writing a novel that contains
well-known historical figures is that you have to
make your fictional versions of them ring true for
the reader. How hard was it to get the voices for
Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt right?
There's really just one challenge to
portraying all characters in any novel. They must
be authentic. Readers of novels delegate that chore
to the writer, and it is the core trust. The responsibility
of creating a fictional character is no greater
than re-creating an actual person out of history.
The difference is the reader comes to an historic
character with preconceived ideas, often deep knowledge.
You do not disappoint that reader, or he will have
no patience or love for whatever else you do. You
cannot write a fine enough tale for someone who
knows a thing or two about FDR or Churchill if you
don't present the leaders' voices and actions in
ways that ring true. That means intense research
and travel, and insight. I get to know my historical
characters in a different way than the ones I create
out of my head or experience. They have loves and
honor and woe I do not give them. To be honest,
it's much tougher to walk in footprints than it
is to forge a new trail. But what a historic character
can offer the story is often magnificent, because
the reader already has a relationship with the person
even before the book begins. Done well, a writer
can exploit this link, making his real character
even more tragic and three-dimensional, because—in
the past—he or she actually was.
The greatest limitation is following
the time-line of a character's life. Often they
didn't spend their days in a way that, when laid
out in a novel, is the best for denouement or exposition.
I have to get pretty creative sometimes to keep
their stories cohesive, accurate, and, at the same
time, entertaining. But my discipline is to never
violate the life. I do not invent events. I don't
take them out of order. I try my hardest to make
the historical characters' presence and significance
in my books reflect what they were in reality.
Your crosscutting among the six principle
characters makes for fast, even cinematic reading,
and a film adaptation of The End of War seems
like an obvious project. Have you been approached
about the film rights yet? And do you write with
the possibilities of Hollywood adaptations at least
in the back of your mind?
My agent is always on the lookout for
film deals. As yet, it's still early in the book's
life and nothing concrete has been offered.
I do not write for Hollywood,
nor do I choose my topics to attract their attention.
I'm not anti-Hollywood; I'm a movie addict from
birth. But I am a novelist, and a movie is a separate
art form. A movie may (often at its best) be rooted
in a book, but a book stands separate, as an artistic
experience for the writer as well as the reader
/ viewer. I can only get in trouble if I write a
book for the movies. It works best the other way
Did you work from an outline for The End
of War or did you let the narrative develop
as you went along?
I never work from outlines. I know the
beginning and the ending of all my novels, and I
let the characters live the middle.
I have a working theory about
creative writing. Consider the difference between
recollection and recordation. When a writer drafts
his prose as though it is something he has remembered—which
is often what happens when he has plotted everything
out, reduced his story to a road map—the language
often lacks life and spontaneity. His words ring
cool, even distant, like a memory. But when a writer
lives the moments of a book in his head, and he
writes from a reportorial posture, recording what
happens as it happens, his descriptions can be much
more sensory, near and immediate. I find if I create
good, three-dimensional characters in my imagination,
if I know them and can hear and see them, yes, and
can trust them, then it's a thrill to cut them loose
and write down for the reader what they do. Hopefully,
that thrill makes it on the page.
In the process of researching your second
novel, War of the Rats, you traveled to Russia
and interviewed survivors of the Stalingrad siege.
Did you travel abroad to research The End of War
For both novels there was first a wealth
of reading. Preparing for War Of The Rats,
I read thirty-five books. For The End Of War,
I read seventy-eight. Each novel required that I
gain a working knowledge of both Russian and German
militaries (for The End Of War, throw in
the American forces), the histories of the battles,
appropriate weaponry, and the backgrounds and nature
of each historical and fictional character.
For War of the Rats, I
traveled to the Soviet Union, visiting Volgograd
(the re-named city of Stalingrad) where I spent
a week studying the battlefield. For another three
months I traveled and spoke with veterans of the
battle for Stalingrad, going to Moscow, Leningrad,
Siberia, and Kiev, the home of Vasily Zaitsev, whom
I was able to interview. For The End Of War,
my travels took me to Berlin, Brandenburg, and to
the sites of combat leading up to the siege of the
city, specifically the fortresses in Küstrin
and Posen, Poland, and the Seelow Heights east of
Berlin. I also spent time in the concentration camp
of Sachsenhausen, plus London and Washington, D.C.,
where I made good use of the Library of Congress.
The presence of Roosevelt, Stalin
and Churchill in The End Of War made that
book the more daunting of the two for research.
It was no small undertaking to animate three of
the most described and recognizable historical figures
in all of history. But the most interesting research
I did was my conversations with Vasily Zaitsev in
1990, two years before his death. Much of the detail
in War of the Rats comes from his lips, of
which I am very, very proud.
What attracts you to war as a setting for
historical novels? And is there something about
the Second World War that you find more appealing
than, say, the Crimean War or the Civil War?
My Stalingrad novel, War of the Rats,
caught my eye for several reasons. First, it's a
true story. Second, the battle of Stalingrad, although
history's bloodiest campaign, is mostly untrammeled
territory for novels in America. Third, there are
two intensely personal confrontations in the book:
Thorvald and Zaitsev as deadly and equally-matched
antagonists, and Zaitsev and Tania as lovers in
the heart of the carnage. For The End Of War,
I found many of the same ingredients. The final
days of Berlin have not been the basis for many
novels in America. And the conflicts of interest
between FDR, Churchill and Stalin were magnificent,
the outcome of which became a world-wide legacy.
The Civil War in particular has
no interest for me as a writer. It has been covered
exhaustively and continues to be annual fodder for
novels. I aspire to illuminate the dustier episodes
of history. At some point, I hope to write about
the siege of Jerusalem, maybe Jericho, or Carthage,
perhaps the nine hundred day assault on Leningrad
if I return to the 20th century for my backdrop.
It's exciting having the history of the world beckon
Do you ever worry about being pigeonholed
as a military fiction writer?
The novel I'm writing now, The Brink,
concerns the days of 1961 when the Berlin Wall went
up and the world teetered on the nuclear brink.
There's no military fighting in this one, but there's
lots of history (Kennedy and Khrushchev, what great
characters) and suspense.
After that, Bantam will publish
a novel of mine called Scorched Earth, about a church
burning in a small southern mill town. I've always
viewed myself as a Southern writer, and as such,
I am called to observe on the issues of class and
I will never stop being fascinated
by history and large conflicts as wonderful, revealing
crucibles for characters. But I don't worry about
being pigeonholed. I'm working hard to build a readership
who, I hope, will respect and trust me enough to
follow where I feel the urge to go. If I'm successful
in doing that, I will have achieved my own highest
goal as a writer—to write about what jazzes
me and moves me. I am my first reader.