Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Andrew Krivak

In books, fiction, writing on June 11, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Andrew Krivak

Andrew Krivak. Photo by Marzena Pogorzaly.

An introduction to Andrew Krivak, author of the novel The Sojourn (Bellevue Literary Press, 2011). Krivak is also the author of A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, a memoir about his eight years in the Jesuit Order, and he is the editor of The Letters of William Carlos Williams to Edgar Irving Williams, 1902-1912. He holds an MFA from the Writing Program at Columbia, and he has a PhD in Literature from Rutgers. The Sojourn was inspired by Krivak’s own family history, particularly the experiences of his grandparents and their contemporaries.

Quick Facts on Andrew Krivak

  • Andrew Krivak’s website
  • Home: Davis Square, Somerville, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston.
  • Top reads: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, John McGahern’s collection of short stories—Creatures of the Earth, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. And The Selected Levis, the poems of Larry Levis; I’m not sure that I could live without this book.
  • Current reads: Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, and the poet Robert Cording’s new book, Walking With Ruskin

What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment, I’m teaching myself Italian, because it’s something I want to do before I die: carry on a conversation in Italian. On the writing front, I’m working on my next novel, which will be something of a sequel to The Sojourn, but not so explicitly. I’m otherwise not talking. Just writing. I’ll be able to give my summer and fall over to it almost explicitly, and so I’m looking forward to that labor of building something that has a form in my head, but which I know will emerge as some other kind of thing entirely.

Where did you get the idea for The Sojourn?

I’ve wanted to write for some time about the subject of my grandfather, and what it must have been like for him and my grandmother to grow up in what they used to call “the old country.” After I finished my memoir A Long Retreat, I talked to my agent about doing another work of nonfiction based on this idea of Americans who went back to Europe at the turn of the century. I was living in London at the time, so I was uniquely positioned to do a lot of the research. Well, she balked and said, “It sounds to me like you want to write a novel,” which was true, but I needed her to say it.

So, I began to create this single character, who is really an amalgam of several of my Slovak relatives about whom I had heard many stories over the course of many years. I then had to deal with the question of scope—you know, sprawling epic, or some other thing. I wanted it to be spare, and I wanted it to have a well-defined arc. So I set out to model it on Heart of Darkness, even writing the first paragraph as an exact structural replica of that novel. Gradually, though, the book’s own shape came into being, and I knew that the arc I had been searching for was precisely this idea of one man’s sojourn, or period of rest between journeys, as a coming of age in a land he could and could not claim as his own. A great deal of fact is woven throughout the fiction, or at least “fact” as it was told to me and my brothers and sisters. But who knows, really. That’s the beauty of reclaiming these stories and taking them to the next level, from the spoken to the written.

What do you hope readers will take away from The Sojourn?

I tried to capture in this novel what I could only imagine from those days of listening to my grandmother tell of a world, in her broken English, that was an unforgiving and often brutal way of life. A life she, quite frankly, spoke of at times as though she was spitting out a kind of poison. But at the same time, there was a sense of faith and survival that drove her, and others like her—my grandfather, for instance, who died before I was born—that approached, in my mind at least, a raw beauty. You know, when you see something extraordinarily beautiful in the midst of what seems like wasteland how powerfully it stands out? So, some readers will no doubt be put off by the relentless portrayal of brutality in the book, but I hope that they will also see that that’s how many people lived, still live in some places, and yet survive and find something beautiful in even the smallest acts of simple compassion. An early reader of the book, Deb Baker, wrote that she was most moved by the small acts that effect great, almost salvific, change in the novel, and that would be what I hope any reader might see in the landscape and characters before him or her.

And along those lines, I’ll give away a little play at the outset of the book. I dedicate it “For Irene.” That’s my mother, and she is the reason why and how so much of this history was preserved, because she spoke Slovak her entire life and could translate the nuance and details of these stories. She also never let her mother forget the old country, regardless of how difficult those memories were. But “Irene” also means “peace,” and I was very much aware of our contemporary context of war while I was writing, and hoping to write a book that would somehow be a gesture to the gift of peace.  

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

“I don’t write for a reader

so much as I write for a listener.”

Wow. Does such a man or woman even exist? I’ll tell you that I don’t write for a reader so much as I write for a listener, someone who will enjoy the music I’ve tried to compose. And there’s no way really of knowing who will love the music, or even stay till the end of the concert.

My memoir, A Long Retreat, was one of those books that few people said anything bad about, but few also said anything about it at all. And yet, I’ll still get a letter from the publisher every now and then, or a message on Facebook that’s from someone who found the book, or was given the book, and it struck a chord, or changed a life. I mean letters from people I would never have dreamed of reading that book thanking me for having written it, like the ex-Mormon from Utah who is now a practicing Buddhist, and who stumbled upon my book in the Salt Lake City public library, took it home, and now won’t part with it. Or the Southern Baptist who found in it a way to think again about the need to forgive someone in his life. You don’t get better readers than that. And yet, who could imagine when he sits down to write, that they are even out there? 

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I’m a morning writer. When I’m in the groove, I like to work from 5am to about 7am. Then, when the kids are off to school, and I get some breakfast, I’m good for another four hours from 9am to 1pm. If I can go that long, I’m done for the day. “Where?” is currently the office I’ve set up in the house we just moved into a few years ago. No cafes or libraries for me. I need stability, and a good cup of tea.

Where would you most want to live and write?

I love this question because it’s taken me so long to come to this answer: I don’t want to be anywhere but where I am right now. 183 Willow Avenue, in a room that gets great light, at a big oak desk with pictures of my wife and kids on it, and the Oxford English Dictionary in two volumes, and flanked by shelves holding almost 30 years worth of books.

Do you listen to anything while you write?

Footfalls on the stairs.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

It’s not a philosophy so much as a driving need. I really wanted to be a musician, but I was never gifted enough to play any instrument as well as I would have needed to have played in order to survive. So, I write because it’s the closest I’ll ever come to making music.

“I write because it’s the closest

I’ll ever come to making music.”

How do you balance content with form?

These two—when I am conscious of them separately—seem to require separate care. I have learned to make sure that I know, if not exactly where the story is going, at least what the story is. There are days when I work on content in order to get that story down on the page. Then, once the clay is on the table, so to speak, I can think about the ways in which form may drive that story in a particular way, or I’ll take a passage and craft it so that the language sounds exactly the way I want it to sound. Ultimately, though, you hope the balance becomes an organic one by the end, so that form and content seem inseparable from each other.

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

Yes. Walker Percy to Shelby Foote: “One waits. Not for the Muse, fuck her, but until one finds a new language, because that’s about what it takes, the language is about dead.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

“Listen to language as much as possible.”

To follow up on Percy, I would say that you have to listen to language as much as possible. Not passively, but actively listen. When you’re not writing, read as much as you possibly can. And read stuff that you think is blow-your-hair-back fantastic, so that it makes you want to say, “Goddamn, I wish I could write like that!” I really believe that it’s a craft at the end of the day. In the old days craftsmen labored at their craft as much to make a beautiful thing as to make a thing in order that they might make a living and survive.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Everyone has a subject. The question is: What’s the story? Subject sits. Story gets up and walks.

What book do you wish you owned a first edition of?

Robert Frost’s North of Boston. In my estimation, one of the greatest collections of American poetry ever. Ever.

Is there a question you find surprising that people ask you about your work?

I used to be surprised (less so now) at how often people asked: “How long did it take you to write this book?” And usually it would come from students when I read at schools, but often enough from everyday folks. At first I was put off by it because it seemed there was this interest in process, not as craft, as I’ve said, but rather as product, finished and ready for the market place in X amount of time. But I see it differently now, because anyone who has sat down and tried to write knows that in dollars per hour, it doesn’t add up. The less cynical side of me knows that it’s a person’s desire to see behind the curtain of the process, knowing that it does take time, and often an obscenely inordinate amount of time, at least if it’s going to be any good. So, I welcome this question now because I suspect that behind it there is a writer who wants to know if he or she should keep at it. And my answer always concludes with, “So keep at it.” That said, did you know that Stendhal wrote The Charterhouse of Parma in 52 days? Some guys just have a way with words.

Is there a question that you wish people would ask you more often about your work?

“I’m always thinking about the ways in which

philosophy and theology intersect with literature.”

When I write, I’m always thinking about the ways in which philosophy and theology intersect with literature. It’s just the way I was taught. I don’t mean in any didactic or moral way, but simply the ways in which the big questions get lived out and worked out—or maybe not—in the lives of characters that we writers seek to draw. So I’m waiting for someone to ask me something like: “What is Beauty, and can or does it play an active role in storytelling?” or “Do you believe that moral ambiguity defines a character more properly, or more poorly, than moral clarity?” Or, you know, something else. Make me work for it.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

Writing well, so that no word is wasted and the sentences lift off the page. That’s the most challenging thing about writing.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

In the winter, I love to cross-country ski. And I’m a skate skier, too, so there’s an element of speed that comes with being in shape and working on having a good technique, which is a feeling and a thrill that I just can’t describe. It’s what I imagine it would feel like to fly. I mean literally fly. In the summer, I just love being near the water. My wife and kids and I spend a lot of time at Crane Beach on the North Shore (when it’s not so crowded). I grew up fishing in Pennsylvania, and I started saltwater fly-fishing since having moved to Massachusetts, so I’m hoping to do more of that, especially with my boys as they get older. Otherwise, I read, always looking for writers who will surprise me, and teach me something.

About Andrew Krivak

Andrew Krivak is the author of A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, a memoir about his eight years in the Jesuit Order. He is the editor of The Letters of William Carlos Williams to Edgar Irving Williams, 1902-1912. The grandson of Slovak immigrants, Krivak grew up in Pennsylvania, has lived in London, and has taught at Harvard, Boston College, and the College of the Holy Cross. Krivak currently lives with his wife and three children in Somerville, Massachusetts. The Sojourn is his first novel.

Buy the book, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Andrew Krivak.” Words With Writers (June 11, 2011),

The Sojourn

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak (Bellevue Literary Press, 2011).

  1. […] new favorite is one of their titles, a seductive, almost prayerful first novel called “The Sojourn,” about a World War I sharpshooter. Author Andrew Krivak sets it roughly a century ago, […]

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