Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Modern Times begins with An Invitation to the Reader in which author Andrew Kaufman admits, “We’ve had our ups and downs, Tolstoy and I, our disagreements, even a couple of separations.” Sounds like a normal relationship…with an author who’s been dead for over 100 years?
Andrew’s love affair with War and Peace began when he was an undergraduate at Amherst College. In it he found “a strange, hopeful vision of the world as a place that does, in the end, make a kind of sense.” Twenty-five years later, he’s written a book that he hopes will prompt new readers to take up the quest.
Reading about Andrew’s long-term relationship with War and Peace, I was reminded of something John McPhee said about his own writing: “I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe twenty or thirty years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than ninety per cent.” I bet a lot of nonfiction writers could say the same. Make your own list — the topic for your next book might be on it.
Before we hear from Andrew about his writing process, a note: If you’re in the Charlottesville, Virginia area this winter, check out Andrew’s presentation at WriterHouse on December 7: “Descending from the Tower: From Academic to Popular Writing.”
In this interview you will learn:
- How to find freedom in structure
- About thematic organization
- How incorporate a daily journal into your writing process
Andrew: War and Peace had been roaming in and out of my life for about twenty-five years—in almost a “When Harry Met Sally” kind of way. Each time I encountered the novel, it was a different book, evoking whatever was most alive inside me at that point. I happened to be rereading the novel in 2008, around the time of the financial crisis that was turning many peoples’ lives upside down—mine included. War and Peace became a new book yet again. I was able to clearly glimpse something I’d only vaguely understood in my previous readings: that whatever else this novel is, it’s a book about people trying to find their footing in an unstable, ever-changing world. How do you live in such times? Where do you find meaning and even joy in a troubled world? In 2008 these became deeply personal questions to me, and I sensed that many other people were—and are—struggling with them as well. I came to recognize War and Peace as the book for our times.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Andrew: Fortunately, much of the research had already been accomplished, since I’d spent many years thinking and writing about Tolstoy. My main tasks were to decide how to structure the book, and what not to include. After a lot of sifting, trial and error, I concluded that, since my focus was to be on Tolstoy’s wisdom, I would organize the book thematically, with each of the twelve chapters focusing on a single theme: love, happiness, family, death, perseverance, etc. There are twelve themes in all.
From that point on the thematic focus was primary, but then, after several months into the writing, I realized that I also wanted my book to roughly follow the plot of War and Peace itself. So I did a lot of rejiggering, changed the chapter order and some of the examples used in each chapter. That was quite a complicated process. Finally, it was important to me to interweave stories from the novel with stories from Tolstoy’s life and my own twenty-five year journey with Tolstoy. I had to decide which stories would be most appropriate in which chapters.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Andrew: This happens organically as I become clearer and clearer about what I’m trying to say in the book, and what I want the reader experience to be like. For example, once I settled on the thematic focus of Give War and Peace a Chance, I then went through War and Peace for about the fifteenth time and selected the passages that I thought would best illustrate Tolstoy’s wisdom on each of the twelve themes I discuss in my book. Perhaps the biggest organizational challenge was that there were four things happening simultaneously in my book: the thematic discussion, a digest of the plot of War and Peace, stories from Tolstoy’s life, and stories from my life. I first had to get clear on how I was going to prioritize each of these different layers–I prioritized them in the order listed here—and then I fit the examples and the stories into their appropriate place in the scaffolding.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Andrew: I try to carve out my mornings for writing, and my afternoons for business. I drop my son off at school, head over the Whole Foods, where I buy my iced tea and my oatmeal drenched in nuts and berries, and sit at my favorite table in the restaurant. I spend twenty minutes warming up by writing in my journal, and then I open my laptop and type away. I try to turn off my phone and ignore any incoming email notices. At about noon I head back to my other office and make calls, send emails, etc. During the research phase of writing, I’ll spend a few hours in the afternoon reading, but I always try to write something every day. When I teach, this schedule gets much messier, which is why I try to keep my teaching all on the same day. Structure and routine is critical for me as a writer. When I have that structure, I can then play and experiment creatively. A lack of disciplined routine actually inhibits rather than enhances my creative freedom.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Andrew: My daily journal has been a staple of my writing life. I got the idea from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and have religiously kept a journal for the past six years. I have almost two full shelves in my office filled with these journals. I find it is a wonderful way to get me warmed up, to tune into to what I’m feeling, and to write through those critical voices chattering away in my head. Also, whenever I read an article or a book and am not sure about the meaning of a word, I love looking it up in the dictionary. I make sure to keep up on contemporary events through daily news articles so I know what people are thinking and talking about. I always keep a good book at my bedside for late evening reading. Rarely will that book have anything directly to do with my current writing project. It’s just a way to stimulate my thinking in new directions and invite my subconscious to go to work while I sleep.
Bonus question: Did you incorporate any of Tolstoy’s writing habits into your own process?
Andrew: Yes. I married a good woman who loves me, supports me in my often tortuous writing process, and puts up with my eccentricities. When somebody gives me my own thousand-acre estate with 300 serfs and I no longer have to work for a living, then I’ll probably incorporate a few more of Tolstoy’s habits.