Andrew Krivak is a novelist, poet, and memoirist whose work has been compared to William Faulkner’s in its rich sense of place, to Wendell Berry’s in its attention to natural beauty, and to Cormac McCarthy’s in its deep investigation of violence and myth. Yet all of Krivak’s writing, and especially his fiction, presents a truly singular vision, one that is attuned both to the tactile nature of human existence (few writers better describe what it’s like to work with one’s hands) and to that realm—call it God, call it beauty, call it history—that exceeds, sustains, and holds us. The language of pilgrimage comes up often in his work, whether he’s describing war as “a lonely and peregrinated life” or a woman struck by sorrow as falling “forward like some prostrate pilgrim of old,” and Krivak charts life’s difficult course with grace and thoughtfulness.
His fourth novel, Like the Appearance of Horses, will be published in May. It is the third book in a series that opens with the life of Jozef Vinich, a young boy who is born in the United States and raised largely in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before returning to make a life in Pennsylvania. Krivak follows Vinich and the future generations of his family first in The Sojourn (2011), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, then in The Signal Flame (2017). We talked about these novels, the place that inspired them, and much else over email.
Image: In your memoir A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, you describe praying with Luke 11:1–4, specifically its opening words, “He was praying in a certain place.” What are some of the ways the certain place you’re from, rural Pennsylvania, has shaped you?
Andrew Krivak: Well, the truth is, I hated where I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. It was an insular, uncreative, and oppressive place that punished people who thought or acted differently. I guess you could say I lived in two different worlds as a kid.
At home, there were books of literature, philosophy, and theology. There was music on the turntable, and not just the albums my older brothers brought home, like the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, King Crimson, and Joni Mitchell, but symphonies and operas my father listened to, like Dvorˇák and Wagner, two favorites of his. We also had a strong identity as ethnic Slovaks. My mother’s parents had come to America after the First World War, and she didn’t learn English until she was five and had to go to kindergarten. My father’s family was also Slovak, and he and my mother spoke Slovak fluently. Both of my parents had college educations and white-collar jobs, but they also knew what work was. Although my mother’s father worked in Wilkes-Barre as a coal miner, they lived in rural Dallas, Pennsylvania, where he had a farm on about a hundred acres of land he had bought up during the Depression. My mother could fix a tractor and castrate a pig. My father’s father died in a mining accident when my father was very young, so work was something he and his brothers had to do just to eat and stay warm. We grew up in a household that taught respect for both the work of the mind and the work of the hands and centered that work on the prayer of the liturgy. We were Eastern European Catholics, and all aspects of our life—ordinary time, holidays, daily meals, seasonal feasts—were woven seamlessly into the life of the church. I didn’t know anything else. Family and food were holy, and church was a kind of family and food.
Then, I had to get on a school bus and go to school, and I found out that you can get beaten up for being smart. There was a kid on our hill named Charlie, and he was big and strong and he just wanted to hit you. Two of my earliest memories are of the day we got our dog Troy—winter, snowing, my younger brother only about a week old, and this black lab covered in snowflakes bounding into the kitchen ahead of my aunt and uncle, who had given him to us—and of Charlie walking up the hill to my grandmother’s house (my parents were at work that day), where he stood out on the dirt road and yelled that he was going to beat me up when I went to school. My grandmother, a woman who had survived a classic wicked stepmother and grown up in a Slovak village during World War I, went out to the porch and laid into him. She told him something like, “I’ll get a stick from the woods and beat you with it. Now get out of here!” and he took off. But the perpetual bully was always there for one thing: fear.
School was the same. If you were smart, you had to hide it. If you liked books, you had to hide them. And I was neither good at hiding nor did I want to hide. I got called “bookworm” and was a pretty easy target for the big and not-so-bright guys. I’ve had my jacket set on fire, books destroyed, and was once pushed over a banister into a stairwell, but I caught the railing with one hand before I fell. And I wasn’t even getting the worst of it. There were kids who really suffered. I always refused to back down and probably got some respect for that. Eventually you find your own friends, your own thing. By the time high school rolled around, the bullies and their beer and bad-ass rides just didn’t interest me. I could see where that went, and I wanted—with a longing that almost approached a lust—to fly in the other direction. I’ve always been lithe, and I got strong enough to throw a good punch. That got me even more respect. But I preferred to write a good essay or read a good book, most of which were about getting out. Walden, Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, poetry by Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. My dad sat me down one day and told me that being smart was my ticket. He would pay for whatever college I got into, and I could study whatever I wanted. He said the same to all of my brothers and sisters. The ticket to St. John’s College, Annapolis, was the last thing I ever punched.
I say I hated the place where I grew up, but I learned something. Something I had to come to grips with years later in that first week of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and the long retreat. The way in which enmity and love, adversity and creativity, sin and the possibility of redemption sit side by side does something to a kid. Days I was made to feel pain or humiliation, days I wondered why people had to work so hard to cultivate meanness, were days I felt paralyzed with a fear that anything I wanted to create would die before it ever came to light. And then there were the days I fished and hiked and roamed those Pennsylvania woods with my brother. Days I spent listening to my grandmother tell her stories about the old country, like something out of a novel, or some liturgy, a sacrament of the word for sure. Those were days that planted creative seeds that needed more time to grow than my young mind could yet envision. I see that now.
So, while it’s not a lesson I enjoyed or even wanted to learn at the time, I was learning in that “certain place” that you could be tough and kind, dirty and smart, plain and mystical, and that the place where you’re from can be those things too. I’ve always been fascinated by the way artists live within the both/and of what’s given and what’s made. Most of what gets given to us can be fashioned into something made, I believe, if you hold it and gaze at it long enough and with a real sense of wonder and gratitude for how it is you got where you are.
Image: The artist’s both/and reminds me of something David Jones wrote in the preface to his great poem The Anathemata: “This…is, in a sense, the task of any artist in any material, seeing that whatever he makes must necessarily show forth what is his by this or that inheritance.” The act of making, whether the end goal is a poem or a chair, involves a showing forth of the inherited. In finding what Jones calls elsewhere “a perfect fit,” the maker expresses wonder and gratitude for the givenness of things.
You mention that you learned respect for the work of the hands in your childhood, and your novels are filled with carefully, even reverently described acts of manual making, from Bo cutting and sanding and varnishing the hutch in The Signal Flame to the man building a cairn of stones for his late wife in The Bear. This kind of making involves discipline: a shaping of an object but also a shaping of the self. As Jozef puts it in The Signal Flame, “It’s discipline just the same.… That’s what shapes us, no matter what the trade or how we ply it.” Can you talk about what discipline means to you—as an artist or maker but also as a believer?
AK: I feel like I’ve been looking for an answer to this question my whole life. That passage from The Signal Flame where Jozef says, “It’s discipline just the same,” is a kind of distillation of at least part of the struggle for me to make sense of what work is at my own level, in my own experience. In The Signal Flame, Bo has been at college, where he has fallen in love both intellectually and physically. When he receives word that the young woman he loves has died, he experiences his first real loss. That feeling, at the physical and emotional level, is so painful for him that he can’t separate it from the intellectual love he has also found at school, a place he sought out, Jozef reminds him. So, he doesn’t go back. He stays on the farm and works at the mill, and this becomes his life. It’s not a bad life, and, as you have pointed out in the woodworking scenes, he becomes quite masterful at it. But you’ll see too, in Like the Appearance of Horses, Bo never recovers from that loss of both his physical and intellectual love. He’s only got his work, and it comes with an emptiness as well as a fullness, which Jozef saw in that moment but still had to let Bo choose.
I wrote that scene as a way of working out my own choices. I grew up with examples of physical work everywhere. My parents were white-collar workers, as I mentioned, but they still went to work every day and drew paychecks, and they got to those jobs by doing the intellectual work of going to college and getting good degrees. But I also knew men who were landscapers and painters and women who were phone operators and dressmakers. Work meant you did something.
I won’t romanticize work. I hate that. I’ve done my share of jobs that came with a soul-crushing dose of emptiness, and I’ve worked for people who fostered that emptiness without any regard whatsoever for the humans doing that work. I think our experiences of work are often more of what’s painful about it than what’s restorative. You do enough of it, though, and you don’t find one more than the other, you just find a balance you can live with.
Two of my best teachers were men who taught me how to do manual labor with a skill that approached something beautiful, something human. Tom Kravits taught me how to landscape and garden and how to identify plants when I was a teenager (which I put to use in The Bear). And Mark Tremblay taught me the finer points of yacht rigging when I worked in the boatyard after St. John’s College. Both men were geniuses. Both made their way by the work of their hands. And both are examples to me of how to do work that’s hard to do, without losing the sense that it can still somehow be beautiful, not just contractual, or, God forbid, painful and dehumanizing.
A real fear of mine has often been that being a writer would not be seen as doing something, some work, in the eyes of those who taught me how to work. Which included my parents, who I’m sure wondered most of their lives what the hell I was doing going from philosophy degrees to boatyards, to religious life, to teaching, to writing novels. I’m not sure I knew myself, or that I know now. It is a constant act of discernment, and everything I write is written with the pencil set of examples of how every person I’ve ever respected for their work plied their trades. Discipline just the same.
At this point in my life, with more behind me than ahead, I have no idea how I have gotten to the place where I get to write every day. People tell me I’m the most disciplined person they know, but I know that’s not true. Their discipline for their own works astounds me. I’m just driven by the fear that someone will say to me one day, “Sorry, no more writing for you.” And I will have lost a love. So, I’m going to write as though the act is a loved one who I know will die one day, and I want to spend as much time as possible with that person, grateful for every minute.
You alluded to David Jones and his idea of making as a showing forth of an inheritance. I would say there is a constant play between recognizing the givenness of things and the unspoken imperative to make a thing entirely new, with no precedence, no model from which to work. I see that almost as a writer’s obligation. I’ve put my mind and my hands to a lot of work because of the experiences I’ve been given. But I’ve learned how to write things I’ve never done by reading writers who are doing it in a language that is completely new. The made has to be more than a copy of what’s been given.
I want making to find its way into my novels as a kind of epistemology: You know Bo because you know what he makes, how he works. The father in The Bear lives and dies not just by his knowledge of things but of how things are made. The list of writers who can write about work at that level is not long, and it took me a while to notice it, but when I did, I knew it was how I wanted to write as well. Levin at the scythe in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Tom Joad in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. McCarthy throughout the Border Trilogy. And with respect to being a believer, I’ve gotten to a stage in life where I’m more interested in what I guess you could call a horizontal belief than a vertical belief. I try to write characters who look out, see, wonder, and come to an understanding of the self and others by engaging with the world at a tactile, physical, even geographical level. I’m much more interested as a novelist and a believer in writing about characters who know what and whom, because they know how and where. Work does that, in its emptiness and in its fullness.
Image: One of your first published pieces was a poem called “Reading Homer,” which appeared in Commonweal in 2000. It’s a poem about tradition (it points back not just to Homer but to Keats’s great lyric “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”), and it opens with an act of memory: “On the katabatic march, Tuck / (our tutor) drilled, countersunk and bolted / dactyls into our brains so that, though we / groaned at the long tables of our / recitations, I still carry Homer’s / Greek with me in memory.” The long reach of language, within an individual’s life and within culture, was something drilled into you by your tutors at St. John’s, where the curriculum is shaped entirely around the Great Books. What was your experience at Annapolis like? It’s obvious that you still carry poetry with you, that it shapes your imagination and language in all kinds of ways. (I love that, in The Sojourn, Jozef learns to read English in large part through reading Whitman.) If making is a kind of epistemology, as you put it earlier, if we know the maker in part from what and how he makes, what is different about working on a poem from working on a novel?
AK: I love that you found that poem. Thank you. It’s a moment in which I was giving a nod to the tradition of literature and poetry I had been taught, and yet trying to press on ahead and forge something of my own as a poet. I think that sums up St. John’s College for me, and what I found there as a student who had a vague notion of becoming a writer. When I got there in 1982, it was like getting thrown into the deep end. Academically, I knew how to swim, but I wasn’t a particularly strong swimmer. So, I struggled to do well. And there were so many bright minds just eating up those great books. Unprepared as I was, I still remember my first seminar on The Iliad as a freshman and thinking, I get to do this. I get to talk about this book with these people. Was it the best place for me? I don’t know. It was where I ended up, and I was lucky to go there.
I’m in contact with a current student who asked me recently if St. John’s is a good place to be if you want to be a writer, and I told him yes, because it’ll make you a good reader. The writing comes later. I think there’s a lot of that in “Reading Homer.” I wanted to be a poet first. I wrote a lot of poems about family stories from the old country when I was at St. John’s. I knew a little about contemporary poetry, but not a whole lot. I read the Beats in high school, because a friend of mine was obsessed with them, and, I mean, what high school kid isn’t? But I also discovered poets like Galway Kinnell and Gregory Orr on my own, and I could see that they mined their family stories as well, and so that reservoir of stories was something I started to take pride in and use as subject matter.
But I think it was precisely that early desire to make that kept me hammering away at poetry and led me to want to do something with it, which eventually took me to the writing program at Columbia. That’s when and where I discovered contemporary poetry. I’ll tell you, I was a total weirdo that first semester at Columbia for having read Homer, and not in some freshman survey course but in Greek. But you know, again, it served me well, especially with the poets I studied with: William Matthews, Paul Muldoon, Henri Cole, Deborah Digges, Daniel Halpern. My God, was I lucky! And at the end of the day, all that mattered was that I lived in New York City and I wrote poetry. Those were some of the best years of my life.
And now I write fiction mostly, although I still take time to write poems, because it makes me use my ear. It makes me listen. Is that word right? Is that line right? Is there an aural life as well as a formal life to what I’m putting down on the page? In the beginning, writing poetry also taught me the discipline of how to sit down and work at language. I wanted to write because I wanted that to be my work, and in many ways I don’t see it any differently from building a boat or a house. You learn the trade and put in the hours, the years, it turns out, and you strive to have something beautiful to show in the end.
So, when I turned to fiction, I found that same kind of physical and technical satisfaction and desire for craft in the fashioning of a sentence, but now with the added dimension of the struggle, the story. And right there is the reason I turned from poetry to fiction: that fashioning of the struggle. I felt for the longest time that I was failing at seeing and fashioning story and struggle into my poems, failing to make use of that classical driver, which is present in all the great contemporary poems as well. In my poems, there was a kind of formal claustrophobia. I had trouble realizing them. But when I sat down and started writing The Sojourn, it all made sense. The story, the writing, it all fell into place. It was like I was finally building the boat I’d always wanted to build and sail on, with the same old tools I’d had in my shop all along. The difference is in the arc of the narrative, the bending of time, the becoming of characters, the complexity of thought and moral ambiguity. You can get all that in a poem by Louise Glück, or Larry Levis, but for me, the struggle became mine to make when I laid it out line by line on the open sea of paragraphs, not in the measured rooms of stanzas anymore.
Image: I’m interested in how you think of your fiction, the Dardan novels specifically, fitting together. After all, The Sojourn centers on the experience of Jozef Vinich—a boy who was born in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, moved with his father to the small village of Pastvina in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then moved back to America, settling in northeastern Pennsylvania, after World War I. Your second novel, The Signal Flame, takes up the story of Vinich’s daughter, Hannah, and her son, Bo. Your forthcoming novel, Like the Appearance of Horses, returns to this family history again.
You talk about writing fiction as being like building a boat. Do you consider these novels one big boat? (A poet we both admire, Lawrence Joseph, talks about all of his work as comprising “one long poem.”) Or are they a fleet of boats journeying in the same direction? Or are they something else entirely?
AK: I think all of the things we’ve been talking about have come full circle in this question. It’s clear to me now that the Dardan novels are what I needed to write in order to understand how the place I came from has shaped me, not just as a writer but as a thinker, a believer, a man trying to find his way by creating an order. I keep wanting to go back to that idea of a self as a maker, the discipline involved, and the knowledge that comes with it. When I sat down to write The Sojourn, I did so with an idea of creating a story that encompassed all of the stories my grandmother had told me about the old country when I was a boy. Essentially, all of the content of what has become a trilogy was more or less there from the beginning, laid out on the table of my imagination like a great big Slovak velija feast. But you know what they say: the only way to learn how to write a book is to write one. There was the tradition of listening to my grandmother tell stories, and then there was the discipline, years later, of sitting down at the desk, day after day, year after year, and crafting some of it, let alone all of it, into a story that’s worthy of the form.
In The Sojourn, after many pages and drafts had piled up, I turned to the first-person point of view to give it a speaker’s voice, with the hope of imitating that original oral tradition. Then I began to pare it all down. The more I wrote, the sharper and the tighter it became, until I got to the point where I reckoned the novel would take about eight hours to speak out loud, and I realized the performative act of storytelling that I had grown up with was right there in the kernel of the story. Not explicitly, but in the form nevertheless. That’s why it begins on March 31, 1972. That was Good Friday. If the storyteller begins at about five o’clock in the evening, he’ll finish just past midnight on Holy Saturday. The war and its aftermath become Jozef’s katabasis, his descent to the underworld and return home. And he is telling it all in retrospect.
The Signal Flame came together as a way of writing about what was hidden, or missing, in The Sojourn. It’s meant as a response to the question: Who is speaking and to whom? It’s also my Pennsylvania novel about the year of my own coming into consciousness as a listener. And then later my literary return to a place I told you in the first sentence of this interview I hated as a boy, but came to realize was, and remains, a world of real beauty. I never liked that title, by the way, The Signal Flame. I wanted to call the novel As We Wait, from the embolism of the Mass, “as we wait in joyful hope,” but the publicity people didn’t like it, so they took “the signal flame” from the Aeschylus epigraph, and I had to pretend somehow it was better. The novel is all about the family’s domestic waiting for the son, Samuel Konar, who is missing in action in Vietnam, and their own struggles with loss as they wait. Formally, though, it follows the liturgical year from the Easter season to Christmas Eve and mirrors both the human inheritance of loss and the divine reality of hope. The already and the not yet.
Like the Appearance of Horses has a performative component to it as well. It involves a timeline of seventy years, from 1933 to 2003, but isn’t told chronologically. One thing I was always fascinated by, when I used to sit and listen to my grandmother, is the realization that stories rarely move in a linear arc, especially when the storytelling is not a one-time event but rather a ritual one returns to week after week, year after year. One night she would tell a story from the past, another night expand on it by speaking about how it relates to the present, then at lunch the next day talk about one particular person from the previous day’s story. And then, during a holiday gathering, she would fill in a gap that wasn’t missing so much as just waiting to be filled in. I know it’s not because she was old. It’s because storytellers don’t always get the stories straight and in full the first time around, detail by orderly detail. A good storyteller who has lived a long time knows that. And I wanted to capture that quality of precisely what you, Anthony, have pointed out in your own critical work: Jacques Maritain’s belief that “true art is always fractured and incomplete because it can never fully contain the perfect vision that it seeks.”
I guess you could say that part of my becoming—and this has played out in the Dardan novels—has been moving from interest in the stories to interest in form. If you’re a novelist and you’re not interested in form, you’re just not interesting. At least not to me. I mean, how else and where else does a writer communicate that beautiful and terrifying tension between the already and the not yet? That’s not a rhetorical question.
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, books columnist for Commonweal, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins). His reviews and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Book Post, and Boston Review.