blackbirdonline journalFall 2009  Vol. 8  No. 2
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A Conversation with Travis Holland
recorded November 14, 2008


Travis Holland spoke as the winner of the seventh annual Cabell First Novelist Award from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Elizabeth Quinn-Gooch, introduced the event as an MFA student in fiction from the VCU Department of English.


Elizabeth Quinn-Gooch: Welcome to the first event in the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award festival. That you all made it out on such a dreary Friday afternoon really speaks to how excited you are by Travis and his book, The Archivist’s Story. And he, I know, is excited now to answer your questions—so, Travis, I’m going to turn the floor over to you.

Travis Holland: Well, to begin with, let me say that I really appreciate your reading my book and coming out. Thank you very much.

Audience: I’m curious about how you stumbled upon Babel initially and how his work inspired you.

TH: I found a book of Babel’s in a used book store in Atlanta when I was in my early 20s, and I was knocked out by it. It was an old 1950s paperback collection of his stories—both his Red Cavalry Stories, which he wrote in the 1920s and which made him famous; his stories about the Russian-Polish War; and then his Odessa Stories, which he wrote in the 1930s. And then I found out that he had vanished under rather mysterious circumstances. Upon the publishing of this collection, the public still didn’t know what had happened to him. It was known only that he had died, possibly in a gulag, possibly from typhus, possibly before a firing squad.

All of this—these stories and his fate—sat in my brain for a while, and then, years later, I was in another used book store and came across the book Arrested Voices by Vitaly Shentalinsky. In the 1990s, after perestroika and after the wall came down, there was a great examination by the Russians of what had happened in their country. Shentalinsky wanted to know what had happened to writers during Stalin’s purges, and the first writer he discusses in his book is Babel. Shentalinsky went into the KGB archives and found the file on Babel—which contained his warrant for arrest; everything that was confiscated when he was arrested in his dacha at Peredelkino, a suburb of Moscow; the transcript of his interrogation and the confession he was beaten into; and also descriptions of his trial. He was put before what was called a military troika, basically a panel of three judges who just rubber-stamped death warrants—whoever stood before them was already dead.

What Babel had said during his interrogation, and during his trial, was that he wanted to be allowed to finish his unfinished work. When he was arrested, all of his manuscripts were confiscated, so he knew that he was doomed. But he wanted to finish his stories—that’s all he wanted. This took off in my imagination. I wondered what had happened to those stories. They vanished from the archives. No one knows what happened to them. Probably they were burned, or they moldered away in some file. But I wondered what would have happened if someone had saved them, what if someone had recognized his work and tried to save it. That’s when I first imagined someone stealing a story, sneaking it out.

Audience: How did you keep yourself from being tempted to present only what your research provided you? I think that you very successfully made an independent work of art of your own. This is where historical novels can sometimes go astray—they work under the burden of their research and don’t become creative works. But what struggles did you have, or what method did you use to make sure that you were escaping the temptation to let the research dictate the writing?

TH: It was a balance that I struck. One of the things that I told myself, or had to remind myself of, as I was writing was that all of this history wasn’t history to the people living it. In the same way, the time in which we live now is not history—it’s just our lives. We don’t notice things with an eye to what’s historical or historically important. I tried to write the life of my character Pavel as a routine of getting up everyday and going to work, making tea, and talking to his mother. I tried to write it from the perspective of life lived, and this meant that I left out a lot of historical details. I didn’t say, if I had him looking at a phone, the name of the phone. Or if he got into a car, I didn’t necessarily say that it was a Gas 380, even though I had done a ridiculous amount of research on cars and trucks. I did more research than I could ever use.

One of the things that I’ve noticed about historical fiction is that writers often start pumping in details, thinking that this is what makes the writing true. I tried to be conscious of this. Because I was writing my first novel, let alone historical novel, much of the writing was my deciding how I was going to proceed. There was no template. I hadn’t done any of it before. So, I tried to write from the perspective of life lived, not with Pavel saying, “Oh, I’m going to be a historical figure,” but just, “I’ve got to get up and go to work today and ride the Metro.”

Audience: There was another temptation, which was in some way to make reference to Babel’s work in your own prose style or in how you set things up. It seemed to me that whenever you did do anything like that, it was as if you were in conversation with the other author, but not giving up your own identity. I just wondered how you played that game in your own head.

TH: Well, I had, first of all, to figure out how I would handle Babel’s stories and the one that Pavel steals. There was a temptation, reflected in an early draft, to try to write those stories, which was disastrous. I took a copy of my draft to the graduate school and met with my thesis advisor—a wonderful writer named Peter Ho Davies, who loves Babel and who wrote a story based on one of Babel’s stories. I said to him, “I had this idea of recreating Babel’s lost stories,” and he said, very kindly, “Well, that sounds like quite a challenge!”

So, because I couldn’t recreate the lost stories, I had to imagine Pavel’s reaction to them. A lot of his reaction to Babel’s lost stories, and also to Russian literature such as the work of Chekhov, was really my reactions to, my musings on, the stories that I had read and reread by Chekhov and others when I was writing the novel. Every year—and I spent four or five years writing this book—and every day of those years, or at least when I was able to write, I asked myself how I felt about literature. And not about just Russian literature, but about literature. I had to ask these questions, and this became a kind of conversation that Pavel was having with himself, asking “What do I do with this manuscript. What is this story?” Because I had to answer the question of why anyone would risk his life to save a story.

Audience: You created these parallels between the life of Pavel and Babel, and I thought that this was an ingenious way not only to motivate him to do what he does but also to allow his reactions to be sympathetic and understanding—which is something that then tempts one to say, “Where do you see yourself in this—are you Pavel?”

TH: I identify with Pavel in some ways—a lot of ways. As a writer trying to make a story that anyone picking it up at any time could read, I had to see myself in him. And I had to see myself, in a way, in every character, even the awful characters, so that readers would be able to pick up the book in 2007, 2008, and so on without saying, “This is a story about people whom I don’t recognize at all.” I want readers to say, “This is a story about me. I wonder what I would do in these circumstances.”

Audience: I was wondering how your writing process works in terms of editing, because some writers, I know, will just tunnel through, just write, and then go back to edit.
TH: I tend to charge ahead, recognizing that a first draft is just that, a first draft. This comes after many long years of working on something and polishing it and getting it perfect, only to discover that I have to chuck it, to cut this scene or that because it’s not working, it never worked, and all the polishing in the world isn’t going to fix it. What I tend to do now is to write straight through, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t edit as I go along, too. What I’ll do is write, do a day’s work, and then I’ll start out the next day by reading the last page, or the last two pages, of what I wrote the day before and editing those. By the time I get to the end of this editing, I’ve built up enough momentum to do my day’s work and write three more pages. And when it’s all finished, I go back through the whole thing. It’s a good way to polish a little bit, or to get things in better shape, and also build up the momentum necessary to face the blank page.

Audience: I’m teaching an advanced undergraduate fiction workshop right now, and one of the topics that came up in discussion of your book was both the motivation behind and the appropriateness of the relative shortness of your chapters. My students were trying to figure out your reasons and the effect that this had on the pacing of the book.

TH: I didn’t intentionally structure the book with shorter chapters. The story came out mostly by way of forward momentum. I didn’t spend a lot of time going into the past. I had it start roughly in July of ’38 or ’39 and head forward from there. As far as making the chapter breakdowns, I tried to be natural, find where it felt like a chapter was ending. I wouldn’t necessarily become very conscious of how long a chapter was, but if the chapter was beginning to stretch over twelve or fourteen or fifteen pages, I would start to think that it might be time to wrap it up. I never thought about the ending much. It just felt like that was where the chapter should end.

Audience: Do you write towards a scene that you have in mind as an ending for the chapter? Or even as you began your novel, did you have something in mind that you were writing towards? I ask these questions because, at one point in my life, I was trying to be a fiction writer, and my teacher, John Gardner, explained to me that I was doing a very foolish thing by composing and creating plot as I went along. He explained to me that I needed to have a goal even if I changed that goal. How did you navigate?

TH: I can imagine John Gardner saying that. He was big on plot in writing—I was just looking over The Art of Fiction because he’s a famous writer and a famous teacher. As I wrote my book, I did have something that I was working towards—I mean, I knew how the book would end. I knew that the book would end, in a sense, with Babel’s death. I knew that Babel was going to be killed no matter what. I knew when he would die. The records show that he was shot in January of 1940—executed. I knew that that was the end for him. And I knew that Babel was essentially going to be Pavel’s undoing. I did know those things.

There were some things that I discovered on the way: for instance, his friend Semyon’s arrest and his mother’s ailment. These things presented themselves to me as I wrote the book, and also in subsequent drafts when I went back and rewrote or changed things. I think that they presented themselves to me because, thematically, they’re things that had to happen in a book about loss—loss of memory, loss of life—and about how memory and lives and literature are all intertwined. When I write, I always have a sense of where the story’s going, but everything in between is trying to figure out how to get there.

Audience: With that sense of knowing where the story is going, do you sometimes literally write the conclusion, or what you expect the conclusion to be, and then work your way back to it, or no?

TH: No, I don’t. When I’m walking around, brooding on a story, I’ll have images of the end or a sense of what happens to the character. I don’t know quite how to get there. I don’t plot. I don’t outline. I don’t do these things because I’ve done them before and I don’t stick to what I decide—and when I go back and look at my notes later, I say, “I didn’t do any of that! What happened to this scene? I was going to do that?”

An important thing that I discovered is that I have my own way of writing a book or a story. As writers, you all will discover this about yourself. You all have already discovered it in some ways, but it’s one of those things that a writer just keeps discovering over and over, that you have your own way. It’s important to recognize that if you like to plot and outline or if you like to write, as you said, the end of a story first and write towards it, then this is what you do, this is your way. Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s just one way, because there’s not—there’s your own way. Discovering what your way is, is part of the process. And sometimes you discover it quickly, and sometimes, as in my case, it takes you many years to discover.

Audience: As you’re working on a piece, do you find it’s more effective to schedule time during your day to work or to let a piece come to you organically? Do you say, “Two o’clock, time to beat this out,” or, “I feel inspired to write now”?

TH:  I definitely schedule time. I don’t wait for inspiration, because inspiration might come once every two weeks. I get to my desk at a certain time. That time changes based on what’s happening in my life. If I have a job, or if I’m teaching, then I might write at night. Or I might write early in the morning. When I was in graduate school, I was writing at night. But once I establish a routine, saying, “I’m going to be at my desk at eight thirty,” then I’m there at eight thirty no matter what. Which may mean that I’m just staring at the wall or looking out the window, but I definitely write on a schedule.

Audience: The language that you use in the book is very beautiful. Is this something that comes naturally to you, a part of your writing style, or did you have to slip into the character of Pavel to find the flow of the language?

TH: I think that it’s a combination. I try to write from the perspectives of my characters, to see what they see and feel their sensibilities. Pavel is a rather thoughtful guy, someone to whom literature means something. If he weren’t, then he wouldn’t have saved Babel’s story. He’s a guy who notices things. He notices the leaves in the trees. He notices the way the river looks in winter. He’s that kind of person. But, I guess, I’m always writing, in one way or another, from my own voice, and I usually feel as though I were plodding along, as though my writing weren’t very good.

Audience: How did you go about deciding on point of view?

TH: That was a tough thing. I wrote the first draft of the novel in first person—the whole draft—which I then had to change. One of the things that I found about first person that was difficult was that I ended up spending a lot of time in trying to get my character into situations in which he would see important things. I would contrive ways to get him to overhear something, to see something, because if a story is first person, the character can talk only about what he saw—or he can imagine.

I’ve known people who wrote in first person. One would have his character always leaning at a vent, listening—to his parents, for example, having a discussion, because this discussion was important to the book. The young boy in the book was constantly getting out of bed, going to the vent, and listening. When I found myself contriving ways to get my character to see things, I realized that I didn’t want this, and I chose third person. But I did third person close. I thought that it had enough flexibility to include a bit more than first person, which is so subjective. And first person didn’t have the voice that I wanted. First person is so much about voice, and I just didn’t think that it had the right voice.

Audience: The situation at the end of the book feels so hopeless. Did you feel this hopelessness as you were writing it? Was it something that you were conscious of as you were writing?

TH: Like I said earlier, I knew what was going to happen to Babel, that he would die in the most dreadful of circumstances, and I knew that Pavel was doomed, maybe that he would be arrested and shot—I even imagined his being executed alongside Babel. So this was the dark place the novel was going towards. I did worry that the book was very bleak and hopeless. And yet I also wanted to pay attention to, or to give weight to the notion of, some hope in literature and the human spirit. The thing in a story that would make a man risk everything to save that story is not hopelessness—it’s hope.

I had to be true to what was one of the darkest times in history, Stalin’s purges. I didn’t want to make it into a happy time, but I wanted to put something in that acknowledged that what Pavel did was an act of hope. You don’t know when you do an act like his, such a small act, if it means anything. I’m not talking about great acts, such as standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square—I’m talking about acts that no one sees. But we do them because they matter. I wanted to be true to this notion as well.

Audience: Why was Pavel not a writer? You said that he tried at one point but that he stopped, that he thought of himself as a much better reader.

TH: I honestly don’t know why I didn’t make him a writer. I thought, in the end, that making him a teacher was a way to give him a certain insight into writing, and I thought that this was terribly ironic, or awful. The Fourth Section that I write about in the book, the Fourth Section of the KGB or the NKVD, was a real section of the secret police that was devoted to artists. What I tried to imagine was who would work in the Fourth Section In this crazy, sick system that developed, they would, I was sure, believe that somehow someone with a background in literature would be better able to read and assess it.

There were the guys who worked on the side, just arresting people and beating them up, but they would have needed experts in literature. So I made Pavel a so-called expert. But it was ridiculous to bring in a literature teacher to find so-called evidence against literature. In the book, I just point to the absurdism. But to answer your question—I don’t know exactly why I didn’t make him a writer too. Maybe one writer, Babel, was enough.

Audience: It seemed to me that one of your themes was, like in 1984, a Gestapic society, in which the official line called for everybody to be a snitch and betray loved ones, to conform with what the government wanted. But you had examples of humanity breaking through time and again: small acts, larger acts, people helping each other where, if they had followed government guidelines, they would probably have betrayed them. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that you had any examples of a bond developed between people and then one person’s subsequently betraying the other, which was the hinge event in 1984. This seemed to me to make your book a lot more hopeful and optimistic about the human spirit than 1984 was. Were you ever tempted to have a strong relationship develop and then one of the characters betray the other?

TH: No, I wasn’t. And that’s a good point. Betrayal isn’t something that I thought about. I didn’t think about it, principally because a lot of the relationships in the book are the ones that Pavel has with Semyon, his mother, and the building manager, and I wanted these relationships to have a sort of preciousness. What I was thinking about was the loss of these relationships. Pavel is losing everyone around him in one way or another, and finally he loses himself. Of course, being betrayed is a kind of loss too . . . but I think that I love these characters.

I love Semyon. Semyon, to me, is like a lot of the teachers or professors whom I’ve loved, or others in my life whom I’ve loved. I couldn’t imagine Semyon’s betraying anyone, just on a personal level. As a writer, I can imagine anyone’s doing anything, but I became so attached to him that I didn’t want him to do anything terrible. And I couldn’t imagine Pavel’s mother’s doing anything terrible, either—plus my mom probably would have killed me.

I went to Russia and spoke to a number of people who lived through the purges. I acknowledged the fact that a totalitarian regime, or any terror like this—whether in Germany or Russia or any country, whether in China under Mao Zedong or with Pol Pot in the ’70s—these are not about, necessarily, a Pol Pot or a Stalin. For them to operate, everyone has to be complicit. That’s one of the great tragedies of totalitarian terror. It draws everyone in, and it makes everyone guilty. It makes people do things that, basically, bloody their hands. I was aware of this when I was in Russia, and I was aware that it wasn’t a matter of Stalin’s shooting everyone, personally. Stalin was pulling the strings—and he was responsible in that way—but everybody else was actually doing the shooting, as it were. Neighbor was informing upon neighbor.

When I talked to folks who had been denounced and sent to the gulags, their stories were of such desolation and awfulness. These folks had suffered. But their humanity and their warmth and generosity, their humaneness, were right in front of me, so I didn’t want to see them as wicked. I wanted to see them as people. Even the people who do wicked things in my book I wanted to see first as people. Like Sevarov, the major—I didn’t want him to be just a cog or a killing machine. I wanted to see him as a human being. Of course, he was weak, he was doing something terrible—I didn’t want to gloss over what he was doing, but I didn’t think that it served any purpose to make him into a monster. This was something that I tried to keep in mind with every character. I tried to offer something that would be an insight into his or her life.  end

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