Journal

Andrew Krivak discusses his new novel, Like the Appearance of Horses.

Like the Appearance of Horses is a work of literary fiction that is the culmination of my series of novels set in the fictional town of Dardan, Pennsylvania. It follows on my novels The Sojourn and The Signal Flame, and takes up the lives of the characters from the Vinich and Konar family along a seventy-year arc, showing how one family has been shaped by war in the 20th century, while each generation struggles with its own sense of love and loss, duty and morality, honor and shame. The title is taken from a line in the prophet Joel, who is describing a plague of locusts: “They’re appearance is like the appearance of horses, and like war horses, so they run.”

The novel begins in 1933, when Jozef Vinich has created a life for himself, his wife and daughter in Dardan, and the half-Rom Bexhet Konar, whose life Vinich saved in The Sojourn, arrives from the old country. Vinich welcomes him, treats him like a son, and teaches him the ways of his family and the land. Eventually, Bexhet Konar and Hannah Vinich fall in love and marry, and have their two sons Bo and Sam Konar. But when WWII takes Bexhet back to Europe as an American serviceman, the wages of war come back to the family in the way they haunted Jozef Vinich along the southern front of WWI in The Sojourn, and which they haunt Hannah and Bo Konar as they wait for Sam Konar to come home from Vietnam in The Signal Flame. To put it as succinctly as possible, Like the Appearance of Horses is a novel about the generations of one family that have been shaped by the many wars we have seen in the long martial arc of the 20th century, and how each generation — women and men both, at home and abroad — responds, in its own way and in its own time, to the calls and struggles of those wars that have, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, shaped us as a nation.

In the twenty years I’ve been writing fiction, one of the things I’ve fallen in love with and that has driven me to create a multi-generational history of one family has been the challenge and the joy of fleshing out a multitude of characters. The main family characters, of course, have the depth of time and their genealogical links in common, and which I mine for their connections and motifs. But I’ve found, too, that peripheral characters, some of whom simply come and go, are almost as important as the main characters, in the ways in which they interact with and hold a mirror up to the main characters, giving an added depth and dimension to their struggles. It’s almost as if they’re parallel readers of the novel, as they offer you, the reader, their own understanding of, arguments with, and moments of forgiveness for the characters each of you, encounters on the page. For this reason, those peripheral characters are not just a critical dimension to the arc of the family, but to the entire arc of the narrative as well. Like the Appearance of Horses has the largest palette of characters I’ve ever created and worked with as a writer. Not only will you and other readers encounter Jozef Vinich, his daughter Hannah, and her son Bo again, but Jozef’s wife Helen, his cousin Frances Posol, who is modeled after my own great aunt Susan, Bexhet Konar, Samuel Konar, who does return from Vietnam, Burne Grayson, and my favorite, Father Tomaš Rovnávaha, as well as many other characters who come and go along the way. Each one, though, is a crucial piece of the family’s puzzle. Each one is like a teacher who appears when a main character is in need of that teacher the most.

Finally, I want to say that Like the Appearance of Horses owes its life, as my previous novels do, to the stories my grandmother told me as a boy growing up in Pennsylvania about life in what is now Slovakia, and what being an Eastern European immigrant was like in this country between the world wars. And that’s important to know for this reason: One thing I was always fascinated by, when I used to sit and listen to my grandmother tell us stories, 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 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. For this reason, Like the Appearance of Horses doesn’t progress in a linear fashion. Rather, it moves back and forth in time, taking up the stories of different characters and their connections in a way that allows for the greater surprise of revelation within the larger arc of the story. Because that’s how stories move when they’re told to us, that’s often how our memories of events move when they become the basis of stories, and that’s how time works when it’s inhabited by a character in the process of becoming: like the appearance of horses on a plain, not there one minute, there the next, then gone again. In this way, too, you could dip in and out of the novel by reading the chapters as though they were short stories, just as easily as you could begin at the beginning and read to the end. You will, either way, encounter the same characters with their same struggles in the end.

I hope that you’ll find Like the Appearance of Horses a vast, challenging, breathtaking, mournful, and ultimately triumphant novel. In a word, I hope you’ll find it beautiful, from beginning to end, and in every revealing appearance of what it means to live and love and sacrifice along the way.