The Chalke Valley History Festival has a new roving reporter – Xander Drury, a first-year classics undergraduate at Durham University. We asked Xander to speak to Antony Beevor, one of the Festival’s Patrons, and one of the biggest names in military history. This summer sees the publication of Antony’s magnificent single-volume history of the Second World War and when Xander caught up with him, he wanted to know how he went about researching such an enormous subject…
Xander Drury: How did you go about your research?
Antony Beevor: I think you first of all really need to read through and around the subject as much as possible. Quite often that will give you some good hints and indications about where interesting material may be found in various archives. You then need to start putting your skeleton structure together to give a rough idea. On Stalingrad and Berlin, it was basically three years research to one year’s writing.
XD: So how do you go about marshalling this research?
AB: The wonder, of course, nowadays, is the computer; unlike in the early days, when you’re having to bash out and retype everything and you’re also working on a card index system. Now you can have a separate file for every single archive that you’ve worked in. You can then go through them, and this is the marshalling process: copying across the material from a particular archive to the relevant chapters.
XD: Therefore, do you very much prefer to research first, then write after?
AB: I believe very, very strongly that in general terms, one should never start writing until you’ve actually finished your research. Once you start rewriting or changing, particularly at the beginning, you’re going to lose the rhythm of your writing. There’s the old comment of Hemingway and Garcia Marquez, who say that you should spend three months on the first paragraph and then the rest will write itself. There’s an element of truth in that. You’ve got to get the style, the rhythm and the feel of the book clear in your own mind right at the beginning. If you don’t get that right, you’re going to have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and you’re not going have the same confidence that you would otherwise.
XD: And when it comes to that writing process, do you have any particular rituals?
AB: The days of sharpening your pencil have long passed! I think there’s a certain amount of truth in the advice that it helps if you’ve got a good run; and you should really follow that run. I think it is so old-fashioned how writers in the 1930s would write 2000 words in a morning and then go and play golf in the afternoon or something like that. I just can’t imagine that at all. It doesn’t work for me. I find you’ve got to follow a winning streak, just like a novelist in a way. It always helps if you know exactly what you’re going to do the following morning: you’re straight into it and you’re carrying on. I mean momentum is absolutely vital; there is no doubt about that.
XD: Do you aim to carry out as many interviews yourself as possible?
AB: I really don’t. For D-Day I didn’t do any interviews at all. One of the reasons for that is that many people who took part in D-Day had either been interviewed so many times or they had read so many books on the subject afterwards that they tended to reinterpret or filter their own experiences through what they’ve read subsequently. I very much prefer to focus on contemporary material, particularly letters and diaries, so that you don’t have that distorting effect of retrospection.
XD: You have been at the forefront of making individual human stories central to an overview of the bigger picture. Was this deliberate?
AB: I realised that what we needed to do was to integrate history from above with history from below because that’s the only way to show the direct consequences and the direct effects of the decisions of say, Stalin or Hitler, on the ordinary soldiers and civilians who were just caught up in this appalling nightmare.
XD: What are your intentions for your next book?
AB: What I’ve always wanted to do is to write a narrative history of the whole of the Second World War. I just find that I can only write, and I only really enjoy writing, in a narrative format. It’s an instinct. It’s the sort of book I enjoy reading. When people say what sort of audience do you write for, I believe very strongly that a writer should be writing for themselves rather than trying to second guess what an outside audience would like. I am writing the sort of book that I’d like to read. If other people happen to enjoy that, and like it too, then that is great.
XD: Thank you for your time Mr Beevor and may I wish you the best of luck with the publication of your book.
Antony Beevor is scheduled to talk on Saturday 30th June in the William Golding Tent.