Victor Verney is the author of Warrior of God: Jan Zizka and the Hussite Revolution. Read more about the author on his Web site.
1. How did you become interested in Jan Zizka and why did you choose to write about him? Did your Slavic ancestry have anything to do with your choice of subject matter?
It’s difficult to give a short answer — it was a circuitous route, to say the least. In 2000, soon after taking a position as features editor with a daily newspaper in Iowa, I learned about the National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids. As a Slovak American, naturally, I was intrigued. I wrote a feature story about an exhibit at the NCSML highlighting famous Czechs and Slovaks and their contributions to popular culture, including Franz Kafka (whom I’d read extensively from adolescence to grad school). A University of Iowa professor slated to give a presentation on Kafka had to cancel for medical reasons, and I stood in for her. That was the beginning of a continuing relationship with the NCSML and my friendship with Dave Muhlena, its head librarian, who first suggested Zizka to me as a possible book topic. In the meantime, have continued to write about events at the NCSML as a freelance jazz journalist and art critic-at-large; I needn’t detail all that, since it can be viewed on my Web site were someone to be interested. I will say that it became a bit of a running joke at the NCSML that I gave the place a lot of good ink due in no small part to my Slovak ancestry!
During this time, two articles of mine were published in a national magazine devoted to military history. Both profiled a famous writer who had served as a regular soldier in combat: Lord Byron and Leo Tolstoy. I was casting about for another story line, one less “literary,” and Dave suggested the Czechoslovak Legion of WWI, truly an epic saga. However, the magazine’s editors informed me, it was such a good idea that they’d already run a piece on it about a year earlier! When I told Dave of my disappointment, he said that he had one other suggestion: Zizka. I read the two best English-language books on the subject — Frederick Heymann’s “Jan Zizka and the Hussite Revolution,” and Howard Kaminsky’s “A History of the Hussite Revolution” — did some additional research, and wrote a 4,000-word article. However, during that time the magazine underwent a corporate restructuring, and the new editors chose to run a story on Zizka by another writer.
So, there I was, with a fair body of data on Zizka and the intense conviction that I had a remarkable story on my hands — one that few in the U.S. or UK know anything about. I had a terrible time trying to fit Zizka’s story into the space of 4,000 words, as per my editor’s instruction; I knew there was easily enough material for 150,000. I began shopping the idea around, and to my great good fortune, Michael Leventhal, publisher of Frontline Books, and his editor-in-chief Kate Baker agreed with me that I had the makings of a very worthwhile book. However, it was to be considerably less than 150,000 words in length, and so as with the magazine article, there was a great deal of material I had to leave out (some of which I’ve posted on my Web site, www.verney.us). It was a matter of focus: as military history, my book of necessity omits a great deal of theological and political history, which was real challenge as those factors are so interlocked in this particular case.
2. As a historian, how do you deal with any preconceived ideas or knowledge you have about the subject matter (in this case Jan Zizka and the Hussite Revolution) and eliminate any biases that may already exist?
I don’t think serious historians need necessarily discard or discount antecedent knowledge, experiences and viewpoints when going into a project. However, I think that they must be willing to re-examine them in good faith and with an open mind.
When I began “Warrior of God,” I had to forthrightly admit to myself — and everyone else — that I cannot pretend to be 100% impartial when it comes to either Czech history or the Catholic Church. The fact is I believe that the Czechs have been bullied about in disgraceful fashion by their neighbors for centuries, and I don’t mind saying so; I think I might feel the same way — albeit less passionately, perhaps — even if I were not of Slovak ancestry myself. Secondly, despite (or perhaps due to) eleven years of attending Catholic school, I am now what is known as a “fallen son of the Church,” in large measure because early in life I came to view the Vatican as a perennial opponent of progressive social ideals, scientific enlightenment and artistic freedom. From my (admittedly skewed) perspective, the multiple crusades mounted against the Hussites by the Roman Catholic Church are only part of a much larger history that includes the Inquisition, Galileo/Copernicus, and the Catholic Legion of Decency.
Those are merely my opinions, of course, and I’m entitled to them. By the same token, it is incumbent on a historian (like a journalist) to be willing to go where the story leads and to make every possible effort to present a accurate a picture as possible, even if it proves uncongenial to previously held viewpoints. In my own case, this awareness fostered a determination to show the good, bad, and ugly of both sides, demonstrating that there was plenty of cruelty, barbarism and fanaticism to go around. I made a strenuous effort be comprehensive and even-handed, what diplomats terms an “honest broker.” Yes, Rome (with Sigismund’s acquiescence) burned Hus, Jerome and others at the stake, but Zizka and his hard-liners were responsible for likewise burning dozens whom they deemed heretical, as well. I feel I was fair.
3. How long did it take you to write and research Warrior of God?
Roughly two and a half years, capped by a one-week trip to the Czech Republic during which I visited the Hussite Museum in Tabor as well as the Zizka memorial on Prague’s Vitkov Hill.
4. Why did you think historians in general do not give much attention to stories like Zizka’s and the regions of Central and East-Central Europe during the Middle Ages?
I’m glad you asked that question. It’s a very complex one, and there are multiple overlapping reasons. One part of the answer can be found in the wording of the question itself. When you say “historians in general,” are you actually referring to English-speaking historians in general? (We Americans often do that sort of thing unconsciously). There are Central and Eastern European Studies academic programs, albeit of a more interdisciplinary nature, producing wonderful historical writing for the university presses. But those presses have limited readerships. If few are reading it, that’s not the same thing as historians ignoring it.
I will venture to say that German and Russian historians have written plenty about Zizka, the Hussite Revolution and its aftermath, as I learned during my visit to the Hussite Museum in Tabor. There, I was given a box with a dozen massive volumes of collected monographs, essays, book excerpts, seminar papers, etc., representing some 45 years of accumulated scholarly material. It cost me $50 in overweight charges on my flight home from Prague! Unfortunately, most of it was in either Czech, German or Russian, except for a few of the abstracts. More misfortune: I sent it over to Dave at the NCSML to see if he might be able to get some of it translated. While there, this material was destroyed by the flood of June ’08 that wiped out the NCSML and much of Cedar Rapids. I can’t help thinking at times what marvelous insights I might have read therein, and what additional clarity or weight it might have added to my book. (I’ll return to the matter of translations momentarily).
With regard to Anglophone historians, I can only comment as a friendly observer from afar about the Brits. As a starting point, I’ll trot out Neville Chamberlain’s infinitely regrettable remark about Czech quarrels in a “far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” As I read it 70 years later, I translate that phrase into “… people in whom we’re not much interested.” Not to label myself a Marxist, but I believe that most military history is economically determined, and I so think this part of my answer is relatively simple: England never established long-term spheres of interest in Central or East-Central Europe. Hence, British military historians write about the Khyber Pass and the Transvaal, just as French military historians write about Algiers and Dien Bien Phu.
Now with respect to Americans … well, the demographics are daunting. In comparison to the huge numbers of Americans with, say, Italian, Irish, African, German, or Hispanic ancestry, the Czech American population is tiny. The footprint they make in America’s popular culture (e.g. parades & holidays like St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo) is likewise small. The fact is that most Americans don’t much care about Central and East-Central Europe, either — medieval or modern. I’ve found that in most cases, when non-Czechs ask me what my book is about, their eyes quickly glaze over when I begin to tell them; they’re not really interested, of course, they’re just being polite. I don’t take this personally, because it’s a lamentable fact that most Americans care little about history in general, including their own.
The production of books, like everything else in a free market economy, is driven by the profit motive. If presses don’t believe sufficient interest in a topic exists to warrant more than a few books, then there will only be few books about that topic, no matter how many historians want to write about it. For a similar reason, there are only a handful of post-secondary schools in the US that teach Czech as a foreign language. If only a limited number of American college students want to learn Czech, then only a small number of professors will be hired to teach them, regardless of the number of willing instructors available. It’s all about supply and demand, really.
This part of my answer leads to another question that would only have occurred to me after going through the rite of passage known as “getting a book published.” It’s a question no one can answer: how many Anglophone historians, whether British, American or others, whether of Slavic background or not — wanted to write a book about, oh, medieval Central European military history, but received no institutional support or encouragement from publishers? This then becomes a self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating phenomenon. If books about Central European medieval history aren’t printed by universities and publishers in England or America, young scholars there are not exposed to them and so do not become interested in the topic.
Frederick Heymann, who wrote the definitive English-language book on Zizka in 1955, was in a privileged position, and his timing was fortuitous. He was able to emigrate to the US and eventually Canada; he was fluent in English, German, Czech and Latin, and his academic position at Princeton supported him in his Zizka studies, which involved extensive research throughout Central and East-Central Europe. Independent scholars not fluent in Czech and lacking financial resources such as academic grants are at a distinct disadvantage when studying Zizka and the Hussites.
When I say “privileged position” and “fortuitous timing,” that encompasses another major part of the answer to your question: communism. For forty years it was virtually impossible for medievalists from the West to carry out unfettered archival research and pursue collaborations with their peers behind the Iron Curtain, and it will take some time before the effects of that intellectual embargo are fully rectified. By the same token, for those same forty years, historians from then-Czechoslovakia and other East Bloc countries were precluded from studying abroad in England and the U.S., further choking off professional cross-pollination between them and their Anglophone colleagues.
Czechs themselves, I have found, are not overly eager to translate from their language to mine. Other Anglophone scholars have related similar impressions to me. A generational factor further complicates things. As I learned in Tabor, for most Czech scholars over the age of 30, German is their second language; if they speak a third, it’s usually Russian; English is a distant fourth. This is another legacy of the Iron Curtain. Because of this, the museum curators and I were reduced to the necessity of talking in elementary school language — more resources frustratingly unattainable from beyond the language barrier!
However, while younger Czechs are more able to converse in English, they are not particularly willing to do textual translations. The attitude among many in the CR seems to be, “if you want to learn about us, you can start by learning our language.” There are very understandable cultural reasons for this attitude. In part, it is related to a long history of forced Germanization as a subject nation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, during which time the Czech language was nearly obliterated, followed by the Nazis and the Soviets, each with their own view of how Czech history ought to be spoken and written.
Czechs have well-developed historical memories, and the older ones bear long-standing grudges against both England (c. 1939) and the U.S. (c. 1948). Many younger Czechs view the EU and NATO as simply two more trans-national empires bullying their country around — the current dust-up over the proposed NATO anti-missile radar station isn’t really helping, either. Speaking English wins you no points, and being an “Americky” does not engender welcoming smiles in the CR as a general rule — for the time being, at any rate.
But … however sympathetic I or anyone else may be to the sensibilities of the Czechs, they will simply have to get past this attitude. Translation services, whether in the CR or the U.S., are astronomically expensive, and I have discomfited more than one Czech acquaintance by asserting that they themselves bear some of the blame if Zizka and the Hussites are not studied and written about in the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Eventually, I would submit, Czechs are simply going to have to be proactive about making their historical records and archives more accessible to Anglophone historians and scholars — which includes making efforts to get as much material as practicable translated into English. Absent that, I will have limited patience with their standing complaint that nobody in America knows anything about Zizka and the Hussites.
To close this rather lengthy response on an upbeat note, I would stress that all the obstacles I’ve mentioned are rooted in the past, and I believe that the future will be quite different. For one thing, the fall of the Iron Curtain has opened up vast amounts of archival material — to say nothing of the ability to travel and freely associate, and I also believe that there will be other innovative publishers like Frontline’s Michael Leventhal who are open to mining some heretofore-untapped historical veins of knowledge. Young Czechs are not only increasingly fluent in English, many are willing to look on the West with a perspective unfreighted with past grudges.
There’s also a new generation of British and American professors with unconventional interests and approaches. I can attest that Slavic Studies is a burgeoning academic specialty in the humanities departments of many major universities in cities with large Slavic populations like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Chicago: I would single out the University of Lincoln/Nebraska and my alma mater, SUNY/Buffalo, in this regard. All this is going to rapidly change the landscape, as it were — I predict that the coming years will witness a steadily expanding body of work about Central and East-Central European medievalism, military and otherwise, by English and American historians.
5. What was the most rewarding part, in your opinion, of writing the book?
This experience was something of a deja vu for me, mirroring in many ways those while writing my doctoral dissertation (about another Bible-quoting firebrand, incidentally, radical abolitionist John Brown). As was the case then, what was most delightful about writing “Warrior of God” was the readiness with which scholars went out of their way to assist me over the course of the project, whether in the CR or the US, often dropping what they were doing for my sake. In my book’s Preface, I mention several such individuals, some of whom are world-class scholars. After immersing myself in what is for most –including some historians — a fairly recondite topic, it was a positive joy to interact with some very accomplished and very friendly Hussite scholars. To be accepted as a colleague by them, seeing them exert themselves to the utmost to help me in the name of scholarship and book-writing, was hugely gratifying.
6. What methods do you use to self-market and promote your book? How much are you involved in marketing along with your publisher?
Well, that gives me the chance to plug my Web site again, thank you very much! Via that platform, I do all I can to steer prospective buyers to on-line booksellers, including Casemate Publishing (Frontline’s U.S. distributor), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders. Shortly before my book’s release — and after copious Googling — I submitted to Casemate a lengthy mailing list of Czech American “sokols” (I’ll let people look that one up), cultural societies and professional associations and their officers (not to mention appropriate contacts at the various Czech embassies and consulates in the UK, U.S. and Canada). Those individuals received a promotional flyer with a coupon for a reduced price.
Of course, I scrutinize anything I hear of involving Czechs and Czech Americans in my part of the country. I have aggressively sought appropriate venues at which to promote “Warrior of God,” whether at an Omaha Czech cultural fair in May, a Des Moines bookstore in June, or (scheduled for the fall) the Des Moines Public Library. I am in contact with bookstores in other large cities across the upper Midwest and the NCSML with a view to arranging other such events. Sometimes one thing leads to another in unpredictable fashion: for example, the proprietor of that Des Moines bookstore, Beaverdale Books, arranged for a radio interview with a local journalist who chronicles Des Moines’ cultural scene. I will continue to try to make things like that happen, perhaps in cities where I have friends and relatives, which would make travel there affordable.
I am fully at the service of the folks at Frontline — far more experienced in marketing and PR than I! If there is something they propose arranging because they think would be helpful in that regard, I am more than happy to participate. This interview is a perfect example!
7. What advice would you give to other aspiring authors?
First, be brutally honest with yourself by getting objective opinions from knowledgeable, competent judges of good writing, whether teachers, editors, journalists or other professional writers — NOT your Significant Other or best friend. Then submit your work for free to some of the many Web sites that are designed for aspiring writers, and see how your stuff holds up to the critical scrutiny of total strangers. Then ask yourself: do I really have what it takes, talent-wise? And if you believe the answer is yes, then ask yourself: do I have what it takes, temperament-wise? Are you prepared to deal with a steady stream of rejection notices — most of them generic? It doesn’t feel good, regardless of who you are, and most aspiring writers endure months and years of frustration and wounded pride before finally getting that first acceptance letter.
If the answer both questions is yes, and assuming you have a clear idea of what it is you want to write (fiction, non-fiction, children’s lit, self-help, whatever), then get the current edition of “Writer’s Market” and adopt it as your new bible. It will set you back $30 or so, but it’s worth every penny. This rather hefty reference, which will tell you everything you need to know about publishers, agents, and marketing your work, has several worthwhile tie-in resources, and is constantly updated.
8. What projects are you planning to work on next?
Presently, I’m just finishing up a magazine article that is a direct spin-off from “Warrior of God.” I originally wrote an Epilog for the book tracing the remarkable story of the statue of Zizka on Vitkov Hill overlooking Prague, site of Zizka’s first great victory over Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund and his crusaders in 1420. Space considerations caused me to cut it from my final ms. However, I was convinced that this statue, erected in 1950, is a remarkable story in it own right. I wrote a shortened version of this Epilog that I’m hopeful that a quarterly French-Canadian art magazine will run in its Fall ’09 issue. It would be timely: Zizka’s statue has been dismantled and restored; a grand re-opening of the Vitkov Memorial is slated for October 28, 2009.
My next book will be an outgrowth of a series of newspaper and magazine articles I’ve written over the past few years, including the two previously mentioned pieces. I’ve become interested in famed authors who served in the military, drawing a distinction between those who went to war as, say, ambulance drivers (e.g. Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, John Dos Passos) or journalists (e.g. Stephen Crane) versus bona fide military men: in other words, real soldiers who — it just so happened — were great writers. This (admittedly subjective) list has undergone several phases as I’ve continued to think about the subject.
I’m developing a book about nine notable writers: Miguel de Cervantes, who lost the use of his left arm as a Spanish soldier fighting the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto; Lord Byron, who died while trying to help the cause of Greek independence; Leo Tolstoy, who served four years as a gunnery officer in the Russian Army and saw fighting in both Chechnya and Crimea; Ambrose Bierce, who saw hard action during the American Civil War; Arthur Conan Doyle, who served as a British field doctor in South Africa during the Boer War; George Orwell, who fought with the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War; Wilfred Owen, a British poet killed in the trenches of France just one week before the end of WWI and his contemporary Siegfried Sassoon; and Kurt Vonnegut, who was a German prisoner of war after being captured in WWII’s Battle of the Bulge.
With this book, I’m moving back into more familiar territory with respect to my own professional background and education. This isn’t so much military history per se, but something perhaps best described as “literary non-fiction.” Among other things, I hope to demonstrate that beyond learning some very interesting and little-known elements of these men’s biographies, studying their military experiences leads one to read with new eyes such works as “Don Quixote,” “War & Peace,” and “Animal Farm.” I’ve had some expressions of interest, and I expect to finalize a contract with a publisher in the very near future.
Another book on the horizon for me, still in its very early exploratory stages, is a first-person narrative of man from Iowa who died while serving as a medic in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. I happen to know the man’s family quite well, including the man’s brother, who approached me about it. I have already been permitted to see an extensive collection of keepsakes and documents, including some heart-rending letters from the bunkers to his wife in Germany. I was draft-eligible for one year of the war, and many people of my age were forever changed by that hopeless conflict. The recent death of Robert McNamara only reminds me how important it is that that the Vietnam War is fully examined and never shrugged away, as I feel is happening today to some extent. I’m pursuing military archives and lining up interviews at the moment, so I still do not know exactly what material I have to work with. If and when it seems as though there is enough material to warrant a book, I will submitting it for consideration to Mr. Leventhal, who expresses the hope I might author other books for Frontline in the future. The feeling is certainly mutual, inasmuch as I am very appreciative of all that Michael and his colleagues, as well as Tara Lichterman of Casemate, have done and continue to do for me.
And thank you once again, Steven, for your interest in “Warrior of God” and giving me the chance to say a few things about it and myself.