This past summer I attended the German school at Middlebury College as a Kathryn Wasserman Davis Peace Fellow. In keeping with the program’s complete immersion philosophy, I spoke, wrote, and read nearly everything in German for seven weeks. Classes in grammar, culture, and literature broadened my knowledge of the language in both content and context. Extracurricular activities enriched my understanding of Germanic history, philosophy, film, and music. My goal throughout was straightforward: to strengthen my ability to read historical research materials by and about Bertha von Suttner in the original language and, when necessary, render a satisfactory English translation. It should come as no surprise that one of my final projects was a ten-minute presentation (auf Deutsch) about Bertha’s life and achievements.
It should also come as no surprise that I’ve returned to Peace at Last and its related projects with new ideas and perspectives. Now, I’m not much of a fan of “writers writing about writing,” as it too often veers into simplistic instruction or mystical self-aggrandizement. I’ve been doing this long enough to appreciate the varying needs and strategies of individual writers and individual projects. I’ve also learned to distinguish between writing and publishing and, further, to try to keep those two worlds apart for as long as possible when undertaking a project.
My initial inspiration for Peace at Last inextricably linked Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner, and I felt strongly that their stories, at least in the overarching context of the establishment of the Peace Prize, could not and should not be told apart from one another. That resulted in a “first final” draft approaching 500,000 words, which, according to friends who are agents or editors, was an absolute non-starter for publication. I’ve since cut the manuscript in half, and from there continued to chop away whole sections and chapters. Spoiler alert: the two stand-alone excerpts that have already been published (“Koppargruva” and “The Iron Tower”) no longer appear as complete chapters in the current manuscript.
Having spent a summer away from that manuscript, I approached the ongoing revision process with renewed energy and confidence. As a result, I’ve split the manuscript in two once again. As things now stand, Bertha and Alfred have their own separate books. To justify that drastic change, I had to be sure that each of the two resulting novels would have its own, distinct narrative arc while preserving the idealistic spirit that motivated both characters. In other words, the two books couldn’t simply tell the same story from two different points of view. Bertha’s bold and persistent optimism in a male-dominated society, even within the pacifist movement, interested me from the start, and so I’ve chosen to focus on her book first and will continue to use the provisional title Peace at Last. Alfred’s book will likely focus on his internal battles with chronic melancholia, lifelong “bachelorhood,” and guilt over his younger brother’s death.
“There will always be conflict, but I’ll remind you that love, kindness, and support are also part of human nature. My challenge to you is to bring about a mindset of preparing for peace instead of preparing for war.”
– Kathryn Wasserman Davis
I’ll continue to write and post here about both Alfred and Bertha, but for the weeks and months ahead, Bertha will be my primary focus. I look forward to sharing new insights and ideas about her and her work, particularly as they relate to events unfolding around the world today. Kathryn Wasserman Davis challenged her namesake scholars to “bring about a mindset of preparing for peace instead of preparing for war.” I remain hopeful that my continuing work on Peace at Last will meet that challenge.