Empires Apart: The American & Russian Empires from the Vikings to Iraq by Brian Landers
“The English invented champagne in the seventeenth century.”
That was going to be the opening line of my book, Empires Apart, due to be published by Picnic on 2nd April next year. It was the only part of the introduction I did not write and rewrite over and over again as I struggled to find my narrative voice. It was a line I was proud of: whimsical, arresting, unexpected, succinct. All qualities I would value in a novel – but Empires Apart is not a novel.
Empires Apart describes the parallel histories of the Russian and American empires. It is a serious book that I would like to be taken seriously. Whimsy is not a quality readers of serious books can be expected to warm to.
Writing a book, like writing a blog, is a marvellous way of expressing yourself. I really enjoy writing. I like to play with words, push the boundaries of English grammar, jest with juxtapositions and to alliterate. I know nothing about scansion or metre but I love sentences for the sound they make in my mind as I read them to myself. If I was writing for myself all that would be fine but I like to pretend that I am writing for others. Perhaps the greatest difficulty an author faces is to constantly remember the audience. Novels can be about the author, indeed many seem to be about nothing else, but good non-fiction allows no such self-indulgence. And yet part of me still thinks that what grabs me might grab others.
The truth is that part of me is simply selfish and conceited – I want to put in the puns and quips that appeal to my sense of humour and, let’s admit it, my vanity. I like writing that the early Russian conquests led to a “steppe change” in Russian history. It amuses me to suggest that the Portuguese navigator Joäo Vaz Corte Real may have reached America first and that if his publicists had been as good as Amerigo Vespucci’s “Americans” might today be “Realists”. I enjoy the idea of starting a book on modern political history by referring to the ancient battle that took place in the fields where the champagne grapes now grow as more brutal than brut.
At the same time I feel passionate about my subject and want others to feel that passion. And I recognise that self-indulgent puns are not going to convince anyone to take me seriously. So I write at speed whatever springs to mind and then edit out the frivolous and meandering, or at least most of it. And that I hope leaves a mostly serious book on a decidedly serious theme.
The first English settlers crossed the Atlantic and the first Russian settlers crossed the Urals at the same time and I have long been fascinated by the similarities between the two nations as they expanded to the Pacific and then strove to rule the world. The two great powers that dominated most of the twentieth century, and may still dominate much of the twenty first, appear at first to have so little in common but in reality have so much. It seemed to me that here was an exciting story that deserved to be told in an exciting way, in a way that would grip the reader like a novel rather then impress as an academic thesis. But that doesn’t include whimsical introductions.
My manuscript now has an opening paragraph rather than an opening sentence, and it tries to convey what the whole book is about:
“For America the road to Iraq started on Roanoke Island when the first Englishman stepped ashore and claimed a God-given right to take everything he saw. In the four centuries since then the world has been transformed but that first colonial philosophy has changed hardly at all. The central certainty has remained: Americans are special; they are due more of the earth’s riches than other nations. How those riches are to be gained, whether through the power of the musket or the dollar, may have changed but the continuity of empire is as clear between George Washington and George Bush as between Ivan the Terrible and Joseph Stalin. America’s first President and Russia’s first Tsar spoke openly of their dreams of Empire; their twentieth century successors had the same dreams but convinced themselves that an Empire by any other name would smell more sweet”.
Who knows the editor may decide to change it once again. I will of course listen to him. I just hope he doesn’t want to change the line buried about twenty pages in: “The English invented champagne in the seventeenth century.”