Krivak presents Chautauqua Prize-winning ‘The Sojourn’

Jennifer Shore | Staff Writer

The Chautauqua Prize was presented to Andrew Krivak for The Sojourn on Sunday at a Bestor Society event, but planning for the award can be likened to the lengthy process of writing a book itself.

Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education and Youth Services, spent years meticulously planning the prize, which nationally recognizes the author and “celebrates a book of fiction or literary/narrative nonfiction that provides a richly rewarding reading experience,” according to the release announcing the prize.

Thirty-six publishers nominated 65 books for the prize, and Babcock recruited 35 reviewers to narrow down the list. Each reviewer was a Chautauquan who has or had a profession related to books, Babcock said — some are professors or teachers of writing and literature, librarians, booksellers, editors, publishers or published writers.

Three reviewers read each book; two  of the three had to approve a book to have it considered for the shortlist and as the winner. The recommended potential winners — the longlist — was then read by a panel of three anonymous judges, who selected the shortlist and the winner.

Two shortlist winners are Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selections this summer — Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks and All Cry Chaos by Leonard Rosen. As author of the first-ever Chautauqua Prize winner, The Sojourn, Krivak will host a public reading at 4 p.m. today in Smith Wilkes Hall.

“I hope that those who come to my reading will learn as much about how I wrote the book as they will hear me read from the actual book,” Krivak said.

The Sojourn follows Jozef Vinich, transitioning after a family tragedy from Colorado to Austria-Hungary during World War I. Krivak considers it to be an amalgam of stories he had heard as a boy about his grandparents growing up in the old country.

In many respects, all fiction has a touch of autobiography in it, he said. But before he started writing the book, Krivak began thinking about his grandfather, whom he never met. That process gave him the chance to discover himself as a writer.

In The Sojourn, his great-grandmother is a character killed by a train at the beginning of the book, and his great-uncle is a baby saved by boys swimming.

“That moment has been passed down for generations in my family, and so it was a natural starting point for me, because it set off a string of events that changed a lot of people’s lives in ways they had no way of imagining,” Krivak said.

But he didn’t set out to write nonfiction or historical fiction — he took what he needed as a writer to write the story. But the attention to language is what makes a story come alive, he said.

The Sojourn,Babcock said,  creates a worthwhile experience for readers — one of the requirements for the prize.

“It is a work of ambitious scope, illuminating historical detail, dramatic pace and relentless calamities rivaling the Book of Job,” said Institution President Thomas M. Becker in his annual Three Taps of the Gavel address on June 24. “The main character’s capacity to endure and to remain open to the needs of others, even in threatening conditions, evokes Solomon’s gift of a listening heart.”

Krivak originally considered writing a nonfiction work that took place in Austria-Hungary  around World War I, but he became fascinated with the possibility of, and the freedom involved in, turning it into fiction.

Krivak, who teaches in the Arts and Sciences Honors Program at Boston College, said he believes writing to be a solitary endeavor of self-discovery. Many students who ask him how to get started get the same response: “Read as much as you possibly can, searching out books you love, books that somehow change you, and figure out what it is about them that is doing this to you. These are the books that will become your teachers, because their words and music will always be in your head.”