Anne Applebaum is a columnist and member of the editorial board of The Washington Post.
She began working as a journalist in 1988, when she moved to Poland to become the Warsaw correspondent for the Economist. She eventually covered the collapse of communism across Central and Eastern Europe, writing for a wide range of newspapers and magazines.
Returning to London in 1992, she became the Foreign Editor, and later Deputy Editor, of the Spectator magazine. Following that, she wrote a weekly column on British politics and foreign affairs, which appeared at different times in the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph, and the Evening Standard newspapers. She covered the 1997 British election campaign as the Evening Standard's political editor. For several years, she wrote the "Foreigners" column in Slate magazine.
Her first book, Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, described a journey through Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus, then on the verge of independence. Her second book, Gulag: A History, narrates the history of the Soviet concentration camp system and describes daily life in the camps. It makes extensive use of recently-opened Russian archives.
Over the years, her writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The International Herald Tribune, Foreign Affairs, The Boston Globe, The Independent, The Guardian, Commentaire, Suddeutsche Zeitung, Newsweek, The New Criterion, The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The National Review, The New Statesman, The Times Literary Supplement and the Literary Review, among others. She has appeared as a guest and as a presenter on many radio and television programs, among them BBC's Newsnight, The Today Progamme, The Week in Westminster, as well as CNN, MSNBC, CBS and Sky News.
Anne Applebaum was born in Washington, D.C. in 1964. After graduating from Yale University, she was a Marshall Scholar at the London School of Economics and St. Antony's College, Oxford. In 1992 she won the Charles Douglas-Home Memorial Trust award for journalism in the ex-Soviet Union. Between East and West won an Adolph Bentinck prize for European non-fiction in 1996. Her husband, Radek Sikorski, is a Polish politician and writer. They have two children, Alexander and Tadeusz.
Author biography courtesy of Anne Applebaum's official web site.
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"I met my husband because he and I decided to drive to the Berlin Wall on the night that it was first opened -- we drove there, together with another friend. Since he's from the East -- he grew up in Poland -- and I'm from the West, we've always liked the symbolism of that encounter."
"It was my foreign husband who finally persuaded me to move back to the United States, in 2002. After 16 years, I'd already reconciled myself to living abroad and had acquired dual citizenship in Britain. I thought of myself as a British journalist -- I'd never worked in the U.S. Now people seem surprised to learn that I was gone for so long." [Note: In 2006, Applebaum moved back to Poland with her husband.]
"If it were practical, I'd probably live in a Polish country house -- it's a 19th-century manor house that my husband and his parents have been restoring for the past decade. It isn't near anything -- it's provincial in the best sense of the word -- so is therefore impractical, but it is enormously satisfying to spend time in an old place that is nevertheless designed the way we wanted it designed. Although it has no architectural or historical significance, it is a house with an unusually calm aura, one that has inspired others -- while researching his own book about the place (The Polish House), my husband discovered that a novel had been written about it in the early 20th century.
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In the fall of 2003, Anne Applebaum took some time to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
Different books influenced me at different times. But the most important recent influence was Primo Levi's If This Is a Man, his account of his experiences in Auschwitz. I first read this book when I was much younger. At the time, it was the first account of the Holocaust I had read that did not describe the events only as a tragedy, but also as a profound test of individual character. Levi's descriptions of why some prisoners survived -- and others did not -- remains the classic account of how different kinds of people respond to extreme circumstances, how vices can become virtues in a concentration camp, and how individual and unpredictable are human reactions to suffering. Later, while doing the research for my book about the Gulag, I read it again, several times, mostly because I was struck by Levi's tone, and in particular his ability to empathize with the people he writes about, but not to sentimentalize them. I aspire to achieve something similar.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace is a book I've read several times, and found something different in it each time. The first time I read it, I skipped the battle scenes; the second time I read it, I realized that the battle scenes were the best part, because they show how warfare (and history itself) is completely confusing to people who are living through it: at the time, you don't know who's winning or losing, and what will happen next. Everything can be explained in retrospect, but at very chaotic moments, nothing seems logical at all.
In no particular order:
Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina -- Another book I keep rereading. I think it's the authenticity of the emotions of his characters, and the incredible flashes of insight he has into their thinking -- even small things, like Dolly feeling intimidated by Anna's good taste -- that always draw me in.
Vladimir Nabokov's Ada -- Another Russian writer, but a completely different one. In the case of Nabokov, his astonishing use of language is what I love. In Ada, he makes puns in three languages -- you actually have to know Russian and French to realize that he's making them. He also writes better about exile than almost anyone else.
V. S. Naipaul's A House fpr Mr. Biswas -- I could choose several of Naipaul's novels, but this one is probably my favorite. It can almost be described as an early treatise on the impact of globalization: what happens when people from the less developed world begin to have developed world ambitions.
Robert Conquest's The Great Terror -- I admire Conquest not only because his history books are beautifully written but also because at the time he wrote them, they were deeply unfashionable. He stuck to his beliefs, and now his books are classics.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- It's still the best book ever about America, aspiration, and the elusive nature of success. I first read it in about ninth grade, and it was one of the first adult books I really understood.
Graham Greene's The Quiet American -- An amazingly prescient novel, written before the Vietnam War but set in Vietnam. Although partly a love story, the real theme is the unintended consequences of American idealism in far-flung corners of the world. You could set it in the Middle East, or almost anywhere, today.
F. A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom -- The book that made a whole generation of politicians, and me as well, see the function of government in a different light.
Hanna Arendt's Totalitarianism -- I read this book before I really knew enough history to understand it. When I reread it, I saw that it had some flaws. Nevertheless, Arendt's book was the first to try to grapple with the new forms of political terror that technology made possible in the 20th century.
Giuseppi di Lampedusa's The Leopard -- The classic account of social change, written from the perspective of a noble family that is slowly losing its influence in the world.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Casablanca -- Which I love for its ambiguity -- you aren't absolutely sure which side everybody's on -- and the fact that it doesn't have a happy ending, just as real life doesn't have happy endings.
Ashes and Diamonds -- The Polish director Andrzej Wajda's masterpiece, and another ambiguous film about post-war Poland, a time of confused morality and impossible choices.
The Inner Circle -- An unjustly ignored movie about Stalin's film projectionist. It's the only attempt I know of to demonstrate how people actually became Stalinists -- how they came to believe in lies.
The Pianist -- Another film by a Polish director, Roman Polanski. An unsentimental, but extremely moving, account of what it took to survive the war in Warsaw. I also loved this film for its refusal to buy into national stereotypes.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like many kinds of music -- including pop songs that remind me of particular parts of my life -- but am particularly addicted to Schubert lieder, as well as Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter. I can't listen to anything at all when I write, particularly not songs with words -- it's far too distracting.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Without question, my favorite books to buy, at the moment, are beautifully bound, hardback editions of children's classics. In recent months, I've bought everything from The Railway Children and Alice Through the Looking Glass to Where the Wild Things Are for my children, my children's friends and my friend's children. I suppose it's a not-very-subtle attempt to inoculate them against video game culture.
By the same token, the books I most love getting, and giving to adults, are also well-made classics. Not long ago, I bought a complete edition of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for my husband, which was very satisfying.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write best in the morning, and have a lot of trouble staying focused in the afternoons. However, I have one ritual which almost always serves as the perfect cure for writer's block or afternoon writer's fatigue: a 20-minute nap. When you wake up it's like starting the day over again.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I feel like I've been writing for my whole life, so it's hard to say how long it took me to get "here", wherever that is. My most recent book took six years to complete, and I did most of it while living in Poland, where my husband was in the government. In order to have a small space separate from my children, I rented a tiny apartment in a classic, gray cement, Communist-era apartment block, and wrote most of the manuscript there. I couldn't see anything out the window except other gray cement apartment blocks. Somehow, it was the right atmosphere.
Here's an inspirational anecdote: when I first began to write a book about the Gulag, I went to see a famous scholar of the subject in Russia. He took one look at me, shook his head, and said, "It's impossible, you can't do it." I saw him recently and he told me not only how much he liked the book but how many other people had told him they liked it too.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Write about subjects you care about.
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