Enjoy this interview with Athens, Greece scholar and author, Miltiades Varvounis about his historical masterpiece, Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe.
1. Why did you write Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe?
Jan Sobieski was one of the most fascinating men ever to sit on a throne or command an army. He became famous at the age of 38 through his exceptional military skills, and he was acknowledged as the greatest soldier of his time throughout the rest of his turbulent life. His patriotism, his energy, his faith, his military reputation, his taste for art, and his talents – all these were legendary in his lifetime. However, after WWII, there was no published work in English about the king who saved Europe from the Ottomans at the Battle of Vienna (1683); a battle which was the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s cavalry charge of the Rohirrim that lifted the Siege of Minas Tirith in “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Although a great number of books in English have been published on Polish history since the 1990s, the ‘Lion of Lechistan’ ,as Sobieski was called by the Ottomans, has remained neglected by the historians. If Jan Sobieski is the most famous Polish military figure, we also witness a similar situation with notable generals or national heroes such as Alexander the Great, Duke of Wellington, Frederick the Great etc., who have been ignored by modern historiography for decades.
2. What kind of audience did you have in mind when you wrote this book?
I aim for a wide readership; I prefer to write articles or books that will be attractive to a more global, international public, so this makes me a popular historian. Besides, I am not so interested in writing a dull, analytic academic monograph that nobody outside the profession would read. The truth is that if you want to tell a fascinating story, you cannot do that by writing an academic history book. And that’s what history is, a story. It is no wonder why sales of academic history books sometimes number only in hundreds; if it weren’t for university and library purchases, their sales might be measured in dozens. Therefore, I just belong to this minority of historians that prefer addressing a wider audience to addressing limited academic audience, promoting history in a vivid detail that will move people who are thirsty for knowledge. Moreover, I also want to change many ordinary people’s perception of history, persuading them that history is definitely not boring, for history should be for everybody as history is simply humanity.
3. Many of your descriptions surpass those of the 'average' historical non-fiction author. To what do you attribute this skill?
Various popular historians or novelists were my inspiration regarding my way of writing, while my mentor, Dr. Nicolaos Nicoloudis,has given me some good pieces of advice and encouragement during these recent years. Thanks to them, I made the decision to present history that reads like a “novel" and inspire the reader to take a front seat in the middle of the historical events, offering him the unique opportunity to travel back to the past and witness the life of those exciting times explained in my books. Writing a captivating, accurate, thrilling biography with a compelling flow of narrative means that your characters should be as dynamic and fascinating as the ones you would create in fiction. That is why I enjoy focusing on why people in power did whatever they did and how it affected others and the humanity. Finally, what matters to me is to make my books engrossing to read and that a reader won’t end up putting them down halfway through.
You write that early on you were greatly influenced by film, listing Sergio Leone as one of your
favorite directors. Do you think
your writing about legendary heroes reflects Leone and other directors who took as rolemodels
archetypical memes, such as in Kurosawa's,
That applies mainly to the movie script I have written with the Greek director and actor Despoina Kourti, and now we both try to promote it to several agents and producers. Our film project is called “The Last Sunset” and it is a gothic horror Western that deals with the hunt of a brutal vampire (actually a demon) in the wild remote parts of a Greek island back in the 17th century. However, it is not just Sergio Leone, but also John Carpenter who has influenced me, while co-writing that script.
5. How political are you in your writing (if at all)?
Well, every historian looks at the past from his or her own perspective, uses his or her own methods and writes in his or her own way. Each historian approaches the past with his or her own values, priorities and political perspectives. Therefore, almost all historians are more or less political in their works. Personally, I do not want to be labeled or categorized into a specific school of historiography (romantic, critical, postmodern, revisionist, post revisionist, Neo-Conservative, Marxist and New Left). However, I have been once called “the last of the romantic historians”, an exaggerated title without doubt. But the reason for being called like that is that I am attracted to the old romantic school of patriotic historiography, for I always emphasize in my works the military and cultural achievements of my both homelands. Moreover, I like to focus on the romantic ability of the heroic individual to alter society and determine the fate of an entire nation or humanity.
Despite my intentions to inspire patriotism and speak for Poland and Greece, bringing both nations to full self-consciousness, I am always committed to the objective requirements of fidelity, honesty and attachment to archival evidence. Every historian must present history without distortions.
6. What do you think Jan Sobieski would say about your book if he read it?
“I came, I read, I enjoyed.” (A paraphrase of Jan Sobieski’s famous quote after the Battle of Vienna, “I came, I saw, God conquered").
7. Please tell us where we can find more of your works, past and current? “Jan Sobieski” can be found in selected bookstores in the US (especially in Chicago with its large American-Polish community) and, of course, in electronic markets (Amazon, Barnes & Nobles etc). My other books are only in Greek; therefore, they are available only in Greek bookstores. Some historical articles of mine in English are also available on internet. Check out my official website for more details: miltiadesvarvounis.com
8. We noticed that all your books are biographies. Do you consider yourself a biographer?
Actually, yes. That is because I got some proposals from Greek publishers to write about some significant historical figures. They knew me for my fresh and lively writing skills concerning biographies from several articles of mine, presented in several historical magazines. However, I have written many general historical articles as well. To be honest I have not paid attention to that detail, and I have not bothered to regard myself as a biographer. Because in the end, I feel that I am just an explorer of the hidden and unknown world of the past and the archives, confronting monsters, deciphering enigmas and journeying on behalf of humanity to the chaotic and exotic underground realm of knowledge.
9. Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Well, thank you so much for inviting me; I am grateful for this enjoyable interview and I congratulate you on your well-organized website, which gives several authors the opportunity to present their works and views. Keep these interesting interviews coming. I will end with a famous quote by one of my favorite philosophers, Cicero: “A room without books is like a body without soul.”