Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Charles Taylor Prize Interviews: Andrew Preston

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Charles Taylor Prize Interviews: Andrew Preston

Today we speak with Andrew Preston for the last instalment in our Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction series. The author of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (Knopf Canada), Andrew speaks with us today about religion and its effect on American diplomacy, how history repeats itself and life as a professional historian.

The Charles Taylor Prize is a $25,000 award that honours both Charles Taylor's legacy and the finest work of non-fiction published in Canada in the previous year. The 2013 prize will be announced on March 4.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Andrew Preston:

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith is a history of how religion shaped American war and diplomacy. There’s been a lot of heat, though not necessarily very much light, generated about the influence of religious politics in American public life. Most people pay attention to the very recent past — George W. Bush and the Religious Right, Christian Zionism, paranoia about “Islamofascism”, and so on — but nobody ever puts this in historical perspective. They assume it’s unique to our era, but nothing could be further from the truth. Religion has always been a major part of U.S. foreign policy — indeed, even before there was a United States that could have a foreign policy, religion formed Americans’ views of the wider world. That role has continued up until now, though in crooked rather than straight lines.

OB:

What were some of the most challenging and most enjoyable elements of writing this book?

AP:

Definitely the most challenging element was wrestling with the sheer scale of the book: it combines some of America’s largest and most important phenomena (religion, politics, and foreign policy) and does so across the whole sweep of American history, from the first English colonial ventures in the late sixteenth-century to the presidency of Barack Obama. Reading on the subjects of religion and foreign relations alone just about killed me — there aren’t exactly very many books linking religion and foreign policy out there — and that doesn’t even include the several hundreds of collections in over thirty archives that I used. I can say this now without fear of my editor having a heart attack, but there were times when I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it. And yet this also became, over time, the most enjoyable element of writing. Once I felt I’d got to grips with the scale of the book, and once I’d honed my own arguments, I felt the real freedom of writing a story that hadn’t really been told before.

OB:

What do you love about writing non-fiction specifically?

AP:

I’m a professional historian, so it’s what I do, and I love what I do. But I haven’t published poetry, memoir, fiction, or any other genre, so I’ve no basis of comparison. But while I love the craft of writing, I particularly enjoy the process of research. This is going to sound pretty nerdy, but there’s a real thrill to digging in the archives, searching for the letters, pamphlets, and other documents, and then piecing together a story from them.

OB:

Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.

AP:

I enjoy reading fiction as much as non-fiction. When I need to relax, I always read a novel; no matter how challenging, I always find it relaxing. But I also love reading narrative history. Academics are sniffy about popular and narrative histories, and I’ve never understood why. Biography is probably my favourite genre — again, another form that isn’t fashionable on the university campus. I’ve got a lot of favourite non-fiction books I return to again and again, but I’ll mention one from my own field that is an absolute classic and hasn’t dated a day since it was published forty years ago: David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. The title is ironic, for its an account of how the brilliant policy-makers of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations could have blundered into Vietnam. To my mind, it still holds up as the single-best explanation of how Vietnam happened. Little wonder that it made something of a return a few years ago, during the worst days of the Iraq War.

OB:

What can you tell us about your next project?

AP:

Not much! Not for reasons of secrecy but because I haven’t really begun one yet. But I do know it will either involve America during the Cold War or America’s relations with China in the 20th century. I’d also love to do a biography — a full, cradle-to-grave life — but probably not for my next book.

OB:

If you are awarded the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize, how will you celebrate?

AP:

In style. But it’ll have to wait a day or two, as I fly back to England right after the ceremony.


Andrew Preston teaches American history and international relations history at Cambridge University, where he is a fellow of Clare College. Before Cambridge, he taught history and international studies at Yale University. He has also taught at universities in Canada and Switzerland, and has been a fellow at the Cold War Studies Program at the London School of Economics. He was born in Ontario and received his BA from the University of Toronto.

For more information about Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith please visit the Knopf Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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