An Interview with Geraldine Brooks, by Elizabeth Blachman
June 9, 2013
The first time I read Geraldine Brooks’s novel March, I was at a bus station in Richmond. The bus had been canceled, and I was stuck sitting on the marble floor of the station with my backpack tucked under my legs from ten p.m. until the next bus came along at six the following morning. As the mother and four kids in line behind me settled to sleep, I turned the pages through the night with the sensation that I was falling into some strange tapestry of Civil War history and Little Women, a novel that I had read seven times as a child.
I set about reading all of Brooks’s other books. Notably I had the flu while reading Year of Wonders, her plague novel, and entertained the notion that the power of her words had infected my body. Her memoir, Foreign Correspondence, began with Brooks going to her parents’ basement in their house in Australia and digging through piles of stuff, accidentally uncovering bundles of her letters from childhood pen pals. In the first part of the memoir, Brooks retells her childhood from the letters, and in the second part she uses the skills she honed as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal to find her former pen pals in France, Israel, and the United States and see what has become of them. Reading Brooks’s novels feels like the historical version of this journey. She finds landmarks, signposts of historical events and objects, and then fills in the human spaces between.
There really is a Sarajevo Haggadah that was saved by a Muslim librarian during World War II. A Native American did graduate from Harvard College in 1665. A village in Derbyshire, England, did decide to quarantine itself and ride out the plague rather than infect neighboring villages. Brooks gathers the threads of these historical strands as she happens upon them, and then she endows them with life. That night in Richmond, I finished the final chapter of March in time for dawn. As the light of morning began to mix with the fluorescent lights of the Greyhound station, I read Brooks’s final line as the war-weary, broken Mr. March contemplates his family: “For an instant, everything was bathed in radiance.”
After I finish each of your novels, I love to read the afterword and learn which elements of historical truth were the catalysts for your stories. Do you go on a hunt for those moments, or do they sneak up on you?
They magically emerge out of the most routine and unrelated activities: a hike in the Peak District brought me to the story of the plague in Eyam (Year of Wonders), a conversation in a bar intrigued me about the Sarajevo Haggadah (People of the Book), and a notation on a Wampanoag map sent me in search of a way to tell the story of Caleb’s Crossing.
Would you talk about the most unexpected instance of discovering a piece of history that you then used in a novel?
I think the first one: just stumbling on a finger post while rambling in the English countryside. It read, “Eyam”—the name of the village—and underneath, “Plague Village.” Not a lot of places try to attract visitors with signs like that. But it worked for me. We went there, and in a display in the parish church the remarkable story of the events of that little community in 1665 was set out and took hold of my imagination.
After you’ve gathered all the information and are putting pen to paper, what is the difference in your writing practices between when you write an article as a journalist and when you create the fictional worlds of your novels?
It’s completely and entirely different. For one thing, I don’t collect “all the information.” I start writing a story, and let the story tell me what it is that I don’t know and need to know; then I go look for it. Reporting the news obviously doesn’t work like that. Also, there’s no real place for imagination in journalism. You write what you know to be true. In fiction I press beyond that, thinking always, how might that have been? What might that have felt like?
The theme for this issue of Slice is Obsession, and I thought of you because of what has always seemed to be the exhaustive research that goes into your books. I’m thinking of everything you must have learned about book restoration, the turns of phrase used by diarists of the colonial era, or the fates of the former slaves who were called contraband by the North during the Civil War. When you tackle a new subject, do you get immersed in the research process?
I do love it. I love running down the line of fact until it frays away to a wisp . . . listening to every voice I can find from the historical record until that record falls silent, and then using what I’ve learned of the time and place to try to hear voices as they might have sounded.
In your memoir Foreign Correspondence you talk about obsessions of your childhood like Mr. Spock, your letter writing, and the world beyond Australia. Is there an analog in your adult life to those kinds of passions that you had as a child?
I have a new one now. Last January I took up horse riding. Odd choice for an osteoporotic fifty-something, but there you have it; my midlife crisis turns out to be a palomino mare rather than a red Mustang. And as my orthopedic surgeon says, “All you have to do is stay on the horse.” I love everything about it: the interspecies communication, the velvety feel of the place beneath her chin, the grassy smell of her breath, the whoosh of the wind when we canter . . . I can’t believe it took me so long to connect to this source of joy, but I’m so glad it happened.
Your characters—Anna, March, Ruti, among others—face moments at the crux of history like plague, war, and persecution. Anna and Ruti seem to become stronger; March seems to confront his frailties. Do you think that being at the center of historical change—with the accompanying life and death moments—is the best test of a character?
I think none of us knows who we really are ’til we are tested by a time of crisis or catastrophe. And I don’t think you can predict it . . . will it deliver you to your worst self, or your best? I saw examples of both as a foreign correspondent in the Mideast, Africa, and the Balkans, and I am still processing what I learned.
When you were serving as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, did you face any such life and death moments?
Several. The most intense, I think, was in Kurdistan, at the end of the first Gulf War, when Saddam moved to crush the Kurds’ uprising with helicopter gunships, and I had to flee for my life, with thousands of Kurdish civilians, over mined mountain
passes into Turkey.
*This is an excerpt from an interview in Issue 12 of Slice. To purchase the issue and read the entire interview, click here.
Author photo: Randi Baird
Australian-born Geraldine Brooks is an author and journalist who grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney. In 1982 she won the Greg Shackleton Australian News Correspondents scholarship to the journalism master’s program at Columbia University in New York City. Later she worked for the Wall Street Journal, for which she covered crises in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for her novel March; she is the author of People of the Book, Year of Wonders, Caleb’s Crossing, and Nine Parts of Desire.
Elizabeth Blachman studied literature at NYU before pursuing a career in modern dance. She is currently a company member at Todd Rosenlieb Dance and a freelance writer and editor. Her socks never match.