ENCOUNTER: Geraldine Brooks

An interview with Geraldine Brooks, an author who has shown a remarkable talent for storytelling in multiple genres

Geraldine Brooks has shown a remarkable talent for storytelling in multiple genres. Her first book, “Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women,” was nonfiction, but several years later, after winning an overseas press club award for her coverage of the Gulf War, she wrote a novel called “Year of Wonders,” about a small village struggling to deal with an outbreak of the plague. Her second novel, “March,” an imaginative account of the absent father-figure from “Little Women,” based on the life of Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006. Since then, Brooks has published two more critically acclaimed novels: “People of the Book,” based on the true story of an invaluable Hebrew manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, which travelled over five centuries, from Spain to the ruins of Sarajevo, to Venice and inevitably to Brooks’ own northern Australia; and her latest, “Caleb’s Crossing,” which imagines a life almost lost in the tatters of history, that of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.

         Brooks’ father was an American musician who found himself in Australia in the wake of a romantic scandal; as Brooks explains it, “To make a long and very complicated story short, he was a singer in Hollywood, and he ran away with a famous producer’s wife, and he needed to get out of town. So he got an opportunity to go on a big band tour of Australia, and they got halfway across the country and the bandleader took off with all their pay. My father didn’t have a penny to pay his passage back home, so he had to get a job singing, literally for his supper, in with a bunch of Australian musicians. He was singing with them the night the news came that Paris had fallen to the Nazis, and they all went out drinking afterward, and the Australians said, ‘Those Nazi bastards, I’m gunna bloody enlist’ and in the morning, my father went and enlisted with them, even though he was an American citizen. So after the war, he met my mother, and they stayed in Australia.”

         Brooks grew up in the suburbs of Sydney, but now spends most of her time in Martha’s Vineyard, where she lives with her husband, the writer Tony Horwitz, and their children. I met her in Washington, D.C. this spring, at the fancy Hay-Adams hotel, where she was appearing with Horwitz at the monthly Hay-Adams Author Series, held at “Top of the Hay,” a dramatic venue that overlooks the White House. We began talking about the reasons behind the popularity of her books throughout the world.

—Lee Gutkind

CNF: Why do you think your work is so accessible?

BROOKS: I think because it’s informed by the idea that even if you’re writing about a time that’s incredibly removed and different from our own, many situations are unchanging, so the characters have an emotional familiarity.

CNF: Even though they’re made up, more or less. I am referring now to your novels.

BROOKS: More or less made up, yeah. I guess my nonfiction reporter’s training makes me want to stay close to the truth, and if I can find an individual from history to more or less hang the clothes on—somebody we don’t know a great deal about, somebody who didn’t get a chance to leave a written record that a narrative historian could plumb—that’s my ideal character. In “Year of Wonders,” the book about the bubonic plague, there’s a reference in a surviving letter by the village’s minister about his maid and his gratitude that she had been spared by the plague and so she was able to attend to his needs. I went back to the record to see if I could find out anything about her, and there was nothing, not even a name, because domestic servants weren’t taken into account much. It interests me to try and hear the voices of the unheard, to try and consider things from their points of view.

CNF: I’m always intrigued by people who write both genres—fiction and nonfiction—very well. But have you given up on nonfiction?

BROOKS: I haven’t given up on it. But it doesn’t suit mothering young children because, in the pursuit of nonfiction, you have to follow the story wherever it leads you for however long it takes. You can’t say, “I’m going to Syria for two weeks, and I’m going to research how the revolution is affecting women,” because if you get enmeshed in somebody’s life, you have to stay with it and stay with it, and hang around and make yourself a complete nuisance to them, wear out your shoe leather. That was one life, and I’m really glad I had it, just being able to commit yourself entirely to the story until you’ve squeezed every drop of fact and nuance out of it. But once I had my first child, I realized I wanted to be available—not hovering every minute, but I wanted to be basically able to set my own schedule, and fiction allows that in the most wonderful way. Maybe I’ll be like Martha Gellhorn and go back into the fray in my dotage.

CNF: It does kind of make the world see the way in which women might be hampered by the fact that they want or need to have a child. A guy can also have a child or make a child—and then go off and spend six months in Syria.

BROOKS: Yeah, and plenty of women do, too. It’s not written anywhere that this is how it must be. I have plenty of friends who are correspondents with children, and that’s fine. It’s just not what I wanted to do. I wanted to give my kids the same kind of childhood I had, which was very much infused by my mother’s imagination and her energy. So it’s a personal choice, but I don’t see it as a negative; it’s been a complete positive for me because I love writing fiction, and if it hadn’t been for the exigencies of my son arriving, I might not have had the guts to do it.

CNF: So was writing fiction in the back of your mind even when you were a journalist, just like having a child?

BROOKS: No, I never thought of that. It didn’t cross my mind. It would have been beyond my imagination. I always say I have the Nigerian secret police to thank, both for my son and my career as a novelist, because it was while I was in the slammer in Port Harcourt in Nigeria that it occurred to me I was 39 years old and I had forgotten to get pregnant. I didn’t know how long they were going to keep me, and I was thinking of poor Terry Anderson and his miserable years chained to a radiator, and I thought, “If they keep me for seven years, I’ve really blown it here.” That was the first time I had ever thought I wanted to have a child, because I’d been so absorbed with what I was doing and loving every step I took as a foreign correspondent. So, when they deported me after only a few days, I was very happy to greet Tony with a great deal of enthusiasm, and then I just realized I was going to need a new gig.

I started on this idea about the plague, the true story of what happened in Eyam, that had been banging around in my head for 10 years, so I sat down to see if I could make anything out of that. I loved what Anne Enright said: The baby carriage in the hall isn’t the enemy to heroic writing; it’s the enemy to heroic drinking. I actually like having young kids around. Even though they demand a great deal of time, they also feed your imagination because their world makes imaginative connections that the adult brain doesn’t necessarily make. If you enter into their fantasy world, I think it frees you up creatively. Also children’s fiction, I think, is enlightening; I got to the point where I would be reading one of my son’s books, one of these fantastically creative children’s books in which children’s writers really understand what plot is—how X has to lead to Y, and how if X is interesting, Y better be more interesting—and then I’d get done with that, and then I’d go to bed and pick up my own luminous literary novel, and it would be so dull by comparison. That was quite instructive to me.

CNF: Do you think men or women who go to war or, in one way or another, embed themselves somewhere will tell a different story, will see the world differently?

BROOKS: Absolutely. I don’t think I could write these books without all those years covering conflict behind me. I draw on that all the time. In every single book, I’ve drawn on some aspect of that experience. The Civil War battlefield—I think Gettysburg was essentially the same battlefield as the Iran-Iraq war: Iraqi teenagers firing on Iranian teenagers running straight into the line of fire. When you’ve seen that, it certainly assists you to imagine what it was like in that more distant circumstance, how people are during catastrophes and when they’re under pressure. I think I’m living off the fat of my correspondent years very much and probably will continue to do so.

CNF: I read somewhere that you said women might literally cover wars differently.

BROOKS: They do. Women had to fight so hard for the right to be correspondents in those situations. I think when you look at a Gloria Emerson or Martha Gellhorn, you see they were definitely driven by absolute necessity. They started telling the civilian side of war, and it wasn’t simply sitting on a tank with their scarves flying in the wind while soldiers liberated a Kuwait city; it was to show what was left behind in the wake of all that. They were certainly inspiring figures to me in how I tried to do that job.

CNF: Who do you think does that kind of work in that very special way today?

BROOKS: She’s not a writer, but I think Christiane Amanpour is very much in that tradition, and I think you particularly saw it in her coverage of the Bosnian War. She became so passionate. It was refreshing to see somebody who was so outraged by what she was reporting. That anger was just there in all her reporting, and I thought it was very much in that tradition.

CNF: But you said—this is what I was wondering—you said she’s not a writer, and I know Gloria Emerson and Martha Gellhorn’s works were unacknowledged by lots of folks, even though they were really important.

BROOKS: They were. There was this fantastically hideous comment scrawled on one of Martha Gellhorn’s best pieces that said “Not bad for tearjerker sort of stuff”—by one of her male bosses.

CNF: What about women writing narrative nonfiction, story-oriented nonfiction, in the field?

BROOKS: Donatella Lorch and Jane Perlez were correspondents whose work I admired a great deal. And also Farnaz Fassihi. She was a reporter in Iraq for The Wall Street Journal and did a wonderful job, until she got pulled out of there because one of her personal e-mails went viral over the Internet, an email about why she felt that covering the war was not the journalism she wanted to be doing and about all the difficulties she was having fighting the Bush-era propaganda machine. She had written this to a friend, and it went everywhere, so they pulled her out for a while.

CNF: I’ve been thinking for a while that the literary world has become very much a women’s world in many respects.

BROOKS: Do you think?

CNF: More and more women are involved in the higher echelon of publishing now; agents are women more than men these days.

BROOKS: You still have the infamous headline: “Franzen Fails to Win Pulitzer,” when the prize went to an astonishingly original novel, “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” by Jennifer Egan. There’s still the lionization of the next big swinging dick.

CNF: “I get some of my best ideas in graveyards”: I’ve heard you say that before. You don’t literally walk through graveyards, do you?

BROOKS: I certainly do.

CNF: Looking at gravestones and thinking about what you might write about them?

BROOKS: Not necessarily that, but I like to commune with the dead. When we lived more in town, if it was too windy for the beach, I would always take my dogs to the graveyard because it was a great big expanse where they could run free. The old stones are very moving. Every time anybody wants to bag on modern obstetrics, they should spend a bit of time in graveyards and look at how many dead young women are there with their dead babies right next to them. There are a lot of stories there. It’s sort of hard to explain to your kids why you love the dead. They think mom is a necrophiliac weirdo.

CNF: You were inspired by Annie Dillard?

BROOKS: I love her.

CNF: She wandered Tinker Creek, and you wander cemeteries.

BROOKS: I don’t have to go to the graveyards so much now. I get my inspiration from nature a little bit more these days.

CNF: What struck you about Annie?

BROOKS: I read “A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” when I was very young. Just her close attention to the detail of the world in which she finds herself—I just loved it, so I would read it and reread it, and there’s a sensibility there I think. These days, I tend to use Marilynne Robinson in the same way, as my touchstone. “Gilead,” I think, is a perfect novel, and I never get tired of picking that up and seeing how she’s done it. Just beautiful. The first time, I just read it straight through, completely caught by the emotional power of the story, and I finished it. I was on a plane, and I immediately started reading it again to see how she worked that magic on me.

CNF: Do you read a lot of fiction?

BROOKS: I read everything: Fiction, nonfiction, journalism. Graffiti. The phone book. I like to read a lot of poetry, and I tend to use that as my—for want of a better word—muse. I start the day with a little bit of poetry, and it kind of loosens up the flow of words. But the best novels can do that, too.

CNF: You still have your Australian accent, but you live in the U.S. So, are you losing your Australian connection?

BROOKS: I’ll never lose that. It’s too deeply embedded. When you’re an Australian kid, you run around all the time in these rubber flip-flops that we call “thongs” (which is a confusing term here in America), and I have a callus between my toes from those cheap thongs, which will be with me forever; I’m Australian down to the callus between my toes. It’s very fundamental, I think; it’s in my worldview, and I miss the place. I love where I live: I love the Vineyard, and you’d have to be a troll to complain about winding up living on Martha’s Vineyard—but I do miss things about Australia, like the light at the break of day and the way the stones stick up out of the thin soil, and the more egalitarian ethos, and the humor. I love to go back there.

CNF: People have speculated that by writing fiction or writing creative nonfiction, you can achieve a higher truth by taking a few more liberties than you can in journalism.

BROOKS: I believe that to be true, with the proviso that the book jacket says, “A novel.” I get very irritated if I pick up a book labeled “nonfiction” and I get to the end and there’s an afterword saying, “Liberties have been taken; characters have been merged.” It is either true or it’s not true, and if you’ve made it up, then it should be on the fiction shelf. I think the first time I encountered that was “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” which is a wonderful read, and then I got to that afterword. Later on, I found out that one of the principal characters with whom [Berendt] had purported to be in the room, overhearing conversations, had been dead and gone before Berendt even got to Savanna.

I think it’s a terrible corruption, because in real creative nonfiction—and I think that’s what  my husband Tony does, and I know how hard it is—conversations do not always flow in those perfectly sparkling sentences, and anecdotes do not deliver themselves beautifully formed unless you really put in the hard yards and what we were talking about before, wearing out your shoes and your welcome and just clinging like a tick to a situation, not just going home and massaging it and making it come out the way you wished it had if you hadn’t been too lazy to stick around, put in the time. I get very angry because I think it sets the bar too high for honest nonfiction writers.

CNF: It makes it difficult for honest writers to remain honest and compete.

The other thing in relation to that is that, today, someone asked you if you guys were at some sort of a cutting edge.

BROOKS: No. I think I’m very much a dull old knife; I think I’m treading a very familiar furrow and happily doing so. I like working in this genre where there are people who have worked in it before and people who are working in it now, and it has its own set of traditions and conventions. It’s comfy. I don’t really have any urge to do any great big, experimental, edgy thing.

CNF: “Comfy” is a nice word. In some respects, some people would say, looking at your life, that it is kind of comfy. You married this guy you met early on in your life and had kids, and Martha’s Vineyard is a nice place to live, and there’s this other weird thing that I think hasn’t ever been duplicated: You both, husband and wife, are Pulitzer Prize winners. There have been father and son Pulitzer Prize winners, but have there been husband and wife winners? Do you want to provide the secret of how you do all this?

BROOKS: Nobody’s life is all one way. That story leaves out the fact that “March” was published a year late because I was being treated for breast cancer and didn’t want to go on book tour bald as a coot. We have kids, yes, and happily one is adopted, but there were also miscarriages that were heartbreaking. That narrative also leaves out the fact that part of every day is involved with managing the care of my mom, who is 92 and has Alzheimer’s.

CNF: Is she with you?

BROOKS: She lives next door. And don’t forget getting shot at, back in the day. I think, in a way, you don’t earn it, but maybe you get to a comfy place after sleeping on a few beds of thorns.

About the Author

Screen Shot 2011-11-18 at 3
Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

View Essays