Geraldine Brooks, Australian author and journalist, grew up in the Western suburbs of Sydney, and after being educated by the nuns of her convent secondary school attended Sydney University and worked as a reporter for the city’s major newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald.
She completed a Master’s Degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York City in 1983, and worked for the Wall Street Journal, where she covered crises in the the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans.
Brooks married Tony Horwitz in Tourette-sur-loup, France, in 1984. They have one child and divide their time between homes in Virginia, United States and Sydney, Australia.
Her novel, Year of Wonders is a gripping historical novel is based on the true story of Eyam, the “Plague Village,” in the rugged mountain spine of England. In 1666, a tainted bolt of cloth from London carries bubonic infection to this isolated settlement of shepherds and lead miners. A visionary young preacher convinces the villagers to seal themselves off in a deadly quarantine to prevent the spread of disease. The story is told through the eyes of eighteen-year-old Anna Frith, the vicar’s maid, as she confronts the loss of her family, the disintegration of her community, and the lure of a dangerous and illicit love. As the death toll rises and people turn from prayers and herbal cures to sorcery and murderous witch-hunting, Anna emerges as an unlikely and courageous heroine in the village’s desperate fight to save itself.
From Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic Little Women, Geraldine Brooks has taken the character of the absent father, March, who has gone off to war leaving his wife and daughters to make do in mean times. To evoke him, Brooks turned to the journals and letters of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father, a friend and confidant of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
In Brooks’s telling, March emerges as an idealistic chaplain in the little known backwaters of a war that will test his faith in himself and in the Union cause as he learns that his side, too, is capable of acts of barbarism and racism. As he recovers from a near mortal illness, he must reassemble his shattered mind and body, and find a way to reconnect with a wife and daughters who have no idea of the ordeals he has been through.
Is there an upcoming book or project you’d like to tell us about?
I have just finished another historical novel based on the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Hebrew manuscript created in Spain during the era of Christian-Muslim-Jewish Convivencia. It is titled People of the Book and will be published by Viking in January.
What brought about the desire to write fiction? Was it something you always knew you were going to write or was there a catalyst?
I was a foreign correspondent for many years, covering crises in Africa, the Mideast and the Balkans. When my son was born in 1996, I discovered I no longer wanted to go off on open-ended assignments to dangerous places. So I turned to the story that had taken hold of my imagination almost ten years earlier, when I’d visited the village of Eyam in the English Peak District and learned what happened there in the plague years.
How long does it take you to write a novel? Will you describe the steps you take in the writing and revisions?
There is no good answer to this one. It takes as long as it takes, and each book is different in that regard. Year of Wonders took less time than others simply because I had been chewing on it for ten years before I finally rounded up the courage to sit down and try to write it.
Because I use first person narrators my first task in beginning a novel is hearing the voice of the protagonist. So I read diaries and letters and so forth from the period. When I find the voice, it tells me who that person is, and that dictates the action of the plot. Then I know what I need to research. I do just enough research to keep writing, letting the story drive the research and not the other way around.
Which book are you most proud of? Why?
It’s like children. They are all special to me for different reasons.
Which book was the most difficult to write? Why?
“March” presented certain difficulties because the protagonist was male, and that required a different kind of imaginative, or empathic, leap. “People of the Book” spans many different cultures and periods as it follows the Haggadah from its creation in Spain to the present, so that was challenging in terms of finding a coherent narrative, and in the prodigious amount of research that was essential.
Tell us about winning the Pulizer Prize for fiction? What were your thoughts? What went through your head?
My first reaction, when an old colleague from the Wall Street Journal rang to tell me the news was “That’s impossible Ken, I haven’t done any journalism this year.” The idea that “March” might be considered, much less win, hadn’t even occurred to me.
Sol Stein argues in his writing books that the writer must never lose sight that they are writing for an audience, while William Zinsser advises writers not to envision “the great mass audience” but write primarily to please yourself. When you’re writing, where do you fall on this scale?
I write what I like to read. I write the best book I have in me at the time.
Was there ever a difficult set back that you went through in your writing career?
I have been very fortunate in making the transition from daily journalism, to non-fiction (“Nine Parts of Desire” and “Foreign Correspondence”) and then in making the leap to fiction. My books have found an audience, and I continue to be gobsmacked by my luck to be able to continue to do this.
Do you still experience self-doubts about your writing?
Of course! Every day.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long did it take before your novel was published?
My career wasn’t that typical. I was approached by an agent when I was still working as a newspaper reporter. I had a high profile beat, covering the first Gulf war. After some discussion I decided to take a leave from that job to write the book that eventually turned out to be Nine Parts of Desire. That book, about women and Islam, was very much a journalist’s book, entirely factual, based on my own six year journey to understanding as a western feminist set down among women who lived very different lives to the one I knew. It sold well and so paved the way for the next book, ‘Foreign Correspondence.’ I wasn’t sure if I could make the transition to fiction. I wrote four or five chapters of “Year of Wonders,” and my wonderful agent very quickly found a publisher based on that.
What do you consider the best advice the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?
“When there’s no wind, row.”
What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve heard?
Plot doesn’t matter.
What sort of novel draws you?
A wide assortment: Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead, Andre Makine’s Dreams of My Russian Summers, Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. Anything by Jane Austen, Brian Hall or Clare Messud or Ian McEwan or Rose Tremain or Salley Viccars…I could go on….and…on…..
What is something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
The only way to do it, is to do it. You don’t need anyone’s permission to write. Writers are luckier than filmakers or actors or architects–you don’t need producers, you don’t need clients. It’s just you, alone in your room. Nothing stopping you except yourself.
Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?
I write when my son is at school. It’s a habit I got into when he was little, that the school day became my work day. Now he has his own busy life after school and doesn’t need me hovering, but I still tend to knock off then and do other things—gardening, cooking, dog walking—the domestic things I couldn’t do all the years I was a foreign correspondent with no fixed address…
If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?
Shakespeare’s deep understanding of the human soul.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
A book like “Silent Spring” that changed the way people lived on the Earth.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
It is all good, a great privilege.
How much marketing do you do? Any advice in this area?
I do whatever my publishers tell me! I actually love getting out of my room for a month or two and connecting with readers in far flung places. But flying around the US has become a real chore since 9/11…
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