Spotlight on… Geraldine Brooks

Best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks believes that her previous career as a war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal covering crises in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans prepared her to be a novelist. 26’s Elena Bowes catches up with the Australian-born author who talks about her career transition and how she can tell if an idea for a novel has legs or not. Brooks was working on a novel about Sarajevo when she just couldn’t get the voice of the narrator into her head. An idea for another story floated past so Brooks focused on that one instead. That one became a book called March. Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize for it in 2006.

Your historical novel March is a great read. It is full of vivid description, realistic flawed human characters and a gripping plot line based on historical facts. It is no wonder you won a Pulitzer Prize for it. I found it just as all-consuming the second time I read it as the first. What practical advice would you give to an aspiring writer of historical fiction?

Mark Twain said: “Fiction must be plausible, truth needn’t be.” I love to scour the historical record for a truth so unexpected that if you had made it up no one would believe it. For example: a Native American born into his own language and culture on Martha’s Vineyard learns Latin and Greek and graduates from Harvard with the sons of the Puritan colonial elite in 1665. A village takes the unique decision to voluntarily quarantine itself during the bubonic plague in 1665. A Muslim librarian risks his life to save a Jewish book.

Then you need to follow the historical record until it runs out and the voices from the past fall silent. You need just enough facts to build a scaffold for your imaginative edifice, but not such a complete record that there’s no room for imagination to work.  Otherwise it’s a subject for a narrative historian rather than a novelist.

How did your previous life as a foreign correspondent inform your writing as a novelist? How did it hinder it?

It made it possible. It was all those rich years of experience, being with people in crisis after crisis, seeing how catastrophe affected them – driving some to their best self, some to their worst. I draw on all that for my fiction.

Was it an easy transition for you to move from reporter to novelist? Are there elements of being a foreign correspondent that you miss?

The harder transition was from journalist to book writer. My first book was a work of non-fiction and I found it exceedingly hard, at first, to figure out how to sustain a narrative of more than 3,000 words. But that struggle with two works of non-fiction eased the way into the first novel.

I miss being a correspondent when I feel a story is not being well covered. Iran, for example. Yemen. I know those stories deeply and I yearn to dive back into them.

You write, “To know a man’s library is, in some measure, to know a man’s mind.” What books are on your bedside table?

The Overstory by Richard Powers. I’m re-reading it already because I admired it so much.  Greek To Me by Mary Norris. I love language and I love deeply obsessed people so this account of her fixation on the Greek language is a wonderful treat to dip in and out of. And The Norton Anthology of Poetry is always there.

Was there a book that inspired you to become a writer? Which one and why? 

No one book inspired me to become a writer but one showed me how to do what I do, and that is The Persian Boy by Mary Renault. She takes you into a deeply unfamiliar past but makes the human emotions of her protagonist achingly familiar.

How do you judge whether an idea for a historical piece of fiction has legs? 

If I can clearly hear the voice of the narrator. Otherwise I can’t move forward.

What is your favourite part of the writing process?  

When you get that rare soaring lift off and know exactly where the story is going and how to get there.

What is your least favourite part?

When you are plodding along the runway and don’t have the thrust to achieve take off. But you still have to write, even knowing it’s bad, because if you don’t get something down you’ve got nothing to improve on.

Please describe your typical work day? Do you have an office or prefer working from bed, are you a morning writer or more of a night owl? Do you use motivational tools like walking or meditating? Any illuminating details of your writing routine would be great.

It’s totally boring! For years I put my kids on the school bus and glued myself to the desk writing till they got home. Now I try to keep to those hours even though the bus isn’t there to mark out my day.

What do you do for fun? 

Read, watch good movies, cook, garden, ride my horse, play with my dogs, hang with my kids, walk on the beach. Did I say, read?

– Elena Bowes

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