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
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
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
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
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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