I was elated a few weeks ago when I recieved word that I would be able to ask the talented, best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning Geraldine Brooks a few questions while she was on a book tour for her newest novel People of the Book while in Australia. Here is the result.
Kelly Hewitt: I have read that you first learned of the missing Sarajevo Haggadah, a manuscript that plays a major role in your new novel People of the Book, while sitting in Sarajevo Holiday Inn in 1992 amidst the Bosnian war. After the war, it has been written, you were able to do more research and learn a good deal more about the document. The idea for this novel, it seems, comes from such a real event in your life. Are there other instances from your career as a reporter in which you found inspiration for a fictional novel amidst such a tumultuous reality?
Geraldine Brooks: All of my novels, one way or another, relate to my years as a reporter. Sometimes it’s an idea that I came across while on assignment, as is the case with the Sarajevo Haggadah and People of the Book. But both People of the Book and March contain episodes that draw on my experiences covering the news. For instance, the scene where Isak and Ina fall through the ice is a fictional translation of a tragic event that happened to two refugees during the flight of the Kurds from Iraq when their uprising was crushed. More broadly, witnessing individuals who have to undergo real change during a time of catastrophe--particularly women who find themselves forced to assume huge burdens and responsibilities that their earlier life hadn’t prepared them for--has inspired the way I invent characters who change a great deal in the course of the narrative.
Kelly: You wrote two non fiction books, Nine Parts of Desire, a book based on the lives of Muslim women of the Middle East in 1994 and a memoir Foreign Correspondence in 1997 in which you detailed your childhood with pen pals from all over the world and your quest as an adult to find them. It was after the publication of these two books that you became an international bestselling novelist with Year of Wonders and Pulitzer Prize winner with March. Given the success you have experience as a author of fiction, do you think that you will ever write a non fiction book again?
Geraldine: Oh, I think I probably will. Right now, with a young child at home, I’m not crazy about going off on the long, open-ended kind of research journey that good non-fiction absolutely requires, where you follow a line of inquiry wherever it leads you, for as long as it takes. But later, I very well might...
Kelly: You have been quoted as saying that once you had left journalism you realized that you were carrying around a "ball of stress" and that you had developed migraines that disappeared the moment you quit journalism. Do you feel like your time as a journalist helped to prepare you to be the author you are today? Would you still suggest journalism as a career to budding writers?
Geraldine: I recommend journalism to those who have a burning desire to be journalists. That was me; from the time I was about eight years old I wanted to report the news. And I loved that career and it has absolutely fueled my fiction writing. But I didn’t set out in journalism heading towards being a novelist. That was an unexpected thing for me. My writing career is not that typical. I never took a creative writing course. I never wrote a short story—except for a one-off attempt at a sci-fi adventure for the school magazine when I was about 16. The road to fiction was rather convoluted. I was covering the Mideast during the first Gulf War when I was cold-called by a New York literary agent who thought a piece I had written for the newspaper on Jordan’s Queen Noor might make a book. I told him I thought it was too soon for such a project as Noor would be unlikely to speak candidly about her life at that stage. But the conversation planted a seed, I guess, and eventually I wrote Nine Parts of Desire, which was about the way all kinds of Muslim women in the mideast negotiated their lives, from refugee camps to palaces. It was a journalist’s book: thoroughly reported, entirely factual, but it taught me a lot about how to sustain a narrative and create connective tissue that keeps the reader turning the pages. My next book was very personal, part memoir, part travel adventure, called Foreign Correspondence, about the pen pals I’d had as a girl and my adult journeys to find them. It won a generous literary prize in Australia, meant to ‘encourage women’s writing” and I was very encouraged. So by then I had a child and really didn’t want to be traveling on long open ended assignments anymore, and I decided to try to see if I could write a novel. Year of Wonders was the result.
Kelly: I read in one interview that you stood up in front of your class at the age of twelve to denounce the Pope's view on birth control. Is that true? Have you and the Pope since reconciled?
Geraldine: Yes, that’s true. I was a very opinionated, probably insufferable, young woman. But I’m still at odds with the Pope, and with anybody else who tries to tell women what they should and should not do with their bodies.
Kelly: There are of course some parallels between your main character in People of the Book, Dr. Hanna Heath. You're both Australian, have traveled the world and are historians of a sort. You have been clear, however, that you do not have never had a bad relationship with your mother. How else do you and Hanna differ?
Geraldine: It’s a shorter answer if I tell you how we’re alike: we both like the intellectual hunt of research and bringing the past back to life. We both enjoy spicy food. We’re both Ausies who use a lot of colorful Oz idioms. And that’s about it. The fun of fiction is making up a character who is different, thinking yourself into a different life, mind, world view.
Kelly: What can you tell us about your next book?
Geraldine: I have a new project…another historical novel. But it’s too new to talk about just yet.