Perhaps other authors have displayed as much range over the course of their first three books as Geraldine Brooks. It's hard to imagine, however, that any of them could have won over so consistently both lay readers and critics, alike.
In Nine Parts of Desire, the intrepid journalist pulled back the veil on the private lives of Islamic women, creating a cultural portrait that ten years later remains the subject's standard text. (You may be looking at the photograph alongside this paragraph thinking, Intrepid? Her? Let's assume she wasn't wearing the canary yellow blouse when she talked her way onto a fuel delivery mission into Somalia during a wicked firefight.)
For her next act, Brooks tracked down the scattered pen pals of her Australian youth, reconnecting after decades of silence with men and women as far afield as Israel and France. Foreign Correspondence recollects the path of a girl reaching out to the world beyond her doorstep, first in letters and then in deed, telling an uncommon story of irrevocable human ties.
In 2001, Brooks made the leap to fiction. Based on actual events, Year of Wonders revisits a village in the English countryside whose residents agreed to quarantine themselves for fear of spreading the plague. "The novel glitters," the New Yorker raved, calling the timely drama "a deep imaginative engagement with how people are changed by catastrophe."
Now, in March, she's taken historical fiction to another dimension altogether. Using America's Civil War as her frame, she plants a famous (but deeply mysterious) literary figure at its center: Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's classic, Little Women. The result is a wholly original novel, a rich re-imagining of the nation's political and literary foundations, and arguably Brooks's finest work to date.
Geraldine Brooks: Zip. Completely nothing, whatsoever. I'm embarrassed to say that now.
Dave: How did it grow, then?
Brooks: It grew out of living in Virginia, mainly, and coming to grips with Tony Horwitz's Civil War boorishness. Every weekend we had to go up to another battlefield or some other Civil War-related sight he was incredibly enthusiastic about.
We live in an old Quaker town that was settled in 1733. Having grown up in Australia where you don't really feel any evidence of war, it was very strange to come and live in a place where the signs of war are still very much present. In the bricks of the Baptist church, there are still bullet holes from the skirmish.
When they were re-laying the brickwork just outside of our kitchen, they dug up a Civil War belt buckle—a Union soldier's buckle. That got me thinking about the Quakers who lived in our house and what might have happened to them during the Civil War, which led to thinking about idealists at war; Quakers are pacifists but they were also ardent abolitionists. Some of them decided to fight on the Union side, even though they were in Virginia. Thinking about idealists at war led me to the absent Mr. March in Little Women and what kind of a war he might have had.
Once I started noodling around in Massachusetts infantry records to see what the chaplains actually did, I went back to Little Women, and it's so evident that [Louisa May] Alcott based the girls on her sisters and herself. I thought, I have to check out the father and see if there's anything there I can use.
If it's possible to fall in love with someone who's been dead for a hundred years? I was just gobsmacked by his radicalism, his gift for friendship, the way people of the era felt for him—Emerson and Thoreau and Garrison and Margaret Fuller—the things they had to say about him in their journals, and the correspondence that he kept up with the great figures of his time.
I think one of the reviewers put it better than I could have. He said, "If Thoreau and Emerson were the shooting stars of American idealism, Bronson Alcott was the dark matter from which they drew their energy." It's so true.
Dave: Alcott was inspirational, yes, and he was friends with important people, but also, we have him to thank for recess.
Dave: And let's face it, that's what matters.
Brooks: Yes! And I think he'd be appalled to know that in Virginia schools today the kids only get fifteen minutes. It's not enough, and he would have known that.
He was a great believer that kids learned through play. He was completely radical. This was a time when educational theory consisted of breaking the will and subduing the spirit; kids should be taught to spell and factor but not to think—that was completely outside the classroom pale.
His classroom sounded like such a heavenly place; it would still be a progressive school today. He went out of his way—and into debt—to furnish the room beautifully and comfortably so that the kids would feel completely at ease. He was affectionate and respectful toward them. And he had this one technique of discipline which I think is a little wacky: If a kid transgressed, he would hand them the ferrule and ask them to hit him—the idea being that he as the teacher had failed if he hadn't instilled self-government in the child. But you can imagine how traumatized the kids would be.
Dave: He also desegregated his classroom.
Brooks: His school in Boston finally had to close down because the parents, even though they were the liberal-minded intelligencia of Boston, couldn't stand the idea of their kids going to school with a black girl. But he also believed in the equal intellectual capabilities of women. He was way out there.
Dave: You've written that literacy has been a key to the advancement of women in the Middle East, particularly in Iran—literate women can argue for themselves, based on the actual text of the Koran. It struck me as interesting because March gets into a lot of trouble in the novel by teaching a young slave to read.
Brooks: And this is something that is not quite as well-grasped as maybe it should be: It was actually illegal to teach a slave to read in Virginia after the Nat Turner Rebellion.
Nat Turner was a literate man. People believed that this had been the root of the rebellion, and if they didn't wipe out any chance of literacy they might have similar incidences all over the state.
Dave: You mentioned Tony's field trips. I imagine he brought a lot of that research home, whether you accompanied him or not.
Brooks: Yes. I'd wake up and go out my back door, and I'd trip over a re-enactor who'd been sleeping in the yard for the night. The dogs would go berserk because these guys were a little bit ripe.
You seem to have a very symbiotic relationship. You've both taken from the other.
Brooks: We've been dragging each other through our own interests all our married life. Tony used to say that he probably never would have left the east coast if it wasn't for me. Now he's a travel adventure writer.
It's good when your interests converge. It was really fun, working on this book, to be able to draw on his wealth of knowledge and his considerable library that I had been so disparaging of. Do we have to have so many Civil War books cluttering up the shelves?
Dave: In one of my favorite scenes in Baghdad without a Map, he wrangles his way into a house to try the drug Qat with a group of locals. They turn on the TV and you're on the screen, interviewing Yemen's president. Do you have similarly surreal stories from that time in your life?
Brooks: That entire time was surreal. We frankly had no business going out there. We were completely underprepared for the job. The first year particularly was such a steep learning curve, and the crazy stuff we did? It was good, reporting-wise, because I think in some ways the less you know the more you put yourself out there. But I'm not sure I can match that story.
I've been telling people to go to Yemen for years now. The last pair I told actually went, and they were there when the USS Cole was blown up. They went to the embassy to get more information, and while they were there someone lobbed a grenade over the wall. They're not taking my travel advice anymore.
Dave: Why did you send them to Yemen, as opposed to anywhere else?
Brooks: It's old Arabia. It's beautiful. There are mountains like a kid draws—it's just incredible—mountains with fortresses made out of mud-bricks. Then the town of Senaa, with these little mud-brick skyscrapers decorated with stained glass and alabaster; and all the old crafts of hand book binding and the blindfold camel grinding the seeds. It's just terrific.
Dave: In Foreign Correspondence, you write, "I'd developed a skill in dealing with chaotic situations and had become what's known in newsrooms as a fireman, or, less politely, a 'shit-hole correspondent.'" What particular shit-hole assignments stand out in your memory?
Brooks: Somalia really stands out. I think that's the most scared I've ever been. It was a good example of the skill set you need because I was trying to get in there when every other American reporter was leaving—this was when the incident that became known as Black Hawk Down was still going on, that whole firefight.
Nothing much was flying into Mogadishu except occasional aid flights, and even the aid flights were being fired on. I remember talking my way onto a Save the Children flight—fuel delivery, of all things! I flew into Somalia sitting on a few barrels of fuel. The guy that was flying was a former Vietnam pilot; the logistics manager for Save the Children was a former French Foreign Legionnaire. They were a fairly insouciant pair.
I think that qualified as a real shit-hole. The whole place had been completely looted, down to the wires—people had pulled wires out of the walls to sell. It was a place where it was really hard to know who you were barracking for because everyone was being so unspeakable, one to the other.
Dave: You mention in Nine Parts of Desire that it was your inability to gain access to stories that Tony, for instance, could get, as a man, that eventually led you to your subject.
Brooks: I was absolutely out of my mind with frustration because I hate doing the official story; I hated the fact that I was interviewing the president of Yemen while he was out chewing Qat. That wasn't the way it was supposed to go.
I finally woke up to the fact that I had an opportunity to do something that was open only to a woman, which was to try to get the stories of the women of the region and to tell the news stories through their eyes. All of a sudden, I had this wonderful access; I found I was really knocking on an open door. Nobody had bothered to ask women their opinion. That went from people like Khomeini's daughter to Queen Noor.
The male foreign correspondents, when I first got out, would say things like, "Oh, Queen Noor. She was some kind of flight attendant, wasn't she?" Well, no. Actually she was an architect who came out to Jordan to redesign the offices of Royal Jordanian Airlines. But there was a stereotype that women couldn't possibly matter. Everybody was kind of bemused and patronizing about my interest. Queen Noor is a very good example because she turned out to be extremely influential in wresting the direction of Jordan away from the totalitarian Saddamist state to a pretty promising, nascent democracy.
Dave: I remember talking to Tony about the fact that most of the journalism we were reading prior to the invasion of Iraq dealt with national foreign policies and government actions. We rarely saw what Iraqi citizens were like.
The bit in Nine Parts of Desire where you're with Khomeini's daughter is fascinating. This is people simply living, behind closed doors. She's talking about Khomeini playing with the grandkids.
Brooks: The family snaps were really something. Here's this guy that we've only seen in the most austere, frightening depiction, and there he is letting the toddlers shove food in his mouth, giggling and carrying on.
Dave: You write at length about the division between public and private lives in Islamic culture. With such a distinct contrast, it seems the women would offer a more revealing perspective on everyday lives. They're often kept in the home.
Brooks: That was the thing—watching what would happen to women in crisis situations. These women were led to believe that their lives would be completely contained within this domestic sphere? then suddenly the men are gone, either arrested or off fighting, and the women have to step out and take control of the family. It was pretty clear cut in situations like Kurdistan where women would be the ones leading their families to safety over mined mountain passes. I saw women change and grow so much because circumstances forced it on them.
Dave: How has journalism informed your fiction?
Brooks: Well, just that, for example: seeing those women changing in a time of crisis was really what shaped the character of Anna in Year of Wonders. That's one really clear crossover. With March, definitely the fact of having been a witness at war—certainly you write about it differently than if you hadn't been on a battlefield.
Wanting to find the truth as much as you can in the historical research, and then when you can't know any more? That's the wonderful, freeing thing. As a reporter, if you don't know the truth, you can't write it, but in fiction you can make it up. It's wonderful when you hit that void, and you've got all the facts—that's your scaffolding, and now you can make your edifice.
Dave: Most readers won't be familiar with the history in Year of Wonders. Does that present different challenges than setting a novel during the Civil War?
Brooks: You think you know something, but for instance, as much Civil War knowledge as I'd picked up by osmosis from Tony, I had no idea about the situation of the contraband and these ad hoc situations on these plantations where Northerners tried to make a quick buck by getting the cotton picked. I think that's what interests me most: the backwaters.
We know about the plague and fire in London, but one thing that appealed to me about that story was Who knew about that little town and their struggles? I guess noodling around in backwaters is what I like to do. I only let March stay at the frontlines very briefly, just to establish that he was a man at war, but I wanted to quickly move him very far behind the lines.
Dave: Clement offers March the run of his library; he tells March to find a book that he'd like to barter for. Which book in your own library is most meaningful to you?
Brooks: Well, there are some that I love as objects because of the memories that they hold. I guess the old copy of Paul Gallico's Scruffy that my father read to me when I was about six years old—it made me cry, and I was so anxious—that obviously is a great favorite. Then there are books that you love just because of the writing and the content, and I have to say that I have a new favorite as of last week with Gilead [by Marilynne Robinson]. It is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. I finished it, and I started it again the same night. I was crying by page fifty.
I said to Tony, "I think this is the most beautiful book I've ever read." He started reading it, and he said, "Don't be recommending this to everybody. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea." But I just think it's full of love and delicacy of thought and expression.
Dave: You write in Foreign Correspondence about enjoying a breakfast in Israel that you'd never think of eating anywhere else. That made me wonder, through all your traveling, if you could create an all-star menu from around the world?
Brooks: In Kurdistan, Chicken with Pomegranate; and Pilaf behind a Curtain, which is a fantastically elaborate rice dish encased in pastry. And then I would go over to France and have a bouillabaisse at a restaurant called Nou Nou on the beach at Juin les Pins. And I would go to my friend Ken Wells's house and make him cook me shrimp gumbo?
Dave: Where is that?
Brooks: Ken is living in New York, but he's from Bayou Black, Louisiana. He was my boss on the Wall Street Journal for a while.
He's a Cajun man, and he said that one time he looked around the newsroom at the Journal, and he thought, Dang, I'm the only fellow in here who's ever skinned a squirrel. But he taught me how to cook gumbo, for which I'll be eternally grateful. It's still not as good as his, though.
Those Israeli breakfasts are weird: smoked fish, raw vegetables, and yogurt. It's a good combo.
Dave: What do you miss most about Sydney?
Brooks: I love Sydney. It's just home. The light. The look of the rock breaking through the soil—Sydney has these strong sandstone ribs that jut out all over the place unexpectedly. The way the light shimmers on the harbor, and the way there's water everywhere, even when you're not expecting it— you come around a corner and there's this profligate shimmer—it just raises your spirits. And I like the humor there.
Dave: Tony called the kind of journalism you were doing a young person's endeavor.
Brooks: It's really hard on friendships. It's hard on family. It's hard on relationships. I think you have to be completely willing to go on an open-ended assignment and follow the thread wherever it leads you. Once you've got other people depending on you, it's a bit selfish in a way to do that, though I should say that plenty of people I admire still do it.
Put it this way: I wanted to give my son the same kind of childhood I had, and that was a childhood where my mother was around. I enjoyed that so much.
Dave: What's next? Do you have a vision of other projects you want to try?
Brooks: I have them stacked up like air traffic control!
The next one is what I was supposed to be doing when Mr. March caught my eye. I was supposed to be researching the censorship of Hebrew books in seventeenth century Venice, but I found myself gravitating over to the Massachusetts infantry record, and I knew that the other book would have to go in the drawer for a while.
I'm really right back into it now, and actually the time away from it was really helpful. Again, it's based on a true story. It's about a Hebrew manuscript that was created in fourteenth century Spain and still exists today after an amazing series of near misses during the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, then during the Inquisition in Italy, then during World War Two, when it was saved from the Nazis by a Muslim librarian in Bosnia.
The Nazi bit was really gnarling me up; I couldn't figure out how to write about that without drawing in all the old clichés. But while the book was in the drawer, away, a solution presented itself to me.
Dave: And you're writing it as fiction.
Brooks: Yes, fiction. Because we can't know—there are so many mysteries about this book. We can never know who created it or why it got out of Spain or why it was in Venice. We know certain facts: it was in Venice in 1609, but we don't know why or how. There are lots of voids. I'm having a lot of fun there.
Dave: Ordinarily, I ask people what they've enjoyed reading lately, but you've already handled that one.
Brooks: There are others!
Dave: What else?
Dave: What wouldn't people know about you? What would you talk about if you could direct the conversation?
Brooks: Books do sop up a lot of mental energy, particularly with my son. I had the best time in the reading-to-him years. I love children's literature. I'd get so involved in the books I was reading to him, then I'd have to go back to my adult novel and often feel very unsatisfied because of the dearth of plot. Reading those Philip Pullman books to him was a real highlight. Now he reads for himself, so we discuss the books he's reading.
Apart from that, I love gardening. I can talk for hours and bore you to tears about mulching and the best variety of asparagus to plant.
Dave: My wife wants to plant asparagus. What kind do you recommend?
Brooks: Jersey Knight. Hands-down. It's delicious. You just eat it raw. You'll never cook it. It's so good straight off. And it looks really beautiful in the garden.
Dave: Any growing tips?
Brooks: You have to be patient. Don't crop too heavily the first couple of years.
And also dogs—dogs are a huge part of our life.
Dave: How many?
Brooks: Two. That's a considerable number given that they're very unruly dogs. One's an Australian Kelpie and one's a border collie. If you don't give them a lot of time, they go loopy.
Dave: Dogs aside, can you think of an abiding interest that hasn't yet worked its way into your books?
Brooks: Nature, I suppose, the importance of it. I started out my reporting career covering environmental issues for the Sydney Morning Herald.
I've never addressed nature directly in a book, but I guess I always try to describe it as accurately and as vividly as I can. It's a very important part of my life. It's one of the things I love about where we are in Virginia— you can just walk out the back gate and across farmland and into woods along a creek. I get an incredible amount of refreshment from that.
I was more than a little curious to meet this respected journalist—undoubtedly she'd be brilliant, but you couldn?t be married to Tony Horwitz, I figured, without a keen sense of humor in addition.
Though readers have been spared the traditional [laughs] notations throughout the text, rest assured that more or less our entire conversation was punctuated by laughter, mine and hers. ("I'd wake up and go out my back door, and I'd trip over a re-enactor who'd been sleeping in the yard for the night [laughs]"; "I hated the fact that I was interviewing the president of Yemen while he was out chewing Qat [laughs]"; "Dang, I'm the only fellow in here who's ever skinned a squirrel[laughs]").
Geraldine Brooks visited Powell's City of Books on March 9, 2005.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State