Pulitzer Prize Winner Geraldine Brooks Inspired by a True Story

April 30, 2008
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Brooks cover
People of the Book

by Geraldine Brooks
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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Geraldine Brooks
Author of People of the Book

by Ellen Birkett Morris

May 2008

 

Great historical fiction helps the reader feel utterly transported to another place and time yet grounded by a myriad of telling details and special touches. It seduces us into a sense of connection with people whose lives couldn’t be more different from our own yet illuminates our commonalities. People of the Book, by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Geraldine Brooks, is such a story.

Australian-born Brooks is a former reporter for the The Sydney Morning Herald and The Wall Street Journal, where she covered crises in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. In 2006, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her novel March.

“People of the Book was inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. ”
—MORRIS

People of the Book was inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. A Haggadah guides ritual acts and prayers at the Seder dinner celebrating Passover, including telling the story of Exodus.

Brooks was born and raised in Sydney, where she did her undergraduate study in Government and Fine Arts at Sydney University. She earned a master’s degree from the Columbia School of Journalism.

She learned about the Haggadah while working as a reporter in Sarajevo to cover the Bosnian War for The Wall Street Journal. As Brooks describes in the afterward of People of the Book:

. . . the city’s fire-gutted library reeked of burned pages after the barrage of Serbian phosphorus shells. The Oriental Institute and its marvelous manuscripts were in ashes, and the National Museum of Bosnia was splattered with the shrapnel of frequent shelling.

The fate of the crown jewel of Bosnian collections, the Sarajevo Haggadah, was unknown. Later, it was revealed that a Muslim librarian had rescued the text during shelling and hidden it in a bank vault for safekeeping. In the 1941, a well known Islamic scholar had smuggled the manuscript out of the museum under the nose of a Nazi general. These heroic acts served as a springboard for a fictional telling of the history of the book.

“I honestly can't say why I saw a novel in it when others before me hadn't… ”
—BROOKS

“I honestly can’t say why I saw a novel in it when others before me hadn’t,” said Brooks, whose earlier works of historical fiction explored the effects of the bubonic plague on a small English village in the seventeenth century and the devastation and moral complexities of the Civil War as seen though the eyes of a fictional chaplain.

“For me fact based fiction gives me a scaffolding for imagination to rest on. I let the story drive the research rather than the other way around. First I research to hear voices of the period I’m writing about, until one starts speaking clearly to me. The voice tells me who the character is, and that tells me what she’ll do. That drives the plot, and then I know what I need to know…,” said Brooks.

"As a journalist you learn to
write under almost any circumstances… "

—BROOKS

 

 

She believes her background as a journalist aids her as a writer.

“As a journalist you learn to write under almost any circumstances,and you don’t have the luxury of waiting on the muse. Even though fiction is very different, it helps to be able to bang out a draft of something even on your worst days. Then at least you’ve got something to come back to and work on,” noted Brooks.

The book begins with her narrator, Australian rare books expert Hanna Heath, examining the mysterious text in Sarajevo. Her discoveries, an insect wing, wine stains, salt crystals and a white hair, serve as the touchstones for the reader’s journey back in time to the book’s creation.

With a writer’s touch with character and a journalist’s eye for detail, Brooks bring powerful strengths to bear on her storytelling.

 

“Everything is important. You never know which bit of your life's fabric you'll be drawing on… ”
—BROOKS

“Everything is important. You never know which bit of your life’s fabric you’ll be drawing on, whether it’s the memory of an emotion or a memory of the sound a rocket-propelled grenade makes when it just misses you…” she advises.

She decided to try her hand as a novelist after her son was born in 1996.

“I didn’t want to be traveling on research trips or reporting assignments, so I decided to take some time and see if I had a novelist within,” said Brooks.

Her historical novel about the plague, Year of Wonders, was published in 2001 and was well received. The Civil War novel, March, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

 

“You can't suddenly write better because you're a Pulitzer winner… ”
—BROOKS

 

“The Pulitzer Surprise, as my nine year old dubbed it, was an immensely pleasant distraction for about a month, when I had to set aside my work to respond to renewed interest in March. But apart from bringing you new readers–very welcome!–it doesn’t really change anything. You can’t suddenly write better because you’re a Pulitzer winner. You just do what you’ve always done, writing the best you can…,” said Brooks.

She works “very instinctively,” without an outline. She wrote the later chapters of People of the Book –Salt Water, White Hair—first.

“Writing in the near present was new for me. It took me longer to find a modern voice than it does to find voices from the past. Finally I settled on an Australian voice that was very familiar to me,” said Brooks.

Brooks worked with Editor Molly Stern at Viking, and sought feedback from her husband, journalist, author and fellow Pulitzer Prize winner (in Journalism) Tony Horwitz.

On working with an editor, she advises, “It’s often hard to hear an editor say something isn’t working but I’ve generally found that if two readers say the same thing, they’re probably right and the book will be much the better for the revisions prompted by their criticisms.”

Her agent Kris Dahl of ICM represented her husband Tony Horwitz.

“I knew her very well and knew she’d be right for me, so when my relationship with my first agent (who had cold called me when I was still working as a newspaper reporter) imploded, I was very sure that Kris would be a great fit and she has been. It’s important, I think, to have an agent you can absolutely trust because it’s your reputation and probity on the line when deals are made on your behalf,” said Brooks.

Brooks work is a testament to her talent, her ability to follow an idea to an imaginative end and perseverance.

 

“Rejection stings. There's no real advice for coping with it. ”
—BROOKS

 

“Rejection stings. There’s no real advice for coping with it. You either can or you can’t, I think. Same goes for the really terrible reviews. If you can’t suck it up and move on, you will have a hard time as a writer,” said Brooks.

 

About Geraldine Brooks

 

Australian-born Geraldine Brooks is an author and journalist who grew up in the Western suburbs of Sydney. She worked for The Wall Street Journal, where she covered crises in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for her novel March, and her novel Year of Wonders is an international bestseller. She is also the author of the nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists. 

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris