Two interviews with Geraldine Brooks about Year of Wonders and People of the Book.
A Conversation with Geraldine Brooks about People of the Book
Your previous two novels are set during Europe's plague years and the
American Civil War. Now, you've created an epic story about art and religious
persecution. What is it that draws you to a particular subject, or a particular
I love to find stories from the past where we can know something, but not everything; where there is enough of a historical record to have left us with an intriguing factual scaffolding, but where there are also enough unknowable voids in that record to allow room for imagination to work.
What do you think it is about the real Sarajevo Haggadah that has allowed it to survive the centuries?
It's a fascinating question: Why did this little book always find its protectors when so many others did not? It is interesting to me that the book was created in a periodconvivencia Spainwhen diversity was tolerated, even somewhat celebrated, and that it found its way centuries later to a similar place, Sarajevo. So even when hateful forces arose in those societies and crushed the spirit of multiethnic, interfaith acceptance, there were those individuals who saw what was happening and acted to stop it in any way they could.
Were you already working on People of the Book when March won the Pulitzer Prize? How does winning such a prestigious award affect your writing?
I was working on People of the Book even before I started to write March. I'd been struggling quite a bit with the World War II story: It's such a picked-over period and I was looking for a backwater of the war that wouldn't perhaps feel so familiar to readers. That search was leading to a lot of dead ends when I suddenly got the idea for March and it was so clear to me how to write that book that I just did it.
The "Pulitzer Surprise," as my then-nine-year-old son so accurately dubbed it, affected my writing only in that it interrupted it for a while by drawing renewed attention to March. But after a few weeks of pleasant distraction I was back at my desk, alone in a room, simply doing what I've always done, which is trying to write as best I can, day after day.
Book conservation is hardly a glamorous job, but Hanna's framing narrative is every bit as action-packed and compelling as the stories in the Hagaddah's history. What inspired her creation?
Because I like to write with a first-person narrator, getting the voice of the book is everything to me. I'd struggled a lot with my first idea, which was to have the conservator be Bosnian. I love the way Sarajevans express themselves; it's a kind of world-weary, mordant wit overlying an amazing ability to absorb and survive great suffering. But I wasn't getting the voice and the book was stalled as a result. Then I suddenly thought, Well, why shouldn't she be Australian? That's a voice I can hear clearly. Hanna came alive in my head and as a result the contemporary story, which I'd originally thought of as merely a framing device for the stories from the past, became much more important.
The scientific resources that Hanna employs to find out more about the book's artifacts are really fascinating. How much of that is drawn from actual research and how much springs from your imagination?
I went to labs. I interviewed scientists and conservators and observed their work. But the book is fiction, not a technical treatise, so experts will be able to spot a place or two where I took some small liberties.
The Jewish people have endured extraordinary trials. How much about this history did you know before writing the book?
Most of it. The whipsaw of Jewish history has fascinated me since I was in junior high.
Who is your favorite character and why?
That's like asking a parent to name a favorite child. Hanna became like a good mate, and I actually miss hanging out with her. But I feel a certain tenderness towards all of the characters, perhaps especially the most flawed ones.
People of the Book is set in so many different eras. Was it a more difficult book to research and write than your previous novels?
There was definitely more to research, but it wasn't difficult. I loved the various journeysactual and intellectualthat it took me on. Seeing the domes and spires of Venice shimmering in the watery morning light; having the great privilege of meeting Servet Korkut, who supported her husband in resisting fascism; watching Andrea Pataki painstakingly take apart the real Sarajevo Haggadahthese are experiences of a lifetime.
Will the book be published in Bosnia, and if so, what kind of reception do you anticipate?
I hope it will. I have no idea about the reception. It's very presumptuous, what I domeddling around in other people's history. When I went back to Eyam, the plague village, I fully expected a faction of the townsfolk to want to have me clapped in the stocks. (They still have them there.) To my intense relief, the people I met had really embraced the book. I had the same feelings of trepidation when I went to read March in Concord, Massachusetts. I was delighted to be met at the reading by Louisa May Alcott (Jan Turnquist, director of the remarkable Orchard House Museum, in costume), who thanked me for being one of the very few who had tried to understand and appreciate her father. So I hope the people of Bosnia will forgive me for taking liberties with their history and see the book as a tribute from someone who was inspired by the remarkable spirit of Sarajevo.
What are you working on now?
I'm just at the earliest stages of exploring an intriguing story set very close to home, on Martha's Vineyard. It concerns people who lived on this island in 1666, one of my favorite years, and seems to have just the right mix of knowns and unknowablesa lovely incomplete scaffold to build on.
A Conversation with Geraldine Brooks about Year of Wonders
In your afterword, you describe chancing upon Eyam and its terrible
history while living in England in 1990. Can you tell us a bit about your
researchfor instance, what you uncovered about the
townspeople and perhaps didn't include in the novel for whatever reason? What
about the difficulties of writing a story that blends fiction with historical
fact, especially given your journalistic, just-the-facts background?
The written record of what happened in Eyam during the plague year is scant. Apart from three letters by the rector, no narrative account from the year itself actually exists. The "histories" that purport to record the facts were actually written many years later, and historians have found inconsistencies that cast doubt on their accuracy. Therefore, there was no way to write a satisfying nonfiction narrative. And, since the story had taken root in my imagination, the only way to indulge my impulse to tell it was to take the leap into fiction. The factual basis of the story was actually very helpful to me: it was like having the framing of the house already erectedI could see the shape from the beginning. The things I decided not to use from the anecdotal accounts passed down over time were those things that would have seemed most like implausible inventions. For example, a young couple is said to have lived in the church around the plague time, seeking sanctuary from the law. The couple had been married by accident, having drunkenly taken part in a mock wedding at a tavern that was later deemed to have the force of law and sacrament. Unfortunately, the groom was already engaged to another woman. She, enraged, sought his arrest for breach of promise. The couple apparently lived a reasonable life in the church, assisted by sympathetic villagers. This story, although reasonably well substantiated, just seemed too odd to weave into my novel.
You describe the man on whom Michael Mompellion was based, William Mompesson, as "heroic and saintly" and yet you also believe that Mompesson and his wife sent their two children away before quarantining the town. How do you justify your description of the real man? And do you think this knowledge influenced your depiction of the "darker side" of the Mompellion character?
One of the fictional liberties I took with the story was a certain compression of timeframe. The plague was actually in the village for many weeks before the quarantine was agreed upon. Some people decided to send their children away into the care of relatives: there was nothing unethical in the Mompessons also choosing to do so. It was only as the epidemic really took hold that Mompesson saw the fearful virulence of the disease and became concerned about the consequences of its spread. There is nothing in the factual record to suggest that he behaved other than honorably throughout the village's terrible ordeal. However, in trying to imagine hima young man, not long out of school, not long in a village where most of the Puritan-leaning population did not share his religious views, yet still persuasive enough to bring people to such a momentous choiceI envisioned a man of powerful conviction and charisma. Such personalities are sometimes governed by unwholesome motivations, such as the belief that they are God's infallible instruments. They can be dangerous, even deadly.
Do you believe Anna is an unlikely heroine, given the rigid class structures of her time and her sex? Why did you choose to tell this story from Anna's point of view? Did your nonfiction, and in particular your book Nine Parts of Desire, which deals with the lives of Muslim women, influence your decision?
I wanted a narrator who was part of the ordinary life of the village, but also had access to the gentry, the decision-makers. Since I knew that the real rector had a maid who survived the plague, she seemed the obvious choice. Anna's character and the changes it undergoes were suggested to me by the lives of women I had met during my years as a reporter in the Middle East and Africawomen who had lived lives that were highly circumscribed and restricted, until thrown into sudden turmoil by a crisis such as war or famine. These women would suddenly find themselves having to step out of their old roles and assume vastly challenging responsibilities. I saw women who had traveled enormous personal distancestraditional village women in Eritrea who became platoon leaders in the country's independence war; Kurdish women who led their families to safety over mined mountain passes after the failure of their uprising against Saddam Hussein. If those women could change and grow so remarkably, I reasoned that Anna could, too. And remember that the Restoration was a very fluid time. All the ancient certaintiesthe monarchy, the Churchhad been challenged within these people's lifetime. They had lived through regicide, revolution, civil war. Change was their norm. In the 1660s, women were appearing on the stage for the first time, were assuming influential roles in the Restoration court. Also, life in the villages was much less rigid and restrictive than we often imagine. I read a lot of sermons while researching the novel, and it struck me that the amount of hectoring from the pulpit on the proper behavior of women probably reflected a widely held view that a lot of "improper" behavior was going on.
In light of your research, can you put into perspective just how extraordinary the villagers' decision to quarantine themselves was? What was happening in London, for example, at the same time?
The unique thing about Eyam's quarantine was that it was voluntary. I was able to find no other examples of such communal self-sacrifice. In London, Samuel Pepys writes in his journal of the terrible treatment meted out to plague victims: "We are become as cruel as dogs one to another." There, the houses of plague victims were sealed and guarded, locking in the well with the ill, with no one to bring food, water, or comfort of any kind. Pepys writes that you could hear the cries of the afflicted coming from the houses, which were marked with large red crosses and the words "God Have Mercy."
In a piece published in The Washington Post after the September 11, 2001, attacks, you wrote: "Whether we also shall one day look back upon this year of flames, germs and war as a 'year of wonders' will depend, perhaps, on how many are ablelike the passengers on United Flight 93 or the firefighters of New York Cityto match the courageous self-sacrifice of the people of Eyam." Will you discuss the parallels you have drawn here?
Eyam is a story of ordinary people willing to make an extraordinary sacrifice on behalf of others. September 11, 2001, revealed heroism in ordinary people who might have gone through their lives never called upon to demonstrate the extent of their courage. Sadly, it also revealed a blind thirst for revenge that led to the murders of a Muslim, a Sikh, and an Egyptian Copt. I have imagined this same instinct to turn on and blame "the other" in the lynching of the Gowdies. Love, hate, fear. The desire to live and to see your children live. Are these things different on a beautiful autumn morning in a twenty-first-century city than they were in an isolated seventeenth-century village? I don't think so. One thing I believe completely is that the human heart remains the human heart, no matter how our material circumstances change as we move together through time.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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