Fiction is a wonderful place to probe the human heart
Interview with Geraldine Brooks, October 2010
Geraldine Brooks to receive 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize Lifetime Achievement Award
By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer
For Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, her visit to Dayton on Nov. 7 will be a homecoming. In the early 1980s she was a Cleveland-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
“I used to spend quite a bit of time in Dayton,” she says. “One of my companies that I covered was Dayton Power and Light and they were in the news at that time because of the Zimmer Nuclear Power Plant.”
She was also dating her soon-to-be-husband, author Tony Horwitz, who had a job in Ft. Wayne. “We did meet up for an important birthday in Dayton and had a wonderful meal.”
Brooks has returned to Dayton several times since the ‘80s on a number of book tours. “Dayton is a wonderful book town,” she says. “I know I’m not alone among authors who love to go there on book tours because the audiences are so well read.”
With The Wall Street Journal, Brooks went on to cover crises in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans.
These days, the Sydney, Australia native, her husband of 26 years, and their two sons live on Martha’s Vineyard; they also have a home in Sydney.
Brooks, best known for her works of historical fiction, is the recipient of the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize Lifetime Achievement Award.
Her journey from foreign correspondent to novelist came when she was 38 years old and reporting in Africa.
“I was in the slammer in a town in Nigeria and I didn’t know how long I was going to be kept in detention,” she says. “And I had one of those oops-I-forgot-to-get-pregnant-moments. When they released me after only three days, I came home and greeted my husband with renewed enthusiasm and our son was born the following year.”
She didn’t want to travel the world on long, open-ended assignments anymore. A history buff, she first turned to non-fiction writing. Brooks had always been intrigued by the story of a village in England during the 1660s whose inhabitants decided to quarantine themselves when the Bubonic Plague arrived from London rather than flee and spread the disease.
“I thought that was such a remarkable self-sacrificing decision and a remarkable example of a town coming to a difficult consensus,” she says.
But when Brooks dug in to explore that story, she found numerous holes in the historical record. The only way to do it, she says, was through fiction. The result was Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague in 2001.
Her next historical novel, March, plunged readers into the Civil War. She plucked her protagonist, March, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. March won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.
“I just love to find these stories in the past where there are missing pieces in the record that you have to use your imagination to fill.”
Brooks says she thinks the themes fiction deals with can have a role toward advancing peace.
“There’s a wonderful anthology by my fellow countryman Peter Singer, who’s now an ethicist at Princeton University, called The Moral of the Story,” she says. “It looks at excerpts from works in which ethical questions are explored. I think that fiction is a wonderful place to really take the probe into the human heart and why we behave as we do, ethically and unethically.”
As a girl, Brooks was raised Catholic; yet she was obsessed with the history of the Jewish people.
“My mother was from an Irish-Catholic family and I went to Catholic school with the big hats and gloves and school uniforms,” she says. “But my father wasn’t a religious man.
His religion, if you like, was leftist politics. And he had served in what was then Palestine during World War II.”
Enthralled with the romance of the Zionist pioneers and the kibbutz movement, her father became an ardent socialist Zionist. During the Six-Day War, the family followed the news closely and looked at the maps in the newspapers.
“He’d been to some of the kibbutzim that were being shelled,” she says. “And he talked about the children’s houses and the shelters. And so that gripped my childish imagination.”
Brooks says she read everything she could get her hands on about Jewish history. In high school, her senior project was on the Suez crisis.
“When I was in graduate school, I met Tony Horwitz and at that point, I have to admit that I didn’t know Horwitz was a Jewish name,” she says. “I fell in love with him and later on found out that he was indeed Jewish. And when we decided to get married, there was no way I wanted to be the end of that line of history. And so I decided that I would convert to the faith so that our kids could be Jewish.”
Judaism influenced the topic of her most recent novel, People of the Book. Brooks says she was intrigued by the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, created in 14th-century Spain and saved over the centuries by “various unlikely rescuers, some of whom were Muslim and one of whom was Catholic, and the story of why these people risked their lives in some cases to save a Jewish book.”
The illuminated Haggadah survived the four-year siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. Today, it is on permanent display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“It’s a tremendous honor for me to get this award and tremendously meaningful because when I was a journalist, I covered the conflict in the Balkans,” Brooks says. “What happened in Dayton — everybody says, well it’s not a perfect peace. Well, when is peace ever perfect? But I know from being there during the war and after the war that what happened in Dayton achieved so much on the ground in terms of the way people are able to go about their lives.”
Geraldine Brooks will receive the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize Lifetime Achievement Award on Sunday, Nov. 7 at 5 p.m. at the Schuster Center. For reservations, call 298-5072 or go to www.daytonliterarypeaceprize.org.