Covering history-in-the-making led to making novels based in history - LancasterOnline: Books

Covering history-in-the-making led to making novels based in history

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Posted: Saturday, March 31, 2012 11:53 pm | Updated: 6:49 pm, Thu Sep 12, 2013.

Before she was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of historical novels, Geraldine Brooks covered the latest world crises for The Wall Street Journal.

She went from "parachuting into other people's lives as they face ... desperation" to combing old documents in America's small-town libraries.

An unlikely career progression?

Not really.

"I'm still living off the fat of the experiences I had as a journalist,"said the soft-spoken Brooks, punctuating her faintly Aussie-accented words with a girlish giggle.

"Covering crises in the contemporary world gave me an idea of how we dealt with crisis in the past," she explained via telephone from her home on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

In her former career, Brooks witnessed the various ways people respond to upheaval and horror, "drawing on their best selves ... or their worst selves." Sometimes, she noted, those who might be expected to take the lead, do not, and unlikely heroes arise.

With these hard-won insights, she wrote about the plague in England ("Year of Wonders"), the American Civil War ("March"), the travels of the Sarajevo Haggadah ("People of the Book"), and most recently Native American-Puritan relations ("Caleb's Crossing"), all best-sellers.

"My underlying belief is that the human heart hasn't changed that much," she said. That conviction may account for the strong, believable characters populating her historical fiction.

Brooks' memoir, "Foreign Correspondence," and her book on reporting in the Middle East, "Nine Parts of Desire," are fascinating and further an understanding of the author and the topics she's chosen for her novels. In this interview, for example, she noted attitudes concerning the education of females shared by both the Taliban and the Puritans.

• As exciting as it was to get a call in the middle of the night and jump on an airplane to who-knows-where, Brooks says she is "glad I'm not doing that now." A major reason is that Brooks - who had worked with Marie Colvin, the journalist who died in February covering the Syrian uprising - is now "mothering" two sons, ages 9 and 15, with American-born husband Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist now writing nonfiction books.

The two writers have influenced each other professionally, Brooks acknowledged. Both have written on the Civil War; he wrote about her native Australia in "Blue Latitudes," his book about Capt. James Cook. Her "People of the Book" and her upocming book on King David spring from this Catholic girl's conversion to his Jewish faith.

For the new book, there isn't the same kind of written record she was able to mine for "Caleb's Crossing," she said. ("The Puritans wrote so much!") "There's the Bible, and that's it. I have to look at the archaeology and what we know about from 1000 B.C."

Still, she's up to the challenge. She researches the times, so settings and events are as factual as possible. Some characters, though, can be wholly made up. In her books' afterwords, she separates historical fact from fiction, she said.

She regards historical fiction as "a gateway drug," she joked, which can draw readers in, enticing them to read actual history. It worked that way for her, she said, recalling how her early love of Mary Renault's novels sparked her interest in the ancient world she's currently exploring.

Brooks is guest speaker at the 12th annual Author Luncheon hosted by the Council of Friends of Lancaster County Public Libraries, Aaron's Books, and the Library System of Lancaster County. The May 11 luncheon at Calvary Church in Manheim Township is sold out; general admission tickets are available for $20; call Sue Newswanger at 354-8016 for more information.

Contact Sunday News Books Editor Jo-Ann Greene at

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