Sunday, November 15, 2009

TSS: An Evening with Geraldine Brooks

(photo courtesy of The Syracuse Post-Standard, Mike Greenlar)

It seems like everyone in central New York is either sick or recovering from a cold or flu, so Geraldine Brooks must have felt right at home. She was in town, "squeaking like Minnie Mouse", to deliver the second lecture in the Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series.

The former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent and Pulitzer prize winning author spoke with obvious enthusiasm about writing historical fiction. Although based in fact, she prefers when there isn't too much of it available. Her imagination can then be allowed to fill in the blanks. Brooks works by "trying to hear the voices", a job description which caused one of her children to ask if she were schizophrenic.

A stroll through the English countryside and an old fingerpost labeled "Plague Village" provided the inspiration for her first novel, Year of Wonders. At that point, she was on holiday from her job as Middle East correspondent and the lush green landscape provided a much-needed a break from the desert. It also provided a new direction for her career.

Brooks spoke of her early discouragement upon discovering a letter Henry James had written to Sarah Orne Jewett disparaging the historical novel. James said this type of novel was condemned to a "fatal cheapness" for the reasons that a novelist cannot possible know or understand the mind of anyone who lived more than fifty years ago. He said that "You may multiply little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like - the real thing is almost impossible to do and in its essence the whole effect is as naught..." Find the complete letter here.

The letter sent Brooks to her kitchen for a "stiff gin and tonic", but also lead her to the realization that an author can, in fact, understand the minds of long-dead people and that certain aspects of human experience must be universal. She has so obviously succeeded in writing historical novels that the audience roared in laughter when she said something to the effect of "So take that, Henry James!"

Brooks treated the crowd of over 1500 to a power point presentation highlighting photos and background from her research from People of the Book, which I must read soon.

March, her Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 2006, was triggered by the discovery of buried belt buckle in Virginia that belonged to a civil war soldier and by visiting Antietam with her husband, author Tony Horwitz, for the fourth time.

Brook next novel, Caleb's Crossing, set in the 1600's, will be based upon the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. It is scheduled to be finished around this time next year and I'm looking forward to it already!

20 comments:

  1. Great summary...it sounds like a fascinating evening. Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, Caleb's Crossing sounds like it'll be great! I still haven't read any Brooks, but March is on my tbr pile. And I agree with her about historical fiction. I mean, a lot has clearly chance, but the way we experience things probably hasn't changed that much. Otherwise we'd also be unable to relate to books written over 50 years ago, which is clearly not the case!

    ReplyDelete
  3. You are so lucky to have this author/reading series near you. I enjoyed Year of Wonders and March and am excited about Caleb's Crossing. Thanks for this post!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Caleb's Crossing sounds great! I simply must read People of the Book and March and have been intending to since both came to my attention over the last year.

    Historical fiction is given such a bad reputation by people who simply dismiss it but I love so many periods of history and reading fictionalised and meticulously-researched accounts of the time.

    ReplyDelete
  5. She would be an author I'd love to see!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I found myself smiling and nodding my head while I was reading your recap of this night. I would so have loved to be there to listen to her talk about her life and experiences while trying to write a book. I loved March and must finish the other ones at some point!!!

    ReplyDelete
  7. What a fascinating evening ("Take that, Henry James" indeed! He wrote "The Aspern Papers" which isn't historical fiction per se, but does treat history as one of its themes, yes?--hypocrite!).Write on, Geraldine Brooks! I loved People of the Book; her slideshow must have been wonderful. The Plague book is around here somewhere. Will have to get to it. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Softdrink - It was a wonderful evening! Next month's speaker is Pete Hamill, and then we have a break until March.

    Nymeth - I agree with her take on historical fiction and basic human experiences, too. Never thought about the not being able to appreciate a book more than 50 years old angle, but that would certainly follow from James' statement.

    Gavin - I am just loving this series! People of the Book will be the next Brooks novel I read, and I hope that will happen soon.

    Paperback Reader - Caleb's Crossing sounded so interesting when she was talking about it. The main character is from a Native American tribe on the island of Martha's Vineyard and crosses back to the mainland to attend Harvard.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Reviewsbylola - She was fun to listen to. I loved her Australian accent, even with the squeakiness from a cold.

    Staci - I loved listening to her talk about her children and her work...sitting at a desk staring into space while telling her kids that she's 'working' or 'trying to hear voices'. March is on my tbr list now.

    DS - The Henry James anecdote was my favorite part of the evening! I simply must read People of the Book now.

    ReplyDelete
  10. By coincidence I just finished People of the Book about 3o minutes ago-I really liked it-I hope I get to read her other tw novels in 2010. I will do a post on People of the Book soon-Thanks for sharing the informaton in your post. Henry James was some times a joker just showing off a bit!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I love hearing about the path that took authors to where they are now...especially if they didn't start out on that particular journey. Wonderful post!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I really enjoyed Year of Wonders; I am going to read People of the Book for book club next month.

    ReplyDelete
  13. You know, I find the snobbery towards historical books so odd, since some of the great classics like Les Mis and War and Peace are just that!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Mel U - People of the Book will be her next novel I read. Henry James must have been something! I'd like to read Colm Toibin's novel about his life, The Master.

    Darlene - Writer's lives, lifestyles, and inspirations are fascinating to me. I should probably start reading more biographies!

    Beastmomma - Year of Wonders is her only novel I've read...so far. I'll be reading People of the Book soon and I also have her nonfiction book Nine Parts of Desire on my shelf.

    Eva - Exactly right! Now that a historical novel won the Booker, maybe some attitudes will begin to change.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Joann-maybe we can both read Toibin's The Master next year

    ReplyDelete
  16. Oh wow, what a great event. I'd love to see her sometimes. People of the
    Book is really great- I hope you get to read it soon! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  17. Marie - I ended up loaning out my copy of People of the Book, but am hoping it gets returned at the next book club meeting. I'm anxious to read it now!

    ReplyDelete
  18. I've so wanted to read her books! What a great post. Thanks for sharing! :) I think I'll have to push these books to the top of my list much sooner.

    ReplyDelete
  19. mjmbecky - Glad you liked this post. Brooks was so interesting! I thought Year of Wonders was very well done. Hope you enjoy her books.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for taking the time to comment. These conversations are my favorite part of blogging. Please check back, I almost always respond to comments!

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails