(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!