Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks: “I get frustrated with writers when they privilege what they do over what everybody else does. Everybody has to get up in the morning and go to work, whether they feel like it or not.”

What I admire the most about Geraldine Brooks, the Australian-American, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and journalist is her flexibility in the face of change. One example of her flexibility is when she became a mother, she decided to write novels rather than continuing her work as a war correspondent, and was so successful that she received the Pulitzer Prize. Another example is when writing her novel “People of the Book,” she wanted one of the main characters to be Bosnian, but felt that she wasn’t able to “capture a really authentic Sarajevan voice.” She put the book aside and later decided to make the character Australian.

Brooks, who was born and raised in Australia, converted to Judaism after she married American journalist Tony Horwitz whom she met in journalism school.

The courage to be a war correspondent, to embrace a new religion, to mix history and fiction is the same courage that it takes to be flexible and change directions in life.

Brooks is coming to Reston Community Center (RCC) on Oct. 30 to take part in a Q&A session about her book after a performance composed by composer-performer Merima Ključo, which is based on Brooks’ book.

“People of the Book” follows the journey of the Haggadah, “a rare illuminated manuscript, through centuries of exile and war.” Brooks fills in the gaps in the historical side of the story with fictional characters. The Haggadah, one of the Jewish culture's most treasured manuscripts, traveled from medieval Spain to 20th-century Bosnia, where it was rescued and hidden by Muslims during World War II, and later restored by the National Museum in Sarajevo after the 1992-1995 war.

We had this conversation over the phone:

It is very scary to interview someone like you.

BROOKS: Oh, stop. Not if you saw me in my sweatpants and T-shirt, yeah, dirt under my fingernails from picking my last tomatoes before the frost comes.

I know that you heard about the book “Sarajevo Haggadah” while you were at a bar in a war zone in Bosnia long before you became a novelist. So I wonder, did the multicultural aspect of the story attract you?

BROOKS: Oh, absolutely. So this is something that my entire career as a reporter and then as a foreign correspondent has always been just driven by--this conviction that we as a species are victims of a terrible disease, which is otherizing, where we can't seem to learn the lesson that when we make multicultural societies, that is when we make huge leaps in science and in art and as human beings. And you see it time and time again in history, when people work side by side, appreciate each other's differences, then that's when we thrive.

And yet somehow this virus always rises up and takes over and wants to put us in our silos and say that anything different is less and we seem to fall for it over and over again. And I started as a foreign correspondent. People would say, "Oh, they don't think like us," and as far as I could tell, they thought exactly like. It's the same whether it was different tribes in Ethiopia and different clans in Somalia, different religions, different skin color. And so, if they're not like us, then actually, they are. And when you're a reporter and you're crossing from one side to the other, you understand that the things that matter, the love and the grief and the desire that your children have a better life than you did, everybody shares those things. It's only the unimportant things like how you pronounce words that is different.

The story of the Haggadah highlights the religious tolerance of a Muslim librarian who risked his life to save the book.

BROOKS: Two--two times--we have Muslims saving this book. The story of Dervis Korkut and his wife, in World War II, is a super dramatic story of how he faced the Nazis to save this book. And he was a Muslim Alim [scholar] from a very distinguished family of religious Muslims.

And then of course, the one during the recent Bosnian war, Enver Imamovic, who, he went to the police station in Sarajevo and said, "You have to come with me to the museum to help me secure the most important things in the museum," and the police say, "Are you nuts? We're not going to risk going under shelling." And he said, "Well, okay, but I'm going. And after the war I'll just have to tell everybody that a dusty librarian had more guts than the Sarajevo police force." And so they went with him and they got there just in time to save the book because a shell had hit the water main and the basement was flooding and the book was in a safe in the basement at that point. And they had to crack the safe in the dark with the shells falling. And it's an incredibly dramatic story. So that was the truth. So I had a lot to work with when I turned to trying to fill in the gaps in the record.

I want to ask you about the character Hanna Heath, a book conservator, who was offered the job of a lifetime: conserving the Haggadah. I know originally, you wanted her to be Bosnian, but the Aussie in Heath eventually spoke to you.

BROOKS: Well, I couldn't quite...I wasn't good enough to quite capture a really authentic Sarajevan voice, because it was a very particular voice with a lot of layers to it by the time I got there. So, these are people who became profoundly cynical under communism and yet they were very sophisticated and in a multicultural city. And then the tragedy of the war had just carved deep grooves into their souls and it was a voice that I was struggling to get. And I just felt like I'm not a good enough novelist to inhabit this person thoroughly.

And so that was when I put the book aside for a while. I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to do it or not. And I wrote another book, I wrote “March,” which became my second novel. And I came back to it.

And when I came back to it, it was clear to me that I should just find a voice that I could hear. And so, I made her somebody who was an Australian, my generation. And the funny thing about it was, I actually then relied on an Australian conservator at Harvard museum, who showed me all the things and, yeah, I was thinking, was it improbable that she would be Australian and that she would be working in this global situation? And then there's this guy who's the head of the Straus Center for Conservation at Harvard, so that was reassuring when he spoke to me in a broad Australian accent.

So how much of Heath is part of you?

BROOKS: She's nothing like me. I wanted to make her as different from me as possible. So the only thing we have in common is the intellectual curiosity, I think. She has a terrible relationship with her mother; I had a great relationship with my mother. She's quite sexually reckless. I was not. And I made her come from a very affluent background. My background was very lower middle class, not affluent. So it was fun to try and imagine somebody from a different part of my own society.

Let's go to the female side of your life and work. So as mothers, women usually don't prioritize their creative voices. What was your experience?

BROOKS: So, I became a novelist because I had a baby and I didn't want to be going on long, open-ended journalistic assignments anymore. So, I thought, “I'm going to try it and see if I can do this instead, so I can be at home while my kids are small, and that was just incredibly lucky for me.”


BROOKS: ... that I've managed to write a novel and somebody actually wanted to read it and then I got to write another one, and so I got to keep doing it. And I was able to do it, and my youngest son is 16 now, so it worked out.

What is your routine? I mean, this great work that you were awarded for, I'm sure it took a lot of discipline and intention.

BROOKS: Well, I think all work takes discipline. I get frustrated with writers when they privilege what they do over what everybody else does. Everybody has to get up in the morning and go to work, whether they feel like it or not. Sometimes I'm sure somebody who's operating a metal press isn't inspired to do that, but they still have to do it.

And I think, if you can think about your writing in the same way, it's something you have to do every day. You can't do it well every day, but you can do something. And so, if you write something every day, then you've got something to work with and something to improve on.

So, my discipline was really, when the kids were small, it was just the school bus. The school bus would come and take them and I would sit down and try and write until they came home and that was it. It wasn't really mysterious. And I think it was good because I had a finite amount of time every day. So, I think after my kid, my youngest decided to go to boarding school a year or so ago, and I suddenly thought, "Oh, I'll be so much more productive now because I can write as long as I like every day." I became less productive. It was the discipline of knowing that I had the school day as my work day was a really wonderful structure for me. So, I'm trying now to discipline myself without that.

And what inspired you to risk your life and be a war correspondent?

BROOKS: It was an accident.


BROOKS: Really. When I wanted to become a journalist, I didn't have that in my mind at all. I just, I was fascinated by people's stories and I loved learning about my own city, because we didn't have a very expensive life when I was growing up. We didn't go traveling; it was a very small, suburban childhood and really inner city in a way. And it was exciting to me to go and learn about Australia first and I became an environmental correspondent, writing about those issues. And I loved that work and I'd never ever seen camping or hiking or anything like that. But to cover these stories about environmental issues, I had to go to very remote places and do things that were very far outside my comfort zone, like rafting down a wild river that was threatened by a hydro electric plan.

And I found that I loved the adrenaline of it. I loved pushing myself to do something like that. And then when the Wall Street Journal offered me the Middle East correspondent job, I still wasn't thinking war correspondent. But of course that unfortunately is the nature of the place; there was a constant stream of conflicts and I was covering them. And it started with the first Palestinian Intifada. I'd only really just started in the region and I was dodging rocks and rubber bullets and tear gas and then of course, there was the Iran-Iraq war, which was a particularly brutal, horrible conflict. And there was war in Lebanon and there was always tension in the Gulf, and then Iraq invaded Kuwait. So there was that.

It was just something that I happened to be there and the secret is that it's really the easiest reporting to do in the world because the drama is right there. Everybody has a story and you don't have to go pouring through bad guys' tax records and you don't have to have extensive contacts in the government. You just have to get yourself there, and then the story falls into your lap--just being able to handle the logistics of getting into countries when everybody else is trying to get out of them.


BROOKS: And then being able to put up with a certain amount of discomfort, like not to expect to have dry socks or clean linen or a nice, fresh towel. And then you're all set. And it's a privilege to bear witness and it's important to convey the consequences of American foreign policy, how these stupid decisions play out in people's real lives. So, I was very dedicated to it and I don't regret any of it and I would have kept doing it until, once my son was born, I realized it wasn't really compatible with the kind of mother I wanted to be.

That's great. What was your experience as a female in journalism?

BROOKS: So, it was more of an advantage than a disadvantage. At first, it was a disadvantage, because I couldn't, particularly in very conservative societies, people just aren't used to, young men are not used to young women going up to them and just talking to them.

That was kind of a shocking thing. And so, I couldn't do the journalism that I was used to doing. And then I figured out that I could do something that the men couldn't do, which was talk to the women. And once I started doing that, I had magical access to places that other reporters couldn't go, including Khamenei’s home, where I could sit with his widow and his daughter and Palestinian refugee camps where I would be cooking with the women and hearing their stories of what it was like when the soldiers raid in the middle of the night and the terrible violation and fear that that creates, and just living women's lives alongside them was a real privilege.

I’m sorry for your loss. I know you lost your husband in May this year. I don't want to be insensitive, but I have this question, and I can't just ignore it.

BROOKS: Yeah, yeah, go for it. There are no bad questions.

It's a question about your husband Tony Horwitz. I wonder what it is like to be married to someone who shares your ambition.

BROOKS: It was fantastic. We were the luckiest people because we grew up together in this profession. We met each other in journalism school. We were able to work either side by side or on different sides of the same story, fitting the pieces together, working and living with somebody and then made the transition together from journalists to book writers. He stayed with the facts. He didn't make things up. He was a historian and he said I'd gone over to the dark side where I made stuff up. But we were so lucky, we saw each other almost every day. At the end of the day, we compared notes on what we were doing. It was an incredibly happy marriage.


BROOKS: I miss him so much and it just, it gets worse the more it becomes real to me that I'm not going to see him again because his death was so sudden and so unexpected. He was such a fit, healthy guy, as far as we knew, that it was like lightning coming out of a clear sky and it and the kids, it's really hard to accept that he's really gone. It just seems too implausible.

I'm so sorry, but I'm sure the love will give you some power. You will find something.

BROOKS: You know, what I have is gratitude, because not everybody gets what I got. We had 34 years together. Ecstatically happy marriage. So that is a big gift. So I just try and focus on the gratitude.

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