Monday, February 18, 2008
Not too far into writing "People of the Book," Geraldine Brooks knew she was in trouble.
Brooks, a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, had just made the transition from fact to fiction. Her historical novel, "Year of Wonders," had been well-received when it was published in 2001, and she had plunged straight into another. Spanning five centuries, it was to center on the Sarajevo Haggadah, an extraordinary, centuries-old Hebrew manuscript she'd heard about years earlier on a reporting trip to Bosnia.
She planned a number of chapters featuring people connected to the Haggadah in different European cities and historical situations. Helping link them would be the story of a contemporary Bosnian conservator of rare manuscripts.
But she couldn't hear the conservator's voice.
"Sarajevans have a very distinct voice," Brooks says. "It's kind of a soulful Slavic thing with a very witty, edgy European overlay to it, with that cynicism that comes from having lived in a Communist regime. Full of grief, and yet with bags of courage."
She wasn't hearing it and she wasn't transmitting it: "I had 50 pages of this woman that just weren't alive to me."
About that time, another book idea "came flying through the window."
Brooks makes small fluttering motions with her hands as she says this, and then she laughs.
It's a melodic laugh that rises briefly, then descends, like a scale played on a piano, to a few notes below where it started. It will peal forth dozens of times over the course of a two-hour conversation. In this particular context, it seems to suggest that Brooks has led a charmed life -- and knows it.
Because the book idea that fluttered through the window was for a Civil War novel called "March."
She put the Haggadah project aside to write it.
"March" won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.