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Geraldine Brooks Mines Journalistic Exploits for Fictional Gold

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

And when she finally went back to "People of the Book" -- which, incidentally, now sits on the national bestseller lists -- she quickly solved the problem of the contemporary curator's voice.

A charmed life? Case closed!

Or maybe not.

It all comes down to your definition of "charmed."

Blank Spaces to Fill In

The idea for "People of the Book" didn't fly through any windows, unless you count mortar holes in the Sarajevo Holiday Inn.

Freezing and lacking electricity as the Bosnian war wound down in the mid-1990s, the hotel was filled nonetheless -- it was the only one still open -- with journalists gossiping in its candle-lit bar. Brooks was there covering U.N. operations. The bar talk turned to the Sarajevo Haggadah, of which she had never heard.

The priceless manuscript, it seemed, was missing. Had the Bosnian government sold it to raise money for arms? Had the Israelis smuggled it out of the country for safekeeping? Brooks made a mental note to check out the rumors, but never did.

After the war, she learned that in 1992, a Muslim librarian had dodged Serbian shells to retrieve the manuscript and had stashed it in a bank vault. When Brooks switched to fiction writing, she brought her fascination with this story along.

Historical fiction works best, she says, if you have some blank spaces to fill in. This was not a problem with the Sarajevo Haggadah, about which the known facts were few and mostly recent.

The most dramatic involved another Muslim librarian, Dervis Korkut, who risked his life to keep the Haggadah out of the hands of Nazi occupiers during World War II. Hearing that a Nazi general was coming to claim the manuscript, Korkut hid it in the waistband of his trousers. He and the director of the Bosnian National Museum then managed to persuade the general that they'd already handed it over to another Nazi. Where the Haggadah really spent the war remained a mystery until Brooks tracked down Korkut's 81-year-old widow and learned that he'd taken it to a remote mountain village and hidden it in a mosque.

Before that are only faint traces and speculation.

The Haggadah was created, scholars believe, in 14th-century Spain, toward the end of the so-called Convivencia -- a period, as Brooks writes in an afterword to "People of the Book," when "Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted in relative peace." Among the most notable things about the manuscript are its brightly colored illuminations, which caused art historians to reevaluate their belief that medieval Hebrew books deliberately excluded figurative art.

One of the figures, pictured with Jews at a Passover Seder, was a black-skinned woman with African features. Who was she? No one knows.

Brooks got to imagine her.

After the Convivencia came the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsions of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Somehow the Haggadah survived. Nothing is known of how this happened, though Brooks says her chapter about it is "true to the details of the Inquisition" because, "sadly and troublingly," the inquisitors kept meticulous records of water torture sessions. (She never expected to open a newspaper and learn "that we were doing essentially the same thing.")

One more small fact: An inscription on the Haggadah by a Catholic priest places the manuscript in Venice in 1609. Brooks imagined the priest's life and -- with the help of a revealing memoir by a Venetian rabbi -- evoked the relations between the Christian city and its Jewish ghetto.

Trying to keep her fictional details as close to reality as possible, Brooks used part of a fellowship year at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute to borrow scholarly expertise.

She took Harvard librarians to tea and was regaled with tales of conservators tracking down clues hidden in manuscripts. She pestered biologist Naomi Pierce to help her invent one particular clue, involving the wing of a butterfly that lives only in Alpine habitats.

Another clue involved a wine stain that would turn out to have blood mixed in it. Brooks spent a happy day spilling liquids on bits of parchment in the conservation lab at Harvard's art museum. "I didn't know where we were going to get blood," conservation specialist Narayan Khandekar recalls, "and she just asked, 'Do you have a scalpel?' " He handed her a No. 11 and she jabbed a finger.

Blood, she learned, leaves a sharper-edged stain than wine.

Meanwhile, she solved the problem of her fictional conservator's voice in the most obvious possible way: She switched her nationality from Bosnian to Australian.

So simple!

Born and raised in Australia herself, Brooks found that Hanna Heath "just jumped onto the page." But conclusions about autobiography would be ill-advised. For one thing, Hanna has the mother from hell -- a high-powered surgeon who mocks her daughter's wimpy career choice -- and her creator wants no confusion on this point.

"She's absolutely not my mother," Brooks says. "My mum and I were always best friends."

Bold Geraldine, Shy Geraldine

They got to be such friends, in part, because Brooks's charmed life began with her being sick a lot.

Her American-born father, Lawrie Brooks, was an itinerant big-band singer who'd settled down in Australia as a newspaper proofreader. Her mother, Gloria, had been a radio announcer in Canberra. Brooks grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Sydney where, not long after she started school -- as she reports in her 1998 memoir, "Foreign Correspondence" -- medical tests showed she had "serious blood anomalies."

Her doctors thought this meant rheumatic fever and, fearing strain on her heart, forbade her to walk for more than a month. The bad news, over the next few years, was recurring illness and social isolation. The good news was, in effect, home schooling: "magical times when I basked in my mother's undivided attention."

Eventually she became healthy and went back to school. But when she got to the University of Sydney, a couple of very different sides to her personality -- call them Bold Geraldine and Shy Geraldine -- were still at war inside her.

Bold Geraldine was the 12-year-old who'd risen to her feet in religion class to denounce the pope's views on birth control. A few years later, she could be found leading a posse of Led Zeppelin fans over a wall topped with barbed wire to get into a sold-out concert.

Shy Geraldine, by contrast, found being on her own at a big university daunting. She was terrified to open her mouth in class, unless the class adjourned to a pub and she could have a drink first.

" 'Painfully shy' is a very accurate term," she says. Needing to resolve the tension between "wanting risk and adventure and just not being able to talk to strangers," she turned to her mother -- "a great wise person" -- for help. "Her advice was, 'Look, figure out what it is that you're afraid of and just keep doing it and doing it until you stop being afraid.' "

This explains why Brooks signed up for the drama society. And it helps explain why, more than a decade later, she said yes when the Wall Street Journal asked her to cover the Middle East.

When she'd first launched herself on a newspaper career, she says, she'd overcome her shyness in part "because it wasn't me making the call, it was the Sydney Morning Herald." She'd won a scholarship to the graduate school of journalism at Columbia, where she'd met her future husband, Tony Horwitz. She'd been hired by the Journal's Cleveland bureau, quit to return to Australia when her father became ill, and been hired back when the paper decided it needed someone to cover Australasia.

But the Middle East was terrifying on a whole new scale.

"I was completely unqualified," she says. She'd never been a real foreign correspondent, certainly not one whose to-pack checklist would include both a chador and a bulletproof vest -- not to mention the "big pile of State Department briefing books on my lap, you know: crash course in Yemen."

Here comes that pealing laugh again. She says it was a year before she had a clue how to do the job.

Horwitz -- who would go on to become a Journal reporter and writer of books himself -- went with her. His take is a bit different. He mentions an early reporting moment he calls "emblematic of her style."

She'd been sent to cover the Palestinian intifada, he says, which erupted in late 1987, not long after they first arrived in the Middle East. As she drove alone through the West Bank, Palestinian boys started heaving rocks at her car.

Time for a U-turn, you might think. Instead, Horwitz says, Brooks "leaped out of the car and chased after her assailants so she could interview them."

Six intense years later, Brooks took a leave to write "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women." Returning to the Journal, she jetted into war zones such as Bosnia and Somalia. In 1994, she flew to Nigeria to report on escalating conflict between the Ogoni people of the oil-rich Niger Delta and the not-so-savory Nigerian government, which had close ties to Royal Dutch Shell.

Then she disappeared.

Horwitz got a fax in the middle of the night informing him that his wife had last been seen going into a police station in Port Harcourt.

Brooks spent only a few days in jail. But it was long enough for her to think: "I'm 38 years old, I do really want to have a child. And if they keep me for two years" -- well, she might have blown her chance.

So she quit the paper, had the child -- and noticed that a strange thing had happened.

"I'd loved every step I took as a journalist," she says, but "I had no idea I'd been carrying around this incredible ball of stress. I used to get these piercing migraine headaches and I had this twitch in one eye that would come and go. I thought it was just who I was.

"The minute I quit journalism, that went away."

'A Very Happy Place'

Brooks got the idea for her first novel when she and Horwitz, based in London at the time, went for a hike in Derbyshire and "saw this little sign that said, 'Eyam -- Plague Village.' '' They learned that when the Black Death struck this community of 350 in 1665, the villagers voluntarily quarantined themselves to prevent its further spread. Fewer than a hundred survived.

"Year of Wonders" was her answer to the question: What must that have been like?

The idea for "March" came from Louisa May Alcott's children's classic, "Little Women," in which the father is largely absent because he's serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. What would happen, Brooks wondered, if she imagined the war from his point of view? Horwitz's obsession with that conflict, as he researched and wrote his 1998 bestseller "Confederates in the Attic," played its part as well: When "March" was published, in 2005, Brooks took the opportunity to "retract unreservedly my former characterization of my husband . . . as a Civil War bore."

Publication of "March" had to be delayed while Brooks dealt with breast cancer. There were two rounds of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation -- not fun, even for someone who characterizes herself as "on the sunny side of the spectrum." Still, within a year, "it was like it had never happened."

Then along came the Pulitzer, which gave her fiction-writing career a major boost.

Reviews of "People of the Book" have not been uniformly enthusiastic. The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley praised it as "intelligent, thoughtful, gracefully written and original" and noted that it "resides comfortably . . . between popular fiction and literature." ("A very happy place, I think," Brooks says. "That's exactly where I'd like to be.") But the New York Times's Janet Maslin called it "schematic" and overburdened by research.

Writers are rarely impervious to criticism, but Brooks has a helpful way to keep it in perspective.

Ever since she took her fictional leap, she says, "everything that's happened has just so wildly exceeded my expectation." All she'd hoped was "to sell enough books to be able to continue to write."

That writing happens on Martha's Vineyard these days. She and Horwitz lived for many years in the village of Waterford, but they moved north a couple of years ago when Loudoun County started to feel too overdeveloped. Besides their 11-year-old son, Nathaniel, their household now includes three dogs, Brooks's mother, who has Alzheimer's, and her 20-something nephew.

"Did you see that movie 'Little Miss Sunshine'? It's just like that," Geraldine Brooks says -- and laughs and laughs and laughs.

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