Wednesday, March 23, 2005

"A pox on you, Henry James"

When Sarah Orne Jewett turned from writing realistic fiction late in her career and tried her hand at historical fiction Henry James advised her to return to her "pointed firs"-writing worthwhile historical fiction wasn't possible, he said, because no matter how many facts you can accumulate about a distant time period, you still cannot imagine what life would have been like for the people who lived then.

"A pox on you, Henry James," Geraldine Brooks said yesterday, denouncing James' point of view. "This is what we do. We put ourselves in others' shoes."

The constants of the human heart don't change, she said. "The little facts" that are accumulated during research for historical fiction are important only in providing "solid girders" on which to build "shimmering sails." Or, she said, to put it as novelist Jim Crace does, it's a matter of "turning logs into dead donkeys." While visiting the desert where his novel Quarantine would be set, Crace, Brooks explained, learned that the phrase "sleep like a log" means the same as "sleep like a dead donkey."

Speaking on the topic "From Fact to Fiction," Brooks first discussed her career as a foreign correspondent. A native of Sydney, Australia, who'd wanted to be a reporter since the age of eight, she came to graduate school at Columbia University on scholarship after an internship at the Sydney Morning Herald. At Columbia she met future husband Tony Horwitz, who would travel the world with her once she began work for the Wall Street Journal. Six years of reporting on the Middle East for the Journal led to her nonfiction work on Islamic women, Nine Parts of Desire.

After moving from Cairo to London, Brooks visited Eyam, a village in Derbyshire, and learned of its designation as a plague village. She regarded the villagers' decision to quarantine themselves in order to stop the spread of the disease as a touching altruistic act, she said, and bought a plastic rat from a gift shop to commemorate her visit to the village.

Years later, while writing about Shell Oil and the Nigerian government putting down a peaceful protest in that country, she wound up in jail, accused by the secret police of being a French spy. It was those three days of detention before being deported that led to Brooks' decision to stop postponing having a family. She was soon pregnant, and at that point, she said, began actively working on Year of Wonders, the story of the plague village Eyam.

Acknowledging that not everyone had thought highly of Year of Wonders' epilogue, she laughed and defended it by saying she'd based it on a true story "but I left out the pirates," and admitted that she'd wanted her main character to have a fulfilling life, one she'd not realistically have had if she'd remained in Eyam.

Her latest novel, March, grew out of living in a Quaker village in Virginia and gave "Civil War bore" Horwitz permission to bring out all the Civil War books she'd banished to the attic. Her imagination was stirred by a Union soldier's belt buckle that was uncovered when some brickwork was re-layed outside their home and eventually settled on the absence of the father in Little Women.

She began to read Bronson Alcott's journals, she said, and began to wonder if perhaps Louisa May's father had just been too unusual to shoehorn into a moralistic tale for children. He'd sheltered runaway slaves; he'd been a radical educator in Boston who'd had to close his school after integrating it—all the progressive parents withdrew their children, Brooks said. She used her research on Bronson Alcott to create her Mr. March.

Brooks said she likes a clear separation between fiction and non-fiction. She was outraged, she said, when she reached the end of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and learned how much John Berendt had made up.

She researches concurrently with her writing, she said. She makes the plot drive her research, she said, doing just enough so that she can then "imagine into the void."

Having a background in journalism, she said, "makes you unprecious about your writing."

A movie version of Year of Wonders is in the works, and she has begun work on a new novel—she's making up a history for an actual 14th century Hebrew manuscript that has passed hands—and countries—several times, most recently being rescued from the Nazis by a Muslim librarian in Bosnia. She sees the manuscript as "a symbol of the Sarajevo multiethnic ideal," she said.

Brooks was interviewed earlier this month by Powells; her article, "Orpheus at the Plough," a profile of Bronson Alcott, was published in the Jan. 10 issue of the New Yorker.

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