Interview with Geraldine Brooks

Posted by Goodreads on May 2, 2011
Geraldine Brooks Australian-born Geraldine Brooks is an author whose experiences as a curious newspaper reporter in Sydney and Manhattan inform her research and writing. She was first intrigued by a sign for "Eyam—Plague Village" in England, and her research grew into her best-selling debut novel, Year of Wonders (2001), about the bubonic plague. Later, while working for The Wall Street Journal, Brooks covered the breakup of Yugoslavia and wrote about that region in her unusual 2008 novel, People of the Book, which centered around the illuminated manuscript Sarajevo Haggadah. Brooks was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for her novel March, a literary inversion of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Her newest book, Caleb's Crossing, is about a young man who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665, as told by Bethia Mayfield, a young minister's daughter on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Author interviewer Bethanne Patrick spoke with Brooks on behalf of Goodreads.

Goodreads: Tell us what inspired the story of Caleb's Crossing, a novel based on the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College—in the 17th century!

Geraldine Brooks: I've been coming to the Vineyard [Martha's Vineyard] for many years and have always been interested in the uninterrupted community on the island. When I first learned the story of Caleb and saw on the Wampanoag history map that he lived in Vineyard Haven, I thought I would run into him at the farmers' market! In other words, I simply assumed that any Native American who had graduated from Harvard would be a modern person. Then I learned that he'd lived 300 years ago! I didn't even know there was Harvard that long ago.

GR: How did you learn about what happened to Caleb and his friend who went with him to Harvard, Joel Iacoomis, as well as the story of the early settlers on Martha's Vineyard?

GB: There wasn't a lot—the records are sketchy, just a few bare facts. But that's the kind of thing that gets the novelist's imagination going! I started wondering things like, why would English immigrants want to put so many miles between themselves and the mainland? I discovered that the group including the Mayfields [the historical family of the fictional protagonist, Bethia] wanted to get out from under the thumb of the very rigid Massachusetts Bay Colony. This group had a different interpretation of religion, and the progress of the Vineyard and its indigenous population was not the brutal, violent one that we see elsewhere in American history. I wondered: Why did it go a different way? Why are there still over 3,000 Wampanoag living on Martha's Vineyard rather than on a reservation somewhere?

GR: Let's talk about the title. Is it a spoiler to say that this is a story less about Caleb than about Bethia, or is that not true?

GB: I think it is her story. Imaginative empathy can take you a long way, but I do prefer to write from a woman's perspective. It takes a lot of chutzpah to do what I do, to get inside the head of a character who lives in almost another world. This is the story Bethia wants to tell, and it's her private journal—not for everyone else. This book is about the stories we all tell ourselves to survive.

GR: Your research for this book must have been incredibly interesting—but was it also, at times, incredibly frustrating?

GB: It's really tough because there are no diaries before 1700. Most of those that exist even right afterward are merely daybooks. People, especially women, had no bloody time to sit and cogitate!

I found one of the most useful ways to learn about how real women talked in the 17th century to be verbatim court transcripts. They give you real, unedited female voices, which is one of the ways I developed my narrator's voice in Year of Wonders. They didn't have any rules of evidence then. You could digress all over the place! These transcripts give you insight into how communities operated. For example, Anne Hutchinson's trial transcript shows you how smart she was, how cannily she deflected questions from the prosecution [Hutchinson was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for dissident opinions about theology and the place of women].

These transcripts also give you diction and language that is wonderful. For example, I found that the early colonists called Native Americans "salvages"—which conveys what they meant, that these were people who were, in their eyes, in need of salvation.

GR: Beyond research, what allows you to develop a strong narrative voice like Bethia's?

GB: Once their voice starts talking to you, that's good. You can hear them in your head all the way through. It's another thing, however, to decide about the plot. I wasn't sure how far to take the story in this book, for example.

GR: This May 2011, the second Vineyard Wampanoag to graduate from Harvard College will be Tiffany Smalley—an amazing real-life tie to your book.

GB: On the Vineyard there are actual descendants of Joel Iacoomis. The stories of Caleb and Joel are very alive for the tribe. Kids grow up being told, "We, the Wampanoag, are an educated people," and it's true. There are also two Vineyard Wampanoag who have Harvard graduate degrees. What makes me sad, and one of the reasons I got inspired to write this novel, is that Caleb's achievements are not well-known outside of the tribe.

GR: Goodreads member Allison writes, "You've been many places and made many walks of life visible to the public. What's the one place you most want to visit and learn about yet?"

GB: I would like to spend more time in central Australia, in the aboriginal communities there. There's something fantastic about that pure desert air, that sky that just blazes with stars... I've only caught a glimpse of it, but I'm interested in the intersection between that landscape and the encroachment of the western world.

GR: Goodreads Author Jennifer Lee Carrell asks, "How do you come to light upon the right character through whom to tell a tale? At what point in your mulling over a shard of history does this tend to happen?"

GB: It really is the absolute rock bottom of what I do. Whose voice is this going to be? Once you've got the voice, that's 80 percent, but until somebody starts talkin', I'm clueless. I like taking a shard of fact and running with it. In the case of Caleb, I thought, who would have an eye on that? I learned that there was a Mayfield who went to Harvard with Caleb and Joel—but never matriculated. Once I found out about that young man, I invented this sister who would have had a close view on the story.

GR: Goodreads member Elizabeth (medievaliz) asks, "When crafting your stories, do you see them as allegorical, or perhaps lessons in any way, for modernity and the issues and obstacles facing our world today? I can't help but think of my favorite of your works when I ask this, People of the Book. How seamlessly you've entangled the three Abrahamic traditions within this novel, even in the most tumultuous times in their histories, and their relationship to the creation and preservation of the holy text in your story always fills me with a sense of hope that life might begin to imitate art someday."

GB: Not intentionally, but I'm always chewing over the same questions, the same questions I was chewing over while covering conflicts in the contemporary world when I was a journalist. How does the human heart respond to catastrophe and loss? Seeing people in these extreme situations is to take a huge event and individualize it, and I do the same thing in fiction, I think. People under intense pressure are my subject. It's not allegory so much but contemporary concerns being worked out in contemporary times.

GR: Goodreads member Cheryl (ckenned) asks, "What is different from your first book [Nine Parts of Desire] to your current book, Caleb's Crossing? Are the differences more external (response to criticisms, the way you were perceived) or internal (confidence, focus, knowing yourself)?

GB: Oh, I don't think it changes that much, it's always the same process. You've always got to get up in the morning and face the blinking cursor. The first book was such a leap in the dark for me. I've just been so lucky in finding readers. My job now is to not blow it!

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

GB: A typical day—nothing's typical, because we just moved house! My writing day starts when my eight-year-old is off to school, and I plant my bum in the chair and try and stay there for as much of the day until he comes home as I can possibly manage. When I lived in London, my neighbor was the writer Michael Lewis, and he was very prolific and industrious. He told me that if you want to write a book, you need "bum glue." It's very boring! At some point I stagger down and make coffee and make a bite of lunch. Sometimes I break down if the writing's not going well and stop. We always sit down for family dinner. I don't have any particular quirks. I'm very boring! I think being a journalist makes you very unprecious about writing.

I've found that having kids actually invigorates writing. Reading aloud to kids reminds you of what is most important. Their books have plot, they have story! At the end of the day, that's what matters.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

GB: Oh gosh, such a long list. Going backward: Most direct influence—Mary Renault. Her Alexander trilogy (The Persian Boy) really nails it for me in terms of taking you to a different place and time, while the character is very emotionally familiar. The voice is believably other, but the heart is the same. I also owe a great debt to Jane Austen. She's the master. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard was life changing in terms of its writing and in how it taught me to look at nature, which is my greatest source of inspiration and refreshment. I also turn again and again to Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home—such perfect novels!

GR: What are you reading now? Do you have any favorite books or authors?

GB: I wish it were a bit more frivolous, but because I obliged for Best American Short Stories [Brooks was editor for the 2010 and 2011 editions], beside my bed is a large backlog, including Room by Emma Donoghue. I have three books on the go right now, one called Tall Man by Chloe Hooper, which is about an aboriginal death, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, and The Philosopher and the Wolf—I love dogs, and this book tries to delve into what we learn from animals. I love it.


Interview by Bethanne Patrick for Goodreads. A writer in the Washington D.C. metro area, she is also editor of Shelf Awareness.

Learn more about Bethanne and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Dee (new)

Dee DeTarsio I am so excited the wonderful Geraldine Brooks has a new book out! I can't wait to read it! I absolutely LOVED March and People of the Book!


message 2: by Mad Scientist (new)

Mad Scientist I loved Year of Wonders. It was amazing and you can see that she really did so much research.

However, I'm sad to see another non-native write about Native History. Our histories are hardly told by us, if they should be told.

I'm curious to see how this book turns out.

Mad Scientist


message 3: by Eunice (new)

Eunice Boeve I've not read any of Geraldine Brook's books, but I think I'll start with Caleb's Crossing. I didn't know there was a Harvard then either. About non-natives writing native history, any light shed is better than no light at all and perhaps the eye of the non-native sees past ingrained culture.


message 4: by Wendy (new)

Wendy Cosin I'm enjoying Caleb's Crossing very much. I'm interested to know what other readers think about the language. It effectively puts the reader in another time and place, but there are so many words that I don't know, that I find it off-putting.


message 5: by Eunice (new)

Eunice Boeve I wrote a kid's book set in West Virginia where streams are called runs. I didn't use the term as I thought kids in other places might not "get it" But if I were to do it again, I'd use runs and in some way put an explanation of the term at the beginning of the book. I have a kids story book, a cajun Red Riding hood, I read to the grandkids. The canjun/french words are in the front of the book with their meaning. It's a darling book, titled Petite Rouuge, subtitle, A Cajun Red Riding Hood, by Mike Artell.


message 6: by Grreenpailmom (new)

Grreenpailmom very well done, sad, though, well worth your time


message 7: by Lois (new)

Lois I've already had the pleasure of reading *Caleb's Crossing* and hearing Geraldine Brooks speak about it in person at a bookstore. I have a secret affection for Puritan-era stories, and this was definitely a novel I could not put down until I finished it.


message 8: by Ivy (new)

Ivy I'm looking forward to reading this. Her books are always so well researched.


message 9: by Sheila (new)

Sheila Culshaw I really like this author's books. They are all well written and I've found each one interesting. March was my favourite, but the others are equally good.


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