Australian-born Geraldine Brooks was a prize-winning journalist before becoming a critically acclaimed novelist. Brooks, a Columbia Journalism School graduate and a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent who covered crises in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans, is the author of five historical novels and three works of nonfiction. Her latest novel, The Secret Chord, published on October 6, imagines the life of biblical King David during the Second Iron Age in Israel. Brooks was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for her novel March, a Civil War-era story about the absent father in the Louisa May Alcott novel, Little Women. Her other novels are: Caleb’s Crossing, about the first Native American to graduate from Harvard; People of the Book, about the journey of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah; and Year of Wonders, the story of a young woman’s fight to save her 17th-century English village from the plague. Brooks is also the author of the nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire, Foreign Correspondence and The Idea of Home. With her husband, the author and journalist Tony Horwitz, Brooks won the Overseas Press Club award for coverage of the Persian Gulf War. As she embarked on her book tour for The Secret Chord, Brooks sat down with freelance journalist and Columbia Journalism School classmate Ricki Morell in Boston. Following are edited and condensed excerpts of that conversation:
You’re in the unusual position of having had deep experience as a journalist and a novelist. As a novelist, what have you learned about the craft of storytelling that you wish you had known when you were a journalist?
I do think that being a journalist was a fantastic foundation for being a novelist and, indeed, I could not have written the books I’ve written if I hadn’t had that rich experience to draw on. It is having all those varied encounters with people, as their lives are being changed and shaped by catastrophe, and then the physical experiences of being in a conflict zone and the sounds and smells of a battlefield. A long-ago battlefield has different technology but the effect of the weaponry on the human body is not different. And so I draw on those years as a correspondent all the time.
Also, from the technical point of view of the writing, I think being a journalist instills the great fear in you of the reader not turning past the jump. Understanding that the easiest thing for a reader to do is stop reading is something that my wonderful newspaper editors instilled in me. That is very useful for keeping the narrative flowing and respecting the fact that there are many demands on a reader’s attention, and you’ve got to grab them. It’s also about not being precious about writing every day – about having the discipline and the understanding that you might aspire to art but it better start as craft.
Journalism has given me a tremendous amount as a novelist. I think it would be really bad if I took my novel-writing techniques back into journalism because it’s all about making stuff up and you can’t do that in journalism. In a newspaper story, when the line of fact runs out, the story stops. In a novel, often that’s where it gets more interesting because then you can do the what-ifs.
What are your thoughts on the “creative nonfiction” genre? Is it possible to create a piece of nonfiction that really is novelistic and sustains a story from facts?
What used to be called the “new journalism” brought writerly techniques to journalism. I came up in that era, and that was a huge breakthrough. When we talk about “narrative nonfiction,” I get incandescent when people say something is nonfiction, and you get to the back of the book and find they’ve changed or merged scenes and created dialogue. Then it’s not nonfiction anymore. It sets the bar too high for legitimate nonfiction. It’s one thing if you get a scene that you’ve reported the hell out of, and you’ve stayed with the person, and you’ve worn out your shoe leather, and you’re there when that amazing thing happens. But just to be able to make it up, to have it happen because you wish it had gone down like that, it’s a betrayal and an insidious trend.
It’s certainly possible to do it properly. Look at [Tom Wolfe’s] The Right Stuff. Was there ever a better first ten pages in any book? I thought [Jon Krakauer’s] Into Thin Air was equally riveting. I totally believe you can do it. It’s just very hard and extremely time consuming, and you’d better be prepared to follow the threads wherever they lead you, into the dark forest, because that’s the only way you’ll get that really good stuff.
In what way is writing fiction harder or easier than writing nonfiction? What aspects of the craft are similar and what aspects are different?
As somebody who lived for more than a decade within the constraints of fact, it’s very enjoyable to take that swan dive when the voices of the historical record fall silent. When you can’t see any further in the factual record, you’re able to say, “This is what I think; this is what I imagine how it might have been. “That is very pleasurable. It’s a very interior thing. The hard part is that you have to have the ideas.
Some days it’s very hard, but that’s again the beauty of having been a journalist. On the worst day, you have the discipline to get down something even if it’s really crappy, and then you’ve got something to work with.
I think writing fiction is probably easier, particularly if I compare any given day in my life now, to arriving in the middle of the night in the middle of the civil uprising in Yemen. It’s easier.
Could you describe your process of researching a novel? How does it compare with reporting? What were the challenges of researching and writing The Secret Chord, which takes place during the distant past, a time with little historical record?
The process is like creating a knitted garment. I don’t do the research first. I do just enough research to be able to start writing. I wait for the story to tell me what I don’t know, and then I go and find it out. If you need to know what a character was wearing, then you go and research what people would have been wearing at that time. Then you come back and keep writing until you come to another roadblock. The actual business of finding out – that’s very journalistic, but in a more relaxed way. As journalists, we were trying to find out things that people didn’t want to tell. In a novel, you’re often asking questions about people’s work, and mostly people are very generous and love talking about their work. If you want to go and see how book conservators work, they’re only too happy to help, so it’s a bit more like the celebrity interview side of things than investigative journalism.
Accuracy is very important to me. That’s your contract with the reader: I’m going to take you on a journey, but the edifice that I can build out of imagination is only going to be as sound as the scaffolding it rests on, and the scaffolding is the facts. In The Secret Chord, I so wanted to put King David on a horse because I really like horses, and kings and horses – it’s what you’d expect. But actually they did not ride horses. So, as much as I would have liked to have changed the facts, I had to put him on a mule.
You do make mistakes, though. In my first novel, Year of Wonders, I had my [17th-century] narrator talking about the mauve tide of the heather. That same year, another book came out called, Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World [in the 19th century]. So there was no way my narrator would have known the color mauve. And somebody somewhere was probably taken out of the narrative because of that.
With The Secret Chord, I’m not quite sure I knew what I was getting into initially. I was really surprised at how flimsy the record of David is outside of the Bible. There’s really only one inscription and a few ruined palaces that may or may not have been associated with a leader of his stature. So it’s a completely different kind of research. If you’re doing Bronson Alcott, you’ve got all Bronson Alcott’s journals, all his correspondence and all the references to him in his incredibly literate friends’ writings. You’ve got a ton of information to build a character out of. In this case, you’ve just got the one fabulous Biblical story. But it’s a masterpiece of concision, that one. There’s not a lot of room to breathe in that sort of “Then this happened, and then that happened” narrative. You’re trying to open it up and get some more human complexity and relationships in it. I did a lot of physical research, by going to the places and doing the things he might have done, though clearly not running people through pikes and things of that nature. But I did herd sheep and stay in goatherd tents in the desert and eat the foods of the period.
Can you talk about the editing process and revisions? How is the editor-writer relationship as a novelist different from the one you had as a journalist?
I am revising constantly, constantly. This book was one of my most egregious in that regard. I really pushed it because they let me now. You’re not supposed to make substantial changes to third pass pages, but I could not let them go. I think I changed something on every other page. That’s just compulsive. Take it from my cold, dead hands because it’s never right. I’ve already seen something in there that’s really bothering the hell out of me, that I’m going to have to change if there’s another edition. It’s a word change – I don’t know how it got through.
As far as the editor-writer relationship, now they’re so much more deferential to the “artiste.” Not so much in the newsroom. I remember one day I was a cub reporter in Sydney, and it was my first big story. It was a mine disaster, and I knew it was going on the front page. It was very intense. It was my first death knock. It was my first everything, and I wanted to do justice to these people. The news editor was pacing behind me and he was saying, “Where is it? Where is it?” And I said, “I’m just trying to find a way to finish it. I can’t come up with a way to finish it.” And he said, “Finish it! Finish it!” And he leans over – and it was a typewriter in those days – and he types E-N-D. Finished.