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Building a wall with Geraldine Brooks

Last night I attended the Pen & Podium event featuring Geraldine Brooks. (Shout out to my day job at the nonprofit Reach Out and Read Colorado for sending me to the event!) Brooks, of course, is the remarkable author of many bestselling and critically acclaimed novels including People of the Book, Year of Wonders, Caleb’s Crossing, March (for which she won the Pulitzer) and many others. I’ve read a few of her books, though not as many as I’d like. I loved March and thought People of the Book was incredibly ambitious and moving.

If you’re familiar with the Pen & Podium series, you know it features well-known authors discussing their work. It also includes a pre-event reception with the author for sponsors, partners and nonprofit benefactors of the series. I was fortunate to be able to attend the reception last night, and even more fortunate to have Geraldine Brooks plop down beside me with a glass of wine and a number of interesting stories about her animals (two dogs, a horse), her thoughts on Colorado’s legalization of marijuana (happy to see edibles so popular as she fears smoked marijuana might be a gateway to cigarette use), and our shared experience of living with husbands who are Civil War buffs. I thought I would have visual proof of this encounter, as one of my coworkers was (not so) surreptitiously snapping photos with his phone. Alas, it turns out he was just snapping selfies on the stage at the Newman Center and wasn’t paying attention to my brush with a Pulitzer winning author.

Never mind. It’s the quality of the conversation that counts, and Ms. Brooks has plenty to say, all of it worth hearing.

She shared her wisdom with the sold-out crowd and it was clear that Brooks is not just fascinating; she is fascinated. With everything. I got the sense that nothing in Brooks’s world is mundane. Math lectures turn into poetry. A segment on Oprah featuring a woman speared by a swordfish, who survives thanks to the deflective power of breast implants, inspires thoughts about the nature of fact and fiction and how you just can’t make some things up. It is these extraordinary and real moments that seem utterly unbelievable that inspire her fiction. She quotes Mark Twain: “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”

Brooks is no stranger to working with the hard, often impossible, truth. She spent the first half of her career working as a foreign correspondent. At the age of 39, she was tossed in prison in Nigeria, where she says her thoughts went to Terry Anderson and his 7 years of captivity. She said she realized that she might have just lost her opportunity to get pregnant. Thankfully, she was deported a few days later and her son was born the following year. And while it’s hard to imagine that a night in a Nigerian prison could ever be painted as lucky, it was that experience that inspired her to quit her job traveling to dangerous places and turn to other types of writing. Daniel Pearl took over her beat, a fact that causes her to visibly wince when she shares it.

But it is just that kind of twist of fate that inspires her writing. She was hiking with her husband in rural England when they came across a sign: Plague Village. Instead of turning away as most folks might, she visited the town that quarantined itself rather than spread the plague. That chance encounter inspired her to write Book of Wonders. She listens the voices of the dead, she says, and she finds her stories in improbable, but factual, situations. The story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard (Caleb’s Crossing) or the story of the absent father from Little Women (March) are steeped in historical accuracy, rooted in truth.

Fortunately for us all, she is currently working on her most ambitious project yet. It, too, is based in history. It’s the story of King David and his adviser Nathan, always the bearer of bad news, says Brooks. It’s a project that’s giving her fits, she says, though not without a hint of delight at the challenge. Writing is like building a wall, says Brooks. Some days every stone is right and you build with ease. Other days no stone seems to fit, but you force it in. The key, she advises, is to come in often and ruthlessly with a backhoe to clear out the stones you’ve forced in.

Eventually, you’ll have a wall. It might even be a beautiful wall.

I hope it’s true.

About Tiffany Quay Tyson

Writer and reader living in Denver, Colorado. Tiffany's debut novel THREE RIVERS will be published in 2015 by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press.

One comment on “Building a wall with Geraldine Brooks

  1. Terry Everett
    March 11, 2014

    Thanks, Tiffany.

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