Australian success story Geraldine Brooks first hit the bestseller lists nearly 15 years ago with her first book Nine Parts of Desire, an intriguing exploration of the everyday lives and experiences of Arab women in the countries she covered as a foreign correspondent for ABC. Next came her autobiography, appropriately titled Foreign Correspondent. In 2002, Brooks caused a new literary sensation with her first novel, Year of Wonders, a historical fiction set in England during the Plague, published to rave reviews both here and overseas.
We recently spoke to about her writing, favourite books, and her ambitious second novel, March, an imaginative account of the life of the much-absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women.
What was it that drew you to writing the story of Mr March, the father in Little Women?
The absent father is an intriguing void in the story of Little Women. I am interested in the issue of idealists at war; the three quarters of people who go to war for a cause they believe just, and are then swept up in the inevitable injustices that come with waging any war. After I went to live in a small town in rural Virginia, it became impossible to ignore the stories of what had happened there, to the very people who had lived in the cottage that we live in today. They were Quakers and pacifists, but also ardent abolitionists, and so some of them, after a deep struggle of conscience, chose to fight on the Union side. So I began to think about Mr. March as an idealist who went to war, and wonder what kind of a war he might have had.
You did a lot of research on the life of Louisa May Alcott’s real-life father for this book, and loosely based Mr March on him. How closely does Mr March resemble Mr Alcott?
Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s real father, is one of the most intriguing and radical figures of 19th century America, with progressive ideas on everything from education to abolition, to animal rights. He was the ideal source from which to draw a character for my idealistic Mr. March. I tried to evoke Bronson’s voice by using his journals, and the journals of Emerson and Thoreau, who were his closest friends. He wasn’t a chaplain and he didn’t go to war, so the action of the novel is invented, but the kind of man the events [in March] happen to is very much based on Bronson.
You made your name as an author with non-fiction, and have also had great success with fiction in recent years. Which is your favourite genre?
I love the freedom of fiction. I like to research a story from the past, and get to know the truth of it as much as I can, but when you get to the point where you can’t know any more, I love being able to then let my imagination work.
Which books or authors have inspired your own writing?
In the historical fiction genre, Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy, especially The Persian Boy, and also her books about ancient Greece. Rose Tremain’s Restoration, her Music and Silence. And Brian Hall’s book about the Lewis and Clark expedition, I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company. I also love the writings of Andre Makine, especially Le Testament Francais, and Tim Winton, and I love Marilyn Robinson’s new novel, Gilead.
How have your experiences as a reporter informed your fiction writing? Do you feel that you are able to write more convincingly about March’s experience of war due to your own proximity to war zones in your foreign correspondent days?
I absolutely drew on my own experiences of modern battlefields when I was writing March. The kind of wars I saw, especially the Iran/Iraq war, were exceptionally brutal and high in casualties - like the Civil War - with very young men being required to walk into fields of fire. There is a lot of the Middle East in Year of Wonders. The way Anna has to step out of a very constrained and humble role and assume vast responsibilities mirrors certain journeys that I saw women take during contemporary catastrophes.
Who is your favourite character in Little Women?
Scratch a woman writer and you’ll find someone who loved Jo March, or wanted to be Jo March. I am no different.
What is your next project?
Another historical novel, based on a true story, about the fate of an ancient Hebrew manuscript following it from its creation in 14th century Spain through to the present day.
Further (online) reading:
The Washington Post review: “In her previous book, Year of Wonders, a story set during the years of the Black Plague, Geraldine Brooks proved herself to be a wonderful novelist. March has all the same virtues – clarity of vision, fine, meticulous prose, the unexpected historical detail, a life-sized protagonist caught inside an unimaginably huge event. It shows the same seamless marriage of research and imagination.” By Karen Joy Fowler. Click here to read more.
The Times review: “Brooks’s considerable historical research for March is pleasingly lightly worn … a big, generous romp that manages to make clever use of Little Women without suffocating beneath it.” By Sophie Harrison. Click here to read more.
Orpheus at the Plough (Geraldine Brooks, The New Yorker, January 2005) tells the amazing real life of Alcott’s father, the model for Mr March:
“Alcott was esteemed by the leading intellectual lights of the day. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him ‘the most extraordinary man and the highest genius of the time.’ To Henry David Thoreau, he was ‘the sanest man of any I chance to know.’ … He was a founder of Boston’s first white anti-slavery society; he sheltered runaway slaves and braved gun fire to protest the Fugitive Slave Act.‘ Click here to read the full article.