Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Reader Q&A with Geraldine Brooks

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'Caleb's Crossing' author Geraldine Brooks. Photo / Supplied
'Caleb's Crossing' author Geraldine Brooks. Photo / Supplied

A snippet of fact, a passing comment, a notation on a map - for a journalist, the smallest of details can spark the most intriguing investigations. But it can lead to frustration, where a missing piece of evidence, a false trail or simply a lack of time and resources means hot tips must be abandoned and stories left unwritten.

I imagine the switch to fiction writing could be either a liberating or a terrifying thing for a former foreign correspondent such as Geraldine Brooks, who spent several years reporting crises in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans for the Wall Street Journal.

Now a novelist, she is no longer constrained by objectivity and verifiable fact, but free to follow ideas to their conclusions, fabricate details missing from the historical record and shape the story in any way she pleases.

Brooks' fourth novel, Caleb's Crossing - one of this month's Fiction Addiction feature reads - was inspired by the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665.

There are few known facts about his life but Brooks has created what is turning out to be an enthralling and convincing image of what might have been.

Now that I've passed the halfway point in the book, I'm intrigued to learn more about Brooks' research and writing process.

Thanks to all the readers who submitted questions for Brooks. As we could only use a few of your ideas, we're holding on to some questions for future author Q&As. Enjoy. I'll post my review of Caleb's Crossing next week.

Q: How much time do you spend researching before you even start writing? - Rochelle, Paeroa

A: I do the research and the writing together. I like to let the story tell me what I need to know, rather than amassing facts and then trying to bend the story around them. The first step is to hear the voice of a narrator, so I read a great many journals, letters, court transcripts - whatever first person accounts I can find from the period and place where the novel is set. That voice tells me who the character is, and who she is tells me how she will act, and that action sets the plot in motion. Only then do I find out, as I write, what it is that I will need to know-what kind of underwear a woman would have had in mid-17th century Derbyshire, what materials 14th century miniaturists painted with, how did they mine lead in the Peak District, what makes salt kosher, etc. So then I can go and find it out.

Q: Do you know how the story you are writing will end before you start writing it or does the storyline evolve? - Barbara, Wairoa
A: Generally I know the ending because my stories are based on actual events on the historical record. What evolves is the elaborate edifice I try to construct on a generally rather slender scaffold of known fact.

Q: Do you think there is a part of yourself imparted on each story you tell or character you invent? - Samantha, Mt Roskill
A: I think you draw on everything you are, everyone you have known and everything you have experienced when you write fiction.

Q: How do you make sure writing is more pleasure than work? - Antonia, Auckland
A: Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. There are magical days and really dreadful ones. But I think choosing the topic wisely is key to having more of the former and fewer of the latter.

Q: How did it feel to win the Pulitzer Prize? - Paul, Hobsonville
A: Fantastic! My son, who was nine then, called it "Mum's Pulitzer Surprise." That just about sums it up.

Q: What was your favourite book when you were young? - Anita, Massey
A: Scruffy by Paul Gallico was an early favourite, when I was still being read to. The Valley of Adventure by Enid Blyton was a favourite in my first years of reading by myself. Later, The Lord of the Rings.

Q: Caleb's Crossing is an American story, do you have an Australian story coming? - David, Farm Cove
A: I have one that I'm mulling over. I need to get back home though so I can dive right down into it.

Q: Music or silence when writing? - Kat, Tauranga
A: Silence. I like to listen to music when I'm cooking.

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