Geraldine Brooks Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Pulitzer Prize–winning author Geraldine Brooks, whose new book, Caleb’s Crossing, publishes on May 3, 2011, along with the audio version, which is copublished by Penguin Audio and Blackstone Audio, and narrated by Jennifer Ehle, the British American actress. A little while back, Geraldine, you decided to record your own version of Year of Wonders. There was an abridged version on the market from sometime back, but then they wanted an unabridged version and you decided to narrate that yourself. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?
GERALDINE BROOKS: I enjoyed that very much, because as much as I admire what actors do with a text—particularly an actor of the caliber of Jennifer, I was thrilled that she took on Caleb’s Crossing—there’s a way that a book sounds to me in my head, and no matter how well somebody else reads it, it doesn’t sound the way it sounded to me. So, it was actually great fun for me to be able to read Year of Wonders the way it sounds in my head, the way Anna sounded to me, the emphasis that I thought that she would put on the words and so forth.
GG: You recorded that in Martha’s Vineyard, where you live, is that right?
GB: Indeed, there’s a wonderful studio here. Jim Parr, who does everything from … musicians like Carly Simon to author books and it was really great fun working with him again.
GG: Have you had an opportunity to hear any of the new recording of Caleb’s Crossing with Jennifer Ehle?
GB: I’ve listened to the first chapter, and she’s really quite a remarkable actress. She did a wonderful turn in the movie The King’s Speech, in which she played an Australian, and the Australian accent is not an easy one. I’ve only ever heard one other non-Australian really pull it off perfectly, and that was Meryl Streep, and Jennifer pulls it off perfectly. She plays the speech therapist’s wife in that wonderful movie, so she’s obviously very gifted with accent and dialect.
GG: You started out your career as a journalist, is that right?
GB: That’s right. I was a journalist for many years and a foreign correspondent for most of that time.
GG: It seems to your fans, your readers, that the subjects of your books kind of track your current interests, your investigative interests or things that you’re working on, would that be fair to say?
GB: I think it’s a little more indirect than that. The things that inspire me as a novelist tend to be stories from the past. And the contemporary relevance is something that only becomes clear to me when I start writing them and maybe not even then, maybe it’s only much later. When somebody points out that this incident from a much earlier time has commentary that’s relevant to our own times, and that certainly happened with my novel March. I was writing that in the run-up to the Gulf War, the war in Iraq. And certainly some of the issues about going to war for what I presented as idealistic reasons were as relevant in that debate prewar as they were during the Civil War. But I guess I’m drawn to how people behave in times of catastrophe. And I think that that preoccupation comes out of the time I spent covering modern-day catastrophies.
GG: Caleb’s Crossing is a little different in that respect. What was the genesis for this book?
GB: Well, as you know I live on Martha’s Vineyard, which is an island seven miles off the coast of Massachusetts. And, when I arrived here, I was drawn by the physical beauty of the island. But once I got here it was the people that really fascinated me. The Wampanoag Indians, who’ve had an uninterrupted thousands of years on the island and a very rich culture and heritage, and then the early English settlers whose descendants are still here—the farming and fishing families. And I was really intrigued that English people had chosen to settle the island so early. It was 1641 when the first group came. And I thought ‘why would you?’ because it’s inconvenient enough now living here (laughs). It must have been an extraordinary thing to do to put seven miles of treacherous ocean current between yourself and the only other people like you on the mainland. And to set down in this Indian community whose belief system and values was so different. And so it’s a fascinating time of first contact between the Wampanoag and the English Puritans who came to settle here.
GG: Now, I imagine there aren’t a lot of written records for the Wampanoag Indians dating back to that time. Was it difficult to do research for this?
GB: Well, the story is centered on a young man named Caleb, who was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, and he graduated in 1665. And I was completely intrigued by what his path might have been that led him from the life of a traditional man to sitting down, studying in Latin with the sons of the Puritan elite in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. So, my first port of callwas the Harvard archives to see what there was of the paper trail on this guy there, and, it was very little unfortunately. The seventeenth-century archive of Harvard is pretty meager. So, we know he was the son of a chief on the island, and that he went away to prep school on the mainland at a reasonable young age. But, who identified him as a likely scholar? Who taught him to read and write in English as a first step and gave him rudimentary Latin? So these were the things that I have to find out. And it was a journey, both into the earliest days of the colonies, before people even thought of themselves as Americans, and also it was enlightened by the insights that I got from present-day Wampanoag, who understand so much about their cultural heritage on the island, and how people lived and what they believed.
GG: So, you were able to talk to current members of the tribe to get background information for the story?
GB: Exactly, and the traditions. How did people make boats in those days and what were those dwellings like and what did it feel like to be inside of one on one of these raw, winter days that we have on the island? The Equine Cultural Center here on the island has done a tremendous amount of exploration into the old life ways on the island, and that was really helpful to me.
GG: So, at some point, I guess you felt you had enough information to go on to press ahead with this story.
GB: I just loved the idea, and I was so intrigued by it, so the fact that there wasn’t a lot on the record in one way was disappointing. On the other way, it frees you up as a novelist to imagine, and I try and make it an informed imagining, I don’t go hog-wild out there and put things that are completely implausible, but I always like to write with a first-person narrator, so I decided she would be an observer of this young man. So I made her the daughter of the minister who first identifies him and first educates him in English and so forth, and they have a secret friendship that’s very much involved with the wild island, and he draws her into his world and the things that he knows as she introduces him to her world and the things that she knows. And so it’s a kind of exploration of these two different world views through these two innocent young people who meet, quite by chance on a beach one day when she’s looking for food and he’s hunting.
GG: What’s next? Do you have any new ideas you’re working on that you can tell us about?
GB: I always have about six things that I’m thinking about …
GB: … and the one that I’m leaning towards now is just still in thinking stage. I haven’t set pen to page yet, so I think I’ll keep that one under wraps for the time being. Then again, it’s set in the past, and it’s a story where you can know a certain amount from the record, but there’s a tremendous amount that we can’t know for sure.
GG: Changing the subject just a little bit, I understand that there’s a movie in the works for People of the Book.
GB: Oh, all of the books are optioned, and I actually just collaborated on a screenplay adaption for Caleb’s Crossing, but People of the Book, indeed, has been optioned by Catherine Zeta-Jones and it’s being developed now as a miniseries for Starz TV, because Catherine felt that a ninety-minute film wouldn’t be able to tell a story that spanned six hundred years. So she’s decided to go with the miniseries format.
GG: Have you had experience with Hollywood before?
GB: I’ve always run a hundred miles an hour in the opposite direction, but when I got finished writing Caleb’s Crossing, I really felt that I had such a strong visual sense of the story that I wanted to have a hand in it this time. And it just so happened that a friend of mine who is in the film industry had some time free so he came up here to the island and we sat down and he showed me how to do it, and it was wonderful to think about the same material but in a completely different way where the story has to be told so visually.
GG: Geraldine, thank you so much for your time, and for talking with us today. We enjoyed it, and we’re very much looking forward to Caleb’s Crossing, publishing May 3 of this year, and the audio will be available also on that day. It’s a copublication with Penguin Audio and Blackstone Audio narrated by Jennifer Ehle. I'm Grover Gardner. Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview. You can find all of Blackstone Audio’s titles and more at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in April 2011.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
A richly imagined new novel from the author of the New York Times bestseller, People of the Book
Once again, Geraldine Brooks takes a remarkable shard of history and brings it to vivid life. In 1665, a young man from Martha’s Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Upon this slender factual scaffold, Brooks has created a luminous tale of love and faith, magic and adventure.
The narrator of Caleb’s Crossing is Bethia Mayfield, growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans. Restless and curious, she yearns after an education that is closed to her by her sex. As often as she can, she slips away to explore the island’s glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At twelve, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia’s minister father tries to convert the Wampanoag, awakening the wrath of the tribe’s shaman, against whose magic he must test his own beliefs. One of his projects becomes the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb is in Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek among the colonial elite. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Caleb’s crossing of cultures.
Like Brooks’ beloved narrator Anna in Year of Wonders, Bethia proves an emotionally irresistible guide to the wilds of Martha’s Vineyard and the intimate spaces of the human heart. Evocative and utterly absorbing, Caleb’s Crossing further establishes Brooks’ place as one of our most acclaimed novelists.