Geraldine Brooks: People of the Book

A conversation with James Mustich

Geraldine Brooks published her first book, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, based on her work as a journalist in the Middle East, in 1994. Three years later, Brooks recalled her Australian childhood — and the pen-pal network that introduced her to the wider world — in Foreign Correspondence. She became a novelist with Year of Wonders (2001), a vivid and accomplished tale set in a plague-stricken English village in 1666. Her second work of fiction, March, a powerful imagining of the Civil War experience of the father whose absence haunts Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

The inspiration for March came to Brooks after she had already begun writing another book. That novel emerged from the history of a Hebrew codex created in medieval Spain, a rare illuminated manuscript that had made its way through five hundred years to the war-torn Sarajevo of the 1990s. Set aside by the author as she immersed herself in the events of the American Civil War, the tale of the Sarajevo Haggadah was picked up again after the completion of March, and has recently been published to wide acclaim.

Spanning five centuries and four cultures, People of the Book combines several elements of Brooks’s earlier work, both fiction and nonfiction — the interest in Islamic heritage illustrated in Nine Parts of Desire, the influence of cross-cultural exchange expressed in Foreign Correspondence, and the fascination with historical periods made palpable in both Year of Wonders and March. Encompassing romance, adventure, espionage, and erudition, People of the Book invents a history for the Sarajevo Haggadah based on the spare but tantalizing available knowledge of its past. Within a tense, page-turning framing narrative that follows Hanna Heath, a young Australian rare book expert called upon to restore the manuscript, Brooks sets historical episodes that travel backwards in time from World War II Bosnia to 1894 Vienna, Venice during the Inquisition, and the 15th-century Spain of the Convivencia. The result is a tour de force of storytelling imagination and a magnanimous embrace of large concerns — chief among them the liberating but ever-embattled virtue of tolerance.

In early January, I sat down with Geraldine Brooks to discuss People of the Book. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. –James Mustich


JAMES MUSTICH: Let’s begin with the genesis of People of the Book. When did you first learn about the Sarajevo Haggadah?

GERALDINE BROOKS: I was working as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and my beat was the United Nations, so I was occasionally required to go to Sarajevo to cover the U.N. operations there. It was on one of those trips, during the siege of the city in the early 1990s, that I heard my fellow journalists speculating about this priceless 15th-century Hebrew codex that was the treasure of the Bosnian museum. It was missing, and nobody knew where it was. So there were rumors that the government had sold it to buy arms, which they desperately needed. Somebody else said, “No, no, everyone knows the Israelis sent in a Mossad team to take it out.” The truth turned out to be, in a way, much better than the rumors: a Muslim librarian in the first days of the war had braved shelling to go into the museum, crack a safe, and bring this book to safety.

JM: When you first heard of it, though, its whereabouts was a mystery.

GB: Yes. And I was inclined to think it was lost, because thousands of books went up in flames during the siege.

JM: When did you find out what had actually happened to it?

GB: It was just before the end of the war. The Haggadah was brought out very ceremonially, as a great surprise, at the seder of the Sarajevo Jewish community. I thought, “Ah, well, that’s interesting,” and I kind of filed it away. But I guess it took root in my imagination. I was very intrigued with how this book that had been created during one period of cross-cultural harmony — in Spain during the time of cross-fertilization of ideas about art and science known as the Convivencia, which came to a violent end in 1492 — had made it through 500 years to Sarajevo, a city whose own multicultural tolerance was being smashed by ethnic cleansing. It was as if the book were fated to end up in the same story again and again.

JM: Did you originally conceive of People of the Book as the tapestry of stories it became?

GB: I wasn’t sure what to do. I was interested in the stories from the past, because they were the ones that we couldn’t know anything about, or only very little. We just had a sort of skeleton of fact, and that’s what I like — it opens great big voids in which your imagination can work. But I was a little bit baffled about how to do it, because my other two novels happen in a very tight time frame. Year of Wonders is a single year in a plague village, and March covers the same amount of time, the period during which Mr. March is away at war. Even though they both have flashbacks and what-have-you, it’s not like the five centuries and four separate cultures I wanted to encompass in People of the Book. So I wasn’t sure what would be the connective tissue. Then I heard, quite by chance, that the U.N. was funding a restoration of the actual codex, and I got on the phone and talked my way into the room while the conservator was working on the book.

JM: What was that like?

GB: Oh, it was wonderful. Very few people at that time had actually seen this book. It had been locked away in safes for a couple of centuries. So to be able to actually spend time in the room with it was marvelous. But it was very dramatic — it wasn’t like any other book conservation job, because the Haggadah was under intense guard. Things were still very unstable in the city; the room was full of Bosnian police and Secret Service guys as well as U.N. soldiers. It was kind of a crazy scene, with this woman at the center of it who was the conservator.

I got to watch her do her very painstaking work, and as she was working I noticed that she was punctilious about looking in the binding for any speck of matter. When she did find something — she thought it might be a breadcrumb — she was very excited. She said, “A chemical analysis of this could tell us so much,” and she put it in a little envelope. That gave me the structure for the novel. I thought that my fictional conservator would find artifacts in the binding, and that those would be the vehicles to enable me to jump the reader back in time. And I knew that the reader would find out how that thing got there, while the conservator might or might not.

JM: The book is filled with fascinating details of the arts of manuscript illumination and preservation, including how pigments were made in different periods, how brushes were made from animal fur, how books were bound. Is most of that information accurate?

GB: Almost all of it. I’ve taken maybe one liberty for dramatic purposes.

JM: It’s astonishing to realize how ingenious illuminators were in developing the tools they used to create their manuscripts.

GB: It was dangerous, too, because the pigments they made could be very toxic, and mixing them was quite hazardous. I don’t think that these illuminators made out too well on their retirement programs!

JM: I want to talk to you a bit about the way inventing a story based on facts enhances our appreciation of the facts — the history — involved. At least, the stories you imagined about the Haggadah did that for me. When I interviewed Philip Pullman a couple of months ago, he spoke about story as its own mode of apprehending truth, rather than as an un-truth.

GB: Yes.

JM: And there is certainly plenty in aspects of the Haggadah’s recent history that benefits from straight reporting. The piece you had in The New Yorker in December, for instance, the true story of what happened to the codex during World War Two, was incredibly gripping.

GB: If I had put that whole story in the book, nobody would have believed me.

JM: As you were writing People of the Book, given your training as a journalist, was there any conflict in your own mind? Did you ever say to yourself, “I’m inventing too much” or “Maybe I should just tell the story directly”?

GB: Yes, I did. When I started writing the World War II sections, I was very worried about dealing with people whose lives are in living memory, as I thought. Then I found out that one woman involved in the tale was not only in living memory, but still alive! I was quite concerned because I do have a very strong view about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. I’m very, very leery of nonfiction books where they change timeframes and use — what do they call those things? — composite characters. I don’t think that’s right. So I had to do a lot of thinking about this. I decided that what I would do in those sections was use the real events as inspiration, but create the characters myself.

JM: The chain of episodes, each with its own characters, allows you to treat what one might call the human dimension of the Haggadah’s story in a way that you couldn’t in nonfiction.

GB: Well, there’s not enough solid information to do it as nonfiction. Just getting that World War II thing sorted was an immense research challenge, and there are still voids — despite all the trips I took and all the interviews I did. And that’s recent. So if you jump back to the next thing — why did the binding get screwed up in Vienna? — we have no idea. Beyond that, it gets even harder. So you couldn’t write a really meaningful nonfiction version of this story. You have to imagine how it was, based on research.

JM: In doing so, the material gives you a marvelous opportunity to speak about different religious groups living together and falling apart throughout history. The specter of tolerance haunts the book across all the periods depicted; it comes and goes. But there must have been some inspiration in the fact that some form of cross-cultural harmony is made palpable in the mix of people depicted in the images in the real Haggadah.

GB: Yes.

JM: The vast canvas is so different from the concentrated time frames of your first two novels. Did that pose a special challenge?

GB: Yes. Well, I was very comfortable back in the invented past. I wrote “A White Hair” and “Salt Water” — I had drafts of those done before I did anything else — and I was tooling along, telling myself, “I know how to do this.” Then I get to the character in the near-present, the book conservator, and I just couldn’t get her voice right. She was originally going to be Bosnian, and I imagined her story would be only a bookend to the rest — she was going to open the narrative and set it up, and then she would come back at the end and wrap the whole thing. She wasn’t supposed to be a main character of the book. But in any case, I couldn’t hear her voice. She didn’t sound convincingly Sarajevan to me. The Sarajevans have a very particular world view — a mordant wit coupled with this unbearable sadness and . . . truckloads of guts, you know. I just wasn’t getting her. So I had to throw out about 50 pages. Then I thought, “Why am I beating myself up? What’s a voice I can hear?” And I thought, “Ah, g’day!” As soon as I made her Australian, Hanna just kind of burst into the room, and then demanded her own story line, and a much bigger role. She’s the character that wouldn’t go away. So the book was very different once that voice started playing in my head.

The other really gnarly bit was the World War II part. Initially, I didn’t want to come too close to the facts there. I was going to do a whole other thing, not about the librarian at all but about another figure, who was going to be on trial for war crimes in Belgrade after WWII. But I just couldn’t get it off the ground. It was clunking along the runway, with no lift. That’s when I got the idea for March. The Haggadah story went into the drawer, and while it was in the drawer, I began to see the story more clearly, as often happens when you turn your attention away. So by the time I was ready to bring it out again, I knew what I had to do with it.

JM: One of the things that the way you’ve structured the book allows us to do is to witness the way the book survives the same disaster over and over again — the violent clash of cultures in the aftermath of a period of tolerance.

GB: Yes.

JM: While I was reading People of the Book, I was also reading Rebecca West’s account of her journeys through Yugoslavia in the 1930s, Black Lamb and Gray Falcon. There’s a passage that seemed to echo the theme of the relentlessness of violence in that part of the world. I wanted to share it with you. She’s not in Sarajevo in this section; she’s somewhere in Croatia. But she says: “Were I to go down into the market-place, armed with the powers of witchcraft, and take a peasant by the shoulders and whisper to him, ‘In your lifetime, have you known peace?’, wait for his answer, shake his shoulders and transform him in his turn into his father, and ask him the same question, and transform him, in turn, to his father, I would never hear the word ‘Yes,’ if I carried my questioning of the dead back for a thousand years.”

GB: Wow. She could write! Whoa!

JM: The passage seemed to crystallize something I felt as I was reading your book — that most of us are distanced from history in a way that warps our understanding of it. The “people of the book” you write about must confront history — the violence of history — in such an immediate way. As Hanna thinks at one point, “the people who had owned this book had known unbearable stress: pogrom, Inquisition, exile, genocide, war.”

GB: Right.

JM: The same is true of the characters in March and Year of Wonders. It leads me to wonder if your experiences as a journalist have made you conscious of the force of history in a way that allows you to approach that theme more powerfully than other writers can.

GB: Certainly I’m still mining my experiences as a journalist. I think it’s no coincidence that all three of my novels basically are about how people act in a time of catastrophe. Do they go to their best self or their worst self? That’s a question that hasn’t stopped intriguing me, exploring how people are when they’re confronted with the choice of who to be in a hard time.

Regarding the Rebecca West passage, perhaps if she’d asked that question in Sarajevo, she might have had a very different answer. What’s not in People of the Book, but is the sort of underpinning of it, is the Convivencia in Spain that lasted for several centuries. There was a long time when everybody seemed to recognize that their society was better and stronger if they all just got along. Incredible exchanges of information happened in the pavilions of the book: people would be translating Hebrew into Latin, and then the Latin into Arabic, and back the other way around — linguists and scribes working together across their cultural differences to share knowledge. Without a doubt, that Spain was a much richer and better place than the horrible arid thing that Ferdinand and Isabel created when they expelled Muslims and Jews in pursuit of a monoculture. Monocultures are not natural, not for plants and not for human culture. The same thing happened with Nazism and the same thing happened with the ethnic cleansers in Bosnia. But before the ethnic cleansers, Sarajevo had several centuries — before the Nazis anyway — of being a city that was open and tolerant, and was a lovely place because of that.

JM: It’s very moving when Ozren, the librarian who, in the novel, saves the Haggadah during the siege of Sarajevo, talks about the surprise that the Sarajevans feel about the fact that this horrific violence has come to their city. “Years ago,” he tells Hanna, “we watched Lebanon fall apart and said, ‘That’s the Middle East, they’re primitive over there.’ Then we saw Dubrovnik in flames, and we said, “We’re different in Sarajevo.’ That’s what we all thought. How could you possibly have an ethnic war here, when every second person is the product of a mixed marriage?”

GB: Yes. I was actually quoting several Sarajevan friends in that.

JM: Did you find any of the historical periods you imagined in composing the novel more congenial than others?

GB: Well, I love Venice. Now, how many times in your life are you going to have a legitimate excuse to go to work in Venice? I loved researching there, and I found it necessary to research the angel hair pasta with freshly shaved truffles extensively. It’s kind of hard for me now to divide what I knew and what I didn’t know starting out — but I didn’t know a lot. I didn’t know what Venice in 1609 was like. But that year was a given, because we know the book was actually there that year, and was saved by the ecclesiastical censor. So that set me off on trying to find out what was going on in Venice in 1609. Fantastic. Wonderful.

Then I’d finished the whole first draft of the book, and actually I’d even sent it to Molly Stern, my editor. But I just felt that there was a big piece missing — a great big hole in the narrative. I thought, I need something between Venice and World War II. What happened with the Haggadah in those three centuries, what can I do there? I knew that it had been in Vienna in the 1890s and that the binding was badly restored there, so I needed to find out what was going on in Vienna then. I picked up Frederic Morton’s unbelievably wonderful narrative history, A Nervous Splendor, which treats a year in Vienna as the 20th century approached — the year that the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne pops himself and his mistress in their hunting lodge in Mayerling. Morton goes from the top of the society to the bottom; he talks about the street performers, and Freud and Mahler, and Klimt. There was so much happening there.

JM: Is that where you got the marvelously ornate etiquette of the telephone operators?

GB: Yes. I have a huge debt to Frederic Morton for sort of setting the scene. That section seemed to write itself almost effortlessly, because the characters were very clear to me once I thought, “Yeah, they bungled the book-binding in Vienna. Why?”

JM: I was especially taken with “The White Hair,” the section that imagines the inspiration for the creation of the Haggadah in 15th-century Spain. Not to reveal too much, but when one discovers the reason for the figurative illustrations, the explanation for the presence of the mysterious Islamic figure in the picture of the gathering around the seder table, and the specific eyes for which the manuscript was made — it’s a marvelous expression of the theme of human outreach across cultures that ties the novel together.

GB: Well, the big mystery about this book is why was it illustrated at a time when there was so much feeling against illustration in the Jewish tradition. Scholars say if you’re going to illustrate anything, it’s going to be a Haggadah, because the idea of that celebration is the instruction of your children. The Bible says, “Teach it to your sons on that day.” So that was my inspiration in that section. If you’re going to try to get to something across to a kid, what better way to do it than with really wonderful, pretty pictures? But also, I think that the truth was probably that a wealthy Jewish family saw the books of the Christians, and they were so gorgeous they wanted illuminated books of their own. If you look at an illuminated manuscript, even today, it just blows your mind. For them, without all the clutter and inputs that we have, it must have been even more extraordinary. So I can just see somebody saying, “Why not?”

JM: One more question: what’s next? Do you have another project in the works?

GB: I do. It’s still in the early days. I was lucky when I finished March because I had this in my drawer. Now I’m in that scary, cobwebby, “Is this going to work?” phase. But I’ve got a good idea, I think, and it’s again people in crisis and what happens to faith in crisis. I don’t know what it is with me and vicars, but all of my books are about these religious figures. There was the vicar of the plague village in Year of Wonders, then there was Mr. March, the Transcendentalist minister. People would ask me about that even before People of the Book: “Why vicars?” And I’d say, “Just wait. My next book sounds like a bad joke: it’s got a rabbi and a priest and an imam.” So I’m almost embarrassed to say there’s yet another minister in the next, and it’s set back in a year that I’m particularly fond of, 1666. But it’s in this country.

                                                                                                                 January 30, 2008

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