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The time traveller

 

As war correspondent and then author, Geraldine Brooks has always sought the human stories hidden in history. For her new novel she found inspiration in Louisa May Alcott's absent Mr March, tracking the idealist across the bloody fields of the American Civil War.



“IT'S wonderful to travel and it's wonderful to sleep with foreigners, but you have to be careful -- because if you actually marry them, it creates great complexity.” Geraldine Brooks giggles then, just like -- well, just like a giggling brook. “Our entire marriage has been an argument about where we are going to be living. And where we are depends on who has the upper hand at any given date.”

Which might suggest that her American-born husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer Tony Horwitz, is now ascendant in the family's power game because when we meet in Sydney, Brooks is just a day or so away from returning to the US. And while some part of her is looking forward to reopening the family's pictorial cottage in Waterford, rural Virginia in winter is not inner-city Sydney in late summer. There's the small matter of ice and snow, and the need for woollens and snow jackets. Still, in her sun-swept Balmain base, a narrow wooden terrace tucked off a narrow lane and overlooking a working harbour, Virginia seems suitably remote as she interrupts her packing to rustle up a spread of delicatessen delicacies and a white with some bite, and there, against a very civil Sydney aspect, settles in to discuss the very uncivil imbroglio that was the American Civil War.

Because the Civil War is both backdrop and character in March, her latest, somewhat late novel. To be published next month, it is a book much anticipated by the growing press of Brooks fans, many of whom, it must be said, are the press. (You'd never hear it from Brooks but she is close friends with many media movers -- think Jennifer Byrne, Andrew Denton and Richard Glover -- and is a strong ally of Greens leader Bob Brown; she was heavily involved with the Franklin Dam fight and Brown is said to be keen to see her one day enter politics.)

Beyond that, she is the archetypal journalist's journalist made good: she was, after all, a rigorous and brave foreign correspondent whose CV for The Wall Street Journal covered everything from the bathos of ozone layer-endangering cow farts in New Zealand to the pathos and frontline furies of Bosnia, Somalia, Eritrea and the Middle East.

This girl from Bland Street in suburban Sydney's Ashfield, who was too shy as an adolescent “to talk to anyone, even relations”, was transformed when she had notepad in hand into a probing reporter, becoming, as she puts it, world “shit-hole correspondent”. It was an incongruous-seeming role for someone who barely qualifies for the term petite when she is wearing heels. And high ones at that. By her mid-30s, when she was locked up in a Nigerian jail as a suspected French spy, Brooks succumbed to maternal twinges. “If I get out of this alive,” she promised herself, “I want to have a child.” She did, and then she did. And then with all that no-longer-travelling-and-just-a-baby-to-look-after free time on her hands, and in between writing freelance articles for the likes of The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The Guardian, she began to write books.

But not books in any old slapped-together, retired-hack kind of way -- her books are personal, poignant, pointed and perfectly crafted, the kind we'd all write if only we had the talent and drive and discipline. Her previous novel, her first, was the international bestseller Year of Wonders (2001), set in an English village during the plague of 1666. Before that she'd earned considerable acclaim and sales for her non-fiction works, Nine Parts of Desire (1995), a journalistic journey behind the chador and her first book, and the Kibble Prize-winning Foreign Correspondence (1998), her memorable memoir of girlhood aspirations and pen pals.

Is a logical progression from Muslims through memoirs and the plague to the American Civil War possible? I wonder aloud. Logic is relative, Brooks responds, and her relative catalyst exists close to home. “Tony and I have influenced each other hugely in our work, in all ways -- and certainly the Civil War is very much one of his influences in waking me up to the fascinations of that. The fact that he now writes long travel narratives I take some credit for -- if he hadn't hooked up with me, he would have stayed on the east coast of America quite happily, honing his parochialism to a fine edge.” More chortles -- she likes to laugh, does Brooks, and during the afternoon demonstrates a thesaurus-ful of variations, ranging from discreet chuckle to uninhibited guffaw.

Would Horwitz disagree with her parochial put-down? I ask. “No,” she smiles, “but you can ask him when he comes back.” As if on cue, he and their son Nat (named for Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans) burst in on our tete-a-tete; they've been on a sortie to sell off a couple of art prints that Horwitz bought circa the 2000 Olympic Games (Brooks was an opening ceremony volunteer), and business has gone well.

A one-time Sydney Morning Herald reporter, Horwitz has earned a reputation as some sort of literary wild child, being described by one interviewer as “outback hitchhiker, chicken killer and 18th-century sailor”. These terms relate to his book topics, to which could be added carer of refugee lepers and Confederate crazy. After a brief (and disappointingly manic-free) chat, the boys whirlwind upstairs, ceding us free air ... although circling somewhere nearby in holding pattern is a real estate agent with potential tenant in tow. There's a definite end-of-holidays air about the day.

 Brooks and Horwitz met as graduate students at Columbia University's journalism school, then spent time in the midwestern US when Brooks began writing for The Wall Street Journal. They married 20 years ago when Brooks was sent to Sydney to establish the newspaper's foreign bureau there, and have subsequently lived in, and worked out of, Manhattan, Cairo and London.

Brooks has exotic family credentials: her father was an American singer who came to Australia on a band tour. “They got as far as Adelaide before the band leader absconded with the funds,” she says. “Dad was stranded, but he really liked it in Australia so he started literally singing for his supper. Later, when all his mates signed up during the war, he went off with them -- it didn't matter that he was an American. And after the war he came back to Sydney and met Mum, who was doing PR at 2GB radio station for the Colgate-Palmolive show, of which Dad became one of the stars.”

Legend has it that her father, born into the Cutter family, had come to Australia fleeing a scandalous romantic past; when his agent advised him to change his name, he looked out of a Sydney window, saw a sign for Brooks Brothers, and reinvented himself entirely. When he married Brooks's mother, it was his fourth trip down the aisle. When his singing career ended, her father became a proofreader, and Brooks credits a workplace tour he gave her when she was eight with instilling in her a desire to be a journalist: he handed her a hot-off-the-presses edition and “something clicked inside me -- I never doubted from that moment what I wanted to be”.

Something clicked inside her too when she first encountered Waterford. “At the time, both Tony and I were homesick for our respective countries, and I held what I thought was the unassailable position that no American city held a candle to Sydney. We were kinda through with Manhattan -- it's fine when you're young but its attractions become limited -- and San Francisco's very lovely but you might as well be in Sydney. Tony wasn't doing so well on the `come to America' front until we went to visit his parents in Washington; we were out one day on a drive and we came over this hill about an hour from Washington into an absolutely beautiful and, in an American context, completely unusual village and I said, `Well, if you could figure out a way we could live here, I'd do it.’ “

The words had barely hit the atmosphere, she laughs, when he was on the phone to The Wall Street Journal. “And he's such a great wheeler and dealer that before I knew it, they'd agreed to let me continue with the foreign desk working out of Waterford, and he had become a national reporter based in Waterford.”

She laughs again: Waterford had succeeded Cairo and London; as you'd expect for a town of 250 people with one shop, it had no traveller accommodation and no cable television (it is so far the only US town to have voted against receiving the technology).

Fast-forward now, in a laid-back country town kind of way, to March, a novel that, Brooks says, “wouldn't be, without Waterford”. When Horwitz was writing Confederates in the Attic, his book on Civil War re-enactors, she explains, “I was forever being dragged around Civil War sites. And I was very ungracious about it too -- it was either Gettysburg on the Fourth of July, which is as hot as Hades, or some desolate field in mid-winter with the winds howling through corn stubble, or some rare event like the internment of Stonewall Jackson ... I mean, who really wants to give up their weekend for that, just you and 50 Daughters of the Confederacy in crinolines? So I used to poke fun at him for being a Civil War bore. And then suddenly my thinking changed, and that was because of Waterford and the particular experiences of the people there.”

There are bullet holes in the bricks of the Waterford church near where a Civil War skirmish took place, she says in a voice carrying an aficionado's reverence. “And the town was founded by Quakers and pacifists who were also ardent abolitionists. They'd faced an agonising test of conscience over this -- and some decided that slavery was a worse evil than war and they became among the few Virginians to fight on the Union side.”

She started to wonder what it was like in a small community when “you were torn two ways over such a large issue. This was around the time that war drums started banging over Iraq and I found myself extremely conflicted because I'd seen what Saddam's regime was like and I'd felt it was one of history's great betrayals to leave the Iraqis and Kurds under his boot after the first Gulf War. Beyond that, however, I also knew that war is never ... well, you can't use immoral means to solve a moral problem.”

 With March she wanted to explore “how people really felt that this was war in a just cause, and then they saw how unjustly it was waged”. The novel, which is imbued with a sense of betrayal, personal as well as political, ends with her hero Mr March's homecoming, an episode in Little Women.

Which brings us neatly to Louisa May Alcott's classic American novel, and Brooks's fascination with that family saga. Blame her mother, she suggests: “She put me on to it when I was about 10, with caveats, because she is one of the world's great sceptics, that `nobody behaves like those goody-goody March kids'. And she was right because when you look into the reality of the Alcott family, upon which Louisa based her novel, it is so much more interesting than the literary family because they are so much less perfect.”

 The Alcotts, she enthuses, “are one of the great families of 19th-century America, and the father, Bronson Alcott -- well, I am completely in love with him.” Bronson Alcott was certainly a one-off: he was a radical thinker and anti-slavery activist whom Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the highest genius of the time”. To Thoreau, he was “the sanest man ... of any I chance to know”, an interesting comment on that utopian's social circle, given that Alcott's ideals disdained the consumption of milk products because milk belonged to the cow, wool because it belonged to the sheep and cotton because it was produced through slavery. Which meant he expected his family to survive a New England winter clad only in linen tunics spun from flax.

“You can easily understand why Louisa May Alcott left her father out when she included tidied-up portraits of all the rest of the family in her novel -- he was so radical, even in radical times. He and Thoreau were like that,” Brooks smiles, crossing her fingers.

Her research encompassed Bronson Alcott's 61 volumes of personal journal “plus his incredibly extensive correspondence, and he kept every letter he wrote, and he is talked about a lot by people of the time -- he made a huge impression on people. All this material gave probably the fullest account of the inner life of a 19th-century man you could possibly get your hands on.”

In her book, March the man is a dreamer, she says, an idealist who passionately loves his passionate wife, Marmee, and who is determined that his daughters would be independent and educated. Yet because of  Little Women, he has gone down in literary history as the absent father and has been reviled as an abusive parasite when feminist biographers got stuck into the family in a spate of 1970s revisionism. “It baffles me why they took that attitude,” Brooks says, “because he was a great first-wave feminist supporter of women and their right to vote, and their right to education.”

Her novel, then, is both deconstruction and reconstruction, and “less a book about war than about the strength of ideas that drive people to extreme action”. Sometimes, she laughs, she'd get so involved in her research and her study of  Little Women that she'd forget where Bronson ended and Mr March began: “March's character had to be consistent with Little Women before I could pinch bits of Bronson.”

And then extrapolate? “Little Women is a wonderful but limited morality tale for young people -- I wanted to look at what would happen if you added a dark adult resonance to that pot.” With a 21st-century perspective? “Not necessarily -- it's the same thing I felt about Nine Parts of Desire ... people would ask `How can you write about Muslim women?' Or, with Year of Wonders, `How can you as a 20th-century woman put yourself into the head of a 17th-century girl in an English country town?'

“But the human heart's the human heart -- you can move the furniture around and we obviously have more going for us in what we expect for our life span and our childhood survival rates and so on, but in the things that really matter, the fear and hate and love, the really strong emotions, they don't change.”

Something else that won't change, she says with equal emphasis, is the family's Waterford house. It was built in 1815, and just before they moved there, the previous owner dug up a Union soldier's belt buckle that had been buried near the stone well. She feels she doesn't have the right to obliterate such traces of the house's past as the ceiling trapdoor through which the children of the original family were hoisted each night, or the marks of the hand-forged nails in the oak beams.

“We have been living there since 1991, in our back-and-forth way -- only a blink in the house's history, but it's the longest we've lived anywhere as adults. Which point I keep making to Tony when I am angling to spend more time here in Sydney.” And how's that argument going? “Really well,” she enthuses, then pauses before clouding over in ironic resignation. “At least it was until he had to go into the Immigration Department the other day to get his permanent residency renewed and they gave him a breakdown of how many days he'd spent where -- and it showed we'd spent more days in Australia than in America.”

That balance will change when they go to Harvard “in the fall”, where they have fellowships for a year. She laughs drain-like again: “It's fantastic, you know, you get to do your own work and research but you have the keys to all the libraries and lecture halls of Cambridge and your only commitment is to give one talk on what you are working on.” It is, she suggests, a very civilised arrangement. For someone who appreciates civility, I segue artlessly, “you seem pretty big on bodily distress, if you take Year of Wonders and March into account”.

“If you're going to write about the past,” she says, “you do have to come to grips with a somewhat organic approach to life. But yes, there's some emphasis on battle wounds and their treatment in March -- my father-in-law is a medical historian with a special interest in Civil War medicine, so he was able to fill me in, in hideous detail, about the techniques and practices of the time.”

With this book, I suggest, surely she must have paid her welcome-to-the-Horwitz-clan family dues? There is a sense, she agrees, that in that family, which has an immigrant background, there is a belief that to understand America you need to understand the Civil War. “But on my own side of the family, my father had very deep Yankee roots and his forebears set up in Massachusetts in 1630. They were involved in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, but I'd never given that two minutes of thought until Tony started poking around in the archives -- I got him to look up my ancestral history and he discovered they'd had a bad war in very undramatic ways, dying of dysentery and the like.”

The Civil War fires up people's imaginations for different reasons, she says, “and for me it's the individuals -- their responses to the challenges they faced. Northerners who are interested today are interested in the war's ramifications for the American soul; they are not as numerous as southerners, for whom it has Gallipoli-like implications.”

Certainly her novel emphasises that northerners were not as convinced by the validity of their cause as popular history has it.

 * * *
THE novel was scheduled for release last northern spring and the thoroughly professional Brooks had lodged her manuscript ahead of deadline. “I was feeling incredibly smug, insufferable really, because I'd got it done in time, and I was thinking now it was time to do all those things I'd been putting off, like getting a leg wax and, oh yeah, a mammogram.”

She was astonished when the latter indicated an early-stage cancer. “I was just fortunate that the breast-screen van was there,” she says somewhat ruefully, “[it's] one of the fantastic things we do [in Australia].” The prognosis was good, and while she had to undergo radiography and chemotherapy, “luckily there was no mastectomy; now I'm being monitored very closely and keeping my fingers crossed. The odds, though, are very much on my side.”

She doesn't mind talking about her experience, she says, “but I don't want to make too much of it because I do feel like it's already a very long time ago and I don't want it to become the focus of how people approach me”. Still, it did cause personal changes: she lost her hair during treatment and when it grew back, she decided she preferred it short-cropped after a lifetime of sporting lustrous locks. And she realised she wouldn't be able to promote her book: after a career of soldiering on no matter what the hardship, “I had to put my hand up for the first time and say, `We need to wait.' And when you do that, you realise how incredibly common this is because people in your publishing house are breast cancer survivors, and the admissions officer at your son's projected school is a breast cancer survivor ... that's both encouraging and supportive.”

Perhaps the best thing about the experience, she suggests, “was that it gave me some time to think outside the rabbit hole”. What rabbit hole? “The writing rabbit hole. In novel writing, you go down fiction's rabbit hole and it is wonderful, but you become totally absorbed by it and then you finish and go out and talk about it on that whole dog-and-pony show. And by the time you've done that, you're well into thinking about the next one. The cancer gave me a curiously useful time out.”

From which came the determination that “as long as I can get away with this fiction racket, I will -- I love it, I love everything about it”. For someone who grew up so strongly permeated in non-fiction, she says, writing fiction has been the most liberating of experiences. Because while both fiction and non-fiction can be tied to history and research, “when you get to that point where you can't know, then in non-fiction you must stop -- non-fiction is a messy process where things don't resolve themselves into perfect anecdotes”.

There, she says with quiet force, “you should never make things up. I personally get very annoyed when purported non-fiction writers do up ... I hate faction. But fiction, well that's fiction and you can just make up whatever bits you can't know. It's glorious.”

There's another benefit. “If you write a non-fiction book and give a reading, half the people there have come because they want to pick a fight with you. With fiction, nobody bothers to come unless they like you.”


 

Extract from March by Geraldine Brooks (Fourth Estate, $29.95).

October 21, 1861
This is what I write to her: The clouds tonight embossed the sky. A dipping sun gilded and brazed each ravelling edge as if the firmament were threaded with precious filaments. I pause there to mop my aching eye, which will not stop tearing. The line I have set down is, perhaps, on the florid side of fine, but no matter: she is a gentle critic. My hand, which I note is flecked with traces of dried phlegm, has the tremor of exhaustion. Forgive my unlovely script, for an army on the march provides no tranquil place for reflection and correspondence. (I hope my dear young author is finding time amid all her many good works to make some use of my little den, and that her friendly rats will not grudge a short absence from her accustomed aerie.) And yet to sit here under the shelter of a great tree as the men make their cook fires and banter together provides a measure of peace. I write on the lap desk that you and the girls so thoughtfully provided me, and though I spilled my store of ink you need not trouble to send more, as one of the men has shown me an ingenious receipt for a serviceable substitute made from the season's last blackberries. So I am able to send “sweet words” to you!


Do you recall the marbled endpapers in the Spenser that I used to read to you on crisp fall evenings just such as this? If so, then you, my dearest one, can see the sky as I saw it here tonight, for the colours swirled across the heavens in just such a happy profusion.


And the blood that perfused the silted eddies of the boot-stirred river also formed a design that is not unlike those fine endpapers. Or -- better -- like that spill of carmine ink when the impatient hand of our little artist overturned the well upon our floorboards. But these lines, of course, I do not set down. I promised her that I would write something every day, and I find myself turning to this obligation when my mind is most troubled. For it is as if she were here with me for a moment, her calming hand resting lightly upon my shoulder. Yet I am thankful that she is not here, to see what I must see, to know what I am come to know. And with this thought I exculpate my censorship: I never promised I would write the truth.


 


This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian,  19 March 2005. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren


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