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Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Discusses Work

April 18, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: “Little Women,” the 19th-century novel by Louisa May Alcott, has been beloved by generations of readers. One of them, Geraldine Brooks, has taken Mr. March, the mostly absent father of the family at the center of “Little Women,” and made him the central character of a new novel, called “March,” which has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Geraldine Brooks grew up in Australia and worked as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. “March” is her second novel. She lives in rural Virginia and joins us from Boston, where she’s on a fellowship at Harvard.

Welcome, and congratulations to you.

GERALDINE BROOKS, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, in “Little Women,” Mr. March is off serving in the Civil War. Now I understand you became interested in writing a civil war story after you found a soldier’s belt buckle in your own yard. Is that right?

GERALDINE BROOKS: Yes, the small village that we live in, in Virginia, is a very interesting place, in terms of its Civil War history, because it was a town that was founded by Quakers in 1733. And so, when this belt buckle came to us with the house, it had been unearthed near the old well that had provided the water for people around the time of the Civil War, the kitchen water.

And this Union soldier’s buckle really transported me. I started to wonder about the young soldier who might have worn it. And I knew that Quakers had lived in our house during the Civil War.

And I thought, “Well, what kind of struggle of conscience might a Quaker have gone through?” Because Quakers, of course, were ardent abolitionists, but also pacifists. And some young men in the village thought that the evil of slavery was the greater evil, and they formed a unit to fight on the Union side.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how did that then lead you to the idea of using Mr. March as your main character?

GERALDINE BROOKS: Once I started thinking about idealists at war and what happens to ideals when you believe ardently in a cause, but you go off to war, and you see the compromises that have to be made, and the disastrous things that happen to people on both sides, the cruelties, I thought about that other idealist at war, from this beloved book of my Sydney girlhood, which was “Little Women.”

And Mr. March is very absent. You know, he’s notable by his absence in the book. Louisa May tells us that he’s gone on the very first page, that he’s away, far away where the fighting was. And we know he’s a chaplain, but we don’t know anything about what kind of war he has. And I became intrigued by trying to imagine a war for a man of those passionate abolitionist convictions.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s an early passage where he as narrator is talking about how he writes to his wife and daughters, what he tells them, but he doesn’t tell them everything. Could you read that passage for us?

GERALDINE BROOKS: Sure.

“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.”

JEFFREY BROWN: “I never promised I would write the truth.” And the truth, of course, is the horror of war, the kind of moral compromises that Mr. March goes through. What sort of themes were you trying to explore through Mr. March?

GERALDINE BROOKS: I was really interested in how marriages work, how you can, you know, be in love with somebody and spend many years with your lives intertwined, but in the end another soul can be fundamentally unknowable. And I think that the stress of war, when one party goes away and the other has to deal at home, is a really testing time in a lot of marriages.

And it’s certainly something that, when I’ve been speaking about the book to audiences now, women have come up to me afterwards and said, “You really got it, because my husband served in Iraq, and I didn’t want to burden him with my worries at home, because I knew he needed to concentrate. And at the same time, he didn’t want to tell me what he was going through. And now he’s, home and we’re having trouble reconnecting.”

So that was one of the things that I wanted to explore.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, speaking of marriages, I know that your husband, the writer Tony Horwitz, wrote a book about Civil War buffs and re-enactors called “Confederates in the Attic.” And you’ve referred to him, lovingly, I think, as something of a civil war bore. That’s your term.

So what happened? What happened? You somehow got the bug.

GERALDINE BROOKS: Yes. Well, we’d been working overseas as foreign correspondents during the early years of our marriage, and it wasn’t until we returned to Virginia that I understood exactly what I had gotten myself into with this guy.

There’s a famous saying that the Civil War was fought in 10,000 places. And it quickly became apparent to me that he intended to take me to every single one of them. So what can I say?

The battle order, that’s not really interesting to me, the details of the armies and the generals. But the individual, common soldier and these kind of internal arguments of conscience, that’s where I found myself hooking in to his enthusiasm. And I guess we’ve been dragging each other through various passions that either of us held for quite some time now.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned reading “Little Women” as a girl in Australia. Were you one of those millions who saw yourself as Jo March?

GERALDINE BROOKS: Indeed. You know, I loved the way that she wouldn’t be bound by stupid conventions, and it seemed me that my small world though was very much hemmed in by what girls should and should not do, what young ladies should and should not do. And I was like Jo; I didn’t have any truck with those kinds of rules. And I think there are millions of us who love Jo or wanted to be Jo and were inspired by her.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally, you were a foreign correspondent. You’ve covered many wars. You’ve written non-fiction. You’ve turned to fiction. What does it offer you?

GERALDINE BROOKS: When you’re writing non-fiction, you go as far as you can go, and then ethically you have to stop. You can’t go. You can’t suppose. You can’t imagine. And I think there’s something in human nature that wants to finish the story.

So I love to find things on the historical record where you can know something, but you can’t know everything, and that’s the void. You get to the void. And instead of having to stop, that’s where you can just let your imagination soar.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Geraldine Brooks, congratulations again. Thanks a lot.

GERALDINE BROOKS: Thank you.