Born and educated in Australia, Geraldine Brooks is the author of four novels, including the Pulitzer-awarded March. She has also written two well-regarded books of non-fiction, Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence.
As Brooks tells in the conversation below, she started her writing career in her hometown of Sydney. After winning a scholarship to Columbia’s master’s program in journalism, she later moved on to the Wall Street Journal, where she worked as a foreign correspondent—she jokes that working in the Journal’s Cleveland bureau was her first foreign assignment.
As a resident of Martha’s Vineyard, Brooks came across the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University, which became the fulcrum for her latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing.
Given the fact that Brooks has created a fiction, naturally we discuss the boundaries of storytelling as it abuts historical fact. We talk about a plenitude of subjects from Martha’s Vineyard’s disappearing endangered middle class to her Australian kelpy, Milo, to global warming. Brooks is an engaging conversationalist and a buoyant personality (I lost track of how many times she broke into laughter during our chat) and, when pushed, a fierce advocate. If that isn’t apparent from this dialogue, dear reader, I have failed you.
But I don’t think that is the case.
Robert Birnbaum: Apropos of nothing, I noticed that one of your sons has an unusual name, which I can’t pronounce. Please pronounce it for me and, if you would, explain how it came to be.
Geraldine Brooks: His name is Biz EYE oh—Bizuayehu.
RB: Say it again.
GB: Bizuayehu. It’s Amharic and it means, “I have seen a lot.” He was born in Ethiopia and he came home to us three years ago now.
RB: How old is he?
GB: He’s eight now.
RB: I am attuned to unusual names—my son has an unusual name.
RB: How did you know that?
GB: Ginny [Brooks's literary escort—ed.] told me.
RB: Cuba’s maternal grandfather was beside himself. So we gave him a default middle name—Maxwell. Cuba Maxwell.
GB: (laughs) That’s marvelous. Well, my poor son is going to spend half his life spelling his name.
RB: Does he have a nickname?
RB: Not Bizzy?
GB: Bizu is the part of the phrase that means abundance.
RB: That was already his name—what would you have named him? (laughs)
GB: Felix? (laughs)
RB: Not bad—is that popular name in Australia?
GB: No, but it was one of the names that was on the short list that my husband and I could agree on when we named our first son, Nathaniel. After a long struggle to find a name we both liked.
RB: We should talk about your book. Could you have written Caleb’s Crossing if you had not spent time at Harvard—you discovered the story there?
GB: No, I discovered the story on Martha’s Vineyard.
RB: You live on Martha’s Vineyard—would you have written Caleb’s story if you weren’t a resident?
GB: I would never have come across this story if I hadn’t had a connection with Martha’s Vineyard. And I have to say I have Mr. Spock to thank for that.
GB: When I was in the sixth grade in suburban Sydney I was an ardent Trekky. I really was a tragic case (laughs) and I loved Mr. Spock, and so I joined the Leonard Nimoy fan club, and in the fan club newsletter were ads from kids in the States who wanted pen pals who also shared this enthusiasm. I wrote away to a girl my age, who was from Menasha (which is a fishing village on Martha’s Vineyard). We wrote to each other for years and I became intrigued with this wonderful place where she spent her summers. When I came to the U.S. as a graduate student in my twenties, I had it in mind to visit Martha’s Vineyard. Luckily for me I had a classmate who was headed that way and so went. And later I married him. (Both laugh.) We fell in love with the island and each other on the same trip. And we always had it in mind that if life allowed, we would one day live there. And so we do. I was intrigued by the Wampanoag community on the island and I got a hold of a map that showed sites of significance—on it was a notation that it was the birthplace of the first Native American graduate of Harvard.
RB: Who besides the Wampanoag pay attention to that?
GB: Caleb’s story for a long time was treasured by the tribe. Friends in the tribe would say, “My mother would always say we were an educated people from the beginning so do your homework.” But he wasn’t widely known in the wider community and for a long time Harvard had forgotten that whole chapter of its history because the origins of the college in the charter say that the college was founded for “the education of English and Indian youth in knowledge and godliness.”
RB: That remains in the charter?
GB: Oh yes. It’s still there.
RB: You’re familiar with Stalinist history.
GB: (laughs) No, they didn’t do anything about that. But they were very happy to move on in the 18th century and forget that was really was one of the founding principles of the college’s initial endowment, such as it was. It was given by English donors who very much wanted to see to the education of indigenous Americans. Of course, Harvard had a debt that it hadn’t repaid until recent years. Now there is a great embrace of this history.
RB: And a Wampanoag woman is graduating now.
GB: Indeed. So it’s a cause of great celebration on the island—Tiffany Smalley is the first to get an undergraduate degree since Caleb.
I am not going back anywhere in the past unless I can have a sex change.
RB: The first Wampanoag—
GB: There are many Native American students.
RB: Is there a set-aside endowment for Native Americans?
GB: That’s a bit of a sore subject, actually. There is not a set-aside. It’s become moot because under Drew Gilpin Faust it’s become a needs-blind admission. So anybody who qualifies can go. For a long time it was thought that there was an unpaid debt there.
RB: I am not clear on the necessity of an archeological dig in a town (Cambridge) that hasn’t been buried and relatively speaking is not that old?
GB: Oh my goodness. The landscape is completely different.
RB: How and why does the Indian College get dug up?
GB: I actually was there during work on this dig so I know something about this—they have been at it now for getting on five years and they didn’t know even the location of this building that was built to house the Indian boys that were supposed to come in droves to Harvard at one point. So they had built this brick structure that was much nicer than the original college.
GB: After everything went to hell, and all the violence and dispossession (against Native Americans), then the total lack of interest in educating any Indians
RB: What period are you referring to?
GB: King Phillip’s War. When Metacomet (or King Phillip) realized that the English were not dealing fairly with his people in 1675. That war was a year, but per capita it was the bloodiest war in American history and people know very little about it.
RB: There’s road down around Truro named King Phillips Highway.
GB: If you collared nine out of 10 Americans I am not sure they could tell you who that was and that he was a leader of the Wampanoag. Anyway they didn’t know the location of the building—so for the first couple of years of the dig they had conjectural evidence and they had done some ground penetrating radar in the general area. It was only the last time they were digging they found some foundations. So when they reopen the dig in the fall they will be able to go down to that 17th century level. The archeologists opened my mind to the fact that not everything gets written down. There is an archive also in the trash. And what’s in the trash can tell you a lot about how people really lived. Because Harvard’s rules in the 17th century said you could not wear sumptuary clothing and you shouldn’t smoke and you mustn’t drink. Lo and behold, what is coming out of the ground are a lot of pipes, a lot of liquor bottles, a lot of fancy buttons. So people say one thing and they live another way.
RB: So there wasn’t much known, which is a wonderful thing for someone who wants to write fiction about that place and time. How much are you obliged to stick to what is known?
GB: As far as I can?
GB: Truth is the best storyteller.
RB: Verisimilitude can work.
GB: If you know something why wouldn’t you want to use it as the architecture or the scaffolding? Believe me there are plenty of voids. You are not short of a place to imagine how it was. So I grab onto the facts, and if for some narrative reason I do have to change the facts then I come clean about that in an afterword. So people know where I have departed.
RB: I’m reminded of Edward Jones’s The Known World. He worked on it for 12 years intending to research through a long list of books—which he never did. And he has no problem saying he made things up.
GB: I know. Its amazing that book. I love that book. I am a great admirer of it. I just work differently, that’s all.
RB: I found Bethia Mayfield a more interesting character than Caleb.
GB: In a way she is. I am not saying it’s intentional—yeah, it’s intentional. Because we can know her more fully than we can him. I intended him to remain somewhat enigmatic. It’s told through her eyes and we can only know him in so far as she knew him. And she being from that place and time couldn’t fully know him. She tries to understand, she tries to make the leap out of her own indoctrination, her own ideology, and comes to a certain appreciation of him.
RB: I find amazing that she wanted to.
GB: There are many writing that I have drawn on where there was a kind of hunger among the English to know more. They were also of course completely in their own mindset—as interesting as all this was, [the Wampanoags] were still ungodly people to the Puritans.
How do you define any nation’s literature? To me, it’s the one where you can taste the salt in the air.
RB: Do you know Brian Hall’s book?
GB: I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company. I love that book, it’s a masterpiece.
RB: I was fascinated by how he expressed Sacagawea’s thoughts, given that she did not think in English.
GB: He’s an amazing linguist, he speaks five or six languages almost fluently—what he did was to study grammar and language structure of the Shoshone and then use that grammar and recast her English into Shoshone grammar. Until you get used to it, it’s quite difficult. Suddenly you get this epiphany and you understand her and what she’s saying. I think it’s a masterpiece.
RB: That’s what’s compelling about these stories—you have some sense of how differently people see the world. A huge translation needs to go on. So, Caleb’s Crossing wasn’t set up for Caleb to be heroic—it was more a cast of characters who were propping him up.
GB: I think he is heroic—not in the way of a Navy SEAL who busts into bin Laden’s house. But in the way of a guy who ventured out from his known world to this foreign culture and made it his own. And became a member of the intellectual elite of his time and suffered greatly to do it. And gave up a great deal in order to pursue knowledge. I find that very heroic.
RB: And King Phillip’s War made it extremely difficult for the indigenous peoples and the immigrants to get along?
RB: Assimilation, such as it was, came to a halt.
GB: There was no wish for it. When you read Jill Lepore’s amazing book, The Name of War, you realize how bitterly fought this war was. For the first six months it looked like the Wampanoag were going to win. The colonial experiment in New England almost faltered there. And if the tribes had come together—if the English hadn’t been so clever at exploiting divide and conquer, there is no doubt it would have set back the colonial enterprise 100 years. So after it was over—there had been immense, immense loses on the Indian side—we’ll never have a count of the dead but we know that men, women, and children were wiped out en masse and many of the battles—
RB: Do we have a number for the population of the Wampanoags? Four-thousand?
GB: If you are talking about the Vineyard, they think there were three-thousand at the time of white settlement. But the war did not come as far as the Vineyard. The Indians there never took up arms against the English there. But on the mainland, all the frontier towns were destroyed—even Providence was razed.
RB: That far from the Cape?
GB: Yeah. Yeah. So this was a big deal, and afterwards there was a completely embittered relationship. And as you know it just went on—this is outside the purview of the book for the most part. Caleb’s life is lived while a different life was still possible. That was a challenge for me as a novelist. To put myself into Bethia’s head and erase what I know happened and see it as she saw it—where everything was still possible and where this nation could have gone another way entirely.
RB: Any temptation to inhabit this period now that you have established some familiarity?
GB: Not unless I can have a sex change first. I am not going back anywhere in the past unless I can have a sex change—this was no picnic for women. I tried to portray Bethia’s frustration with her circumscribed role—where education for women stopped when they could read the Bible. That’s all a woman needed and anything more would addle your wits.
RB: Are there heroines in the literature of the time? Women are usually witches or something.
GB: In fiction, I’m not sure but certainly there is a lot to work with there. Anne Bradstreet, our first American poet. Anne Hutchinson, who tried to step out of the accepted role for women and became, in a way, a minister. And look what happened to her—nothing good. She was cast out by the Massachusetts Bay Puritans who were behaving in a very Taliban-like way. That’s our stereotype of the puritans—they were sexually repressive. It’s not the whole story. They were—
RB: You wouldn’t want to write it?
GB: It’s not that. It’s important to try and inhabit your character, and you can’t do that without understanding what it was that appealed to people in this way of life. Obviously it appealed to them enough to drive them to seek a new world. They had high ideals. You just can’t dismiss them as a bunch of people wearing funny hats who hated sex—because they weren’t. They had a lot of sex, actually. You can see that from the fact that an astonishing number of marriages happened after the girls were pregnant, and you can tell a lot from their christening records and so forth. A lot of research has been done about that. And also they preached about joy in marriage and a happy sex life between a husband and wife.
RB: What was infant mortality at the time?
GB: Phhph. Off the charts. We don’t even know.
RB: Bethia’s mother had a number of miscarriages
GB: A live birth and a live mother were by no means a certainty. When people rail against modern obstetrics I think they should go to some New England graveyards and see how many graves of newborns there are, and young mothers..
RB: What’s to rail against?
GB: Because modern obstetric practice “disempowers” women. I’m sorry, I am feminist, but it stops right there. It’s like saying, “You need a root canal, go have it without any anesthetics because that will make you a better person.” Hello!
RB: There seems to be a lot of irrational behavior around these issues. What’s it like being in a family with another writer?
RB: No competition?
GB: Very occasionally I wish I were in a family with a plumber. (Both laugh.) No, its good because we understand what each other is about. And we are able to be useful to each other, and we are both working from home so we can be equal schleppers of the kids.
RB: He [Tony Horwitz] doesn’t write fiction?
GB: No, he thinks I have gone over to the dark side. Tony writes straight history.
RB: Am I wrong—I believe the Brits call fiction the senior service?
GB: Do they? Well, good for them. (laughs)
RB: I read that you would like to write an Australian novel.
GB: Yeah, I would. I actually have an idea in my mind, but I am pinned down by the school schedule at the moment. So it’s hard for us to spend enough actual time on the ground to get the texture and the research that I feel is necessary to do this.
RB: This is Australia as a setting, not as—is there a distinctly Australian literature?
GB: Oh absolutely.
RB: How do you define it?
GB: How do you define any nation’s literature? To me, it’s the one where you can taste the salt in the air (laughs). What changed when I was coming up was that my childhood, my imagination was a colonized place. We read British children’s literature. We didn’t read Australian books. So when I came across my first book that had Australian kids and Australian trees and Australian stories in it I was absolutely blown away. Ash Road by Ivan Southall—I think I was 12 before I read that book.
RB: So it wasn’t offered in school?
GB: It wasn’t. The first author that was offered in school—from what I remember—was Patrick White, The Tree of Man. And I didn’t care for that book so that was a bummer (laughs).
RB: And now, which of your countrymen do you like to read?
GB: I love Tim Winton. I think he is an absolutely magnificent writer. A writer named Eva Horning. Helen Garner. So many really excellent writers.
RB: Lots of Australian writers are here now. Do you ever run into Peter Carey?
We rely on [them] so much, the young people who work for a cup of warm fat with a hair in it and put themselves on the line to get the news.
GB: I do.
RB: Peter Singer?
GB: Yes, he’s a dear friend. I’m always pleased to see a fellow Aussie.
RB: You have already started thinking about the Australian novel.
GB: I’m waiting to get back there with a big enough stretch of time to really dig in.
RB: For research or for ambience?
GB: Both. Definitely the research. I don’t want to go into too much detail about it because it’s a long way off. It’s a historical novel about a very intriguing woman who led an extraordinary life and it hasn’t been broached too much.
RB: Do you consider Richard Flanagan an Australian writer?
GB: Of course. Very Australian.
RB: Isn’t Tasmania a separate country?
GB: Yes, he’s Tasmanian. I love Tasmania—if things had gone a different way I might be living on Flinders Island off the coast of Tasmania instead of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.
RB: What’s it like?
GB: It’s like Martha’s Vineyard only with a great big craggy Transylvania mountain stuck on one corner of it. It’s as if god said, “Oh this Cotswaldy-beachy thing is very nice but lets take a great big mountain and shove it down right here.” And its also got a very interesting indigenous community. It was a place where Aborigines—when the genocide was under way in the Tasmanian mainland—fled and were able to keep something of their culture alive there. So there is a thriving Aboriginal community, there’s one beach more beautiful than the next. So in many ways it’s quite a parallel to Martha’s Vineyard.
RB: Do you know Flanagan’s novel Wanting?
GB: Yes I do. I read it with great interest because I started to write a novel about Jane Franklin myself back in the day. And I couldn’t pull it off.
RB: Is she a well-known figure or is she known because of her husband?
GB: She is reasonably well known. She was the Hilary Clinton of her time. She was the Governor’s wife in Tasmania at the time of a very brutal convict system and the time of the genocide. She came from England and she could see though that, and she tried to push him to make reforms for both of these things and the colonists didn’t care for that at all. And they used her as a way to get at him. I loved Flanagan’s novel but I don’t think it did justice to Jane Franklin at all. She was an extraordinary adventurous spirit. She was the best-traveled person, not just woman, of her era.
RB: I saw Flanagan’s novel as focusing more on Charles Dickens.
GB: That was an interesting thing that Flanagan did.
RB: Lady Franklin came off as arrogant and pompous.
GB: Yeah, and maybe she was but she also did something that I admired immensely, which was she trekked across the southwest wilderness [of Tasmania]. I’ve done some walking there and it’s even hard today with modern hiking equipment. To think that as a woman of that era she did that is quite remarkable.
RB: Did she keep diaries or journals?
GB: Unfortunately—that’s why I couldn’t write my novel. She kept a diary every day of her life. There wasn’t enough void for me to work in.
RB: There was too much information
GB: She really is really a better topic for a proper feminist narrative historian than a novelist.
RB: When you started writing you were a journalist and took the turn into fiction—any interest in also doing journalism? Are there stories you’d like to report?
GB: Occasionally I get that itch and then I go and have a stiff drink and it passes.
RB: Which is harder?
GB: They are hard in different ways, but definitely the kind of journalism I do, it’s just so stressful and your life is not your own, and once I had kids I realized I didn’t want that life. I didn’t want to be woken up in the middle of the night to get on a plane to a place in crisis. Be there for an open-ended stretch of time and follow the story wherever it led. When I listened to the reports of what it’s like in Tripoli right now—the situations of the journalists who are in lock-down in a fancy hotel in Tripoli while Gadhafi tries to spin them and fails miserably—I really miss that, the camaraderie of it and the sense of being in a place and being a witness to history.
RB: That seems to be a diminishing, if not vanishing breed—the war/foreign correspondent.
GB: It ebbs and flows. Whenever we have a crisis then the media organizations look around and go “Hooley dooley, we don’t have anyone there,” and then the number swells. It’s always an opportunity, and that’s what we rely on so much, the young people who work for a cup of warm fat with a hair in it and put themselves on the line to get the news.
RB: Who cares?
GB: We have to care. It will come and bite us if we don’t.
RB: How do we get into all these places? Why are we still in Afghanistan?
GB: I had this big argument with my 15-year-old son. He says no kids at the high school ever talk about it. I said, “If they reintroduced the draft you would talk about, my friend. Your butt would be on the line and you’d have skin in the game.”
RB: That’s not going to happen.
For the first time in my life I met people my own age who were conservative. Coming up in Australia it was very unusual. I learned you could get along with people whom you disagree with. So I owe Cleveland a great deal.
GB: I am not a big proponent of the draft, god help me, but I think it would help us extract ourselves—
RB: You weren’t in the U.S. during the Vietnam War?
GB: No, but Australia was in Vietnam also.
RB: Did you have a draft?
GB: Indeed we did. Oh yes. LBJ came to Australia and people were yelling at him, people were throwing themselves under his car. It was an intense time. I had friends whose brothers were being drafted.
RB: Australia was part of the Alliance of the Willing—
GB: I’m afraid so. We have been in every foxhole you guys have been in.
RB: What’s the Aussie government like today?
GB: These days we have a pseudo liberal government. Julia Gillard is supposed to be the great hope of the left, but I am afraid not (laughs).
RB: So you still follow politics in your homeland.
GB: We have to, for goodness sake—we are burning down our only home so that we can have a little more fun dancing by the light it provides us. We have to get serious about climate change. We have to get some political leadership because I feel the same depression that everybody does—well, it doesn’t matter if I recycle and turn off my lights because that’s not going to solve the problem we have now. We need to do this at a national and global level.
RB: People aren’t the problem, it’s the corporations—
GB: People are the problem too. Our greed and our unwillingness to hear that we have to stop wasting so much. I used to work for the Wall Street Journal. I walked past Wall Street on the way to work. There won’t be any Wall Street, it will be underwater. And they talk about “the economy can’t afford it.” The economy can’t not afford it. We won’t have an economy. Anyway, there you go, you touched my button.
RB: Terrible. As a child did you aspire to be a writer?
GB: I didn’t write things down but I made up stories in my head, and I had this long ongoing narrative game that I played every day from the time I was about four until I was about 12. It was an ongoing narrative.
RB: Were you encouraged?
GB: I was encouraged in everything I was interested in. My parents were really wonderful. If I showed an interest they would shovel things at me to feed that interest. I wanted to be a journalist; I thought that was my destiny from the time I was eight years old. It started with going to see my dad—he was a proofreader at a newspaper. A wonderful thing that we don’t have anymore.
RB: (laughs) You have applications to do that now. Was he a singer?
GB: (laughs) He had been a big band singer in the ‘30s and ‘40s by the time I came along—I was the child of his old age practically—he was retired for performing. He was working as a proofreader, a job a lot of musicians did because the hours were flexible around gigs. When I went to visit him one day at work, he took me down to see the presses, which were rolling for the evening paper and the mist of ink was in the air and papers rolled by from the thundering presses. And he put a hand out and grabbed one off the conveyer and handed it to me. It was warm—hot off the presses—the link of the reality of this warm newspaper right off the press, knowing I was one of the first to read what was going on in my city, just thrilled the pants off me. From then I was directed toward becoming a journalist. We didn’t have a ton of money when I was coming up and we didn’t live in a very artsy- fartsy society so it would never have occurred to me that I could aspire to be a novelist—it was beyond the ambit claim of my imagination.
RB: Your parents encouraged you, but did you ever voice that ambition to become novelist?
GB: I didn’t even have that aspiration.
RB: Were there many women journalists?
GB: There were some—some very good ones. My first job was on the sports desk and there were no other women there.
RB: Cricket, soccer, rugby?
GB: Australian football—oh but everything you can think of—my first story was on bocce (laughs). But my job was actually to be the assistant to the racing writer so I had to go to every race meeting in Sydney, which was a considerable number of race meetings. I have to say it was a fiesta of sexual harassment. My arrival was seen as the buzzer sounding for all the bottom-pinching, suggestive sexist insults. It wouldn’t be that way now—you’d fire their asses. But that’s how it was then. I traveled through journalism always at the edge of women being accepted. So when I went out to the Middle East there had been couple of women before me.
RB: To the Middle East from Australia or the U.S.?
GB: Both. I came here as a graduate student and got hired by the Wall Street Journal’s Cleveland bureau—I always call that my first foreign assignment—then I went back and started an Austral-Asian bureau for the Journal. So I had been doing that for a few years and they offered me the Middle East.
RB: What was Cleveland like for a woman who comes from Australia and first spends time in New York City?
GB: Cold! (laughs) Oh my god, that was another thing that surprised me. Sydney embraces its harbor and Cleveland doesn’t. All their buildings turn their backs to the water, which I didn’t understand until winter came (laughs).
RB: An ill wind.
GB: It seems like it was coming at me from everywhere. I got clothing I never knew existed. And still found that there was not enough clothing made to make me warm in Cleveland. But it was a warm place in other ways. It was great to spend some time in the Midwest. You can’t possibly understand this country without spending some time in the middle of it.
RB: There is that phrase, “fly-over zone.”
GB: Well, fie on them. It was wonderful to go there from Manhattan. It took me a while to adjust to walking down the street where people will meet your eye and say, “Hi.” I’d go “Ooh, ooh they are talking to me.” (laughs) It was great. And for the first time in my life I met people my own age who were conservative. Coming up in Australia it was very unusual. I learned you could get along with people whom you disagree with. So I owe Cleveland a great deal.
I always tell aspiring writers, make sure that you love what you write because it stays with you forever. I am still answering questions at readings about my first book that came out in 1994.
RB: You live on an island that, from reports, seems not to have a middle class.
GB: It’s not Nantucket—let’s get that straight. I live in the poorest county in Massachusetts. Did you know that?
GB: Dukes County. The year-round community on Martha’s Vineyard is a very diverse group of people. And it’s hard to characterize it—there are real extremes of wealth and poverty. People who live on the island the year round. People whose families have lived there since 1641 often are struggling to make a living in the two months of year when you can actually make money from people who come there in the summer. There are also many people who have been coming there for the summer for years who are very modest, understated people. A place for African Americans for a long time—
RB: They tend to be quite affluent.
GB: But there are other families—you meet them on the ferry. Black funeral homeowners whose families have been coming there for years. Plumbing contractors—I know African Americans who are all of these things, as well as stars and the literato and intellectuals—Barack Obama and friends. There is an immigrant community of Brazilians who are doing the American-dream thing. There is just a wide, wide range of people.
RB: Well, the difficulty comes with the rising price of housing stock.
GB: The property prices are off the charts. But it’s not like Nantucket where they have to fly—where it’s more economical to fly workers in than to actually house them. Its not that place yet and I don’t think it will be. People were aware of this problem, and there is a real effort into keeping affordable housing and trying to deal with this in very creative ways. To find ways of constructing and subsidizing rent for people, so they don’t have to do what’s called the “Vineyard Shuffle.” A lot of people make ends meet by renting out their houses for the summer for good money and living in a tent for a couple of months. There are a lot of problems—I don’t want to understate it. It always drives me crazy when Obama says he is coming and all the right-wingers start banging about—about the Chardonnay crowd. I think you should come and meet my neighbor the fisherman, and the blacksmith and the builder, and tell them they are Chardonnay drinkers.
RB: Provincetown has the same problem—real estate prices distorting the economy. A town traditionally of fishermen, smugglers, and artists, and a gay refuge. You are touring the U.S. for this book—
GB: And Australia and New Zealand. And Canada.
RB: Not Tasmania?
GB: I am going to Tasmania. I love it there.
RB: How long do you inhabit a book after you complete the writing?
GB: Oh forever. I always tell aspiring writers, make sure that you love what you write because it stays with you forever. I am still answering questions at readings about my first book that came out in 1994. There is no such thing as being done—it’s like radioactive half-life (laughs). I am very grateful particularly as we are in this period of creative destruction in publishing
GB: I don’t know where it’s all going but I feel confident that people need stories. We always have and we always will. The platforms might change.
RB: It is tiresome to see these epitaphs written by smart people about the decline and or disappearance of [variously] books, fiction, and novels, the printed word.
GB: Disappearance of literature? Tell that to my kids. They start to get the tremors if they don’t have a book in their hand. But they don’t care what form it’s in. It needn’t be the kind of book that I love, that I like to furnish my rooms. I don’t see my kids attached to the physical object the way I was. They don’t really care about that so much.
RB: I can’t keep up with how much great stuff there is to read.
GB: Me either.
RB: That’s a problem. I find little gems all the time just procrastinating on the internet. Today I was reading a piece in the new LA Review of Books by Ben Ehrenreich called “The Death of the Book,” in which he not only provides an antidote to this incessant declinist stuff, but he talks about a wonderful story by Bruno Schulz, called “The Book.” If the people who are writing continue to read and write dire predictions (both laugh) I think most of this is about focusing on the business.
GB: It’s going to change. I hope that doesn’t mean the end of bookstores because I love bookstores. It will really be a very different world.
RB: All retail models will have to change. All these big-box stores now have customers with smart phones and mobile devices comparison-shopping and price-checking in their aisles. Apparently, ordering something at one store they were going to buy at another. I think the larger problem is that shopping has become a focus of life.
GB: Yes, it is a problem.
RB: That’s even true of books. I rarely use the library. I own the books I read.
GB: We love our libraries. We are lucky they are in walking distance. The kids spend a tremendous amount of time there. Libraries have become very creative and inviting place to spend time. I do remember waiting for Saturday and we would go as a family on the bus to the library. We didn’t even have a car. My parents were great role models because they would each have a stack of books by their bed that they would work their way through. And we had library cards as soon as we had something we could scrawl off as our signatures. I hope that I pass that on to my kids.
RB: Aside from the business how does the digital world affect writers?
GB: The accessibility of information is a great thing. I love that—the thing that’s not even on the tip of your tongue, as Billy Collins puts it, lost in the depths of your liver (laughs). And you can look it up in a minute. For my husband who does a lot of archival work, more and more archives are being digitized—so he doesn’t schlepp halfway across the country to sit in an archive for weeks. That’s very nice for home life.
RB: One must marvel at Erik Larsen who won’t research online.
GB: Oh yeah, I love Erik. I can understand his point of view because you can find the thing you didn’t know you were looking for. Which you can’t really do online. You don’t have those serendipitous encounters. I totally understand what he is saying. And also there is magic holding the thing in your hand that was written by a hand 300 years ago. And that is a kind of time travel that is a real high for me in doing research. But, on the other hand, there are times that you just can’t spend enough time in the archive and do it.
RB: Were there surprises in Caleb’s story?
GB: Oh, lots of surprises. The thing that made my jaw drop the most was finding out at one point these Indians kids, who were destined for Harvard, had to go to prep school first and were taught a high level of Latin because you had to be fluent in Latin because all the instruction was in Latin. So they went to these prep schools, and I found that at the Daniel Weld school in Roxbury there was a young Indian woman being instructed as well. Her name was Joan and that is so mind-blowing because English girls weren’t being educated in Latin at that level. So she must have been a crackerjack intellectual, and I hope that some real-life historian will do some work to tell us more about her.
RB: That requirement to study Latin, how long did it carry forth?
GB: I asked the president of Harvard if she knew Latin and she doesn’t (laughs).
RB: What did it take to get into Harvard before the 1930s?
GB: I am very good on 17th-century Harvard but after that it’s a bit of a blur to me. What you had to do in the 1700s was be examined by the [Harvard’s] president himself.
RB: There were 300 or 400 students?
GB: Not even a hundred. And the school was struggling to support that number of scholars. They had no money or food and it was cold and drafty—which is not surprising because it was the early days of the colony and people were just eking out an existence. So it was place of what they would call “meager providence” but high ambition. Very soon a degree awarded there was recognized by Oxford and Cambridge as equal to their own.
RB: How quickly did it become elite?
GB: It was always elite. Look who was there with Caleb—Governor Dudley’s son, John Elliot’s son and the son of Major General So and So. So these were the kids of the elite.
RB: Right, they wouldn’t be farmers—
GB: There were a couple. There was a shoemaker’s son. Anyone who could master the material could go.
RB: Why would they?
GB: Perhaps they felt driven to become a minister.
RB: Do you look past the next thing you are going to do?
GB: Sometimes I feel like the air-traffic controller at La Guardia. I can see everything stacked up there and it’s just a case if I am spared long enough to write a book.
RB: Pressure? Are you energized?
GB: You have to be careful. It’s a bit like going to a party with a date and seeing a handsome guy across the room. You have to keep your eyes on the one that brung you until you get it done. Otherwise, it can be too tempting—it’s always alluring the thing that you haven’t got into the gnarly bits of—the first flush of the romance, you know, before you see what they’re like in the morning.
RB: I watched the trailer for the book, which was quite lovely. Is there a movie here?
GB: It’s funny you should ask. All my books have been optioned and my view has always been that’s nothing to do with me. I am very happy to cash the check, and it’s not the book and I am not going to think about it—but this one I felt so strongly about that I thought I am not just going to fling this out in the direction of Hollywood and take my chances. So I sat down with a friend of mine who actually knows how to do it and we have adapted it for the screen. That doesn’t mean that it will ever be made.
RB: You have a screenplay but it hasn’t been optioned?
GB: Give me a chance—I just finished it (laughs). My experience is that it’s glacial and frustrating and I could never do it in real life. I don’t know how people work in that industry because there is so much effort and it just ends up in turnaround or whatever they call it.
RB: Not a lot of respect for writers.
GB: Most of what gets made—let’s face it—has to sell all over the world to get back these immense budgets, and it has to be loud and noisy and fast and not too complicated, and that’s the most of it. But that’s not what we are talking about—a small segment of the industry where I think beautiful and brilliantly scripted movies are still being made.
RB: Funny we should be talking about that—I recently talked to John Sayles and he’s clear that it is not easy to get a modest budget movie made.
GB: I’m not saying it’s easy but they happen. I thought Winter’s Bone was a remarkable film. And they always seem to manage to arrive, these wonderful films
RB: It seems likely there are more good books written percentage wise against the whole than movies.
GB: You don’t need a big budget and $150,000 a day to write a book. So that’s not surprising to me, and that’s probably a ridiculously low sum that I just pulled out of the air. The amount of money is astonishing. And also you don’t have to convince anyone to let you do it—you just sit down and do it.
RB: Do you go to many movies, read many books, listen to much music?
GB: All of the above and garden and walk my dogs. And raise my kids. And that’s my life.
RB: What kind of dogs?
GB: I am down to one.
RB: Sorry to hear that.
GB: Yeah, I found out my one dog is enjoying being an only dog so I am going to let him have his senior years alone. He’s an Australian Kelpie, which is the sheepherding breed of Australia, and he is a wonderful dog. He has always been a member of our pack of dogs and now that he finds himself alone he has been able to give a great sigh of contentment. Milo, he’s just a really great guy. He was named after an Australian beverage that is the same color of brown as his coat. (laughs)
RB: What’s the best thing that you have read recently?
GB: Oh, that’s easy, I just finished it yesterday. It’s Yannick Murphy’s The Call. It’s set in Vermont, and it’s the story of a large animal vet and his family, with spaceships.
RB: (laughs) What has she written before?
GB: This is the first book of hers that I’ve read. I know she writes short stories for McSweeney’s and I know she has written other novels. I will be reading more. And I want everybody to read this it’s so wonderful, so full of heart, and it’s funny and suspenseful, and I made the mistake of finishing it when I was wedged into the window seat of a plane with no tissues. Very messy.
RB: Anything you want to say?
GB: I think we’ve been all over the world. You even let me have my rant about global warming (laughs).
RB: I don’t want you to feel repressed.
GB: No, no, this has been really great.
RB: Well thank you very much.