The clues were all there — accidents of history — hiding inside the ancient book: an insect wing, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair.
Geraldine Brooks, author of “People of the Book,” served them up for her heroine Hanna Heath to discover. They, in turn, revealed bit by bit the 600-year journey of a rare manuscript so beloved that people risked their safety for its survival.
The clues and Hanna Heath are Brooks’ creations. What Brooks didn’t imagine was the book itself, a medieval Hebrew text called the Sarajevo Haggadah, renowned for its “illuminated” artwork.
Brooks grew up in Sydney, Australia, set her career sights on journalism and spent more than a decade covering conflicts in the Middle East, Bosnia and parts of Africa for the Wall Street Journal. While in prison in Nigeria for her reporting in 1994, Brooks decided it was time to have a family with husband Tony Horwitz, also a journalist and author. She left journalism to write books full time.
“People of the Book” is Brooks’ third work of historical fiction. Here are excerpts from a phone interview from her home on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
Q. What was the spark that sent you on the book’s journey?
A. I was in Sarajevo covering the siege of the city, and at that point there was only one hotel functioning, and it’s where all the journalists were staying. One night, we talked about this illuminated manuscript and that its whereabouts were unknown, and there was much speculation about what happened to it.
That was the first I had ever heard about the Sarajevo Haggadah (ha-GAH-duh). I was fascinated it was created in Spain at the time of the Convivencia, when Muslims and Jews and Christians were living together, not in a love fest, but in mutual cooperation.
Toward the end of the war it was revealed that a Muslim had rescued the book and taken it to a safe hiding place and returned it to the Bosnian National Museum. And it wasn’t the first time it had been saved.
So I was off and running. I like stories from the past where you have a scaffolding of facts, and then there are places where the historical record falls silent. There’s really so little known about the origins of the Sarajevo Haggadah. There are a lot of mysteries to play with there.
Q. That’s trouble for a reporter but good for historical fiction.
A. If you know too much, then there’s no room for the novelistic exercise. William Styron put it best, that historical novelists work best when fed “short rations.” I was a journalist so long, and as a journalist when the facts run out, that’s when you have to stop writing. Here when the facts run out, you can take a swan dive into the realm of imagination.
Q. Even so, you immersed yourself in research.
A. The research in this case very much resembles reporting. I take the facts as far as I can. For instance, I was very frustrated that I couldn’t discover more about the events in Sarajevo in 1940. I figured that this was in somebody’s living memory, and I should be able to nail what really happened. I found that the scholar (who hid the book), Dervis Korkut, had a niece, and I went to see her. She was very kind, sharing family documents with me. But, she said, if you really want to know what happened, you should ask his wife. I was amazed there was a living spouse. I went to Sarajevo and sat with her and was able to pin down exactly what happened that day when he took the book out of the library to keep it from the German general. The research is what gives the novel a sense of authenticity.
Q. Some of the anecdotes are truer than others.
A. Indeed. And a lot is inspired by documents, particularly in the chapter on Venice in 1609. I could read about the censorship of Hebrew books, see quotes from actual records from the office of the Inquisition. I was trying to find out about this priest, Vistorini (whose signature is on the book, apparently saving it from being burned). I was in the stacks of Widener Library during a fellowship at Harvard for a year. I turned around and my hand fell on this slim volume of a 17th-century Venetian rabbi, and he talks about the Catholic priests who would come to hear his sermons, and how he argued that books not be destroyed. It was a marvelous moment in the research.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for the clues?
A. I was baffled how I was going to have a narrative structure that would pull together 600 years and half a dozen different cultures. I got the chance to see the conservation work on the actual Sarajevo Haggadah. I had no idea at that point what a conservator did. I was intrigued by her exploration of any little matter in the binding. And I thought, that’s my structure. I will have Hanna find these clues.
Q. And the clues themselves, like the insect wing?
A. I was on a Radcliffe fellowship — the fellows give talks about what they’re working on — and an evolutionary biologist was working on butterflies. I thought, Hanna could find a little bit of insect wing. And the biologist, she told me how you would investigate that. I decided it would be a high-altitude butterfly. I had more fun researching this book because I got to go behind the scenes in so many different trades and professions.
Q. You originally chose journalism as a career, but did you always dream of being a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal?
A. I know for some people, that’s what they set out to do. For me it was accidental, very serendipitous. The dirty secret of foreign correspondence is that 90 percent is logistics. If you can get where you need to be, the story itself is pretty easy to report. You’re a witness to history, and it kind of falls into your notebook.
Q. Do you miss journalism?
A. I would have loved to have been in Iran these past weeks. That’s a story I’m very regretful not being able to cover. I loved reporting in Iran. The culture is so rich and the people are absolutely fantastic. So many Iranians have fought for their culture. They’re the people you saw on the streets.
Q. What don’t you miss? Maybe the stress?
A. It’s the call in the middle of the night: Khomeini finally died. Get up and write something. That morning, you’re on the plane to Tehran, and you stay up for the next three days gathering as much information as you can.
I loved every step I took as a journalist. But to me that kind of work wasn’t compatible with having a young child. When my son was born, I decided I wanted something that didn’t depend on going on long, open-ended assignments. It was wonderful, every moment of it, and I’m really glad most of the time I’m not doing it anymore.
Q. How old is your son now?
A. Nathaniel is 13, and we have a 6-year-old we adopted last year. Our younger son is Bizuayehu, which is Amharic and it means “I have seen a lot.”
My oldest son always wanted a brother. About two years ago, he said, “Are we ever going to do something or are we going to talk about this forever?” We knew the Ethiopian program was a really wonderful program. I had read about it in Melissa Fay Greene’s wonderful book “There is No Me Without You.” I had worked a little bit in Ethiopia. We went through the paper chase, and our absolutely divine, gorgeous son came home to us this time last year.
Q. Tell about where you do your writing.
A. I work on the third floor of an old house in Vineyard Haven, the port town of this island. I’ve got a little study at the front, and Tony’s got a little study at the back, and there’s a little library in between, so we can holler to each other. He’s working on a book about John Brown’s raid.
Looking out my window, I can see the water, there are sailboats down there, and I can see the ferries and barges come and go. I like maritime things. And you hear the foghorn. It’s a low-moaning foghorn. I find it very soothing.
Q. What’s your writing routine?
A. The routine is basically that the boys leave for school a little before 8 o’clock and I run upstairs and try to glue my bum to my seat until the bus comes back in the afternoon. It’s always a little too soon for me in terms of the writing, but it’s good to get up when you’re still going strong. And a writing matter sometimes resolves itself in some unlikely places, while making cookies. Women have to keep one foot in the real world.
THE GERALDINE BROOKS FILE
Home: Vineyard Haven, Mass.
Education: University of Sydney, Columbia University School of Journalism master’s program
Family: Married to author Tony Horwitz (“A Voyage Long and Strange,” “Confederates in the Attic”); sons Nathaniel, 13, and Bizuayehu, 6
Pulitzer Prize for fiction: In 2006, for “March,” the imagined life of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” He’s an idealistic chaplain during the Civil War.
Previous books: “Nine Parts of Desire,” “Foreign Correspondence,” “Year of Wonders,” “March”
Next book: “Caleb’s Crossing,” about English settlers and the Wampanoag in the 1600s, due out in 2011.