Geraldine Brooks is an Australian-born author and journalist. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her novel March. Her newest novel, Caleb's Crossing, is based on the true story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Caleb's Crossing is the inaugural selection for BlogHer Book Club, and as the BlogHer Book Club Host, I am pleased to bring you this exclusive interview.
Photo credits: Randi Baird
One of the first things I noticed in Caleb's Crossing is the language. Some of the language in the book isn't in common use today, and there was a special cadence to the characters' speech. Can you tell us a bit about how you researched the language for the novel?
I read as many documents as I could from the period, to get the cadence and the particular vocabulary, the world views and the preoccupations of that time and place, firmly into my head. Luckily, they were a literate lot. Unluckily, there is very little surviving writing by women, so I had to read court transcripts to capture women’s voices. I also have a marvelous reference resource, the Oxford Historical Thesaurus of the English Language, which gives all the English words for a particular thing as they have been used through time. So if I want a character to use the word "fetus," for example, and I’m pretty sure 17th century people didn’t say “fetus,” I can look it up and find the wonderful word that they did use: “shapling.”
I found Bethia to be a rather remarkable character. Her desires felt very contemporary to me, yet she never felt like she wasn't a woman of her time. Unlike Caleb's character, who was inspired by a real individual, Bethia was purely fictional. Where did Bethia come from?
I was thinking about the actual missionary, Thomas Mayhew, whose son Matttew went to Cambridge to prep school with Caleb but who never matriculated to Harvard. Many years later, Matthew’s son, Experience (isn’t that a great name?) wrote a history of the Christian Indians of the Vineyard without mentioning Caleb. I was struck by that omission, and I wondered if there had been tension -— jealousy, perhaps -- between Matthew and his father’s Indian pupils. I thought of a fictional sister, who might have seen this, and Bethia grew from there.
All of your novels deal with historical times and figures. What is it about these historical times and places that draws you in?
It is always a similar circumstance -- I come across an intriguing story from the past where you know enough to get interested but alas, the historical record falls silent just when it has you sucked in. I love the combination of intense research -— the effort to follow the threads of fact as far as possible -- and the freedom to leap into the silent void and imagine those missing pieces of story.
An imagination is a vital writing tool, but sometimes I feel as though our society has lost, if I may quote Anne Shirley, its "scope for imagination." In Caleb's Crossing you imagined a whole life not just for Caleb but for Bethia, as well. Have you always had a rich imagination?
Yes. We didn’t have a lot of material “stuff” when I was growing up, but my parents made up for that by creating really rich imaginative worlds for us. We really lived in a fairly narrow world -— no car, very little travel -— but we had books, and my mother particularly encouraged me to make up my own games and stories. She turned our small back yard into a whole world of possibilities.
Many members of the BlogHer community are published or aspiring writers. We have little bits of papers shoved in drawers and notebooks where we jot down ideas for stories. When do you know that your idea has grown into a book?
For me, it’s when I can hear a voice of a character clearly speaking to me. Until she starts speaking, I can’t start writing. But once I hear her voice, that voice tells me who she is, and who she is dictates how she will act, and that sets the plot in motion. After that, it’s just discipline. One of the most useful pieces of advice I was ever given is: When there’s no wind, row.
More from entertainment