It's a long way from the modest neighborhood in Sydney, Australia, where Geraldine Brooks was born, to the frontlines of the intifada in Gaza and the battles of Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq; to meetings with the daughter of the Ayatollah Khomeini and with King Hussein and Queen Noor; to observing the carnage in Bosnia and Somalia; to a one-night-only performance as a belly dancer at a Cairo nightclub. During her 20-year career as a journalist, challenging, exhilarating and life-threatening experiences were Brooks's daily fare.
But it's an even longer way from the tiny village of Eyam (pronounced "eem") in Derbyshire, England, to the equally small village of Waterford in Virginia, where Brooks now lives, because the distance here is the time line of centuries. A decade ago, Brooks had never heard of Eyam. She and her husband, journalist Tony Horwitz, were living in London then, from where she jetted off to Lebanon or Syria or Iraq, as the Wall StreetJournal's correspondent in the Middle East. In 1990, when she was accompanying with Tony on a story he was covering in the Pennine district of England, she noticed a fingerpost pointing to Plague Village. What she found there was the catalyst for her first novel, Year of Wonders (Forecasts, June 25), out from Viking this month.
When the bubonic plague erupted in Eyam in 1665, Brooks learned, the rector called upon the community to quarantine themselves from the outside world rather than risk spreading the disease. During the following year, two-thirds of the villagers died in horrible agony; families were decimated; the remaining population, close to starvation and despair, could scarcely tend their sheep or work in the lead mines, the community's two sources of income. When the plague finally abated, the survivors had undergone extraordinary suffering, and for some a loss of faith.
Brooks found an account of the villagers' ordeal in the parish church, and also in a small museum that records the significant events of the quarantine year. Brooks remembers that her fascination with the story was immediate and strong, as she contemplated the moral and social consequences of this incident. "What an extraordinary thing the rector did, bringing people to a decision like that. I couldn't stop thinking about that incredible sacrifice," she says.
She regularly returned to Eyam in her imagination, but there was no space in her busy life to develop the story that had lodged in her imagination. During the ensuing years, she wrote two nonfiction books. Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (1995) is an empathetic consideration of the plight of women in Muslim countries where a fundamentalist, misogynistic interpretation of the Koran has led to female subjugation. In 1998, she published Foreign Correspondence: A Penpal's Journey from Down Under to All Over, a memoir of her youth in Sydney during which five international pen pals stimulated her curiosity about the world and instilled her "craving for risk and adventure." Both books were issued by Doubleday and received excellent reviews.
It wasn't until Foreign Correspondence won Australia's 1998 Kibble Award, granted to encourage women writers, with its prize of $20,000, that Brooks felt she could "buy some time" and indulge her desire to write about the plague year in Eyam. She gave herself six months to develop the novel and sent the early chapters to her husband's agent, Kris Dahl at ICM, who voiced encouragement immediately.
"By that time we were living here," Brooks says, referring to the tiny (200 people), postcard-perfect village of Waterford, whose small community evokes in many ways the traditional routines of Eyam. Located in the rolling countryside only an hour from Washington, D.C., the town is framed by vistas of green fields beyond which the blue hills of the Appalachian range rise gently. The village consists of meticulously preserved old houses of different styles and periods, a felicitous mixture of red brick, rough-hewn stone and trim clapboard, most retaining their vestigial outbuildings; plus a post office and a general store.
Brooks's own house is a square white building of stucco over brick covered by ivy and an exuberant trumpet vine. It was built in 1810 as a two-room cottage, with a kitchen added during the Civil War and an open dining area later. The result is a charming arrangement of connecting rooms, each on a different level on the ground floor, and equally quaint ups and downs in the bedroom and workroom space above. Old English, Australian and early American furniture preserve its historical atmosphere, with oriental throw rugs on the sloping wooden floors, a handsome antique quilt on the living room wall and naïf country paintings. There's a tree-shaded well in the brick courtyard, a kitchen garden of herbs and vegetables and a bucolic vista of rolling meadows, picturesquely provided with cows and horses, bordered by shrubs and flowers and animated by songbirds swooping down to a feeder on the brick terrace.
Seen in this milieu, it's even more difficult to reconcile Brooks's appearance—her slim figure seems almost fragile, and she speaks in a gentle voice—with the conventional image of a journalist in turmoil-ridden areas of the world. Looking far younger than her age, 47, she has a fair, almost translucent complexion; pale blue eyes centered with cobalt irises dominate her heart-shaped face. Her dark hair falls in a smooth cap, shorter now than in earlier book-jacket photos in which she wore it Steinem-like, long and loose. Dressed in a white linen smock and unadorned save for luminous mother-of-pearl earrings, she hugs five-year-old Nathaniel, a blond cherub with his mother's eyes, and sends him off to play; two friendly dogs remain to greet a visitor. Her husband, now a staff writer for the New Yorker, is off in Alaska researching a book. With the ease of a confident cook, Brooks serves PW a gourmet lunch, including fragrant bread just out of the oven.
Just a few steps away upstairs, her writing studio is neat and austere. Its six-paned window has the original wavy and bubble-filled glass. There Brooks pursued her research, beginning with a book by Eyam amateur historian John G. Clifford, who had written an account of the plague year. Brooks returned to the Peak District to speak with Clifford and also gathered a wealth of anecdotal information that became the subplots of her novel. One of the most vivid and harrowing passages in Year of Wonders describes a claustrophobic descent into a mine and the arduous process of gouging ore out of rock, and PW is relieved to find that Brooks did not actually attempt this feat, but gleaned her information from a man who specialized in mining lore and who happened to be in the Eyam museum one day when she was there. He told her about the practice of "nicking a stowe" (whittling a mark on the timbers at the entrance to a mine for nine consecutive weeks, after which ownership is established by showing an official a dish of ore), and about the custom of punishing miners engaged in illicit activities by impaling them with a knife through their hands. Both these events occur in Brooks's dramatic narrative.
Brooks pored over 17th-century medical texts, books on herbal medicines, midwifery, witch trials and social history. "People who were literate in those days spoke like poets," she says. She also perused numerous sermons and the journal of a country rector of that period, to absorb the flavor of her fictional vicar Michael Mompellion's exhortations. "I was impressed by how widely read they were, even the rural clergy. The journalist in me loves to get something like that right." The historical rector was named William Mompesson. Brooks decided to change the name after she realized that her character would have a dark side to his personality and harbor a crucial secret. "I feel a slight twinge of guilt for taking liberties with the rector," she admits, but the exigencies of fiction, and in particular, the actions of her protagonist, Anna Firth, required the change.
Anna, who narrates the novel, is an 18-year-old widow and mother of two young sons when the story begins. As housemaid to the rector and his wife, Elinor, she has insights about a more refined culture. Elinor Mompellion, a woman of surpassing kindness and devotion to her husband and his flock, has taught Anna to read. The fates of these two women provide one of the novel's surprises. In the end, Elinor is condemned by a harsh interpretation of the Bible, while Anna escapes her restrictive milieu and finds personal and emotional liberation.
In creating these two characters, Brooks was undoubtedly influenced by her own life and experiences. Growing up in Australia when the country still suffered from "cultural cringe," she shared the feeling that women's roles in society were limited. She says she can almost pinpoint the day that Germaine Greer came home to Sydney, bearing her strident message of feminism. "It was a funny time to be at a Catholic girls' school," she muses. On the one hand, her education emphasized traditional female roles. On the other, the nun who was the school's principal worked in a school in NYC's Harlem on sabbatical and returned with radical views of opportunities for women.
Central to her novel's setting is the omnipresent influence of religion in 17th-century England and the competing power of superstition among the fearful and lonely. Brooks is particularly interested in that time "when religion was up for grabs," she says. "There was a real ferment after the Puritans were supplanted. To have something so central to your life so much under question" had to be crucial, she speculates. She is singularly qualified to consider the effect of religion on individual lives. A convert from Catholicism to Judaism after her marriage, she also became thoroughly conversant with the Koran and with Muslim traditions during her years in the Middle East. Her generosity of spirit and open-minded tolerance is a result of early nurturing at home (her Protestant father, who served in Palestine in World War II, was fervently pro-Israel; inspired by his zeal for the underdog, Brooks was certainly the only girl in her parochial school to wear a Jewish Star of David over the collar of her uniform) and the later influences of many cultures. "I don't think of myself as a religious person even though I've had two major religions in my life," she says. In her novel's Afterward, she refers to her "secular mind." "Yet what Salman Rushdie calls the '' 'religion-shaped hole in modern life' looms large in my own. I've always been drawn to religious people. I'm fascinated by what makes people make certain choices."
Once begun, Year of Wonders went very quickly, "mainly because I had been thinking about it for so long." Part of the book was written in Sydney, where Brooks and family lived for a year to be near her octogenarian widowed mother. "Anna's voice was very clear in my head," Brooks says. "That's what I love. It's magical to start writing in the morning and see what develops. Anna surprised me sometimes. That's the joy. It was very hard to stop spending my days with her."
Susan Petersen Kennedy at Viking bought the book straight off, and Molly Stern edited it. Foreign rights in seven countries were sold within one week, with other sales since. BOMC, Literary Guild and the QPB will offer the novel as a featured alternate. An eight-city tour is lined up. Brooks is elated that the book will be read on the BBC, she hopes by someone who can pronounce the archaic local dialect. She confesses that she herself has only read such words as "chouse" and "branks," and has no idea of how they sound.
Her second novel is already under contract to Viking. It's another historical narrative, but "scarily different. Instead of one year in one place, it covers six centuries and three countries." Again, it's based on a true story contained in a manuscript created in Moorish Spain. And again, it's "very much about religion and the fear of the other."
Asked whether she thinks her former colleagues may scoff at her switch to another genre, in particular that of the much-maligned historical novel, Brooks professes to have no qualms. She ticks off five or six of her erstwhile comrades in the journalism trade who've written thrillers. She's much more concerned, she says, about the opinion of other fiction writers she admires.
Brooks thinks she'll probably never return to journalism. "After Natty was born, I became less avid in the pursuit of—not the bad guys, I still would want to go after them—but I hated having to harry people who didn't want to talk to you.
"I hope this is my life now," she says. "I love doing it so much. It comes down to whether you're a person who likes to be alone in a room, and I've discovered that I am. I think that fiction writing was a very secret, repressed desire of my heart. The fact of having a novel published is a joy I never looked for."