Geraldine Brooks stars at National Book Festival

I was fortunate to be in the audience at the fiction tent at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. Saturday Sept. 22 to hear Geraldine Brooks talk about Caleb’s Crossing and her writing career. Brooks is becoming, if she hasn’t already become, one of the literary stars of the 21st century.

I empathize with Brooks having begun her writing career at the bottom of the newspaper ladder covering racing in her native Australia. It reminded me of my start on the Oberlin Review producing the entire sports page by interviewing the coaches after their events. I learned to write varied prose, lay out the page, fit headlines into the allocated space and even proof-read upside down and backwards, which you had to do with hot type in the days before offset.

Brooks appreciation of getting the facts is readily apparent in her fiction. Caleb’s Crossing is testimony to the extent to which she researched life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the end of the 17th century. Since there are few surviving documents, Brooks had to use all of her reporting skills to find relevant information about topics as varied as the early days of Harvard College, about the proselytizing missionaries who settled on Martha’s Vineyard, about the native Wampanaugh and about how people made a life in the wilderness.

I loved her answers to the young would-be writers who asked her how she deals with writers block and how does she know when she’s done enough research.

She doesn’t get writers’ block she said because of her journalism background. There is no such thing when you’re on deadline and the editor is standing behind you tearing sheets out of your typewriter. In terms of research, she reports she only does the research when she needs it. In other words, instead of spending months obtaining all kinds of information, much of which she might never use, she stops writing and does the research when she needs answers in order to move on. I wish I’d taken that approach when working on my Ph.D. I would have finished six months sooner.

I heard two other fine writers on Saturday–Patricia Cornwall and Steven Millhauser. Cornwall impressed me with her sense of humor and humility. I’ve never read any of her books, but the next time I see one at the next library used book sale I visit, I’ll pick it up. I’d never heard of Millhauser, but he seems to be my kind of writer. I bought his latest book of short stories and will add his novel Martin Dressler to my to-be-read list.

All in all the National Book Festival is an amazing event, attended by thousands. The organizers kept things moving, had lots of volunteers available, etc. My only request would be to allow more food vendors to set up on the margins of the mall. Maybe I’ll see some of you there next year.

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