Geraldine Brooks, the Vera M. Schuyler Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, had been scheduled for several months to present her work-in-progress on April 19 to other fellows, the Harvard community, and the public. Then two days before her presentation, Brooks learned she had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel “March” (Viking, 2005).
Brooks wasn’t the only one who heard the news. By 4 p.m. on the 19th, the Colloquium Room at 34 Concord Ave. was filled to capacity and the enthusiasm was palpable, and when the author was introduced, audible.
Moved by the warm, noisy reception, Brooks said, “I would like to thank the Radcliffe Institute for the banner year of my writing life. The staff here and my fellow fellows together create an environment that is so wonderful I think they’re going to need to bring in a forklift truck to get me out of here.”
Like “March,” Brooks’ current project, “People of the Book,” is a novel with roots in fact. As a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, working in Sarajevo in 1995 during the last year of the Bosnian War, Brooks heard about a 600-year-old illuminated Hebrew manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah that had recently gone missing. “When I learned that the book had been created in Spain and most probably in the 14th century, I got really interested,” Brooks said. She explained that a Haggadah is the book read at home during Passover to tell the story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, and that the Sarajevo Haggadah was the greatest treasure of the library in Bosnia’s National Museum.
Brooks traced the probable path of the Sarajevo Haggadah from Spain to Italy to Sarajevo, saying the facts about it are spare, which to her is a good thing. “There’s a need for real imaginative engagement to fill the void,” she said.
For Brooks, the first step in entering another era is finding a convincing voice. “Once I can hear the voice,” she said, “the voice tells me who the character is. And who she is will determine how she acts. The actions of the character drive the story and as the story emerges I find out what it is that I need to research.”
The main voice of “People of the Book” belongs to a character in the near-present, an Australian book conservator. Brooks herself is Australian, but wondered if readers would buy the idea of an Australian as a world-renowned conservator. “I was worrying about this right up until week before last,” she said, “when I went over to the Strauss Center for Conservation at the Fogg … and found myself talking to a senior conservation scientist who’s a bloke from Melbourne.”
Brooks concluded her presentation in the voice of Hannah Heath, the fictional conservator. Heath describes her first direct experience with the Sarajevo Haggadah: “As many times as I’ve worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation. It’s like a combination between touching a live wire and putting your hand on the back of a newborn baby’s head.”