In a recent reading in Rockville, Md., Brooks revealed that as she was growing up, her family considered books as necessary as the roof over their heads and the food they ate. No matter how little might have been available, she noted, “there was always money for books.” At age 9, she purchased her first collection of books and, as they were lined up in her living room, she said she felt something she would "rediscover" when she was 15: lust.
So it is no surprise that a story about a book would be of particular interest to her. While in Sarajevo in 1989 for the Wall Street Journal, she and her fellow journalists learned that an ancient manuscript, a Haggadah written in the 1350s, had disappeared from the Sarajevo museum. They speculated as to its whereabouts, but it wasn’t until after finishing her first novel, Year of Wonders, that she could return to the story in earnest.
The story goes, she said, that in 1989, a Muslim librarian approached some Bosnian soldiers in Sarajevo to ask for their help retrieving a manuscript from the museum, which was pretty much the front line of battle. When they refused, the librarian mused aloud that it would be embarrassing when the public learned a librarian would go where the soldiers were too frightened to go. It worked. The soldiers accompanied the librarian. The rescue of the priceless manuscript was the thing of adventure stories: as water poured over them from overhead broken pipes, they cracked the safe and retrieved the book. The librarian kept it safe for the remainder of the war.
How did the magnificent and rare manuscript wind up in the hands of a Muslim librarian in Sarajevo nearly 700 years after it was created?
That was Brooks’ labor and joy: to give the manuscript a story. Unfortunately, she said, little was known about the document, so “fiction was the only way” to tell its story. The “connective tissue” would be the conservators, the protectors, she decided, and the story would go backward, to “save the surprises.”
“It’s a mystery story and a quest story,” she explained. “I had tremendous fun making it up."
She said she has three “guiding lights” to writing fiction:
- "Until I hear the voice, I feel like I can’t write anything…. The voice is important.” The modern voice was lost to her, she said, until a “devil on my shoulder [suggested] I use a voice I didn’t have to research… one you could hear.” Hence the modern voice is Australian, rich with Aussie slang.
- “We can’t have an apartheid of imagination,” she said. “We have to be able to write people who are different than us.” In addition to the characters she created for her latest book, Brooks has written about an English town in 1666, a diverse menagerie of Americans before and during the American Civil War and women in the Middle East under Islam, in addition to writing her own personal story.
- The importance of story is paramount, she said, adding that you can’t have a story without a story.
She also noted that researchers “took her under their wing” and helped immeasurably with the writing of People of the Book.
She said something that people with her news background understand: being a journalist "makes you very un-precious about writing.” Journalists cannot afford to be sentimental about their writing, and the words are tools. (Those who have worked in newsrooms with editors understand this fact all too well.)
I asked her if she planned to stray from historical fiction, to create something fantastical from her own imagination. No, she said, she didn’t anticipate making that kind of foray.
"I hope you have as much fun reading it as I had writing it," she told her audience, and I do not doubt we all agreed.
Seldom do I find a fellow journalist who not only does something I find fascinating, but also loves books the same way I do (though I hope her love of books doesn't create stacks of books that threaten to crash down on unsuspecting cats — not that I — oh, never mind, there's no use denying it). I enjoyed her presentation and her frank and humorous answers. I have enjoyed her other books, both fiction and non, all of which I have read (except Nine Parts of Desire, which I will remedy this year). I look forward to cracking the pages of People of the Book next month, after the moratorium is ended.
(Oh, don’t get me wrong: I bought the book and had her sign it. I just can’t open the book until February, in honor of the moratorium. I’ve buried it under other books to dull the temptation. So far, so good!)