Our next guest for the visiting writer seminar in Plagues, Witches, and War is Geraldine Brooks. She's the author of a number of fiction and nonfiction work. She won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006 for her novel March, and her most recent novel, Caleb's Crossing, was a New York Times bestseller. Her works of fiction have been translated into dozens of languages. In this seminar we'll be discussing year of wonders, her extraordinary first novel, published in 2001. Year of wonders tells the true story of Eyam, which is rural village in Derbyshire. Whose residents voluntarily quarantine themselves during the great plague year of 1666. In putting together this story of loss, sacrifice and survival, Brooks drew on a wealth of primary sources but the story of how she came to learn of the devastation at Eyam is a kind of mini-novel in itself and you'll hear her talk about this at the opening of the seminar. One of the resources we've given you is a link to a book published in the 19th century called, The History and Antiquities of Eyam. Which has some really astonishing documents pertinent to the plague year that she drew on in writing the novel. And I've also linked to the e-museum website which has a lot of historical resources that shed a different kind of light on this story of plague and survival. Now one thing that really comes across in this seminar with Geraldine Brooks is her remarkably humane understanding of historical fiction as a mode of empathy and cross-cultural understanding. Some of the things she has to say about the genre and her own contributions to it are quite moving. And I think you will be as affected as my students and I were by her compassionate sense of the ethical dimensions of historical fiction. So I hope you enjoy this seminar with Geraldine Brooks. So, Geraldine Brooks, thank you so much for joining our class. >> It's great to be with you. It's great to be back in Virginia, even virtually because that is where I wrote most of your wonders in fact. In a small town called, Waterford, Virginia up near Leesburg, if you know where that is. >> That's where I grew up, in Leesburg. >> No kidding? No kidding [INAUDIBLE]. >> [LAUGH] Well, you know about Waterford then. So, some of what I have to say might make sense to you. I think that the most frequently asked question I get from students or other people who have read the novel is, where did you get the idea, how did you know it was an idea for a novel? And I've always loved Ernest Hemmingway's answer to that same question. He said an idea for a novel can be something that you're lucky enough to overhear, or it can be the wreck of your whole damn life. [LAUGH]. So for me, it's luckily usually been more the former than the latter. But, I remember the origin of the idea of The Year of Wonders, very very clearly. because I think it was probably the day I began to become a novelist. Although I didn't realize it at the time. It took me ten years to actually sit down and start writing the novel. But it began on a beautiful day in England's Peak district, and I was taking I was taking a break from my real job at the time, which was being a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. And my beat was the Middle East, and I lived in Cairo, and I covered all the hot and troubled places at the time that was mostly Iraq and Israel and the occupied territories and Iran and Saudi Arabia. So I whenever I had leave, I wanted to be somewhere very different and somewhere very different to hot and, dusty is cool, and green, and moist. And so my husband and I were on a bit of a hiking holiday, or rambling as they call it in the Peak district in England. And we saw a sign that had the name Eyam. The name of the town, but underneath it said, Plague Village. And, it's occurred to me since then, not to many places try to attract tourists to come by putting up signs that say Plague Village but it worked for us we walked to the village. And in the in the Parish Church of Saint Lawrence there was a remarkable exhibition telling what had happened in the year 1665 when bubonic plague had come to this little village. Probably brought in a bolt of cloth that an itinerant tailor had ordered from London, where plague was raging. And the, the tailor himself had been the first to succumb to the plague but then it had spread to the neighbors surrounding the cottage where he was boarding and out through the village. And then the villagers did the thing that set them apart from every other place that we know of where plague has struck, which is they came together as a community and took the unique decision to quarantine themselves rather than flee and spread the infection throughout the surrounding villages and towns. And, I thought that was a remarkable story. And then we walked out into the church graveyard. And there in the graveyard was the stone marking the gravesite of the minister of the village at the plague time of his wife, and his wife's stone had her name. But the engraver had botched the inscription. You could see where he'd misspelled the name and then somebody had had to come and chip away at the stone and take out the wrong letters and insert the right ones. And I just looked at that little detail and suddenly I was transported by that detail back to that time. Because from that detail, I could sense the story that, by the time the minister's wife died, probably the accomplished stonemason was himself dead. And probably it was his young apprentice who tried to make her stone. And he'd got it wrong. And then I started to think about all the other people in the village and what that loss would be like as one skill after another was lost to you. And you found yourself not only coping with the tragedy of the deaths of your neighbors and your family, but also having to do things that were unfamiliar to you. Who's bringing the crops in? Who's shoeing the horses? All those little details. And so this story just took a powerful hold on my mind, and it wasn't that I ran home that day and typed up my letter of resignation to the Wall Street Journal. [LAUGH] I didn't do that. I didn't run up to my galleret and start typing, because I loved my job at the Wall Street Journal. I loved every step I took as foreign correspondent. it was in, incredibly exciting and fulfilling, and I felt worthwhile to be a witness to the history that was unfolding, particularly if that history was something that American foreign policy had a hand in. like the Gulf war, in Iraq and so forth. So I felt that there was a real duty to be there to bear witness to the consequences of foreign policy decisions. But all the time, as I'm doing that job, covering contemporary catastrophes, this old catastrophe keeps coming into my mind, and I start wondering about the people then as opposed to the people now, the people I'm seeing. So, I'm thinking to myself did that year of plague, did that bring out the best in people or the worst in people. Did they come as morally lost as this Somalia boy soldier or that [UNKNOWN] torture or did they find a bravery in themselves that they didn't know was there, like the incredible Kurdish man who helped me make my way through mine mountain passes to safety after Suddam turned his helicopter gunships on the Kurdish uprising. Did people step out of the custom roles, like I've seen women in the Middle East who had been led to believe that their life would be entirely domestic and circumscribed, but when the husband's gone to war, or he's been hauled off to prison as a dissident. That woman might find that she has to step out of her domestic sphere, and take up another role. And, you know, lead her family, and keep them alive. And move into the public. So, it was that experience, I think of working as a foreign correspondent which made me think about of how the people in the village might have acted at that time. But I really, really didn't start to consider the issues in depth until we left the Middle East and we moved to Waterford. And Waterford, Virginia at that time was a village of about 80 families, 250 maybe 300 people. And that's about the same size that Eyam was when the plague struck. So something that's very vivid to me what it is like to live in a community of small people, way a small community where you know all the people very well. And I thought, how did that minister get a consensus? Because in Waterford, we couldn't get a consensus about whether the town notice board should be inside the post office or outside the post office, you know? Whether the dogs should be on a leash all the time or whether they could run free in the fields? How did he bring those people to make this incredible self-sacrificing decision. And then after he'd done that, and when the plague continued to burn through the village, they'd done what they thought God wanted them to do, and yet there was no relief for them, and the tragedy kept unfolding. How did they feel about that decision? And who did they become? Did it lead them to be their best self or their worst self? So, like I said, ten years had passed since that trip to Eyam, and suddenly my life changed. I had my first child, and I suddenly didn't want to be going off on long, open-ended assignments to dangerous places anymore. It didn't seem compatible with having an infant. So, I started to think about that earlier story and that catastrophe and I sat down one day to see what was known about it. I was thinking non-fiction at the time because I was in the fact business, as a journalist and also I'd written two books of non-fiction before that. But I found that when you hardly anything of what really mattered, which is what it was like to be there and why because the people were mostly illiterate, they were lead miners and they were shepherds and they left us no records of their experience during that year. We had a handful of letters from the Rector and we had wills, we had documents about the material culture of the place, but nothing what it felt like to live through that experience, so. I was back to Eyam and in the intervening years they had built a little museum there. And so there was a great deal of information about the plague and what people's beliefs about the plague was and about lead mining and how you actually did it. So that was fantastic, that was a great jump start for the research. But I'm thinking that I want to write this book in the first person becauseum, I'm a huge fan of first person narration. I think it brings you very vividly into the story, and my, I guess role model for the kind of fiction I write is the English author, Mary Renault and she wrote about the ancient world and she always has a first person narrator. And it's remarkable what she does, because she gives you the sense of being transported to a very different time and place. But, I think she believes, as I believe, the human heart doesn't actually change that much. So the emotional resonance of the characters is very recognizable, and accessible to our modern sensibility. So I'm thinking, who's going to be the voice of this novel and really until you've got a voice, for me, I haven't got a book because who she is tells me how she'll act and how she acts is going to be what sets the plot in motion. So I know a certain amount of skeleton of the story from the historical record, but in terms of how that story is going to unfold and how I'm going to try and get a sense of what it was like to be those people, I really need someone to rise up out of the grave and start talking to me. And, it's pretty hard to explain that. I found myself in a bit of a bit of a hole when I tried to explain it to my young son. he was about five at the time, and I'd been playing with him, and I said, you know what, mum's gotta go to work now, so I went up to my study. And about 45 minutes, an hour passed and I heard these footsteps on the stairs, and it was him. I had that sense you have when you're being stared at, so I turned around from my desk, and there he was glaring at me as only a five-year-old can glare. And he goes, you said you were working. And I go, mommy is working, darling. And he goes, no you're not, you're just sitting there. [LAUGH] Well, mummy, mummy has to sit very quietly because she's trying to hear the voices of somebody who's been dead for hundreds of years. [LAUGH] But it really is like that and it's, it's hard to describe it. But, it really does feel like that. And I found a voice for this novel in one of the Rector's few letters, and it was one he wrote after his wife died. And, you know there's a half a line where he says, fortunately my maid continued in health, for had she quailed I would have been ill set. And so I went to see if I could find out who the maid was, but of course there was nothing about her in the records. Not even a name, because nobody notices domestic servants. But to me, I realized she would be my perfect narrator because she's part of the ordinary life of the village, and yet she has a position which allows her to eavesdrop and have a set of eyes on the decision makers and the gentry of the village. And so, because there was nothing about her on the historical record, I was free to make her up. And I made her up as Anna Frith, the young widow of a lead miner. And I made her the house that the tailor comes to and that's how the novel begins to unfold.