Brooks Draws on Own Reporting for Novel Geraldine Brooks got the idea for her new book, "People of the Book: A Novel," while covering the Bosnian war as a foreign correspondent. The book is a fictional account of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a centuries-old manuscript.
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Brooks Draws on Own Reporting for Novel

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Brooks Draws on Own Reporting for Novel

Brooks Draws on Own Reporting for Novel

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As a foreign correspondent, Geraldine Brooks reported on conflicts and crisis in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. She was jailed, briefly, in Nigeria. That experience led her to change her life and her career.

Brooks left daily journalism to write books. In 2006, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel "March." Her latest work is "People of the Book." It's a story about the Sarajevo Haggadah, an ancient Hebrew text.

NPR's Lynn Neary spent time with Geraldine Brooks at her home on Martha's Vineyard.

LYNN NEARY: Growing up in Sydney, Australia, Geraldine Brooks yearned to see the world. So she began corresponding with pen pals in the some of the places she hoped to visit someday: France, Israel, the United States. One of Brooks' pen pals lived in the village of Menemsha on Martha's Vineyard. She has since died, but her family's cottage - tiny, but perfect - still sits where it always has, overlooking a small harbor.

Ms. GERALDINE BROOKS (Pulitzer Prize-winning Author; Author, "People of the Book"): Back here - back in - after this little field…

NEARY: Brooks wrote about tracking down her pen pals as adults in her book "Foreign Correspondence."

Ms. BROOKS: It was funny how, that if you like foreign correspondences of the pen pal letters lead me into the career being a foreign correspondent for a newspaper.

NEARY: And now full circle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Here you are living on this very quiet island, away from all the turmoil of the world that you covered.

Ms. BROOKS: I think that during that 10 or so years of covering crisis in places that were in very desperate situations, I ran up quite a (unintelligible) deficit, so I'm feeding that a little bit now.

Unidentified Woman: There you go.

Ms. BROOKS: Thank you. Well, I think we're good to go.

NEARY: Brooks pursues domesticity as avidly as she once traveled the world covering wars. And her partner in both adventures is her husband, Tony Horowitz.

Mr. TONY HOROWITZ (Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist; Author): One, two, three, four, five, six. Okay.

NEARY: They share their home in the town of Vineyard Haven with their 11-year-old son Nathaniel, Brooks' mother and a nephew. Horowitz is also a writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. But Horowitz insists without Brooks, he would never have become a foreign correspondent. He vividly remembers the first time they covered combat together. They were on a helicopter, flying to the front of the Iran-Iraq war.

Mr. HOROWITZ: And because of the desert wind and the ground fire below, this helicopter was shaking and bucking. And, you know, I'm looking out the open hatch, you know, just puking with terror, and I look over and Geraldine has nodded it off. Turbulence relaxes her, and she'd gone to sleep on the way to our first battle.

NEARY: In the old days, Horowitz says, they often shared a byline. And even after they gave up their lives as foreign correspondents, they would edit each other non-fiction works.

Mr. HOROWITZ: And then Geraldine went to the dark side and started making stuff up. And I have no idea how to create a character or a plot, so she's all on her own now.

NEARY: Though Brooks has left non-fiction behind, she still likes to hang her novels on what she calls the scaffold of history. Her new novel, "People of the Book," also draws on her experience as a foreign correspondent. It's a fictional account of a real book, a 15th century Jewish manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. A Haggadah is used in the Jewish Passover service, and Brooks says this one looked perfectly ordinary from the outside.

Ms. BROOKS: Because it was rebound in Vienna in the 1890s, and it was kind of shoddily done. And then you open it, and boom. It's just this flare of color and brightness. So it's quite a magic contrast between the closed book and the open book.

NEARY: The book's illustrations were not only beautiful, but rare. Until it was discovered, no one knew such artwork existed in Jewish texts of that time. The manuscript was the treasure of the Bosnian Museum's library. Brooks first heard of it when she was covering the siege to Sarajevo. Rumors were flying about its whereabouts. Some thought the manuscript was lost.

Ms. BROOKS: And then somebody else said, no, no, no. It wasn't lost. It was sold by the Muslim government to buy arms. And somebody else said no, no, no. That's not true. The Israelis sent the Mossad in, and they took it out through the tunnel under the airport. And then I heard later that the Haggadah had been brought out and that it had been brought out and that it had been saved by a Muslim librarian.

NEARY: The idea of a Muslim saving such an important piece of Jewish culture intrigued Brooks. She wanted to explore the book's many mysteries. She imagined stories for the illustrator, scribe, for anyone who came in contact with the manuscript, for good or ill.

These stories emerge trough the character of Hannah, a young Australian book conservator who is working on the manuscript. Hannah uncovers the series of clues in its parchment pages, as in this excerpt, read by Brooks.

Ms. BROOKS: (Reading) "A tiny speck of something fluttered from the binding. Carefully, with a sable brush, I moved it onto a slide and passed it under the microscope. Eureka. I was a tiny fragment of insect wing - translucent, veined. We live in a world of arthropods, and maybe the wing came from a common insect and wouldn't tell us anything. But maybe it was a rarity with a limited geographic range, or maybe it was from a species now extinct. Either would add knowledge to the history of the book."

NEARY: Brooks also set out to learn the history of the book. Over the centuries, it had survived despite the horrors of the inquisition, the rise of Nazism, the holocaust, and finally, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Brooks knew she had to tell its story when she learned the manuscript have been created in Spain during a time when Christians, Jews and Muslims had lived in peace.

Ms. BROOKS: And then all of that had been torn apart by the inquisition and the expulsion from Spain of Muslims and Jews. And the book had somehow found its way to Sarajevo, where exactly the same story was being enacted again, this kind of bastion of multicultural acceptance and celebration was being torn apart by this fear of the other. And I thought how strange this little book's made that journey and found itself in the same place.

NEARY: That kind of curiosity first led Geraldine Brooks to explore the world in all its complexity as a foreign correspondent. Now it drives her to create a work of fiction that asks many of the same questions about what happening when people are able to live in peace, and what's happening when they are not. The Sarajevo Haggadah, says Brooks, stands as a witness to both.

Lynn Neary, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


Happy New Year. I'm Renee Montagne.

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