“Mess, Mess, Mess, Mess, Art” – Geraldine Brooks on writing

Geraldine Brooks was one of the guests of honour at HNS 2017 and I can’t say enough of how compelling she is as a speaker – clear, great tempo, a wonderful blend of humour and seriousness, and carefully chosen words that reminded me of her novels. She had us spellbound.

I took notes, of course – I’m an inveterate note taker as I find the act helps me concentrate and then I can return for inspiration at a later date.

Geraldine Brooks began by telling us she looks for “the story you can’t make up”, the “implausible truth.” And each of her novels has found one of those moments. She had no idea that novels would be her life’s work. Instead, from a relatively young age she wanted to be a journalist. As it turned out, she was a journalist, hired first for the Sydney Morning Herald in the sports department of all things. Further education led eventually to the Wall Street Journal and reporting from troubled spots – Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East – “where history was unfolding.”

Brooks’s first example of “implausible truth” was the seed for Year of Wonders. Out walking in England with her husband, she came across a sign for the small village of Eyam – Plague Village, the sign said – and her mind was off conceiving a story set in 1666 with a young woman’s battle to save fellow villagers as well as her own soul when the bubonic plague strikes.

“Novels,” Brooks said, “are about exposing the truth” of who we are and who we have been, particularly women. “Someone rises up from the grave and begins to talk to me.” Often these are lesser people like servants or slaves. And where does she go to “hear their voices?” According to Brooks, “sadly, you go to the courts” – the English Assizes, the Spanish Inquisition and others – where verbatim testimonies were recorded.

Reporting has informed her writing career. Geraldine Brooks said she hopes her novels “make the suffering I have witnessed count for something.”

As for the title of this post, Geraldine spoke of the writing process as “mess, mess, mess, mess, art.” In other words, the process is iteratively messy until art emerges.

On a personal note, I’ve read two of her five novels, People of the Book and The Secret Chord – both kept within reach of my desk as examples of truly wonderful writing. You can find my review of The Secret Chord here.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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9 Responses

  1. Great post, Mary! I can see why you find Brooks a kindred soul as a writer. You both seek and draw out the transcendent meanings of painful events, but in an utterly grounded way historically. We are more–much more–than the sum of our sufferings, which are nevertheless so integral to our growing “hearts of flesh.”

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