The surprise fiction Pulitzer winner tells all
Novelist Geraldine Brooks on how her Civil War novel won the Pulitzer Prize over a book with a similar title, a similar title, and a much more famous author
When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced April 17, the Civil War novel March won the fiction prize. No, not The March, by E.L. Doctorow, although that much-lauded book was nominated and favored to win. The surprise winner was just plain March, by Geraldine Brooks, who imagined the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, the fictional father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. ”It’s hilarious,” says Brooks, ”because when my friend called me with the news, I thought, ‘Oh, he must mean Doctorow!”’ Another funny twist: Brooks, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is married to another Pulitzer winner, Tony Horwitz. He wrote the 1999 book Confederates in the Attic, a rollicking nonfiction study of Civil War reenactors, and it was during his research that Brooks got the idea to write March. EW caught up with Brooks, who has a lovely Australian accent, on Tuesday.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was the award a total surprise? How did you find out you’d won?
GERALDINE BROOKS It was absolutely, completely out of the blue, hadn’t even crossed my horizon. I was actually taking a day off and was home with my son, who was off school. We were sitting around painting Warhammer figures together when the phone rang, and it was an old mate of mine from the Wall Street Journal. And uh, he’s kind of a wild guy, and he thought I already knew, so he started off saying, ”Oh, you’re great! Isn’t it fabulous?” And I thought he’d been out to a long lunch or something. [Laughs.] So I didn’t take it at all seriously. For five minutes, we had a surreal conversation.
Your husband’s Tony Horwitz, who wrote Confederates in the Attic. Are you a family of big Civil War buffs?
Yeah, I was kind of dragged into it, kicking and screaming at first. When we moved to Virginia, I didn’t know what I’d let myself in for, because there’s a saying that the Civil War was fought in 10,000 places, and it soon became apparent to me that Tony intended to visit every single one of them. [Laughs.] And I was a bit reluctant. But then I got really intrigued by the whole issue of what happened to idealists at war. And when you go to war for a cause that you believe in, and then you see things being done that you could never support.
So you came to the Civil War as a subject for your book through Tony?
Yep, that’s right. We not only had Confederates in the attic, we had reenactors sleeping in the bushes. And they really like our town, because it’s in a great state of historic preservation, so they would come to reenact, and then they’d camp out in our barn. The dogs would just go berserk, because for authenticity they don’t bathe all that very often, so they’re a bit ripe. [Laughs.]
Wow. Did you join in the Civil War reenactments yourself?
Oh God, no. No no no no no. I’m not into that side of it really. Hats off to them, because some of them do great work as historical interpretations of people. But I’m not really interested in battles. I’m more interested in what goes on in people’s minds.
When did you start research for the book?
One day it just suddenly occurred to me that this absent father in this beloved book of my childhood [Little Women] had been in the Civil War. It never really occurred to me as a kid that this was one of the first American Civil War novels. And I was already interested in idealists at war. And here’s this great idealist, Mr. March — we know the March family were all abolitionists, and he’s off with the Union troops being a chaplain. And I thought, ”Well, what kind of war would a guy like that have experienced?” And that’s what got me going on it. I guess it was about three years ago now.
Are you still a Civil War buff now?
To that extent. You know, I’d rather have a root canal than go to another Gettysburg reenactment on the Fourth of July, when it’s about 120 degrees. But I find the whole story of the lives of common soldiers really fascinating. And how people make the transition between peace and war, and how do you come home after such intense experiences? So it’s those kinds of things that I’m drawn to.
Did it strike you as odd at all that not only did your book come out the same year as The March, by E.L. Doctorow, but you were neck and neck for the prize?
It’s hilarious, because when my friend called me with the news, I thought, ”Oh, he must mean Doctorow! He’s got me mixed up.” One reviewer made a crack that not only are there plenty of Civil War novels and not only is Doctorow’s not the first Civil War novel of the year, it’s not even the first Civil War novel called March! [Laughs.]
Do you feel this is life changing? Last year I interviewed Michael Cunningham, who said that after he won the prize for The Hours, he had a harder time writing, because he worried that every sentence now needed to be Pulitzer worthy.
Oh dear! [Laughs.] No, I haven’t had any anxiety attacks yet. And I’m very far along in another novel. So even if that’s the case, well, it’s too late, you know? [Laughs.] So, I think to me, you always write the best book that you can at the time, and you’re always wishing it was better. And wishing you were a better storyteller and wishing you could push the words around in a fresher way. So I don’t think it’s going to change anything in terms of the way I write. The delightful thing to think about is that it might bring some new readers, and that’s fabulous.
What’s your next novel about?
It’s another historical novel. It’s called People of the Book. And it’s about a Hebrew manuscript that was created in Spain in 1350 and still exists today, by virtue of some really remarkable rescues over the years.
When do you hope to have it finished by?
By the end of the year, or my editor will kill me.