Geraldine Brooks on Facts and Fiction

How often do you get to hear a Pulitzer prizewinner talk about her work-in-progress two days after she has won the prize for her last book? That’s what happened yesterday, when Geraldine Brooks spoke to a (very crowded) audience at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study here in Cambridge. Brooks is an Institute Fellow this year, and her (pre-scheduled) talk focused on “Making Fiction From Fact.”

I thought I’d share some of my notes from the talk:

1) In discussing the “factual” background to her work-in-progress, currently titled The People of the Book, Brooks cited William Styron, who noted that “While it may be satisfying and advantageous for historians to feast on rich archival material, the writer of historical fiction is better off when past events have left him with short rations.” That’s the case for Brooks’s current project, which isn’t as richly “documented” to date as, say, March (the book that just won the Pulitzer) was. For that book, one of Brooks’s research resources was the 61-volume set of journals left by Louisa May Alcott’s father.

2) Reprising some themes I remembered from her New York Times Writers on Writing piece, “Timeless Tact Helps Sustain a Literary Time Traveler,” Brooks stressed the primacy of empathy in the historical fiction writer’s toolbox. Emotions, she suggested, remain constant from generation to generation.

3) Detailing her own process, Brooks told us that the first thing she needs to do is find a voice for her character. The voice then reveals who the character is. This tells Brooks how the character acts. And what the character does leads Brooks to her research needs. She said that Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier had told her that halfway through writing his novel he made himself a rule: he would not go to the library until he needed to know at least 3 things. Apparently he was becoming too immersed in research. Let the story drive the research, Brooks advises.

4) In a delightfully digressive moment, Brooks (a former journalist) shared her views about the still-present James Frey story. She, for one, seems to wish the book would be off all the nonfiction lists. Calling his book nonfiction, she says, sets the bar too high for people who are trying to do the real thing: write nonfiction. Real nonfiction has to cope with the messiness of life in ways that fiction does not. If his book is considered nonfiction, she suggests, everyone will expect nonfiction writers to “accomplish’ things that are really in the realm of fiction. And those nonfiction writers who can write exemplary seamless stories are devalued when Frey is held up as their peer.

After the talk, the Institute held a reception to honor Brooks. With champagne. (That’s where I snapped the photo.)

Congratulations, Andy Furman

I love hearing good news about my writer friends. Then I want to spread the word. So lately I’ve been pestering Andrew Furman for the official announcement of his recent “Researcher of the Year” award (Creative and Scholarly Category) from Florida Atlantic University.

Andy is both a skilled literary critic and a talented novelist. Sanford Pinsker nicely discusses both areas of accomplishment here.

And all you writing and/or literature teachers (and students) out there should definitely read Andy’s Poets & Writers “Teachers Lounge” article on “Reading and Writing in the MFA Program, and Beyond.”

Novelist at Work: Allegra Goodman

Maybe you’ve already seen the excellent article for fiction writers tucked into the “Science Times” section of yesterday’s New York Times. If not, you’ll have to register to read Gina Kolata’s “Writer Depicts Scientists Risking Glory for Truth and Truth for Glory” online. Meantime, here’s a summary:

Allegra Goodman’s new novel, Intuition (Dial Press), is, in Kolata’s words, “a tale about life in a science lab that rings so true and includes details so accurate and vivid that [scientists] say they are left reeling.”

Goodman is not a scientist. So some have wondered how “an outsider, someone who has not been bathed in the culture and mores of science,” “could get it so right?”

Well, apparently her research process has something to do with it. And that’s what the article details.

To return to one of my favorite arguments–writing what you know does not necessarily mean writing what you have (already) lived. You can learn to know what you write, too.

Call for Submissions: Futurist Fiction

High Country News, a newspaper that focuses on the American West, is planning a one-time science fiction issue, “imagining what the West might look like in 50 years, if we were to create what Wallace Stegner once called ‘a society to match the scenery.'” The newspaper seeks stories of a sustainable future in the American West. “We’re not looking for idyllic utopia, necessarily, but a realistic assessment of people and their place in the landscape.” Since the winning story (or stories) will complement a dark tale (the West during a massive drought), “we’re looking for something to balance the grimness. A few positive trends that we’ve identified in recent years include a growing ecological restoration movement, dense, ‘New Urbanist’ development in lieu of sprawl; and blossoming local economies.

The submission deadline is March 30, 2006. Word limit: 3,500 words. Payment: $.30/word, on publication. Send via postal mail–no simultaneous or multiple submissions.

For the full announcement, click here.

(Via PayingWriterJobs)