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Author discusses life, insights

Aubrey Book Club celebrates 200th meeting over Zoom

By Abigail Allen

Managing Editor

The Aubrey Book Club celebrated 200 months of literary discussions and community building on Jan. 27.

The biggest part of the celebration, which was held via Zoom because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was the chance the group had to hear from historical fiction author Geraldine Brooks and ask her questions about her work and her process.

“You have led quite the life; that’s crazy,” said Allison Leslie, a founding book club member and Aubrey Area Library staff member after Brooks gave an introduction to her life and career. “I’m glad that you turned to writing novels, though, because I love your writing, I love your books.”

Her book, “Year of Wonders,” was the subject of the club’s meeting.

Before becoming a novelist, Brooks was a journalist “bearing witness” to international conflicts. She told the group she was a Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal when, while on vacation, she came upon the village Eyam in England central to her novel “Year of Wonders.”

“I thought about these people, and as I went on in my job, covering contemporary catastrophes, I often thought about Eyam, and I thought, ‘Was it like this for them? Did catastrophe lead them to their best self or their worst self?’” Brooks said, adding that that “just worked away on [her] imagination for 10 years.”

When she and her husband Tony Horwitz, a fellow journalist, decided it was time to have children, she wanted to find a way to use her skills in a new career field.

Something about the village that was willing to isolate itself in 1665 to prevent the spread of the bubonic plague made a deep impact on Brooks.

“The villagers had taken the unique, as far as I was able to determine through my research, decision to voluntarily quarantine themselves, and therefore arrest the spread of infection into surrounding communities,” she said.

In her research, Brooks also found that “they were supported by the nobility from the surrounding communities who said, ‘If you do this thing, we will make sure that you’re kept in food, and nobody will starve there.’”

She had planned to put her skills as a journalist to use to write a narrative history.

“We just didn’t know enough,” she said.

Thus, her career as a historical fiction novelist began.

“You have the scaffolding of fact,” Brooks said of the genre.

The Aubrey Book Club members took turns asking Brooks questions they had developed while reading the book.

Brooks gave concise but dense responses to the questions from the club members.

Leslie started the Q&A session by asking Brooks about her process.

“Do you have to go lock yourself in a room, or do you just let it flow?” Leslie said. “What is some of your process?”

Figuring out how to structure writing around raising her two sons factored into her process, Brooks said.

“You can’t absent yourself from real life, and I don’t think you should either,” she said. “I don’t think that’s really a great idea for a fiction writer. I think it’s better to have your roots deeply in the soil of ordinary life because generally you’re writing about ordinary people, even if they’re from a different time.

“And nobody’s life is really locked in a room. You have to juggle a million different things.”

Part of her process, she said, is to delve into the history of the period to inject as much realism into her stories as she can.

That includes also using enough of the vernacular of the time to help the reader feel immersed in that setting without forcing them to labor through an entire novel of such language, which is something Jackie McBroom asked about.

“If I wrote this book in archaic Derbyshire dialect, nobody would be able to read it,” she said. “But what I’m reaching for is the right vocabulary, just enough to season the narrative.”

McBroom told her she balanced that well and complimented her writing style.

Brooks is also a big believer in the importance of self-editing and revising your own work.

“By the time you get towards the end, you kind of have a really deep feel for the character,” she said. “You’ve kind of been looking through their eyes the whole time, so you’re kind of aware of what they would see that’s surprising to them.”

Despite the physical distance between the participants, the book club members and Brooks made connections and talked about planning an in-person event in the future.

“I wish it was in person,” Brooks said. “I’m so tired of little people in boxes.”

The members said they would love to show Brooks, who is finishing up a novel about a racehorse from the 1800s, Horse Country USA.

At the start of the meeting, Aubrey Area Library Director Kathy Ramsey also recognized the original members of the club—Leslie, Mary Ellen Richards and Jonee Paul—and called them the long-haulers of the group.

“They were the first attenders, and they’ve been with it the whole time,” Ramsey said.

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