Writer, with Kids: Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks Credit Randi Baird
Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Caleb’s Crossing, People of the Book, Year of Wonders, March, and others

I became a novelist because I had a child.

I’d been a foreign correspondent for over a decade, in the Mideast, Africa and the Balkans. I’d never set out to be the khaki-wearing, flak-jacket-toting kind of reporter but by accident, I had become one. And once you show your news organization that you are capable of that kind of work, it’s all they ever want you to do. So I covered wars, uprisings, famines. And then I got thrown in the slammer in Nigeria while reporting on Shell’s collusion with the Nigerian military. I’d been finger-printed, mug-shot, interrogated. I had no idea how long they were going to detain me, and as I lay on the concrete floor of the Port Harcourt secret police lock-up, I realized I was 38 and I’d forgotten to get pregnant. It was the first time I’d heard the biological tick-tock. When they deported me after only three days’ detention, I was immensely relieved and I went home with a new plan.

My son was born the following year. Suddenly I no longer wanted to go off on long open-ended assignments where you had to dodge bullets and secret policemen. So I started writing books. I have a telling photo from that first year. My son is in his bouncy seat, up on my desk, next to my laptop. I’m typing with my left hand while jostling his seat with my right.

It often feels that way, even now, when my sons, at ages16 and nine, are long beyond bouncy seats. But holding down two jobs, writer and mother, is not a negative. At best, the mothering feeds the fiction in important ways. I think Anne Enright put it admirably: the baby carriage in the hall is not, she says, the enemy to great writing. It’s the enemy to great drinking.

My writing job starts when the school bus arrives. I watch from the kitchen window as it pulls away and pour a fresh cup of coffee. On the way to my study, I pick up the Norton Anthology of Poetry. I let it fall open at random and read whatever poem I find. Then, pump primed by those buffed and honed words, I sit down to work. When the boys were smaller, before I had the luxury of a whole school day– it was often hard to explain the nature of that work to them. I would set them up with a game or a project and slip away. Some time later, I would feel eyes boring into the back of my neck, and turn to find folded arms, an aggrieved expression:
“You said you were working.”
“I am working.”
“No you’re not. You’re just sitting there.” Try explaining to a four year old that it’s necessary to sit quietly so as to hear voices from the past, so as to commune with the long dead.

It’s easier, these days.

I still tend to leave off my writing when the kids get home from school. Not because they necessarily need me hovering, but because I like to help with homework and listen to music practice, and also to be available for the unexpected teenage confidence, which tends to come unpredictably. I have also found that some of my gnarlier plot points resolve when my hands are in the challah dough or stirring the roux. It’s like one of those illusion paintings where you see the image best if you look slightly away from it. Another advantage of lurking around young kids is witnessing the way their imaginations make athletic leaps. It’s a bit like watching Olympic equestrians in the three-day event when all you can do yourself is a slow trot on a fat pony. It inspires you to be better, bolder in allowing plot to unfold in more fabulous ways.

And the other plus: reading children’s fiction. We are in a golden age of literature for the young, it seems to me. And those writers understand plot…the inexorable necessity for x to lead to y, with x being something interesting and y being exponentially more interesting. Often, I set aside the book I’m reading to my son with regret–having read him comatose in my own effort to learn what happens next. And when I crawl into bed with a luminous, liminal, critically acclaimed adult literary novel, I sometimes want to drop kick it out the window. Too many writers of adult fiction seem to despise plot. It’s unwelcome, embarrassing, like a zit on a wedding day. Reading to my sons reinforces my own belief that story is central, and is ignored at a writer’s peril.

Okay, alright. It’s not all great. Sometimes I would like nothing better than to write myself out, into the wee hours. To chain myself to my desk in a wine-fuelled all nighter. But mothers can’t do that. Or at least not very often. We need to show up. We want to show up. I often think of Stravinsky, who notoriously expected absolute silence from his wife and kids at mealtimes when he was mid-composition so that conversation did not interfere with the music in his head. What woman would ever suggest or expect such a thing? I used to think: That jerk. Why not take a tray to your room, or make your own bloody lunch? But now I feel sorry for him. For it is only by letting roots dig down deep into the rich humus of quotidian family life that we can ever really understand the full range of emotion–the loves and hates, the aggravations and exhilarations, jealousies and generosities that are the necessary subjects of art. It is there, in the kitchen, at the dinner table, amid the noise and the arguments, that I find the sustenance I need to bloom.

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16 comments on “Writer, with Kids: Geraldine Brooks
  1. Mary K. in Rockport says:

    This series of interviews with writers is just fantastic.

  2. Ellen says:

    This series of interviews needs to be a book. Really.

  3. stefani says:

    Fantastic. I, too, have found myself fueled by my preschool-age son’s creativity. His dreamy play is poetry itself—comprised of mad leaps and wild associations, the utterly unexpected image that forever sticks. It’s pure process and as such a good reminder less of how to do it than of of what I’m aiming for in the first place. (When I can find the time, that is.)

  4. Susan says:

    I love this series you’re doing. I discovered it when Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (aka the Yarn Harlot) linked to her interview on this blog a few weeks ago.
    Any chance you’ll have Barbara Kingsolver on here? I’d love to see what she has to say.

    • admin says:

      I’m so glad everyone is enjoying this series so much! I, too, would love to hear Barbara Kingsolver’s take on the topic. So far all the featured authors have been friends or the friends of friends. I’ll have to see if I know anyone who knows Kingsolver. If not, maybe I’ll ask her anyway!

      While we’re on the topic–who else would you like to hear from in this series?

  5. Mauri Moore Shuler says:

    Thank you for this series. I, too, was a war reporter while I was a mother and quit when I had my second child.

  6. Mari says:

    “And when I crawl into bed with a luminous, liminal, critically acclaimed adult literary novel, I sometimes want to drop kick it out the window.” I hope you do just that, Geraldine, & then write more works born of your own understanding. After comforting the kids, of course. Been there, girl. Ain’t nobody says it’s easy. Writing + children ( for women ) = time, trauma & getting through the rocks with ones keel intact. Under sail with you.

  7. Beautiful!

    I love this:

    “For it is only by letting roots dig down deep into the rich humus of quotidian family life that we can ever really understand the full range of emotion–the loves and hates, the aggravations and exhilarations, jealousies and generosities that are the necessary subjects of art. It is there, in the kitchen, at the dinner table, amid the noise and the arguments, that I find the sustenance I need to bloom”.

    Thank you :)

  8. Karen Collum says:

    As a stay-at-home mum/writer with four kids aged 6 and under, this post is so inspiring. I struggle to find solid blocks of time in which to disappear into my writing. Actually, I struggle to find 5 minutes! But I don’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else. Somehow, this beautiful chaos that is my life feeds my writing and my writing feeds my ability to be the best mother I can be.

    Thanks for the encouragement to keep going :)

  9. Absolutely loved this post, Geraldine – inspiring and down to earth at the same time.
    My son has now left the nest and I have all the time I want to write, but I don’t get any more done than I did before – and I sure miss all those moments you describe.
    Treasure this time for it is ever so fleeting.

  10. Sally Swain says:

    Thank you, Geraldine
    My heart and mind expand in response to your earthy, respectful, honest piece.
    I for one, am most grateful you are no longer dodging bullets – bullet POINTS, maybe – but not the life-threatening stuff.
    all the best

  11. I too am really appreciating this series. I am a knitting pattern designer and found you after someone tweeted a link to the Yarn Harlot interview. I have a lot of these same struggles. How to find time in my day to care for, cuddle, and play with my two boys ages 2 years and 6 months and still build a successful business writing patterns.

  12. Joan says:

    I love this series. I agree with Mary K and Ellen — these posts are begging to become a book. Inspiring!

    Since you asked for others…. maybe Anna Quindlen and Elizabeth McCracken?

  13. Gilly Cannon says:

    Geraldine -I remember hearing you talk about how Year of Wonders came about, as a result of your war correspondent travels and visit to the small village in England where I think you bought rat to keep on your window sill.I loved that inspiration! I have unwittingly become a writer after posting about my husband’s serious illness and brain surgery whilst juggling 3 school aged boys. It is because of the family chaos that I have something to say. Thank you for continuing to write and inspire.
    What a great series -How about Ann Patchett or Alice Hoffman.
    What a gift these posts are-thank you!

  14. Sheila Grauer Fay MD says:

    Even for a “not stay at home” working mother your words, as always, ring true. Your books have been a gift to us all and I eagerly await and read anything you write, including this article posted by a relative of mine who is also a talented short story writer. I am General Surgeon who had to modify my life after being blessed with three wonderful girls. I find that even as they approach 30 I still make modifications to my work life with out regret. Being a mother has definitely changed the type of surgeon that I am and so be it. Thank you for this meaningful essay.

  15. Well, there goes my Saturday morning. Thanks for all of the great reads. I love to hear about people’s process and especially as it relates to art and childrearing.

    I’m not sure if these writers have kids, but I love them, and would love to hear their reflections on the topic:
    – Meg Wolitzer
    – Audrey Niffenegger
    – Maria Semple
    – Louise Erdrich
    – Lorrie Moore

    Congratulations on your novel. I can’t wait to read it!

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Writer, With Kids