A literary lunch with two Pulitzer winners and a ‘Daily’ reporter



Jennifer Shore | Staff Writer

I stood in line at the Afterwords Café and tried to decide what two Pulitzer Prize winners would like to drink.

I arrived an hour early to claim a table for my interview with Geraldine Brooks and Tony Horwitz. Their books, Caleb’s Crossing and Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, are the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selections for Week Three.

Water? Iced tea? Pop?

I glanced out the door, and I saw the pair walking toward the Colonnade. Horwitz gestured at something, and I assumed they were lost.

My first instinct was to run out of the shop, go down the steps and yell, “Tony!”

So I did, which is the best first impression any journalist could ask for.

They weren’t lost — just heading toward the market to pick up a few things before we met. We laughed, shook hands and headed inside to order lunch.

At the table, I asked Horwitz about his first impressions of Chautauqua.

“I heard from Geraldine that it was wonderful and very stimulating,” he said.

Two of Geraldine’s books, Year of Wonders and March, are previous CLSC selections, and during her last visit, she mentioned to Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education, how she wished her husband could be there.

“It kind of confounds description,” Brooks said. “I found it very difficult to describe to the kids and to Tony what it was going to be like. To be generous, there’s nothing quite like it. Can you pass me the pepper grinder, please?”

She put pepper on her salad, and by the way, he also got a salad, and they both chose coffee. (I clearly would have made the wrong beverage decision had I ordered before they arrived.)

They now live with their two sons in Martha’s Vineyard, which reminds them of Chautauqua. Horwitz wasn’t sure what the grounds would be like.

“This is much grander than I expected,” he said. “It’s sort of a college campus crossed with old-time America.”

“An idealized small town,” Brooks said.

“It’s quite magical,” Horwitz said.

The couple of more than 30 years will present their books this week — Brooks at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy and Horwitz at 3:30 p.m. Friday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing follows Bethia, a woman living in Martha’s Vineyard in the late 1600s, who befriends Caleb. She witnesses as he becomes the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.

During her lecture, Brooks said she will focus on the inspiration and nuts and bolts of Caleb, as well as general historical fiction writing. Friday’s presentation by Horwitz will focus on his research for Midnight Rising and some of the things he learned along the way.

Midnight Rising follows John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, a bloody battle that changed history.

The morning lecture platform theme is “Inspire. Commit. Act.” for Week Three, and the theme for the CLSC books is “characters.”  Babcock said both Bethia in Caleb’s Crossing and John Brown in Midnight Rising are strong characters that fit the theme.

Midnight Rising talks about an inspiration and a commitment to abolitionists that went into action that many would say is daring, and others would say was crazy, but it is certainly ‘Inspire. Commit. Act.,’ ” Babcock said. “Caleb’s Crossing is a completely different kind of book.”

During the 17th century, Bethia didn’t have much voice in society, but, Babcock said, the reader can watch Caleb’s journey through her eyes and see her commitment to education at a time when women couldn’t go to Harvard.

“How do you choose what topics to write about?” I asked Brooks and Horwitz.

“It seems like now I can’t go any place without stumbling on an idea that intrigues me that I won’t want to investigate and see if I can make a book out of it,” Brooks said. “I feel like the air traffic controller at LaGuardia. They’re all up there circling, and it’s just which one are you going to wave in next.”

Although they both write about historical events, Brooks writes fiction, and Horwitz writes about the events and people. When he chooses a topic, Horwitz said it has to be something he is curious about to know the answer or details.

“If you know everything about your topic before you begin, to me, there’s not really much point in writing it, or reading it, for that matter,” Horwitz said. “I want there to be an element of suspense and mystery of ‘Where is this project going to take me?’ Also, it has to be something you’re passionate about because this is a long-term commitment.”

Brooks said she still gets questions about her first book, which was published almost two decades ago, so it’s important to write about something you’re willing to be with for the long haul.

“You have to feel there’s a depth of passion there that’s going to hold your interest over a long period of time and not just a passing fancy, but it’s always a leap of faith.”

Brooks always looks for events where she can fill in missing information. For example, she couldn’t find out what it was like to be Caleb, but she was able to discover the details about what students studied and ate at Harvard.

Horwitz is a “real archive brat,” Brooks said. He burrows very deep, because there’s always stuff for him to find — and he said it’s rewarding and exciting when he finds something new on a topic.

For those interested in historical writing, Horwitz advises researchers to step away from Google or academic search engines and start digging through boxes at the archives.

“On the writing side, I think just write every day if you can,” Horwitz said. “I think there’s not some mystery about writing. In many ways, it’s like any other craft. You get better at it by doing it. It’s a bit like brick laying. It’s putting one word on top of another, and the more you do it, the better you get at it.”

“And you can’t get it right until you’ve got it wrong,” Brooks said.

“A lot of it is trial and error,” he said.

“So you can get down some really bad ’graphs and then work with those,” she said.

Although Horwitz said writing can be a lonely business, he and his wife’s writing spaces are a mere 12 feet from each other, but for many years they shared an attic space. Close quarters give them the chance to be big fans, critics and the first editors of each other’s work.

“I think it’s not true of all writers, but we actually enjoy talking about our books and meeting readers, and you’re living off the fat of the hard work you did a year ago,” Horwitz said. “You’re talking about something where the work is done, so in a way, (coming to Chautauqua) is also the reward. It’s nice to get out and be reminded that there are serious readers out there.”