Double dose of divergent storytellers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 July, 2006, 12:00am

Geraldine Brooks, fresh from winning this year's Pulitzer Prize for her novel March, and fellow author Melina Marchetta arrive in Shanghai looking only a shade bewildered by the city's bustle.

Mainland readers are set for a double dose of raw Australian literary talent as the People's Literature Publishing House releases Chinese versions of Brooks' Year of Wonders and Marchetta's Looking for Alibrandi.

Under the high beams of the Glamour Bar at M on the Bund, the pair talk about their novels, old and new, as the setting sun throws gold bars across the wooden floor.

'I feel very Australian,' says Brooks later. 'When I go back to Sydney, there's no doubt. The light, the pure blue sky, how the rocks kind of emerge through the landscape like ribs, the way the trees lose bark, not leaves. I miss it.' So why is the Australian- born Brooks drawn to such far-removed settings as a village beset by plague in 17th century England in Year of Wonders, or the civil war-ravaged American south of March?

Brooks attributes it to what she calls her colonised imagination. As a child, she read British authors such as Enid Blyton and found it easier to hear those far away voices. 'There's a sort of literary Stockholm syndrome at work.'

Year of Wonders was born during breaks in the English countryside. In the middle of one tramp, she chanced on Plague Village and its extraordinary story, and found questions raging inside her.

But, she says, 'writing is more about the human heart than it is about any particular address - that's why I'm so eclectic in my settings.'

Brooks owes March to her American husband, writer Tony Horwitz, whom she used to call 'a civil war bore', before repenting half-jokingly in print after the book was written. 'I had no particular interest in the civil war when we moved to Virginia to be near [my husband's] family,' she says. 'I didn't realise what a passion it was with him ... The civil war was fought in 10,000 places and it became clear to me that we were going to every one of them.'

But by the seventh visit or so, she connected and became interested in the individual soldier and issues of morality in extreme situations. March is the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, a man whose firm sense of right and wrong is ravaged by his experiences in the civil war.

Brooks reads from a section written in the voice of Marmee, March's wife, who has come to tend him as he lies delirious. Her voice is low and steady and, for a moment, it merges with her character, as though Brooks were speaking through Marmee's passionate outburst.

'The truth: I was angry at myself, for not having had the courage to stand aside from the crying up of this war and say, 'No. Not this way.' You cannot right injustice by injustice. You must not defame God by preaching that he wills young men to kill one another. For what manner of God could possibly will what I see here? There are Confederates lying in this hospital, they say; so there is a union at last, a united states of pain.'

How is it that Brooks, a Wall Street Journal reporter and war correspondent turned her hand to fiction. 'It was scary,' she says. 'It's quite a leap. I didn't know if I'd land with a big wet splat in the crevasse.'

The novel she is now writing, which should be finished by the end of the year, deals with an ancient Hebrew manuscript in Spain in the 14th century, and was inspired by a rumour she heard while reporting in Sarajevo. 'At the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, the last functioning hotel, after a day of grim and ghastly reporting, there was no light, no electricity. We'd sit in the dark and talk.' There were stories of a Hebrew manuscript that the Muslim government may have sold to buy arms, or that a Muslim librarian had saved the manuscript from Serbian shelling.

It stuck in her head and is about to become another delicious read for Brooks fans.

Marchetta's third novel On the Jellicoe Road, will be published this year and departs from her first two to embrace a dash of surrealism and a thread of mystery in a boarding school. 'I've been writing it in my head for 14 years,' Marchetta says.

A woman in her 30s named Hannah picks up young Taylor from outside a 7-Eleven, where her mother has left her, and takes the child to her unfinished home by the river. Then Hannah disappears, leaving a manuscript about five children that Taylor starts to read.

'But out of sequence - it's told out of sequence, so I needed to make sure I had resolved every single loose end,' Marchetta says. 'It was the parallel story that was important. The kids in the present are just as important as the kids in the past.' And slowly the mystery peels open.

For years, Marchetta has worked at a school and, surrounded by young people, she has internalised what she calls the music of their words. She worked hard to ensure that the voices in Jellicoe Road ring true. A band of young friends read the manuscript and returned it with 10 pages of suggestions to help calibrate the tone.

With On the Jellicoe Road out of the way, Marchetta is working on her next novel, which she only refers to as the 'Georgie Finch one'.