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WORDS, IDEAS, and THINKERS FESTIVAL

Author Geraldine Brooks talks about what animals know, her love of journalism and visiting the Berkshires

Geraldine Brooks with horse

Pulitzer-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks.

The Authors Guild Foundation will host its inaugural “Words, Ideas, and Thinkers Festival,” Sept. 22-25 at Shakespeare & Company, where it will bring together many of today’s best and brightest writers to explore the theme of “Reimagining America" through a series of thought-provoking conversations, presentations, panels and speeches.

Discussion topics include identity and belonging, reexamining history, climate change, the U.S. Supreme Court and visions for our future. Festival attendees will have the opportunity to interact with speakers in Q&A sessions, book signings and receptions. The speakers include Dan Brown, Simon Winchester, retired U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris, Geraldine Brooks, Jane Smiley, David Blight, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Elizabeth Kolbert, Douglas Preston, Linda Greenhouse, Nikolas Bowie, Ayad Akhtar and Susan Choi.

The WIT Festival is free. Session selections and tickets for hosted dinners are available to Giving Society members beginning Monday, July 25. Non-members will be able to select sessions and purchase tickets to hosted dinners beginning Aug. 15. For more information, visit authorsguild.org/the-foundation/wit-festival. The WIT Festival is co-sponsored by The Berkshire Eagle, the festival’s media sponsor. 

On Friday, Sept. 23, acclaimed novelist and author Geraldine Brooks will speak in conversation with Jane Smiley in the WIT Festival session, "What Animals Know."

Born and raised in Australia, the acclaimed novelist was a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal for more than a decade, covering crises on the Mideast, Africa and the Balkans. With her husband Tony Horwitz, she won the Overseas Press Club Award for best print coverage of the Persian Gulf War.

Brooks is the author of three works of nonfiction and six novels, including the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner "March," and bestsellers "Year of Wonders," "People of the Book" and, most recently, "Horse." She was a Radcliffe Fellow in 2006 and a visiting lecturer at Harvard in 2021. She was named an Officer in the Order of Australia in 2016.

Brooks lives on Martha's Vineyard where she serves as a conservation commissioner.

The Eagle recently caught up with Brooks, who spoke about the WIT Festival, her books and her last book, the New York Times bestseller "Horse."

Q: Your talk at the WIT Festival will be about “What Animals Know.” To start with a simple and naive question, what do you think we can learn from animals?

Geraldine Brooks: Of course, we are animals. We are the animals who are driving the other species on the planet to rapid extinction. If we don’t learn and change, this place will become very lonely very quickly, and soon after that, we too will be gone. So I think it is time for a very deep consideration of the other animals walking, swimming and flying beside us.

Q: Your new novel "Horse," released this spring, tells the stories of an enslaved horse groomer in the antebellum South and a current-day Black graduate student, and the legendary racehorse that connects them through time. How did you land on this as an idea for a novel, and how did it evolve over the course of writing it?

Geraldine Brooks: It began with a totally coincidental meeting over a lunch at Plimoth Patuxet Museum, where I had done some research for my previous novel, "Caleb’s Crossing." I happened to overhear an official from the Smithsonian telling how he had just delivered the skeleton of the most important and famous thoroughbred of the 19th century from an attic in the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., to the International Museum of the Horse in Kentucky. The details about the horse’s career, the science around his bones, and what happened to him during the Civil War had me transfixed and determined to learn more. I had no idea how many surprising directions that horse’s story would lead.

Q: Your historical novels are known not just for their skillful prose but for their depth of research — stories about the first Native American graduate of Harvard in Puritan Massachusetts ("Caleb’s Crossing" in 2011), about King David’s court in ancient Israel ("The Secret Chord" in 2015), and you won a Pulitzer for telling the story of what the father in "Little Women" was doing during the war ("March" in 2005). All these required understanding and painting a detailed picture of lives in the past, which surely took a lot of reading and time in the archives. Is research just a means to an end for you (to dig out the most “true” story possible), or something else?

Geraldine Brooks: Mark Twain said "Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t." I love to follow the line of fact down some implausible but true pathway as far as I can, since the truth is, so often, richer and wilder than any story I could possibly make up. I also love to get deep in the weeds of other people’s business: How do you prepare bones for scientific study? How do you evaluate a painting?

Q: How do you approach the challenge of telling the story of people that are so different from you, in where and when they lived? Their perspectives? Their histories?

Geraldine Brooks: For individuals in prior centuries, I rely heavily on the work of real historians — people like David Blight who will also be at WIT. I also read everything I can in the voices of people from the period — diaries, letters and for those who were not literate, verbatim court transcripts. That’s where you find rich idioms and also a guide to their beliefs, passions, daily preoccupations. For my contemporary characters, I rely on the patience and generosity of people who are willing to share their own lived experiences with me.

Q: You began your career as a journalist, covering Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe for the Wall Street Journal. Do you ever miss reporting?

Geraldine Brooks: All the time. I loved that life. It just didn’t seem compatible to me with raising kids, once I had them. So I was lucky that I was able to pivot to fiction, where I could control my own schedule rather than have Saddam or Khomeini controlling it for me.

Q: You will be in conversation with the novelist Jane Smiley, who in a review in the New York Times in 2011 described you as “one of our most supple and insightful novelists.” How would you describe her work, and is there anything you look forward to asking her?

Geraldine Brooks: She is a marvelous novelist and essayist and we share a common passion for horses, about which she writes with magnificent depth, feeling and wit. I will be interested to hear her thoughts on our very precarious present moment, and what she thinks we, as writers, should do about it.

Q: You live now at the exact other end of the state [of Massachusetts], on Martha’s Vineyard. Have you spent time in the Berkshires? Is there anything you would like to do or see while you are here?

Geraldine Brooks: I’ve been before to do an event at Edith Wharton’s wonderful house and also at Canyon Ranch, and another time to bring my son for his driving test — they were hard to schedule during the pandemic. I am looking forward to long hikes in the glorious woods — I am hoping to bring my dog Bear with me. And I would love to get to the James Turrell installations.

IF YOU GO

The Authors Guild's Words, Ideas, and Thinkers Festival: Reimagining America

What: A three-day festival bringing together authors, academics, scientists, activists, book lovers and anyone interested in stimulating discourse, new ideas, and exploring potential solutions to challenging contemporary problems.

Where: Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox

When: Sept. 22-25

Registration, information: authorsguild.org/the-foundation/wit-festival/

WIT FESTIVAL SCHEDULE

All events are at Shakespeare & Company unless noted. Book signings to follow each 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. session.

Thursday, Sept. 22

5 p.m.: When Religion Meets Science with Dan Brown

6 p.m.: Reception

7 p.m.: Dinner at the Mount (ticketed event)

Friday, Sept. 23

10 a.m.: America and China: Comes the Moment with Simon Winchester and retired U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris

11:30 a.m.: What Animals Know with Geraldine Brooks and Jane Smiley

3 p.m.: Pop-up Reading: Letty Cottin Pogrebin, "Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy," at The Bookstore in Lenox

5 p.m.: Reexamining American History with David Blight and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

6 p.m: Reception

7 p.m.: Food Truck Party at Shakespeare & Company. Ticketed event

Saturday, Sept. 24

10 a.m.: On Climate Change with Elizabeth Kolbert and Douglas Preston

11:30 a.m.: Does the Supreme Court Have a Future? with Linda Greenhouse and Nikolas Bowie

2 p.m.: Pop-up Event: Wild Symphony, a reading and musical performance with Dan Brown

5 p.m.: Identity and Belonging with Ayad Akhtar and Susan Choi; moderated by Marie Arana

6 p.m.: Reception

7 p.m.: Dinner by the Bite at a private Stockbridge home. Ticketed event.

Sunday, Sept. 25

11 a.m.: Authors Guild Foundation Fundraising Event: Community Service. Written by Laura Pedersen and performed by Paula Ewin and David Rockefeller. Ticketed event.

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