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New England writers at work

How Geraldine Brooks’s characters emerge

Geraldine Brooks finds a warm sunny spot to work in her room.

Steve Haines for the Boston Globe

Geraldine Brooks finds a warm sunny spot to work in her room with faithful Milo.

Australian-born writer Geraldine Brooks’s first novel, “Year of Wonders,” became an international bestseller upon its release in 2001. Since then, she’s published three more, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for “March,” a novel of the Civil War. She and her husband, the writer Tony Horwitz, live on Martha’s Vineyard with two children, two dogs, and a horse.

GUIDED BY THE LIGHT: I tend to orbit around the house depending on where the light is. I don’t really have to be at a desk. When the house is empty, if it’s a cold day, I’ll go to the kitchen by the fire. If it’s sunny, I have an old, beaten-up chaise lounge in my bedroom, and I just perch there. In the summer, my favorite office is under the apple tree.

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TOUCHSTONES: I [typically] have a talisman that I keep on the windowsill of my office. For “People of the Book,” it was a facsimile of the Haggadah itself, which was always there to remind me about the amazing nature of this magnificent work of art. For “March,” it was a Union soldier’s belt buckle that was dug up in the courtyard of the house in Virginia where we were living . . . For “Year of Wonders,” it was a replica rubber plague rat that I found for sale in Eyam, the town that inspired the novel.

MIDLIFE MENAGERIE: My midlife crisis has expressed itself in taking up horseback riding. I have a horse, and I tend to try to get a ride in every day or every other day . . . I also have two dogs. My senior dog follows me constantly — he’s always looking for the warmest spot, too. His name is Milo, and he’s been with me since [I lived in] Australia. He’s 14 years old now, and we’ve seen a lot together. He spans my entire novelistic career. I don’t know what I’ll do without him.

Steve Haines for the Boston Globe

Brooks always has reference books close at hand.

FINDING THE VOICE: I write on a laptop, but when I’m just starting a novel and trying to figure out what the voice will be, I’ll work in a notebook. I have one notebook for every book. It’s a ritual: I buy a really beautiful hand-bound book from a bookbinder here on the island, and that’s what I carry around with me to libraries and so forth to jot down notes. I’ll sit with that notebook until [a character] starts talking to me.

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MAGIC OF LIBRARIES: The wonderful thing about libraries and why I’ll never stop going [in spite of] the wonders of JSTOR and all the other online resources you can use now is the serendipitous encounters that can happen in the stacks of a great library. I was doing my research on Hebrew book censorship [for “People of the Book”] in Widener [library at Harvard]. . . and I found the autobiography of a 17th century Venetian rabbi that I didn’t even know existed that took the narrative in a completely different direction. You couldn’t have that kind of serendipitous encounter online. It’s kind of magical.

PRIMARY SOURCES: The book I’m working on now is a little unusual because there’s really only one main source: the Hebrew Bible . . . For other books, there’ve been countless primary sources. I enjoy that more, [since] I enjoy having a richness of sources, that treasure hunt for transporting detail that will carry a reader with me.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson@gmail.com.
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