Geraldine Brooks, HORSE: A Novel

Geraldine Brooks, HORSE: A Novel

Pulitzer Prize-winning and New York Times bestselling author Geraldine Brooks joins Zibby to discuss her latest novel Horse, an Amazon Best Book of the Year. Geraldine shares the inspiration behind the book (it involves a new mid-life hobby and a horse skeleton), the fears she had writing outside her own racial identity, and how the sudden death of her husband Tony altered the trajectory of her story. Zibby reads the beautiful afterword that was dedicated to Tony, and the two discuss how they have used writing as a lifeboat during moments of profound grief.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Geraldine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your beautiful and amazing new book called Horse.

Geraldine Brooks: It’s great to be here.

Zibby: I just was blown away by not only the writing of it, but the intersection of all the stories and how the whole plot unfolded the whole way through and how you were able to get us to attach to characters in the present day but also go on this mystery hunt for how this painting came to be in the world and then tie everything together. Bravo.

Geraldine: Thank you. It wasn’t clear to me how it was all going to come together. I had to pick away at the stitching bit by bit and just take it on trust that eventually, I would find how these stories were going to connect. It took quite a long time into the writing to get to that point. I was kind of hanging by my fingernails there.

Zibby: Here I thought you had it all figured out from the first minute.

Geraldine: No, no.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners who aren’t familiar with Horse yet, what inspired you to write it and generally what it’s about?

Geraldine: I became horse-crazy in my mid-fifties. This was the direction my midlife crisis took. I got a horse. It was fairly comical because I didn’t know what I was doing. In any case, it became all I wanted to think about, was this horse and learning to ride and learning about horse care. I wasn’t getting any actual writing done. Then luckily, I just happened to be at a lunch at Plimoth Patuxet Museum. There was an official from the Smithsonian there. He was regaling the table with the story of how he’d just delivered the skeleton of the most famous racehorse of the nineteenth century from an attic in the Natural History Museum in Washington to the International Museum of the Horse in Kentucky. As he told the story of this horse’s incredible career and then what happened to it during the Civil War, my lunch was uneaten. I’m leaning forward. I knew that I had my next book and that it would unite my new passion with actual productive labor. It saved the family finances.

Zibby: Wow. First of all, did you get to see the skeleton?

Geraldine: Oh, yes. I went to Kentucky and did a lot of research there about horses and horse breeding and foals and the things that I needed to know. I also went to the Smithsonian in Washington where they have the laboratory that preps bones for scientific studies. That was such an extraordinary research experience. The Smithsonian, the museums that you see on the mall, they’re just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Out in suburban Maryland, there is miles of campus where they have scientific research labs and storage pods for ninety-eight percent of the collections that they keep out there. It’s a chamber of treasures and scientific wonders. It was just terrific to be there.

Zibby: I’ve spent a lot of time at the Museum of Natural History with all my kids doing classes there and everything else. I’ve had the opportunity to go back and see some of the stockpile. You realize how vast, hearing about their collection. It’s just insane how much material and history is stored there and offsite. It’s just amazing.

Geraldine: And how much science that they’re doing there too. This is a multistranded novel. It’s about science. It’s about a racehorse. It’s about art as well. I was researching how they would clean a painting as well as how they clean bones, which is actually done by a room full of dermestid beetles that eat the bones clean. It’s surrounded by all this high-tech scientific equipment, but that’s still the best way that they’ve come up with to clean bones.

Zibby: Your novel, yes, is about a racehorse, but also about race and how that factors into everything. I felt like it was hard to know reading, if you were Black or not Black as an author because the experience that you gave to Theo and even the littlest things, like how he trains himself — Theo is one of the main characters in the present storyline. When he gets these microaggressions hurled his way, you can see the flash of anger, but then he just gets right over it and moves on.

Geraldine: that he’s learned that for his own safety and well-being he has to appear to get over it.

Zibby: Yes, I’m sorry. I misspoke. Yes, I meant externally, the face. He changed his face to mask quickly. You see this, obviously, through to the end. I won’t say anything. How did you get into his character? Were you at all worried about writing from the point of view of a different race from your own? Tell me about that.

Geraldine: I was terrified, actually, because I’m very aware of the discourse about writing outside of your own identity. If I was going to write this book, because the Black horseman was so absolutely fundamental to the success of Lexington and to the thoroughbred industry in the nineteenth century — their skills and expertise were plundered because most of these people were enslaved or formerly enslaved by white owners who drew immense prestige and material wealth from their thoroughbreds. Racing in the nineteenth century was huge. It’s hard to overstate what a national passion it was. It crossed class lines. It crossed racial lines. It was built on the skills of Black horsemen. I couldn’t leave them out of the story. They were fundamental to the story. Once you’re telling that story, you can’t then, if you’re going to have a story that comes into the present time, which I wanted to do around the science, you can’t just pretend that that all stopped in the nineteenth century and that racism is over and done with. I knew I was going to have to engage with it in the present storyline as well. I relied on the absolute generosity and forbearance of Black friends who shared their experiences and who read early drafts and said, that’s crap. You need to do this. You need to do that. I couldn’t have written this book without them. I know how tiring it is to always be explaining our own racism, explaining racism to white people. I was just really grateful. Living here on Martha’s Vineyard, there’s been a Black community coming here in the summers for more than a century. I’m lucky that I’ve got to know so many interesting people here. What I’ve learned is that no amount of education or affluence is going to protect you if your skin is black. The most famous example is Professor Henry Louis Gates, who’s a summer resident here. I think we all remember when he was dragged off his own porch in Cambridge in handcuffs for committing the offense of trying to open his own front door.

Zibby: Unbelievable and crazy. I feel like you did such a wonderful job of putting the reader in Theo’s shoes and letting us live life like that, changing everyone’s vantage point into it. I thought that was wonderful. I love how Jess sees people now in terms of how their bones are put together. The comment she made early on to Theo about, “Oh, you must be able to run very well. Look at the mechanics of your legs,” I’m like, wow, there’s a reason why I’m not a great runner. It’s not my willpower. It’s my short legs. What are you going to do? I want Jess to give me some sort of an excuse.

Geraldine: It was fun creating Jess because I had so much research to do on the other characters that I thought I’d give myself a break and base her on me. She’s socially awkward, nerdy. She just loves the interior architecture of living things, so that’s why she works in osteo preparation at the Smithsonian. She’s wonderful at articulating bones so they show what the creature was like when it was alive. When she looks at people, she’s always seeing through the flesh to the bones. She’s very impressed by people who have excellent rotational ability.

Zibby: I love that. Leave it to a good book to have you look at the world differently, even just joints. I also was so — I don’t want to give anything away. I’m not going to say that. I’m not going to talk about what I was surprised about. I was hoping to read this one paragraph from the afterword if that’s okay with you. You said, “I started this novel with the encouragement of my husband, Tony Horwitz, the true historian in the family. He hadn’t been crazy about my previous novelistic plunge into myth and Biblical history, but thoroughly embraced my engagement with a more recent period he knew and loved. Often, a pertinent article or a promising source he had ferreted out would land on my desk. Together with Bizu, we traveled to Kentucky where our research often intersected in intriguing ways as he followed the trail of Frederick Law Olmsted for his book, Spying on the South. Back home, Tony’s quips would keep me on task if I procrastinated. ‘Doesn’t look like Horse is galloping to the finish line today.’ Tony died suddenly on book tour not long after speaking to an enthusiastic audience at the Filson in Louisville. My partner in love and life, I miss him every day.” I am so sorry.

Geraldine: It’s been a tough three years. The first year, I was just in shock and disbelief because we didn’t know that he had anything wrong with his heart. He was a gym rat. He went to the gym maybe six times a week. This was probably, in retrospect, not very good for his heart. He used to get on the machines and watch Fox News to get revved up because he hated Fox News so much. He was very fit. It was just a total shock for me and the boys. We’re still clawing our way back.

Zibby: How was it trying to throw yourself into a massive intellectual project and finishing that while going through grief?

Geraldine: At first, I couldn’t focus at all. Eventually, the book became the lifeboat that I crawled into. I got some advice from a friend who had recently lost her husband. She got the advice from Ruth Bader Ginsburg who had said, do your work. It might not be your best work, but it’ll be good work. It’ll be what saves you. It turned out it was. Because Tony liked this idea so much and he’d been so instrumental in helping me with the research in the early stages of it, I wanted to do as good of a job on it as I could. It was our last thing that we were able to do together.

Zibby: So you wrote from the heart, the scenes with grief. There were scenes involving grief on a macro level. Maybe you were channeling that, or was that already all written?

Geraldine: No, all of that came later. Yeah, it affected the book. It affected the trajectory of the story immensely.

Zibby: How do you go forward from here? What are the things you tell yourself when you’re having really tough days? We don’t have to talk about this anymore.

Geraldine: I’ve become maniacal about work. I used to be a procrastinator. I’d go out in the garden to prune one little branch that was bugging me, and I’d still be out there four hours later. I’ve just found that I want to be immersed in writing right now. It does seem to be the thing that helps the most.

Zibby: How did you meet him originally?

Geraldine: How did I meet Tony? At graduate school. We were both coming to Columbia University from other jobs. We’d been out of college. I’d gone to work as a newspaper reporter in my hometown, Sydney, Australia. He had gone to work as a labor organizer for a union of mostly Black woodcutters in Mississippi. That was a very stressful job. Also, he realized that there’s going to be a long slog to change the world that way, so he thought journalism might be a better path. I loved his left-wing politics. I loved his tanned forearms when he came back from spring break. He’d been making a documentary about the woodcutters in Mississippi. Gorgeous, tanned forearms, I think that was what really got my attention.

Zibby: I think forearms are a huge barometer for the whole body.

Geraldine: They’re underrated.

Zibby: Underrated, yes, all the way up to the elbow. Men, start finetuning your forearms. That’s so sad, but how wonderful. He sounded really funny.

Geraldine: That’s what I miss the most, is the humor. He was hilarious. Thankfully, we’ve still got his books. The boys and I, we pull out our favorite bits and read them. We get a real belly laugh. It’s great to have that way of being able to connect with him.

Zibby: Hopefully, at least one of your sons maybe has the sense of humor. I’m hoping, maybe.

Geraldine: Oh, yeah. My youngest son is absolutely hilarious. My older one too, but the younger one, he’s quick on his feet.

Zibby: Now with Horse in the world, have people been responding to it the way you imagined? Has there been surprising feedback to you? What’s it been like?

Geraldine: I’ve been really grateful for the overall reception. The only blowback I’ve had is from the right. I did not see that coming. There’s so much racism in this country. I’ve been getting some mail about being unfair to the police. I don’t want to speak specifically because these are plot points in the book. I thought that I might have trouble from the other direction. I welcome it. I welcome this discussion.

Zibby: Do you miss being in this novel all the time? Are you happy to lay it to rest and work on the next?

Geraldine: I’ve already finished another project. It’s just a short — it’s really an extended essay. That book is coming out in November. I enjoy this part, actually. It’s really fun to get out and meet readers and booksellers. They’re my people. We’ve been all stuck alone in our rooms for ages. As a novelist, you’re always working alone in your room.

Zibby: Tell me about the book that’s coming out in November.

Geraldine: It’s part of a series in Australia where they get one writer to appreciate the work of another. I have done one of my Australian writers, Tim Winton, who’s nowhere near as well-known in this country as he should be.

Zibby: Interesting. Then what’s coming after that?

Geraldine: After that, I can’t tell you. It’s a project that’s very different. It’s another nonfiction project. I have to go to an island off the coast of Tasmania in order to do it.

Zibby: Whoa.

Geraldine: That’s all I can say about that one because it’s very much still in an amorphous state. After that, I’ve got another historical novel.

Zibby: See, there you go, throwing yourself back into work. At least you’re doing something that the rest of us can benefit from.

Geraldine: I hope so, and enjoy. I love a good book myself. It’s good to hopefully give other people the same pleasure that I get when I get lost in a book.

Zibby: Have you read anything great lately?

Geraldine: I loved a book called Sorrow and Bliss by Megan…

Zibby: Mason. That was great. I loved that.

Geraldine: It’s so unusual because it’s a funny book about depression. Then the last book that just blew my head off was The Overstory by Richard Powers. I’m still reeling from that one.

Zibby: Wonderful. I actually just wrote a memoir that came out in July all about my love of books.

Geraldine: What’s it called?

Zibby: It’s called Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature.

Geraldine: Wonderful. I will read it.

Zibby: It’s my homage to all the books in my life and all of that. I turn to writing and reading and work when I am going through grief or loss or stress or pandemics or whatever. I think it’s a PG-rated escape. Anyway, I’m honored to have spoken to you. This book was such a masterpiece. I’m so glad I had time to read it and enjoy and learn so much. It was such a wow to me. Thank you so much.

Geraldine: Thank you very much. I enjoyed talking to you.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care.

Geraldine: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

HORSE: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks

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