For Geraldine Brooks, the road from her native Sydney, Australia, to the fraught landscapes of the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans was littered with hair-raising experiences, moments of grace and prizes for the quality of her journalism. As a multipublished author, she continues her winning ways with a Pulitzer Prize for her novel March, as well as critical acclaim for People of the Book, Year of Wonders, Foreign Correspondence and Nine Parts of Desire. Imagine our joy when we discovered that she’s also a dog person! Brooks talks to us about art, her “extremely entitled” pups and more.
Bark: In People of the Book, you reference a painting by Francis Bacon—Man with Dog (1953)—that happens to be one we like, too. Why did you include it?
Geraldine Brooks: I have always loved that painting. I have had two Kelpies in my life—George, of blessed memory, the dog of my youth and the most remarkable animal ever and, currently, Milo—and though I know it’s unlikely that Bacon would ever have met this Aussie breed, the swirl of movement he captures just evokes their spirit and energetic grace so perfectly.
B: When you were reporting for the Wall Street Journal from international locations like Bosnia, did you encounter dogs? Did the memory or a story of any of these dogs stay with you?
GB: In the countries I covered, dogs had it tough. Most of the time I was in Muslim countries, where dogs are largely despised. The one notable exception was a Golden Retriever in Kurdistan, Iraq. When the family fled their home during Saddam’s brutal retaliation for the Kurdish uprising that followed the first Gulf war, they headed for the border and took their dog with them. The mother, father and two very young kids lived in their car in the freezing cold of the Iranian mountains for several weeks. The dog was with them the whole time. Everyone got sick from the dirty water, poor diet and so forth, including the dog. But they all made it, and eventually got home. The mother died, suddenly and tragically, soon after. When I met up with the father again, he said: “Thank god my kids still have their dog.”
B: Did you see cultural differences in attitudes toward dogs as you traveled in these areas?
GB: Yes indeed. In Islamic countries, saying you have a dog is as outlandish as saying you have a crocodile. But also in Africa and underdeveloped parts of Eastern Europe, dogs suffer immensely.
We see a cultural difference here in our own home. Last July, we brought our lovely adopted five-year-old son home from Ethiopia. There, dogs are either potentially rabid strays, foraging in the streets, or fierce guard dogs, barking on the end of chains. Our son was chagrined to discover our three extremely entitled dogs would be sharing not only his home, but attempting to share his bed, as they do with our older son. His reaction: “I thought I was coming to a clean house!”
B: Tell us about your dogs. How did they come into your family’s life? Do they have a role in your writing life—muse, exercise coach, comic relief?
GB: All of the above, and more. Our oldest, Shiloh, is 14 now, very old for a Border Collie, and she has become something of a life coach lately, showing us what it means to accept the necessary losses of aging while never really giving up on what makes living worthwhile for you. Just a day or so ago, we were walking in the woods, and she flung herself into the stream as if she were still the agile, swift dog of yore. I had to wade in and fish her out, as her back legs have no strength anymore. But I love her unwillingness to accept that. She came to us as a puppy and when our son was born the following year, she took him on as her life’s work. She’s a fantastically loyal and very stubborn dog. She was lucky enough to stay with Donald McCaig one year when we were in Australia. She proved to be a good lambing dog, he said, but he also described her as “a mule in a dog suit.”
While we were in Australia, we got Milo, the second Kelpie of my life. Milo had had a rough patch with his first owner, who must have been abusive and was certainly neglectful. When his breeder saw him at a yard trial in dreadful condition, he immediately bought him back from that owner and rehabbed him before looking for a second placement, which was us. He’s a lovely dog, with the tremendous intelligence of the breed, but even after nine years with us, still has fear/aggression issues with men of a certain build who evidently recall to him his previous owner.
Simba came into our family two years ago when my mom came to live with us. He’s a rescue dog—part Pomeranian, part Papillon, maybe. A strawberry-blond furball with limpid brown eyes and an unquenchable spirit. I was afraid the two bigger dogs might mistake him for a chew toy when he first arrived, but instead, he pranced in and more or less took over the joint. He and Milo have wonderful boyish wrestling matches together, the larger dog never, ever overstepping the bounds of safe play even when they’re going at it hammer and tongs.
B: In researching your books, did you run across any intriguing historical mentions of dogs?
GB: No. But I always try to sneak in mentions of dogs where I can, especially herding breeds.
B: Does living with dogs in any way inform your observations or sensibilities?
GB: They, like me, love nature. You see things differently when you walk with dogs, so they are my guides to the natural world. I don’t know how you do without them, really. When I lived abroad in Cairo and London and was constantly traveling as a foreign correspondent, I couldn’t have a dog. It was the worst thing about those years by far. I truly think it was one of the factors in giving up reporting. So you could say I have Shiloh to thank for my fiction career.
Read more about Geraldine Brooks here.