Interview: Geraldine Brooks, author of The Secret Chord

Australian-born author Geraldine Brooks has enjoyed a successful career as a journalist and foreign correspondent before turning her hand to literature, both fiction and non-fiction. In 2006 she was awarded the Pulitzer prize for fiction for her novel March, she has been a New York Times bestseller more than one once, and her books have been translated into 25 languages.

NZ Booklovers recently caught up with Brooks about her latest novel The Secret Chord and on writing.


During the research trip to the Middle East that you took in preparation for writing The Secret Chord, and your previous work in this area of a world as a journalist, were there any particular sights, smells or experiences that influenced the way that you created the world of this novel (1000BC)?

The Secret ChordThough obviously much has changed in the landscape, I tried to look closely at the constants—the flow of the hills, the play of the light, the salty haze on the Dead Sea, moonrise bathing limestone walls, the smell of crushed herbs such as hyssop and thyme—sensory experiences that David would have had just as we do today.

The novel depicts a blatantly honest picture of King David as the flawed hero of the novel. What are your own feelings towards him after all that you have written and researched?

Much as they were when I began: that this man is complicated. You can’t put him in a box. And that, I think, is what brings us back to him, the reason so many artists have been drawn to depict him through the centuries. The duality of light and dark—the capacity for music and poetry, yet also for bloodletting and betrayal; the human failings stretched and expanded to a horrifying scale, yet the capacity to love and to attract love. It’s what drew me to the story in the first place, that you can’t easily feel one way or another about him.

The prophet Natan is the narrator of the story, although you delve into the perspectives of various other people close to David. Why did you choose to tell the story through his eyes?

I love the Hebrew prophets—these ferocious truth tellers, the pain in the neck voices of righteousness who will tell us what we need to hear whether we want to hear it or not. Nathan plays that role in David’s life, the only one brave enough to castigate him for his wrong doing. And then I came across the references in Chronicles to the “book of Nathan” that supposedly tells David’s story, “all his acts, from first to last.” That book is lost, but I wondered what we’d know differently about David if we still had it. So I decided to write the story of Nathan, as he sets out to tell us David’s life.

In the Bible, there is very little mention of the women who are central figures of David’s life story. I was captivated by the way that you have captured the lives of the women in this novel, particularly Michal. Was there any particular female character that resonated with you and why was this?

I like them all. They’re sketched briefly, but with real individuality; each with her own very different backstory, very different personality. Avigal is so smart and canny. Michal is the classic example of fierce love turned to scalding hatred. Batsheva is fascinating as the young woman dealt a dangerous hand, who plays it so brilliantly. I enjoyed filling out their stories and giving them a chance to express the events from their viewpoint, rather than just seeing them through a male gaze.

The story of King David is one of those stories that is woven into many people’s consciousness. What is it about this story that deserves to be preserved and retold with each new generation?

It’s a story that allows us to reflect upon and examine all kinds of strong emotions and enduring situations. The hot temptations of power. Love in almost every form—between man and woman, man and man, parent and child. The nature of war and the nature of faith. What both do to us. The power of music and the poetry of the psalms.

How do you split your time between writing books vs promoting them?

It’s mostly writing. It takes me about three years or more to finish a book. Then I might spend about two or three months promoting it—doing a tour, speaking, doing interviews. It’s a nice break, a lovely opportunity to meet readers and booksellers, but then I have to get back to my desk and get on with the next one.

What skills does the contemporary author need to have in their toolbelt to succeed in the ‘Age of the Internet’?

There are more opportunities to engage with readers through social media and I do enjoy that. The danger is, you begin to enjoy it so much that it eats into writing time. So, self-discipline would be one skill that’s perhaps necessary!

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Libby likes to think of herself as widely read but is probably more of an eclectic hoarder – anything from NZ poetry books to Japanese novellas to chick-lit set in Manhattan crosses her bedside table. However, if a curator was looking through her bookshelves in order to find a link between all of the pages, it would probably have a bent towards literary fiction (think Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell), short stories (Yoko Ogawa, Susan Orr, Dave Egger) and novels with a nod to history (Tracy Chevalier, Arthur Golden, Kathryn Stockett).

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