Voices from the Past: A Q&A with Geraldine Brooks

Article by ben

Geraldine Brooks gives herself so fully to history that I’m not sure there’s even an author named “Geraldine Brooks.” Did she write her Pulitzer Prize-winning MARCH, which examines LITTLE WOMEN from another point of view? Did she write YEAR OF WONDERS, an intimate story of the Bubonic Plague in 1666? Did she write any of her immersive historical novels? It seems more likely, sometimes, that she just found them, these texts from earlier eras, and published them “as-is.”

Of course Brooks wrote these books; it’s her gift to make herself invisible, to service her characters and their historical periods before she services her own literary voice. In her newest novel, THE SECRET CHORD, she takes on the myth of King David, warrior and poet. Her central character, Natan, tries to tell the story of David by visiting and interviewing those closest to him—almost a Biblical version of Citizen Kane. Brooks takes familiar stories of this famous figure but gives them the reality of a top-notch journalist. Reading this book, you can feel the heat, smell the sweat, see the violence.

Ultimately, THE SECRET CHORD takes an old subject and treats it with enough ambiguity and freshness to suit our modern era. What makes a leader a leader? What lies behind the myths we tell ourselves about power? In investigating these questions by gathering together so many different points of view on David, Brooks creates a synoptic novel—a New Testament version of an Old Testament story, written with the author’s characteristic invisibility.


Brazos Bookstore: Although set so long ago—and telling a version of such a familiar story—what modern day application do you think THE SECRET CHORD has? What does the life of David tell us about present-day leadership?

Geraldine Brooks: Power, with its bright seductions, its hot temptations, is an absolute constant of the human experience. I found it amusing, when researching this book, to learn that U.S. soldiers in Northern Iraq had nicknamed their commander David Petraeus “King David.” Like his namesake, Petraeus was a charismatic, effective, gifted leader. But like his namesake, he suffered from the hubris that says ordinary rules don’t apply to me, and blighted his reputation and career by reckless adultery.

BB: Much is made in this book about David’s relationship to music, and early, you write, “You could read his mind through his music, always.” Do you think of your own books as being a kind of music—and if so, can we read your mind through it? Where is the voice of Geraldine Brooks peeking out in your stories?

GB: Thinking about music is very helpful to me as I write. Its lights and darks, its ability to evoke strong emotions, its intricate structure and the beauty that can be created when the structure is crafted with care and originality: I’m looking for all those same things as I make my sentences. But I hope my own voice stays well in the background. My job is to listen for, and to transcribe the voices from the past. To channel the voiceless, whose words were not set down, or were lost.

BB: How do you feel, working from such a familiar story? Does it make it harder for you, since people already know the outline and will be expecting fidelity? Or does it make it easier for you, because a certain amount of storytelling work is already done for you through cultural osmosis?

GB: The paradox with David is that a lot of people think they know his story, but many really only know just a few incidents, worn threadbare with retelling while other more arresting moments of his life are neglected. The most often retold stories of David are in some ways the least compelling. I found the less familiar, more fascinating stories in the emotional life he shares with his several wives (several of whom are uncommonly well-drawn for women in the Bible, where my gender doesn’t generally rate much ink) and in his devastating relationships with his children. The biblical account is dense with incident, but told with great economy and compression. It was good to let these wonderful stories breathe a bit more, to open the viewfinder wider that a simple accounting of action, and to explore emotion, motivation, and more fully furnish the settings in which the action takes place.

BB: What will be the most surprising thing about this book to people already familiar with the story of King David?

GB: I’m hoping it will be the story of Mikhal, King Saul’s daughter and David’s first wife. It’s one of the best examples of a poisoned marriage, of ardor turned to corrosive hatred, that I’ve ever come across. And I love how much agency Mikhal has—how she uses the tools at her disposal to shape her destiny, for better and worse.

BB: I want to ask you a little bit about your experience with independent bookstores. What was the first one you ever fell in love with? And what’s the strangest experience you’ve ever had in one?

GB: When I was writing my first book, NINE PARTS OF DESIRE, I had a lot of trouble staying put in my study and getting on with it. I was living in Hampstead, London, at the time and I would procrastinate in every way I could think of. One of my favorite ways was to go to the local bookstore and just stand there, surveying the shelves, smelling the scent of new books, fingering the covers. Thinking, “I’ll have a book here soon.” Then I would realize, “Hmmm, if that’s the case I’d better go home and get on with writing it.” I fell in love with that store because it motivated me so much.

The oddest thing that’s happened was after that book came out. I was in New York City, standing in line at the register. The women in front of me was saying, “Do you have SIX PORTIONS OF PLEASURE? Oh, no, wait: maybe it was called FIVE SHARES OF LUST?” I was dying inside, wondering which was worse, outing myself, or letting a potential sale go by. The bookseller, bless her, didn’t even look up. “You want NINE PARTS OF DESIRE,” she said, and pointed the woman to the relevant shelf.


Tickets for Geraldine Brooks event at Christ Church Cathedral on Friday, October 9 at 8pm admit two people and come with a signed copy of THE SECRET CHORD

The Secret Chord Cover Image
$27.95
ISBN: 9780670025770
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Viking - October 6th, 2015

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