Geraldine Brooks on the life of David, revealed

The Pulitzer Prizewinning author sheds light on her latest novel, “The Secret Chord.”

0
Photo by Siobhan Beasley

David, legendary king of Israel 3,000 years ago, has been reborn as a man in all his dimensions in “The Secret Chord,” Island resident Geraldine Brooks’ latest work of historical fiction.

Ms. Brooks is devoid of the hubris that tormented David, but she has crafted a big life of her own. A best-selling and Pulitzer Prizewinning author, Ms. Brooks is mother to two sons and has been married for more than 30 years to author Tony Horwitz, a similarly transparent soul who also writes bestsellers.

The clan live in an old farmhouse in West Tisbury, attended by two energetic dogs who are unaware that they are ancients. They all fit well in a simply adorned home that has been allowed to rely on the strength and character of its construction and design.

Ms. Brooks, a reporter and foreign correspondent earlier in her career, sat at her kitchen table with The Times last week and talked about writing her latest book and the personal journey intertwined with it. She spent weeks in the Judean hills with her then 10-year-old son Bizu, researching a story sparked by older son Nathaniel’s devotion to harp playing.

In the acknowledgments to “The Secret Chord,” Ms. Brooks notes that at his bar mitzvah, Nathaniel played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which contains the lyrics “They say that there’s a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.” For a review of “The Secret Chord,” please turn to page C5. Ms. Brooks will also discuss her book in a presentation, free to the public, on Oct. 18 at 5 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.

MVTimes: Historical fiction is having a great run these days. Why is that?

Ms. Brooks: It’s the gateway drug to learning history. The work of Hilary Mantel, who wrote about Oliver Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” [2009], moved historical fiction from books about heaving bosoms and bodice-ripping. Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” [1997] and Mary Renault’s books about the ancient world [“The King Must Die,” “The Bull from the Sea”] were important contributors as well.

MVTimes: Is there an appeal to historical fiction related to our increasing lack of personal interactivity?

Ms. Brooks: It provides connection. We have to connect. If we don’t connect, it bites us. Europe is much more haunted than we are, but the recent arguments about the Confederate flag show the Civil War is still unresolved, is still a bugaboo for us. And then there’s our willingness to misinterpret the American revolution.

MVTimes: As a journalist, was the lack of hard source material on the life of David problematic?

Ms. Brooks: I was shocked. I had no idea there were virtually no historical references. Israel was not a literate culture at the time, but it was surrounded by Egypt and the Assyrians, who were literate cultures. So I had to do research differently to understand the meaning of power and how it worked then; to learn about their houses, what they ate, army sizes and battle tactics. Bizu and I herded sheep and explored the caves in which David’s army hid. Bizu was very helpful, particularly scrambling up steep hillsides that his mom struggled to climb.

This was a personal journey for us. I was hoping to get Bizu more exposure to the Hebrew traditions, not just ink on paper. As a subagenda, I like to take the kids [on research expeditions], because they have an undated eye and can make leaps of understanding that are often difficult for adults.

MVTimes: And the Bible as a research document?

Ms. Brooks: I’m not a theist, more of a transcendentalist I’d say. But I loved the language of the Old Testament, which gets straight to the point. Not like the King James Version, which is flowery. It’s like the difference between Mondrian and Rembrandt.

MVTimes: Why this subject as a novel?

Ms. Brooks: The idea came to me about 10 years ago when Nathaniel told me he wanted to play the harp and I thought of David, the boy harpist. And David felt right — the beauty of him is that he is full of contradictions, has the light and the dark. He wrote beautiful psalms, and he was brutal. He has the essential human capacity to fail spectacularly, but I like that he listened and made amends.

MVTimes: You’ve said that you don’t create your characters, they reveal themselves to you. How does that work?

Ms. Brooks: I don’t know. Amy Dillard says it’s like tapping a line of stone — tap, tap tap — until you hear the right sound, then you’ve found the line. I had thought very differently of Natan [David’s prophet and the book’s narrator], for example. He became a very truculent character. I thought he’d be different. I was thinking he’d be sort of a consigliere with very gritty explanations of the use of power, but he didn’t want to be the grubby guy.

MVTimes: What else would you say about “The Secret Chord?”

Ms. Brooks: The strength of the women characters. Women had little power, and aren’t mentioned often in the Bible, but women like Mikhal, Avigail, and Bathsheba were strong female characters with important roles at that time, very “Game of Thrones” in that way.

MVTimes: What’s next?

Ms. Brooks: It’s a three-stranded narrative based in New Orleans in the 1860s, 20th century Manhattan, and a famous racehorse.