Kathryn Favelle and Geraldine Brooks
Recording date:

Hear Pulitzer Prize-winning author, former journalist and foreign correspondent Geraldine Brooks talk about her latest novel, The Secret Chord, in which she traces King David's journey from obscurity to fame.

Transcript for The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

Speakers: Anne-Marie Schwirtlich (A), Kathryn Favelle (K), Geraldine Brooks (G)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 16/11/2015

A:         Distinguished guests and dear friends, welcome to the National Library. I'm Anne-Marie Schwirtlich and it’s my great pleasure and honour to be the Director General of this fabulous Library. Now as we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land which we are now privileged to call home.

We are delighted that so many of you have joined us this evening to hear from one of Australia's much-loved writers, Geraldine Brooks. Geraldine needs little introduction and so I shall be very selective in what follows in order to make sure that you get to hear more of her. Before taking on the challenges of writing fiction, Geraldine took on the challenges of reporting some of the world’s most complex recent conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. Her three books of nonfiction, Nine Parts of Desire, Foreign Correspondence and the Idea of Home took her off the news pages and into the hearts of many readers. But it’s Geraldine’s fiction that has given her an international audience.

The bestselling Year of Wonders started it all in 2001; March, her evocation of the American Civil War was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006; her novels People of the Book and Caleb’s Crossing were New York Times bestsellers; and People of the Book won both the Australian Publishers’ Association Literary Fiction Book of the Year and Book of the Year in 2008. In 2009 Geraldine received the Peggy V. Helmerich Award, an American literary award recognising an internationally acclaimed author who has written a distinguished body of work. Geraldine is the second Australian to win this prestigious award, Tom Keneally receiving the same award in 2007. In 2010 Geraldine received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for lifetime achievement, a prize which celebrates the power of literature to promote peace, social justice and global understanding. In 2009, Geraldine made her first visit to the National Library. While here she gave the inaugural Ray Mathew Lecture and the Kenneth Binns Lecture as the keynote address of the conference, ‘Flight of the Mind, Writing and the Creative Imagination.’ Her most recent book, The Secret Chord is an historical novel based on the life of the Biblical King David in the period of the second Iron Age, retelling the story of King David’s extraordinary rise to power and fall from grace.

Tonight, Geraldine will be joined in conversation by Kathryn Favelle, the Library’s Director of Community Outreach, to delve into this gripping and beautifully written saga of faith, desire, family, ambition, betrayal and power. It’s got everything. Please welcome Geraldine Brooks and Kathryn Favelle.

K:         Thank you, Anne-Marie, and thank you all so much for coming tonight, it’s wonderful to see you all here and queuing for seats and I’m very glad that we were able to fit everyone in. Welcome back to Australia and welcome back to Canberra.

G:         It’s wonderful to be back here.

K:         It seems no time at all that we were here talking about Caleb’s Crossing but I think in fact it was about three years. Tonight we’re going back even further, to the second Iron Age and ... I don't know if you’re like me but I struggle with anything that’s kind of pre-Roman so I had to Wikipedia it and find out when the second Iron Age was and we’re talking 3,000 years ago and I wondered if we would begin this evening with you setting the scene for us and reading a little bit from the beginning of the book.

G:         Sure. I have to say that I had a bit of a wobble in doing this book because of course David is important in all three of the great religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam and in Christianity of course Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem because they are descendants of David and they have to go to Bethlehem to be counted in a census and I’m thinking he was already gone a thousand years when Mary and Joseph lobbed up in Bethlehem so he was already a misty mythical figure in the past and that was a whole 2,000 years ago for us. So thinking of him in that context really was quite daunting, about how far back he was but then I took consolation where I always take it which is a core belief that human beings in their essential emotional lives don’t really change that much and I think when you think about David he has ... he doesn’t experience emotions any differently to the way we do. I think we can all identify with the cascade of joys and sufferings and his responses to them which are all too familiar and ongoing.

But I had to find a voice for the novel and I decided that it should be ... actually I’m going to read it from this one ... I decided that it should be Natan because there are these wonderful cryptic references in chronicles to the book of Natan which tells the life of King David, all his acts from first to last and I thought what kind of book would that guy have written given that he’s a Hebrew prophet? Which means he’s a really difficult sod who’s the ... he’s the guy who shows up and tells you that you suck you know he’s the stone in your shoe and the God in your head, the truth-teller, the unafraid, the castigator of kings and it’s too bad we don’t have his book so this was my attempt to guess at what kind of book he might have written and how he might have gone about it. Would you like me to read right from the beginning?

K:         Yes, if you’d like to. It’s beautiful.

G:         ‘There was an almond blossom yesterday. It had opened its pale petals on a twig of the bough that curls and twists up to my windowsill. This morning the blossom is gone, the paleness upon the twig is snow. It does one no good in these hills to set store by the earth’s steady warming. My body is as bent as that bough. The cold is an ache in my bones. I am sure that this year’s reaping will be the last that I see. I hope only for one more season of summer fruit, for the ease of the hot sun on my back, for ripe figs, warm from the tree, spilling their sweet nectars through these splayed fingers. I have come to love this plain house here among the groves. I have laid my head down in many places, on greasy sheepskins at the edge of battlefields, under the black expanse of goat hair tents, on the cold stone of caves and on the scented linens of palaces but this is the only home that has been my own.

‘They are at work, already, on Har Moriah. From across the wadi I can hear the thin squeal of the planes scraping upon the logs. Hard work to get these trees here; felled in the forests of the Lebanon, lashed together into rafts, floated south on the sea, dragged up from the coast by oxen. Now the tang of cut cedar perfumes the air. Soon the king will come as he does every morning, to inspect the progress of the work. I know when he arrives by the cheers of the men. Even conscripted workers and slaves call out in praise of him, because he treats them fairly and honours their skill.

‘I close my eyes, and imagine how it will be, when the walls have risen from the foundations of dressed stone: the vast pillars carved with lilies and pomegranates, sunlight glinting on cladding of gold...

‘It is the only way I will ever see it: these pictures in my mind’s eye. I will not live to make the ascent up the broad stairs, to stand within the gilded precincts as the scent of burning fat and incense rises to the sky. It is well. I would not wish to go without him. I thought at one time that we would go together. I can still see his eyes bright with the joy of creation as he chose and planned what materials, what embellishments, pacing the floor, throwing his arms up and shaping the pillars as he envisioned them, his long fingers carving the air. But that was before I had to tell him that he would never build the temple. Before I had to tell him that all his killing—the very blood that, one might say, slakes the mortar of those foundation stones—had stained him too deeply. Strange words, you might think, to come from the self-same source that had required these killings of him.’

K:         Thank you. And already we’re in another place in a far off land, aren’t we? Once upon a time all over again, and that’s how The Secret Chord begins for us as readers, but I was wondering how The Secret Chord began for you as the writer?

G:         So it began for me probably ten years ago when my son, who was then nine, turned to me and said ‘Mum, I must play the harp.’ I thought that was a very strange choice for a nine-year-old boy but I’d been eager for him to take some interest in music, I was expecting guitar or I was braced for drums, but the harp it was going to be so you know, as you do, we found him ... we rented him a harp and we found him a teacher and when I would take him to lessons she had the most beautiful concert instrument and he looked tiny as he sat there and played it and I thought about that other boy harpist, that kind of figure who shimmers between history and myth, and I went back to read about David and it struck me that he’s really the first political biography we have, the first man in history that we know from childhood to extreme old age. And also that everything happens to him, he has every success you can imagine and the darkest tragedies, the nightmares that we would all dread befalling us and it’s such a full life, I thought you know for a novelist this gives you a chance to work with all the riches of human experience.

K:         It’s a book that struck me as being very much about writing and the creative process. We see the story through Natan’s eyes, as David’s biographer, and he reflects occasionally on the process and the challenges of writing, he says it ... at one point that it’s another thing entirely to write a history forged from human voices, imperfect memories and self-interested accounts and it’s quite extraordinary, ‘cause in some ways that could describe the scriptures that you were starting with as well but I wondered what the research process was like for you, how has it differed going back to 3,000BC compared to your other work?

G:         So usually writing historical fiction does not require wrangling livestock but this was a very different kettle of fish. I couldn’t do what I normally do which is a deep dive in archives looking for all the voices of the time, looking in ... for journals and letters, looking for people who are not literate, looking for their voices in verbatim court testimony so you can hear people speaking in their own words. That wasn’t available in this case because outside the pages of the Bible, David doesn’t really exist except in one stone inscription, very brief, so I decided that it would have to be a more experiential kind of research so I took my other son, not the harpist, but my then 10-year-old, and we went off to Israel to be in the places associated with David and do the kind of things that he is said to have done, not the adultery and running people through on battlefields, but some of the more quotidian things like herding sheep because so many leaders in the Bible start off as shepherds and I was intrigued by that. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David himself, and what is it about being a shepherd that is such a good entry-level position for kingship?

And so my son and I were on this sunny hot hillside trying to separate the sheep from the goats, which is just as hard in real life as it is in the metaphorical expression, and one thing we realised was that if you’re going to lead a flock you have to understand the nature of the those that you’re trying to lead. So it wasn’t until we figured out that goats respond to pressure by trying to get away from it, they’re fleet-footed and sure and so they will run, whereas sheep will cluster together for the safety of the herd and once you know that about them, once you know that fact about their nature, it’s very easy to separate them. So that’s the kind of thing we did. We stayed in goat-hair tents and we spent an afternoon riding camels, only to learn that we got sore backsides for nothing because when I got back home I learned there were no camels in second Iron Age Israel. So then I had to go and find a mule. Luckily a friend of mine on Martha’s Vineyard where I live has a mule, so that was good.

K:         Could you ever have imagined growing up in Sydney that you were going to need one day to ride camels and herd sheep and goats?

G:         No.

K:         It seems quite extraordinary to be telling a story about a pre ... a Biblical king in the 21st century and when I've ...  heard at the beginning of the year that in fact you were writing about King David I thought that seems to be a very brave subject for a writer to choose in this day and age but your book is ... I think is very contemporary and one of the things I wondered about was whether David was the first celebrity, the first rock star, the way the world seems to respond to him is very like the way we respond to Justin Bieber or Michael Jackson or some of our political leaders, and was that something that you were consciously exploring?

G:         Well it’s fascinating because all the way through David’s story as told in the scriptures you’re told that this one loved David and that one loved David and this one loved David, so he is this huge sink for love. In return it seems that he very much loves his children but whether he’s returning all these other different kinds of love is not always so clear so that was an interesting thing but yes, he is, he is obviously completely charismatic and he just kind of sheds this glamour wherever he goes, from the time he emerges into public life in the famous incident in the battle of Wadi Elah where he slays Goliath. And so from then on everybody’s singing about him and enthusiastic about him.

K:         How much of it do you think is true? How much of the story that we get from the Bible?

G:         I think ... I think quite a lot of it is true and I think that because if you were going to make up this guy you wouldn’t make him up with so many flaws, you wouldn’t have him betray his friends and you wouldn’t have him go off and be a traitor for a number you know for a while he goes and actually fights with the enemies of the Israeli tribes and ... Hebrew tribes and so you wouldn't have him be so duplicitous and an adulterer and then a murderer if you were making him up so I'm inclined to think that somebody very much like this did exist.

K:         He certainly does some despicable things and you do have to have a slightly strong stomach at times when you’re reading about them so I can only imagine what it was like to be writing about some of the things that he did, going off and claiming 200 foreskin to win his first ...

G:         Oh the foreskin. This is where the historical novelist earns her pay. You’re going along thinking I get this you know I get the love for the children, the blind love for the children where you know even though they do reprehensible things you overlook it, I get the sort of passionate infatuations with the women in his life and how a marriage can start off with great love and then turn into this corrosive hatred, that’s all completely accessible. Two hundred foreskins, not so much.

K:         Were there mornings when you woke up and you thought about what you had to write next and you just went today, I just don’t want to go there?

G:         So you know I always do this, I always leave the hardest thing to last and then you finally finish the book and then you got to get it ... go back and deal with the foreskins.

K:         Some of the battle scenes too are very, very visual, I was going to say but ... and they are and they will ... you have to read them, they will stay with you forever. How did you learn about battle in the Iron Age?

G:         So there’s ... yeah, two answers to that question, one is talked to you know I mean this is the Bible, it’s so studied, there are experts on every damn thing so it’s easy to find somebody who’s spent their whole life nailing this down and I did talk to some people in Israel who were able to enlighten me on battle tactics and weaponry and Iron Age and you know it’s all in archaeological digs and whatnot. And you know what you have to do is scale it all down because there’s only 45,000 people in the whole area of what’s now Israel and much of Syria. Forty-five thousand people instead of more than four million, so when you’re talking about an army it was probably quite a small company of fighters and what they’re fighting over is not so grand most of the time, it’s cattle rustling. The Philistines who are the coastal people who have access to iron and who can trade with the more advanced societies of the Mediterranean are basically beating the pants off the Hebrew tribes who are disorganised and they don’t have any iron weapons so they’re basically getting clobbered most of the time. But then David comes along and he’s quite a brilliant tactician and he’s a very inspirational leader and so he’s able to turn the tide and also he can unite the tribes so that they start to think as a nation and fight as a nation.

But then a lot of the detail of what happens in the battles unfortunately comes from my own experience as a correspondent who covered conflict in exactly that region and you know I have a lot of very, very dark memories about what I witnessed in the aftermath of some really terrible battles. The first one I ever reported was during the Iran–Iraq War, and the Iraqis had captured some territory on the Faw Peninsula and so, it was a great victory, so they took the press to see and we got there and the desert was just strewn with the bodies of teenage Iranian soldiers. And the weaponry’s different for sure but the effects on the human body are not so different so I don’t like to think about that but for fictional purposes I forced myself to, because it’s a very brutal time and if you’re going to write about it you really can’t turn away from it. And honestly, so is our own time as we see again tragically this week.

K:         You talked to ... a little bit then about going to the experts and I was listening to an interview that you did with Diane Rehm on radio in the US and the Diane Rehm Show is a talkback show of very, very longstanding, it started in the 1970s. And she accepts people calling in and emailing in and a lot of those callers were asking you to justify your interpretation of the scriptures and ... as if you’re a theologian and I wondered if that was something that you had expected in writing the book, that you would be expected to be arguing for your interpretation as if it was history rather than fiction.

G:         Oh yeah, I did expect it and you know you better gird your loins because, particularly in the south, people know their Bible. And ... but that’s okay because if you spend three years you know I’m ... I always say I’m quite well informed in a very narrow band so I know first and second Samuel really well now. If they venture outside that I’m trashed. But that’s what they’re mostly talking about and there isn’t a verse of that that I haven’t you know squeezed the juice out of so I felt like I was on pretty solid ground and it’s actually a lot of fun because I did have a conversation like this with a pastor in Kansas—and that’s a big Bible belt place—and he was, you know, he was really into it and I was into it too, and he said in the end you can come and have my pulpit, so I thought that was pretty flattering.

K:         So when you get sick of writing there’s a new career for you. I was really, really interested, it’s ... in lots of respects it’s a very masculine book as is the Bible itself, there’s lots of blokes and ...

G:         Very blokey book, yes.

K:         ... not so much about the women. But the women in The Secret Chord are actually really strong, really powerful characters, they ... they may not seem to have a lot of power but I think probably they do. Were you drawing on your experience in the Middle East in writing those characters?

G:         Very ... very, very much so because ... well one of the reasons that I was attracted to David’s story is because unlike much of the Bible the women are very important and they’re beautifully sketched but it’s very concise and they’re only there insofar as they affect David, so they don’t get very elaborate backstory or forwardstory either and we only see them through the male gaze, we don’t see what the experience was like through their eyes so I wanted to flip that perspective and give them a point of view on what’s happening to them. And so ... but I did ... I did you know go back to my days of being a correspondent in the middle east who was very passionately interested in the lives of women and that you know was my first book, Nine Parts of Desire. And in that book there are stories of how private power works. And I could just share a couple I actually drew on so when David’s on his deathbed Bathsheba is there manoeuvring to get her son on the throne and he’s not in the line of succession at that point so that reminded me of Queen Noor at King Hussein’s bedside when he in the Mayo Clinic dying of cancer. And Queen Noor wasn’t the only one there, also King Hussein’s first wife, Princess Muna, was a frequent visitor. And they had made, I think, common cause because both of them wanted to get King Hussein’s brother removed from the succession to make way for their sons and it worked out quite well for them because Princess Muna’s son is now King of Jordan and for a great many years Queen Noor’s son was the Crown Prince so that was one exercise of private power that I drew on a little bit.

And then my other one, my favourite one is Ayatollah Khomeini’s wife, Kadisha, invited me over for afternoon tea one day, which didn’t happen to a lot of people so that’s ... I’ll drop that name just because I can. And she was telling me ... we were sitting cross-legged on the carpet in the courtyard eating pomegranate and drinking tea and she’s telling me what a great guy the Ayatollah was, and how when the babies were little he would get up in the night to feed them. And I told this to one of my dissident Iranian friends when I got home and she said ‘oh so he fed the babies? Did she tell you what he fed them to?’ But she was ... she wanted to tell me about how the marriage came about. When Ruhollah Khomeini was a very impoverished and religious scholar with no clear prospects, he came and asked her prosperous father if he could marry one of the daughters of the family and she was allowed to come in and serve the tea ... with her chador on, of course, so he couldn’t see her but she could see him and she thought he was hot. And so when she found out that her father didn’t think much of this match she went away and thought for a while and then she had a dream and the dream was that, oh, she saw Ruhollah from Khomein sitting with all the great prophets of Islam and being treated as their equal and that persuaded her father so she got to marry the guy that she wanted.

K:         It’s a good trick to try. Dreams and prophecy of course play a huge role in the story and Natan is a prophet and the world is managed, I guess, a lot by what ... the message that he gets from God.

G:         That he thinks he gets from God.

K:         Mmm so what do you think he gets ..?

G:         He’s ... no well I’m not going to say what I think but he’s the narrator so we hear what he thinks and you know I’ve left it a little bit open because some characters in the novel express great doubts about him particularly the hard-headed military guys. The generals don’t have a high opinion of his influence on David, and they say that you know he’s a charlatan basically, so I’ve left some wiggle room for readers to make up their own mind.

K:         Do you have a sense of which way readers are jumping?

G:         I’m going ...

K:         Who's ..

G:         ... let every reader jump their own way?

K:         Do you believe Natan’s prophecy? Is he getting it from God? Oh come on, jump, jump.

G:         No, this is a modern secular crowd and I’m sure they are very sceptical of this, but it doesn’t really matter whether he is or he isn’t because David believes it and so it influences David’s behaviour.

K:         And Bathsheba believes it too so ...

G:         Yeah well basically everyone believes it and they also think he’s a pain in the neck because he tells them what they don’t want to hear. And he’s a bit scary because he will just you know blurt out anything and that’s what the Hebrew prophets do. Isaiah and Ezekiel, they’re always just telling us all that we suck and that we’re bad and that we need to be better, and we need those people. We’ve got a few Hebrew prophets today, you know, thank God. And we don’t like them and they get mocked and ridiculed and sometimes cast out but we need them.

K:         We do. And thank goodness we’ve still got them. The book begins with music ... it began with music with your son wanting to play the harp and it ends with music, and I don’t think that’s giving too much away, to let you know how it ends. It seems that music and poetry in The Secret Chord are kind of counterpoints to the war and the politics and the manipulation and I wondered what role that you thought music played in David’s life and in the life of the book as well.

G:         I think it’s huge in David’s life and this is what’s so fascinating about him and I think why he’s inspired so much art through the centuries, when you think of all the depictions of him in paintings and sculptures, the music that’s been inspired by the Psalms which he is credited with writing most of them and in fact that’s fascinating, that this poetry, much of it very autobiographical, you can find a lot of detail about his early life in the words of the psalms you know it’s still in print after 3,000 years. What writer wouldn’t like that? And really it’s the place where we can still hear his voice which is fantastic so there's that and then there’s the descriptions of his musicality, his beautiful singing voice, his ability to play the harp like nobody else so that only he can play this music that pleases the divine. And then he makes musical city, there’s lots of descriptions of the singing man and singing woman and all the different musical instruments that are played by his instruction and so you get the sense of this extraordinary artist but he’s also a killer.

K:         And it is an extraordinary split, I mean some of the things he does are so horrendous and yet he’s making this incredibly beautiful music and ...

G:         And these poems that are still so consoling to us. You know, I had a friend last year who lost her 17-year-old son in very tragic circumstances and she said that for six months she couldn’t read anything except the psalms, they were the only thing that spoke directly to her heart. And that’s extraordinary, that, you know, poetry from 3,000 years ago is what you turn to.

K:         Is that one of the things about literature as well? That it can be a place to console, to challenge, to inspire, it has a life beyond the words on the page, it can ...

G:         Yeah, it has this magical life where it has this connection between the words and the reader and the reader is just as important as the writing because I think you get different things from the book at different times in your life depending on what you need from it at that time. I just had the pleasure of rereading Gilead by Marilyn Robinson which is one of my favourite books and I guess there’d been a decade between when I first read it and when I reread it and when I first read it what it was all about to me was the love of a parent for a child and on the rereading I realised how deftly she dealt with the issue of slavery and how different responses to it define the moral order of society. And the first reading I wasn’t so interested in this big message part of the book, I was interested in the intimate relation so that’s ... that’s the kind of magic, I think, of literature, is that it will be different for every reader and it will be different every time you read it.

End of recording