A King David for Our Time
Australian-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and former journalist Geraldine Brooks has made her mark with daring fictional reimaginings of some of the most iconic figures in history and literature. A convert to Judaism, Brooks delved into Jewish history in her 2008 novel, People of the Book, which recounts the journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah through centuries of war and strife. Brooks revisits Jewish history in her latest novel, The Secret Chord, which envisions King David as a self-destructive Machiavellian figure. Brooks speaks with Moment senior editor Marilyn Cooper about her Jewish journey and her efforts to discover what Jewish life was like in the Second Iron Age.
What led you to convert?
I was raised Roman Catholic; the Australian side of my family was pretty much all Irish Catholic immigrants. I fell out with the Catholic Church in my teens over women’s rights and, in particular, the Pope’s stance on birth control and reproductive rights, which seemed like it would cause a lot of distress for poor women and women in the Third World. I was cruising along as a happy agnostic through my young adulthood, and then I went to graduate school at Columbia in New York City and fell in love with a guy named Horwitz, not realizing that Horwitz was a Jewish name. When we decided to get married, I realized that since Judaism was passed through the maternal line, if I didn’t convert, I was going to be the end of a family that had made it through the Shoah and the Russian pogroms and goodness knows what else before that. So I decided to convert. It was more about history than faith at that time.
How would you describe your current Jewish practice?
I feel very much at home with Jewish observance. I am very happy to bow to the Torah and to the struggle of human beings trying to understand questions of existence. I think that’s what the Jewish reverence for the written word represents.
You may be the only prominent Australian Jewish novelist. How has being Australian influenced your writing?
There have got to be more of us! It’s influenced me hugely. I was born into a time in which it was a racist, homophobic and misogynistic country. Luckily, when I was a teen, it became progressive, open and welcoming—a liberal society in the best sense. When you see change like that take place, it makes you very optimistic.
What drew you to historical fiction?
I am interested in places where the historical record has voids and silences. The only way to fill those is by imagination. You can do all the research you like, but you won’t find the answers in the written record. So you have to try to fill the gaps with some suppositions about what might have occurred.
How do you choose your topics?
It’s almost like falling in love; an idea attracts you. You eye it from across the room for a while because usually you are already working on a book. It’s like going to a party with a date and then seeing a very handsome man across the room. You really want to go over and talk to that guy, but you know you have to leave with the one who brought you. You have to get to the end of the book you’re already involved with. You know its difficulties and problems, and the new idea looks fresh and sparkly in comparison. But enduring ideas, like enduring loves, are the ones you always return to in the end.
What’s the secret to making history interesting and relevant to modern readers?
It’s a core belief of mine that as human beings, we are shaped by the emotions we feel. I don’t think those change over time. Hate felt exactly the same 3,000 years ago as it feels today. The furniture changes—the surroundings change—but the human heart is constant. Hopefully it is possible to convey the strangeness of past times while connecting on an emotional level to the universal human experience.
Why did you choose the prophet Nathan to narrate King David’s life?
In telling King David’s story, I wanted a narrator who would have access to the broad sweep of his entire life. I became intrigued by imagining the kind of book someone like Nathan would have written. He wasn’t afraid to castigate the king; he spoke to him brutally at times. Yet he was drawn quite closely into David’s counsel as a result of this bluntness. It seemed to me that Nathan would be the perfect narrator because he sees David so clearly, the dark and the light in his character.
This is your second novel in which the main protagonist is male. What’s it like as a woman to write in a male voice?
To be honest, I don’t like it. I prefer a female narrator because her thoughts are more accessible to me. It is much more difficult to capture a male voice convincingly. With Nathan, it was a tough undertaking; I had a real struggle getting the right tone for his voice. I thought he was going to sound one way, and then it turned out that he didn’t want to sound that way at all. He had an entirely different voice and personality, and I finally had to give into that.
Why do you portray Bathsheba as a victim of rape rather than in her more traditional role of a seductress?
Male writers tend to portray her that way because they are always looking at the situation through a male lens. How often have we heard just this sort of “blame the victim” mentality in cases of sexual assault? When I look at the story, I read it completely differently. I see it from the point of view of a woman who is in a society that is entirely patriarchal; she has very little overt power. Her husband is away at war. She is trying to find some privacy on the roof to go to the mikvah. She doesn’t know that the king has insomnia and that he is wandering around in the night because he is disturbed that, for the first time in his life, he is not in battle with his troops, and this makes him worried about his manhood. She is summoned to the palace—does she have any choice? I think not. And then she is pregnant and the penalty for adultery is stoning. She is plunged into a dire situation that is not of her own choosing. And yet, out of this she forges a life that puts her in a great position of power at the end. Her son will succeed the king. Bathsheba was dealt a very bad hand, but she knows how to play it. I intended this as a corrective to the male view that has usually been imposed on her.
What was your research process like?
I traveled in Israel and spent a day herding sheep with my son. I was very intrigued by why so many leaders in the Bible start out as shepherds. I wanted to herd sheep exactly as David would have and to see how that experience shaped his personality and leadership skills. As I took in the sensory experience of being amongst the sheep on the overgrown, barley-covered hillside and breathed in the scent of tangy wild pine, I thought about what it would have been like to be that young shepherd boy dreaming of a different life. It turns out that it’s actually very hard to get sheep to flock. They like to wander about and kept heading off into a lot of different directions. My son was much better at it than I was.
What sources did you use?
The main source was the Tanach and The Jewish Study Bible, which is a wonderful resource because it is so extensively annotated. I read wildly all the different exegesis about David; he has attracted a lot of scholarship over the years. I found a lot of these books to be disappointing because they seemed to feel the necessity to take the position that David was only one thing or another, that he was either all darkness or all light. I think that’s such a mistake. The works that I liked the best were Rabbi David Wolpe’s David: The Divided Heart, and Robert Pinsky’s The Life of David, because both of these men understand that the beauty of David is in his complexity and that he embodies the best and worst of human nature.
What made you choose to eroticize the relationship between Jonathan, the eldest son of King Saul, and David?
The text to me describes a full relationship. It says that their souls are knit together. It says in David’s own words, “My brother Jonathan loves me with a love more wonderful than the love of a woman.” What could be a more clear description of a full relationship? That is how it appears to my eyes. I would have had to twist myself into a pretzel to think it was anything else.
Have you gotten any pushback for writing about a biblical character?
People have certainly taken issue with my portrayal of the relationship between David and Jonathan, and that is their right. We all interpret these words of scripture according to our own core beliefs and our own eyes. I can’t see it any other way than how I see it, but I also don’t expect anyone else to change his or her opinions to suit me. If it weren’t a novel it would be a different matter. Luckily, I don’t live in a place where anyone feels they have the right to control my imagination.
What is the story behind the book’s title?
It comes from Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” The first line is, “I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played.” Leonard Cohen had an Orthodox Jewish upbringing. I think the Tanach influenced his songwriting enormously. I love the verse of “Hallelujah,” which really encapsulates what’s so fascinating about the David story: “There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy or the broken, hallelujah.” That’s what keeps us coming back to David, his duality. He is fascinating but broken—as in some ways we all are.
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