Bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner, Geraldine Brooks, spoke to me about why “truth is stranger than fiction,” letting story drive narrative, and the overheard conversation that led to her latest, “Horse.”
Geraldine Brooks is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March and the international bestsellers The Secret Chord, Caleb’s Crossing, People of the Book, and Year of Wonders (recently optioned by Olivia Colman).
Her latest novel, Horse, is described as “… a sweeping story of spirit, obsession, and injustice across American history.” TIME magazine said of the book, “Horse isn’t just an animal story—it’s a moving narrative about race and art.”
Geraldine has also written acclaimed nonfiction works including Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence. She started out as a reporter in her hometown, Sydney, and went on to cover conflicts as a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East.
“How is it possible that the bones of a champion racehorse were not too long ago consigned to the dusty attic of the Smithsonian? A horse whose stellar career and long pedigree were little known outside some racing circles? These real-life details intrigued bestselling author Geraldine Brooks. leading her to craft a fictional tale based on the documented history of that top racing horse named Lexington. Brooks’ simply titled novel “Horse” is a tale of the twinned histories of both Lexington and the people who admired her. It is a thrilling narrative stretching across centuries and set against a backdrop of racial turbulence, art history and scientific inquiry.”
“Horse” is our July selection for “Bookmarked: The Under the Radar Book Club.”
What interests you most about King David? How did you decide to write a novel about him?
When my son was about nine years old, he made the unusual decision to learn to play the harp. (I’d been braced for drums, so I didn’t actually resist the choice.) Watching him, dwarfed by his teacher’s gorgeous concert instrument, I began to think about that other long ago boy harpist, the shepherd who became a king. He’s ubiquitous, after all: a cliché in our language (how many contests are David and Goliath battles?); gorgeously depicted throughout the history of Western art; the psalms attributed to him sung in churches and synagogues across millennia. But who was this warrior-poet-musician, this lover and killer, who experiences every human joy and every human heartbreak? I went back to the bible to look for him, and found that the best stories from his life are the least told ones.
How did you research and prepare to write THE SECRET CHORD?
I started with the period itself, the Second Iron Age, to discover as much as I could about the context for a leader like David. How did tribal power work? What did people eat? How did they fight? What would they have known about the wider world? Archaeology and ancient history answered many of these questions. Others had to be answered experientially. What was it like to herd sheep on a hot afternoon in the Judean hills? My younger son and I went and did it. We also visited sites associated with David, going to places like the Valley of Elah where he clashed with Goliath, Ein Gedi where he hid out from Shaul and exploring the tunnels under Jerusalem where excavations are uncovering buildings of the Davidian period. I talked with Israeli military experts about some of the strategic issues David faced. I consulted experts on early Hebrew music, trying to get a feel for the sound of what David might have played.
As a journalist, you covered the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal. Did your experience with the location and its history enhance your ability to write THE SECRET CHORD?
My first impulse is to say no, because in three thousand years, too much has changed. The flora and fauna are entirely different. The land is dense with millions of people rather than the scattered thousands who lived there in that era. And yet on reflection, a number of experiences did shape my thinking. Covering modern desert warfare, interviewing contemporary despots and seeing how absolute power is wielded, living among people whose lives are entirely shaped, and sometimes deformed, by ardent religious conviction—all these things fed my imagination in some way. Also, in my six years living among the women of the region, I saw how those who may appear to be powerless on the surface, often in fact exert tremendous influence. This helped shape my thinking about the lives of David’s wives, Mikhal and Batsheva.
David is a complicated character—at once a warrior and despot, a lover and adulterer, a poet and composer, a coarse yet refined man of fierce will and great appetites who is also capable of baseness and treachery. In your opinion, what are David’s biggest flaws? What are his greatest strengths?
Well, he’s a murderer, which is pretty hard to get past. He abuses power. He’s also a criminally indulgent parent. But he is paid out heavily for these crimes and flaws. Unlike many of our modern leaders, when he makes a mistake, he admits it. He listens to criticism. I’m drawn to his ardency, his huge capacity for love.
David has been widely depicted in art, literature, and film. Did you consult other portrayals while writing THE SECRET CHORD? Is there anything you feel previous depictions get wrong about him?
I read everything I could find. I watched some truly execrable movies. I revisited favorite art works and discovered masterpieces that were new to me. The Australian painter Arthur Boyd, for example, has a poignant depiction of David and Shaul that taps into the artist’s own pain as the son of a mentally unstable father. Many of the scholarly works, (Pinksy and Wolpe being two notable exceptions) tend to be either/or, black/white, twisting data to condemn or exonerate him. To me it was more interesting to accept the contradictions in his nature, the multi-faceted complexity of it.
How did you decide which stories and characters from David’s life to include in the novel, and which to leave out?
I didn’t leave much out. Perhaps I tended to dwell less on the military campaigns and more on the domestic entanglements. I found myself most drawn to the women in the narrative, the love stories—and, yes, hate-stories– of his many relationships.
The novel is primarily told through the eyes of Natan, the mysterious prophet who becomes David’s direct connection to the divine, his lifelong companion and advisor, and the moral conscience of the novel. Where did you inspiration for Natan come from?
The inspiration came from two references in the bible that I have used here as epigraphs, each of which refers to the lost “book of Natan.” The bible says Natan has given a full account of the lives of David and Shlomo, all their acts, “from first to last.” What would such a man have seen? What would he have known? How would his portrayal differ from the accounts that we do have, in the two books of Samuel, in Kings and in Chronicles? It’s tantalizing, and it took hold of my imagination. I’ve always loved the Hebrew prophets, in any case. These men of huge moral force, these pain-in–the-ass truth tellers who had the guts to castigate their society and its rulers, often in the most exquisitely crafted language. You can feel their fierceness, their penetrating intelligence, their bravery.
You’ve written many historical novels, but none set so far back in time as THE SECRET CHORD. Was it challenging to capture the voice of the period?
I don’t think it’s possible to recapture the voice of a period so distant from our own. What I tried to avoid were the familiar flowery cadences of King James Bible English, striving instead for something that evoked the bluntness and the austere beauty of the biblical Hebrew.
What were the biggest challenges you encountered in the writing of this novel?
David shimmers somewhere in the half-light between history and myth. My challenge was to approach an emotional truth that seemed real and recognizable without losing the sense of the supernatural, the slightly magical aura that surrounds a man we’re told lived his life in the hand of the divine.
In your afterword, you make an amusing apology to your husband, a well-known writer and Civil War afficionado, for your previous lack of appreciation for his passion. Although you say you’re not sure “when or where” it happened, would you talk a bit about your change of heart and what led to your new and profound interest in the American Civil War and eventually to the writing of March?
In the early 1990s we came to live in a small Virginia village where Civil War history is all around us. There are bullet scars on the bricks of the Baptist church where a skirmish took place; we have a Union soldier’s belt buckle that was unearthed near the old well in our courtyard. The village was Quaker, and abolitionist, but in the midst of the Confederacy. The war brought huge issues of conscience for the townsfolk, a few of whom sacrificed their nonviolent principles to raise a regiment to fight on the Union side. It was thinking about the people who once lived in our house, and the moral challenges the war presented for them, that kindled my interest in imagining an idealist adrift in that war. I am gripped by the stories of individuals from the generation Oliver Wendell Holmes so eloquently described when he said: “In our youth our hearts were touched with fire.” I’m still not all that interested in the order of battles, I still drive Tony crazy by failing to keep the chronology straight, and offered the choice between a trip to the dentist and another midsummer reenactment, it’d be a hard call. But sometimes, alone on a battlefield as the mists rise over the grass, I feel like a time traveler, born back by the ghosts of all those vivid, missing boys.
Grace Clement is such an extraordinary character and is pivotal in shaping March’s life. You tell us that her voice was inspired by an 1861 autobiography, but what inspired you to create a romantic relationship between Grace and March? Were there any historical hints that Alcott had had such a relationship?
The idea of an attraction between March and Grace is entirely imagined and not at all suggested by Bronson Alcott’s biography. It grew naturally out of the narrative: they are young and attractive when they first meet, he is an idealist, she is a compelling person in a dramatic and moving situation. It seemed inevitable to me.
A year after March enlists he says, “One day I hope to go back. To my wife, to my girls, but also to the man of moral certainty that I was . . . that innocent man, who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was that he was meant to do.” Do you think he can go back? Is it even possible? Would you discuss how you think March changes by the end of the novel and what parts of him remain intact?
I don’t think he can go back. Nor do I think it is necessarily desirable. Moral certainty can deafen people to any truth other than their own. By the end of the book, March is damaged, but he is still an idealist; it’s just that he sees more clearly the cost of his ideals, and understands that he is not the only one who must pay for them.
Your book Nine Parts of Desire deals with the issues of Muslim women. Year of Wonders had a female heroine, Anna Frith. How was it different writing principally from a man’s point of view this time?
I have always believed that the human heart is the human heart, no matter what century we live in, what country we inhabit, or what gender we happen to be. This is a book about strong feelings: love and fear. I can’t believe there’s much difference in how a man or a woman experiences them. And then, I had the journals and letters of Bronson Alcott, which are perhaps as complete a record of a Victorian man’s interior life as any you could find.
It is quite a surprise to suddenly hear Marmee’s voice in Part Two. Can you talk about how and why you decided to change the point of view here?
The structure of March was laid down for me before the first line was written, because my character has to exist within Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women plotline. That meant March has to go to the hospital gravely ill and Marmee has to arrive to tend him. The alternative to switching voices would have been to continue the narrative in March’s voice, disoriented by his delirium. But giving Marmee a voice seemed like an opportunity to me to better explore some of the themes of communication, and miscommunication, in a marriage. Also, the book was written against the tumult of my own feelings about the war with Iraq, and as I started to write in Marmee’s voice I found that she could naturally articulate a frustration, grief, and confusion that seemed in common between us.
The American Civil War was enormously complex with different political, social, economic, and psychological factors all playing a role. What did you learn from your research that may have surprised you and, other than your obvious newfound interest, is your opinion of the war any different now than when you started?
Nations inevitably fall into the trap of romanticizing their militaries and are always astonished when the truth of awful atrocities is revealed, as it inevitably is in almost every war. There were plenty of hate-filled racists in Lincoln’s army, fighting side by side with the celebrated idealists. March’s growing dismay as he learns this in a way reflects my own journey to a more complete understanding.
Would you talk a bit about how your past work as a foreign correspondent informs your current writing? What do you think historical fiction can achieve that nonfiction cannot? Would you ever entertain the idea of writing a novel about current events?
Write what you know. It’s the first advice given to writers. I did draw on some experiences of war from my correspondent years. You see things during war, and you can never unsee them. The thing that most attracts me to historical fiction is taking the factual record as far as it is known, using that as scaffolding, and then letting imagination build the structure that fills in those things we can never find out for sure. And to do that you use all the experiences you can. While I love to read contemporary fiction, I’m not drawn to writing it. Perhaps it’s because the former journalist in me is too inhibited by the press of reality; when I think about writing of my own time I always think about nonfiction narratives. Or perhaps it’s just that I find the present too confounding.
What are you working on now?
Another historical novel based on a true story, but one where the truth is not completely known, and so there are intriguing voids for the imagination to fill. Like March andYear of Wonders it has a lot to do with faith and catastrophe.