Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

The Secret Chord: Interview

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.