The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks Traces Biblical King David’s Joys and Sorrows

An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Geraldine Brooks
Author of The Secret Chord: A Novel (Viking, 6 October 2015)

Columnist Anna Roins

With more than two million copies of her novels sold world-wide, and now the recent recipient of THE OFFICER OF THE ORDER OF AUSTRALIA, New York Times best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize winner, Geraldine Brooks, has achieved both popular and critical acclaim.

The Secret Chord
by Geraldine Brooks

Buy this Book

Now Brooks takes on one of literature’s richest and most enigmatic figures from the Bible who is part history and part legend; David King of Israel, the man who slew the Philistine giant, Goliath, in 1000 BC. Once a shepherd boy, David went on to become a steely politician, a polygamist, a traitor, a poet, a brutal warrior and one of the most enigmatic kings of biblical times.

We discover David’s story from obscurity to fame, through the eyes of those who loved him or feared him the most; his mother, brother and wives, as told from the perspective of the prophet Natan.

The New York Times calls Brooks most recent novel, THE SECRET CHORD: A NOVEL, “blazing”, masterly”.

AUTHORLINK: Ms. Brooks, thank you so much for sharing your time with us to discuss your new book, the incredible, THE SECRET CHORD: A NOVEL, a historical fiction retracing the life of King David, biblical legend. Until the Tel Dan Stele was discovered in 1993-94 in Israel, all reference to King David was found in the Bible – as a humble shepherd, a brutal warrior, and a gifted musician who united the people of Israel under his rule. The stele proved David was, in fact, a historical figure and not some literary concoction. What was it about him that you found compelling?

“. . . what immediately strikes you is the variety of interpretations of this man—”

BROOKS: He’s everywhere in Western art—music, painting, sculpture. And if you study these images, what immediately strikes you is the variety of interpretations of this man—from Donatello’s effete, contemplative boy-man to the sad-eyed lost soul in Arthur Boyd’s expressionist canvasses to images of might and strength such as Michelangelo’s. You can pour the whole experience of being human into this one vessel, because his is one of the richest and fullest lives we have scattered through the books of Samuel, Chronicles, Kings and the Psalms. Everything happens to David; every conceivable human joy or sorrow, triumph or tragedy. I love his bifurcated nature. This is a man capable of great love but also ruthless cruelty. He makes great poetry; he massacres innocents.  He’s beloved, and he’s hated. He’s a hero; he’s a traitor. You absolutely cannot simplify him, neither to lionize nor to deplore. 

His capacity for love—both in his sexual relationships and his paternal ones; his significance as a musician, poet, composer and patron of the arts; his ability to hear criticism and to be self-critical. These to me are his great strengths. His weaknesses are what we today would call abuse of power and war crimes; also his over-indulgence of his spoiled, malevolent sons; the selfish and abusive indulgence of his own sexual appetites. As a person, I have imagined him as highly charismatic, with all the danger that comes with that.

 AUTHORLINK: That’s fascinating, thank you. The title of the book has been inspired by the song, “Hallelujah” by songwriter, Leonard Cohen: “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord/That David played and it pleased the Lord.” David could play a particular chord on the harp that no one else could play, and he wrote most of the Psalms. Which is your favourite poem or psalm of David?

BROOKS: I’ve quoted, and in some cases re-translated, my favourite verses throughout the novel. There is a lot of personal biography in the Psalms: David’s feelings about his underdog childhood are set out there, and nowhere else. The imagery is rich and specific, very grounded in the natural world as he knew it—the world of shepherds and hyssop, dewy pastures and rocky salients. I like the exuberance of some of the Songs of Ascent, in which you feel David’s joie de vivre, his capacity for worship. I love the immense sadness in Song of the Bow, which is in many ways the model of how a eulogy should work.

AUTHORLINK: Interesting. In THE SECRET CHORD, you use the transliterations from the original Hebrew in the Tanakh, the Jewish sacred text, because you wanted people to feel the unfamiliarity of this time and to create a sense of distance. So Nathan is Natan, Saul is Shaul, Solomon Shlomo, and so on. You also penned the dialogue between the characters as rather “abrupt,” with a “tribal consonant type of sound,” to make the language more authentic. These aspects of your writing help the reader fall into the fictive dream and to travel back in time some 3000 years. What do you consider the epitome of good writing? Which writers inspire you?

“You can’t be reductive about it [good writing]. There’s no formula. I seek out, and return to, writing that affects me physically. . .”

BROOKS: You can’t be reductive about it [good writing]. There’s no formula. I seek out, and return to, writing that affects me physically; makes the hair rise, makes me laugh or weep or gasp at the sheer beauty of the insights or the use of language. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek are books I return to again and again for sustenance.

 AUTHORLINK: Thank you for sharing that. Natan, the prophet, is the narrator of the story. He could see David for what he was and censured his wrongful acts. It was riveting to access his thoughts. We understand there’s a reference of an actual ‘Book of Natan the Prophet’ in amongst the lost books of the Tanakh (as referred to in one of the books of the Chronicles of the Hebrew Bible) that supposedly tells all of David’s story. That book is lost probably somewhere in the Qumran caves, waiting to be discovered by a Bedouin shepherd (unless it already has been and locked up secretly in the Vatican!) How incredible if it were to be found. Would it depart very much from Natan’s perspective as crafted in your book, do you think?

BROOKS:  Absolutely it would.  The Hebrew prophets are, as Abraham Heschel wrote, “some of the most disturbing men who ever lived.” I expect Natan’s account would be iconoclastic, shocking and confronting in ways we cannot hope to imagine.

 AUTHORLINK: That’s fantastic – if only it could be found. Natan also listens to the tales told by David’s wives. Some of these women, such as his soul mate, Avigail (Abigail), truly loved David. Others, such as the bitter Mikhal (Michal), the ruined daughter of Shaul (Saul), and the legendary Bathsheba, mother of Shlomo, come to despise him. Why was it so important to give the women in David’s life a voice?

“I wanted to give them a backstory, widen the viewfinder and switch the POV [point of view], see through their eyes . . . “

BROOKS: I was amazed by the women in his life—women who are much more fully drawn individuals than is typical in the rather patriarchal pages of the bible. Yet they are there only as sketches, their stories valued only in so far as they advance the narrative of David’s life. I wanted to give them a backstory, widen the viewfinder and switch the POV [point of view], see through their eyes, see how he affected them. To do this, I relied on what I learned when I was a foreign correspondent for almost ten years in Iran, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and many other countries in the Mideast, Africa and the Balkans. That decade, from 1987, made me well acquainted with theocracies, with brutal abuse of power and with cultures in which female agency is exercised is oblique and hidden ways.

 AUTHORLINK: In your book, we are privy to a relationship between David and Jonathan, the son of Saul. Upon Jonathan’s death, David says, “My brother Jonathan loves me with a love more wonderful than the love of a woman.” It suggests an intimate relationship that sounds perfectly whole. In your opinion, do you believe that homoeroticism love (chaste or otherwise) in ancient times was not considered as taboo as it is/was in modern times?

BROOKS:  If you put David into the context of the ancient Mediterranean world 3,000 years ago, you have a variety of social norms in surrounding societies.  It’s possible to speculate that the ancient Hebrews might have heard some version of Homer’s stories, and certainly the homoerotic was accepted, even celebrated, in many parts of the ancient world.

 AUTHORLINK: We admire how you portray Bathsheba as probably a victim of rape rather than in her more traditional role of a seductress (usually from the perspective of male writers), given the logical deduction of the facts of her circumstance. We like how you have said in this regard, ‘’I intended this as a corrective to the male view that has usually been imposed on her.’’ Has this caused some controversy?

BROOKS: I don’t concern myself with that. Arguing about texts is at the heart of Judaism, after all. We squeeze these old stories for meaning constantly, and disagreement is a given.

AUTHORLINK: Very true. It has been your observation that many leaders in the Bible start out as shepherds. We understand there was some hands-on research in this book. You travelled to Israel and spent a day herding sheep with your son at a Biblical reserve in Shephelah, in south-central Israel. You stayed at a Bedouin settlement in a tent encampment with similar living conditions as that of David’s outlaw years. You visited archaeological digs to obtain an accurate sense of the Second Iron Age and even consulted with an Israeli military strategist about how David might have conquered Jerusalem. After all that groundwork, does the writing just flow?

BROOKS: Some days—some very few days—it might “flow.” Mostly it’s like a murky puddle, oozing along, with an occasional clear trickle breaking forth every once in a while.

 AUTHORLINK: A very colourful way of describing your talent! You have an Irish Catholic background but converted to Judaism when you married your husband, another Pulitzer Prize winner, author Tony Horwitz. Since Jewishness is based on matrilineal descent, you converted so that your children could be Jewish. Your husband’s ancestors had survived the pogroms in Russia, and you didn’t want it to be the end of that line. You have admitted in the past that you’re not an observant Jew and that, ”attending your local synagogue is really about witnessing the struggle of human beings to make sense of life.” You said that you’re not a deist and that even a brush with cancer didn’t make you one. While researching David’s story and combing through the Bible again, did you feel a pull of spirituality?

BROOKS: Perhaps the opposite. The violence in David’s story often is repellent, and vividly reminds how religion can be misused in the most brutal “us and them” dehumanization.  It reinforced my core belief that asking the questions matters.  Believing you have the right answers is where it gets gnarly and highly dangerous.

 AUTHORLINK: Agreed. You grew up in the suburb of Ashfield in Sydney. Have you recently been back and if so, how has it changed? What is your favourite part of Sydney?

BROOKS: My second book of non-fiction, Foreign Correspondence (Anchor, 19 January 1999), paints a pretty full picture of my Aussie childhood in the 1960s. We weren’t too well off materially but we had a very rich imaginative life and a great deal of unstructured time without the pressures and the over-scheduling that I personally feel robs children today of the freedom to create and dream. My childhood neighbourhoods have gentrified. The upside: no more toxic factory wastes in the air and water, but also no more mangrove swamps and empty overgrown lots to explore—they’ve all been covered over with pricey condos and marinas.

I love the way the water and the bush finger their way right into the city of Sydney—there’s still space there for nature, trees, wildlife and amazing, primary-colored birds.

AUTHORLINK: Yes, they’re so beautiful. We understand you are currently working on your next novel, a ‘’braided narrative set in the 1860s, the 1940s and the present’’ combining stories of two of your great passions, horses and art. Can you tell us a little more about this book? Is the research, for instance, closer to home?

BROOKS: If I can consider my morning rides “research,” then yes, it’s closer to home.  But I will still have to travel quite extensively.

“Find the thing that you’re afraid of, and go and do it until you’re not afraid anymore.”

AUTHORLINK: How wonderful. On a final note, what advice would you give to your younger self?

BROOKS: The same advice my mother gave me: Find the thing that you’re afraid of, and go and do it until you’re not afraid anymore. 

AUTHORLINK: Excellent.Ms. Brooks, it was such a privilege to ask you about THE SECRET CHORD: A NOVEL and about yourself. We hope you have every success for this novel and all the others to come in the future.

BROOKS: Thank you

About the Author:

Australian-born, novelist and former journalist, Geraldine Brooks, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for her novel March (Harper Perennial, 1 October 2008). Her first novel, Year of Wonders (Harper Perennial, 4 February 2002) is an international best-seller, and People of the Book (Harper Perennial, 1 October 2008) recounts the journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah through centuries of war and strife, is a New York Times best-seller translated into 20 languages. She has made her mark with daring fictional re-imaginings of some of the most iconic figures in history and literature. A convert to Judaism, Brooks revisits Jewish history in her latest novel, THE SECRET CHORD: A NOVEL, which envisions King David as a self-destructive Machiavellian figure.

You can find out more about Geraldine Brooks at, and

About Anna Roins:

Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor in Sydney before she embarked on a career in writing eight years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to articles on social and community issues and edited a number of books, websites, and dissertations. She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.

You can find out more about Anna Roins on and