An Interview with Geraldine Brooks

  • By Joye Shepperd
  • October 13, 2015

The much-lauded writer discusses history, humankind’s failures, and the enduring allure of kings.


Geraldine Brooks is the author of five novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning March. Her other works include Caleb’s Crossing and People of the Book. Brooks uses her considerable talent to give flesh and blood to real historical figures (or figures who ought to be real). This time, she offers The Secret Chord, an absorbing, fictionalized account of the life and times of the biblical King David.

There always seems to be room in literature for an ancient king. Is there another character who would always be welcome?

My favorite characters are those who start off in a box — few options, societal constraints — but who transcend their circumstances and find that they are capable of becoming people they did not expect to be. 

Why should a woman be ashamed of a man seeing the signs of her age, as Nizevet, David’s mother, seems to be when Natan, his friend and biographer, looks upon her wrinkled neck? Objects of beauty don’t age. We love old temples, stones, and stories.

What should be and what actually is are two totally different things. I think the crone is an astoundingly beautiful image: the well-worn body, the expressive face etched all over with the map of a life's experience. But tell that to the arbiters of what is and is not aesthetic. I can't think of a single age or historical period that has venerated aging female beauty. On the contrary, all societies, ours most especially, denigrate the aging face.

How does it feel to imagine the story “between the facts”? 

The facts are the scaffolding. The imaginative work is the structure you manage to build on it. It can be as capacious and as daring as you like, so long as the scaffolding — the research — is good enough to support it.

The ark comes to Gihon, and David responds with such joy and reverence — all aquiver with tireless dancing — that Natan finds it a little unseemly. And yet, isn’t this the reason he loves David — David’s worship of the Name? 

I think I address that in the passage itself. Natan's awkwardness gives way to his own connection with something sublime.

“What would be new, would be an end to all the fighting. That would be a good time to live," says Shlomo, David’s son. Here we are 3,000 years later, and it would still be new. How is it that a so-called enlightened creature has not seen and sustained this moment?

When you have an answer to that question, you will also have the Nobel Peace Prize. We are a species that cannot quench our violent impulses.  

The Bible is full of stories about a cruel, vindictive, and violent God. If our God is selfish, war-mongering, and jealous, what really can we expect of ourselves?

The scripture says we are made in God's image. But some philosophers argue that we've created our gods in our own, because the limits of our imagination can do no other but mirror the nature we know. And yet creation, this cosmos, is a place of wonder and transcendent beauty. 

[Editor’s Note: Geraldine Brooks will be in conversation with Washington Post journalist Joel Achenbach this Thursday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m., at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC. Click here for details.]

Joye Shepperd is senior features editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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