While Geraldine Brooks built her career as a roving journalist, covering global hot spots like the Middle East and the Balkans, she is also renowned as a fiction writer who reaches into the past to write such critically acclaimed novels as her 2001 debut, Year of Wonders, set in 1660s England, and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner March, inspired by Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, set during the U.S. Civil War. Brooks's next novel, her fifth, The Secret Chord (Viking, Oct.), goes back much, much further: to biblical times.
"It got a little out of hand," Brooks admits with a laugh, acknowledging that it was difficult to write about a historical character like King David, when the only contemporary reference to him, aside from the Bible, of course, is a stone inscription. But the lack of source material on King David didn't hold back this intrepid journalist: Brooks says she did a lot of field research—literally. Not only did she travel to Israel, visiting places associated with David and boning up in the archives there on what daily life was like in biblical times, but she and her son even herded sheep, as David did before the famous battle with Goliath catapulted him to fame and fortune. She consulted with an Israeli military strategist as well on how David might have strategized in conquering Jerusalem. And because spoken Hebrew during biblical times was "abrupt, rather than flowery [prose] like the King James version of the Bible" with a "tribal, consonant type of sound," that's how she penned dialogue between the characters.
Brooks is fascinated with King David. She describes his story as encompassing most of human experience: there's love and loss, triumph and despair, victory and defeat. "Everything happens to him," she says, pointing out that the biblical account is the "first piece of history writing that we have," predating Herodotus by 500 years. "The Bible tells the story of a king; it's a human story. There are no miracles here."
Although she admits that King David "did some terrible things," such as sending Bathsheba's husband to the front lines so that he'd be killed, Brooks says he must have been quite the charmer. "He inspired loyalty in men and women alike. People forgave him even when he did terrible things, like stealing another man's wife."
Brooks is participating in a q&a at the Downtown Stage with Washington Post Book World editor Ron Charles today, 11:15–11:45, and will do an in-booth signing of The Secret Chord at the Penguin Random House booth (3119), 1:30–2:30 p.m.
This article appeared in the May 28, 2015 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.