After hearing from topical comedian Trevor Noah Sunday and Democratic strategist James Carville last night, book lovers at the third evening of the Miami Book Fair might have been looking for some literary relief from politics when the widely admired historical novelist Geraldine Brooks took the stage Tuesday.
And so it was — until Brooks opened her mouth and spoke.
“It’s been a tough week,” said Brooks. “We lost Leonard Cohen, Gwen Ifill, and the country.”
The line got a rueful laugh from the crowd, but Brooks did not return to politics, at least not contemporary politics, until the very end of her talk. In between she gave a fascinating account of how her most recent novel, The Secret Chord, came to be written.
“Why would someone like me, who likes to write fiction grounded in fact, write a book set in the Second Iron Age?” Brooks asked. “It comes down to be careful about letting your children influence your choice of topic.”
A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, the Australian-American novelist is best known for Year of Wonders (2001), her first novel; March (2005), the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel imagining the missing father in Luisa May Alcott’s Little Women; and The People of the Book (2008), the story of the restoration of a rare Jewish scripture that has been called “a literary ‘Da Vinci Code.’”
The Secret Chord, an ambitious retelling of the life of King David from the Bible, has already earned rave reviews from the Washington Post and the New York Times, which called it a thundering, gritty, emotionally devastating reconsideration of the story of King David.”
Brooks first started thinking about King David when her “football playing” son decided, at the age of 8, to learn to play the harp.
Like most people, Brooks knew only the “greatest hits” of David’s life — the giant Goliath, the Psalms singing, the seduction of Bathsheba.
“It is an entire life,” Brooks said. “It is the first political life, the first life in the Bible where nothing supernatural happens. Everything happens to him, good and bad. He’s a warrior, a poet, a musician. He is loved and hated.”
After picking the prophet Nathan as her narrator, Brooks had difficulty getting a fix on his character. “Nathan is the only one who stands up to David at the height of his power,” Brooks aid. “I thought he would be some unvarnished Mafia consigliere.”
Brooks, who brought a PowerPoint slideshow with her, flashed an image from The Godfather on the giant screens flanking the stage. “But he didn’t want that voice. I thought maybe a courtier like Thomas Cromwell” — a still of Mark Rylance in the British TV production of Wolf Hall — “or maybe really dark.” Here, she put up two pictures of former Vide President Dick Cheney, lurking behind George W. Bush., another laugh-getter.
“But he didn’t want to be dark, he wanted to be otherworldly,” Brooks said. “Of course! He’s a Hebrew prophet, that ferocious voice of conscience standing on the walls of the city, calling the people to be their better selves.”
Usually when writing a historical novel, Brooks does “a deep dive” into the archives of the time to hear how people talk in their own words. In King David’s case, the circumstances of that ancient time were not immediately available.
So she did what any successful novelist would do. She packed up her 10-year-old son and went off the Israel to visit the places associated with David and his reign. They herded sheep, they carried water, they rode camels.
“After sacrificing our backsides for half a day, I learned there were no camels in Israel during the Second Iron Age,” Brooks said. “We should have been riding a mule.”
During the Q&A, a member of the audience asked for Brooks’s thoughts on the future of the human race, a question that drew laughter from the crowd even before she could answer.
And when she did, Brooks said dryly, “I am a little more pessimistic this week,” before adding, “We have an amazing capacity to appreciate each other. That’s when we build our great societies.”
But there is also, Brooks said, closing on a downer moment, “a horrible virus, this terrible idea that ‘the other’ is separate and less, and is to be persecuted and eradicated. Every time we arise to meet it we destroy our great society.”
Spain, she said, has never recovered from expelling the Jews and the Muslims in the 15th century.
“We can only hope we don’t follow that path,” she said.