Geraldine Brooks is the author of five novels. Her first, Year of Wonders, was an international bestseller, translated into more than 25 languages, and she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for March. Her other novels, Caleb’s Crossing and People of the Book, were both New York Times best sellers. Before writing novels she was a foreign correspondent and covered crisis in the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East.
Her most recent book, The Secret Chord, tells the story of the biblical David through the eyes of those that surround him, and in particular, the prophet Natan, charged with chronicling the complexities of a life shaped by the position of power.
King David is a complex character – what drew you to his story? Of all the biblical characters you could have chosen, why him?
I wasn’t looking for a biblical story. I just came across him. He’s so complicated and he just embodies so much of human experience. He really is the first character we meet as a child and we follow him through to his extreme old age and it’s the first piece of really political biography that we have. That was intriguing to me, and as you read his life’s story it is full of reversals and then resurrections and then second chances. It seemed to me the most complete human story you could envision, and yet, it’s told with this great economy of means – ‘this happened, that happened’ – and there’s not much room to breathe. I wanted to open the viewfinder and slow down the pace, to let some air into the story and change the view points so you can see things through the eyes of the people affected by David, instead of this recitation of what happened to David.
Looking at David through all these refracted views, it makes him more complex and more realistic. Is that how you tried to untangle him from the biblical record and myth?
I bought in a lot of experiences that I had as a correspondent, and I fully imagined the lives of the women particularly. I was thinking back onto women that I spent time with as a correspondent. They lived precarious lives in societies that didn’t give them any public power at all, and very few rights. And yet they managed, somehow, to find a way to wield some private power and to direct their fate. They’d been dealt a very bad hand, in many cases, so I was thinking about how they managed it as I tried to imagine my way into these fantastically vivid women who are in David’s life.
Were you tempted at any stage to move one of the women in David’s life to a more central position, or was it more that once you found Natan’s voice, his eyes were a better choice for us to witness the story through?
If I had picked one particular wife to be the narrator it would have limited the field of vision too much. You really have to stretch credulity to put her in the places you need to go as the reader, and she wouldn’t be able to see the other wives objectively.
And Natan, I just loved the idea of the fact that he wrote a book and we don’t have it, the lost book, it really intrigues me. From what we know about Natan from the brief appearances he makes in David’s story – his ferocious courage, his willingness to critique the king, to castigate his misuses of power – I just kept thinking what was in Natan’s book. How would we view this man differently if that book had not been lost to us.
That is such a temptation, isn’t it?
I love the Hebrew Prophets because I like to think of them as the people we have around now that tell us inconvenient truths – like Bob Brown or Bill McKibben or Martin Luther King. These people who stand on the city walls and yell at us for our moral failures.
When you wrote Natan, as the living conscience of David, did it come to you in a visionary flash?
No, he was a very recalcitrant narrator. I initially was thinking of him as some kind of Iron Age mafia consigliore or a bit of a Thomas Cromwell, a backroom deal-maker, and he [Brooks’ character] just wasn’t interested in being that guy at all. He didn’t want to be dark, he wanted to be light. And then I thought, well, he is a Hebrew Prophet, and these are guys of incredible moral fortitude and courage. They are not really interested in wielding power at all, they are interested in critiquing it. Once I allowed him to be that guy, we got along a lot better.
How did your relationship to Judaism come into play with the writing of The Secret Chord? Is that why you chose to keep the Hebraic names of the characters?
I’m interested in Jewish themes; I always was from the time I was a teenager. Jewish history was very intriguing to me; I’m probably the only kid in the New South Wales school system of my year that did their leaving certificate option on the Suez Crisis! I’ve always had a fascination with the oscillations of Jewish history, so the ground was fairly fallow in that regard.
The reason for the Hebrew names isn’t to do with Judaism, as much as wanting to signal that this is not the Sunday school story that you think you are familiar with, these are not the colouring-in pictures with the silly robes and the bad facial hair. I wanted to jar people out of that mindset, and make them understand we are talking about something strange: the Second Iron Age, in Israel, which is very foreign. I wanted the names to not be that familiar.
How do you feel about the label ‘historical fiction’?
I don’t care, I’m not really thinking what pigeonholes people want to put things in. I do feel that, like all labels, it encompasses a very wide swathe of writing. Are there more two dispiriting words than ‘heaving bosom’ or ‘ripped bodice’? You don’t want to be lumped in with that. But I do feel we are in a bit of a Golden Age for historical fiction because of Hilary Mantel, and Charles Frazier in the US with Cold Mountain. I think that they’ve lasered the focus, that this is literature it doesn’t have to be shelved elsewhere.
Peter Carey’s books don’t get labelled as historical fiction, even though many of his narratives delve into the past.
That’s interesting. I love James Wood’s review of Bring Up the Bodies, where he says ‘historical fiction is a gimcrack genre’. There is that sense that it is a bit of a second-class citizen.
What are your thoughts on the recent ‘attack’ on Jane Smiley by historian Niall Ferguson, questioning the veracity of historical fiction?
She was very funny about it, she said when you are six-foot-four you don’t get ‘mansplained’ to a lot.
Have any historians had a bit of a grumble in regards to your own writing, because they feel you are encroaching on their territory?
If you want to tease a historian, acknowledge them in your book because that is the kiss of death to them.
I feel I’m pretty loyal to history. I follow the line of fact as far as I can, then there is the imaginative engagement of trying to fill in the places where the voices are silent and the record doesn’t exist anymore. And I think a lot of historians are ok with the idea of historical fiction as the gateway drug to history.
Your novels have a recurrent theme of the struggle of the inner life or the religious life, and opposition from external forces. What draws you to this?
I go for the story first. My first novel [Year of Wonders] was a story about a town that makes a huge moral decision to save others by sacrificing themselves when the bubonic plague comes. The actual history of this town was that they were led into this decision by their minister. I was attracted to the dilemma of conscience – how do you get a community to come to a consensus like that, and then how do you live with the consequences of it? It was more this question [that drew me to the story].
When I decided to write March, the question was what happens to idealists when they go to war? The vehicle to explore that was the absent father in Little Women, who of course is a minister, again.
People of the Book is about a religious book that is saved by people from other faiths. It’s really about the power of art to inspire, and to transcend difference in a time when difference is being demonised.
So it’s always the idea. It’s more or less coincidental that a lot of vicars keep showing up. When you write about the past, faith was all-pervasive in people’s lives. There was no such thing as secular life in many times and places, and I’ve been drawn to stories where that happens to be true.
What is your process like? Do you have certain rituals or routines that help you to write?
No, I don’t have any. I think having been a journalist for so long made me very unprecious and unsuperstitious about writing. You didn’t call your desk from Sarajevo and say I can’t file today the Muse didn’t arrive, or I don’t have the right HB pencil. It wasn’t on. So you just got used to getting on with it. I think there is a tremendous amount about writing that is just getting on with it, so I don’t have a lot of patience for this idea of writer’s block. Panel beaters don’t get to have a block, nurses don’t; you show up and you do your job and some days you do it better than other days but you have to do the work. You have to file something, even if you get to the end of your allotted work span, and the writing is really clunky and has no lift whatsoever, at least you’ve written and you can come back the next day and hopefully fix it. But if you haven’t got anything then that is much more daunting.
I always think to myself, you can’t edit a blank page.
I try and tell this to my students. I don’t do too much teaching, but when I do I think, ‘get over yourselves’, you might aspire to be an artist but you have to start as a craftsperson. You just have to lay the bricks, and the bricks are the words: lay them down on the page.
I suppose people fall in love with the idea of being a writer, which is actually often very different from the process of being one.
Yes but no. If you want to be a writer just write. Nobody is stopping you except yourself, so you can do it. I’ve got one friend who is so disciplined, she writes wherever she is. If she’s waiting for the bus, she’ll write 100 words. Once she find her seat, she’ll write another 100. That’s the kind of ferocious commitment that gets books written.
You’ve been very generous in giving books blurbs and support to other writers (myself included). Has anyone been particularly instrumental in supporting your writing career, or acted as a mentor in your early publishing life?
I’ve been so lucky; the most incredible ridiculous amount of luck. A huge piece of good fortune for me was getting the Greg Shackleton Australian News Correspondents scholarship to the journalism master’s program at Columbia University. Everything followed from that in terms of my journalism career, without which I don’t think I could write novels. The intensity of the experiences I had as a foreign correspondent fuel the novels. If you haven’t been to a battlefield I think it would be much harder to imagine one. If you haven’t witnessed all the different and diverse ways that people respond to crisis, that would be much harder to imagine. I saw women who had been bought up to think that their entire life would be circumscribed and domestic, and then when there are no men around they take the lead, and you see women step out of their allotted place and do the most incredible things. Once you’ve seen that, it’s much easier to use what you have [to create] your characters. Journalism is where I laid the foundation for everything that’s come after.
I’m very instinctive as a writer, but now I kind of wish I did a masters in creative writing. I don’t have any toolkit, I just put the story first and let the story tell me what I need to know.
I always think the story tells the writer and it’s a bit of an illusion to think it is the other way around.
Yes, I think that is very true.
The elephant in the conversation is the Pulitzer Prize. How did it feel to win the Pulitzer? Did it change your writing process at all– make you more critical, or give you greater freedom with your work?
It was fucking fantastic! [much laughter] It was so outside of any ambit of my imagination. As a journalist you might fantasize about winning a Pulitzer Prize, but you have to be insane as a novelist. What are the odds? It never even crossed my mind, to the extent that the day they called me and said I’d won it I thought they had made a mistake, because E. L. Doctorow had a book called The March and it seemed much more sensible that he would have got it than me. And so I put the phone down. And then the phone immediately rang again so I had to start believing it.
Somewhere in the middle of that afternoon the doorbell rang, and my son answered the door. He was eight years old at the time and he said, ‘Mum can’t come right now, she’s really busy, she’s got the Pulitzer Surprise.’
It doesn’t really change anything except you’ve got more readers. And certainly more male readers because men love a sticker, don’t you think? They want to know that this is not wasting their time.
Your sons helped inspire some of the motifs in your book – the learning of the harp, researching being a shepherd. Does your family play a large part in your writing life?
All women who have family have a different relationship to writing than the stereotypical view of the old literary lion, the male who can go and get drunk and power through a wine-fuelled all-nighter to write his great novel. We don’t do that. Who’s going to find the soccer cleats? Who’s going to mash the potatoes? You’ve always got one foot in the real world, and I think that is a bloody good thing because that is where I get my juice.
I feel sorry for writers who feel that they are terrible parents. I wouldn’t know how to make some of the leaps of imagination that you need to make [as a writer], without having seen how agile a child’s mind is: the way they ask these completely off the wall questions that can take you in a wonderful direction, or just their capacity to make stuff up. Reading kids’ literature, plot is so fundamental. That’s how you get a kid to keep turning the pages. And I don’t think that’s a bad lesson for adult fiction too.
Children’s grasp of narrative, the wild storytelling, where nothing is implausible, it’s the real magical thinking
My entire fiction career has coincided with the birth of my first son. In fact he drove me to it, because I couldn’t go off on long journalistic assignments anymore. I probably wouldn’t have taken the risk of trying to write fiction if he hadn’t come along.
Yes, you can’t put off living: you are in the thick of it. This is life.
You better use your time wisely if you can only afford four hours of babysitting
God bless the babysitters!
Have you ever been tempted to write a novel set in Australia?
I started one. I was quite deep into the research for it when I realised it wasn’t going to work. It was about Jane Franklin, and I found it completely fascinating. But the trouble is, she kept a diary every day of her life and wrote everything down. She’s got this tiny little handwriting and she wrote thousands of words a day. So there is no room for me there. The voice is not silent, the voice is banging on and on. I realised that was not for me; that it’s for a literary biographer to do Jane Franklin.
She didn’t leave any space?
No space for imagination. You don’t have to make it up, you can find it out from her own words and from the documents. For me, I like to find a void where the imagination has to work it out.
I’m really interested in her years in Tasmania because she could see the inequities of society in terms of treatment of women convicts and the genocide of the Aboriginal people. She was very, very out of her time in terms of her social justice views. She gets a bad rap, but I think people haven’t looked at how remarkable she was for her adventurous spirit and the amount of travel she did. The fact that she crossed the South West wilderness and people say ‘oh she was carried in a chair’. Well she wasn’t. If you’ve walked at all in that bush, no one was sitting in a chair.
We have 5 double passes to give away to Geraldine Brooks’ event in Melbourne next Friday night. Geraldine will be in conversation with Mark Colvin at the Interrobang: A Festival of Questions. To win, send your name and email address to [email protected] with the subject line ‘Geraldine Brooks’ before 5pm Friday 20 November.