By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA

When I heard that Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks had published a new book, I was anxious to read it. When I learned that Brooks’ new subject was David, King of the Jews, the book became an irresistible draw.

You see, I have a long personal history with King David, dating back to my childhood when I’d stare for hours at an illustration I owned of a wispy shepherd boy standing victorious over a fallen Philistine giant: my first secret gloating that bigger isn’t always better.

Such was my admiration for the boy who slingshot to stardom, I decided I’d one day name my own first son David, the most noble-sounding name I knew. As it happened, I had daughters.

Still, I did not allow biological fate to dissuade me. A few years later, while birthing my first novel, I named my narrator and fictional alter-ego “David Grossman,” a name meant to suggest the great range of human expression.

The David at the heart of Brooks’ brilliant novel The Secret Chord does not need a last name. The first and greatest “David” is an amazingly full realization of the complex and conflicted biblical character.

I finally met with Geraldine Brooks in Spring 2018, to discuss her novel and the wondrous David who inspired it.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You were born in Sydney, Australia, and came to the United States to do your graduate work. You met and married writer Tony Horwitz and converted to Judaism. At what point did you begin to develop your special interest in David?

Geraldine Brooks
GERALDINE BROOKS: I’m not sure I can pinpoint it exactly anymore. I was an art history major with a special interest in Mannerist and Baroque art, and I recall being struck by the diversity of depictions of David in painting and sculpture: what a capacious character he had to allow for so many different visions, from Michelangelo’s muscular Abercrombie and Fitch model to Donatello’s effete boy-man, to Caravaggio’s street thug, and on and on. I also recall being in shul one day when the haftarah reading was David’s deathbed scene, when Bathsheva and Natan are ducking and weaving to get Shlomo on the throne. There’s an intensity to that whole scene, especially when you recall all that has passed between these three protagonists. Why is David relying on Natan, who was previously his harshest critic? Generally, once you’ve excoriated a king, you wouldn’t expect to be his closest confidant. So I started wondering, what was the career path for that guy? And then there’s the question of Bathsheva: how did she build a relationship from such a problematic, if not tragic, beginning? I’d been a news reporter in the Mideast and it reminded me so much of the succession shenanigans around King Hussein’s deathbed; women without evident public power nevertheless wielding great private power. Now, of course, I think of it as totally Game of Thrones.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: How did your son’s decision to learn the harp help inspire you to write this book? 

GERALDINE BROOKS: It was all the hours taking him to music lessons, seeing this small, eight-year-old boy dwarfed by his teacher’s concert instrument, which put in my mind the musical connections to David as the warrior/poet/politician/musician. It sent me back to the texts.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: As part of your extensive research you went with your son to visit places associated with the biblical David, like the Judean hills and the Valley of Elah, where David fought Goliath. Please share a special insight or anecdote.

GERALDINE BROOKS: Why do so many leaders in the Bible begin life as shepherds? What is it about herding sheep that is such a great entry-level position for future CEOs of the Israelites? To find out, my ten-year-old and I tried being shepherds for a day on a thyme-scented hillside in the Sheffala, not far from where David would have tended his family’s flock. My conclusion was that in leading and safeguarding a flock, you have to learn to understand the nature of those you’re trying to direct. We couldn’t figure out how to, for example, separate the sheep from the goats, till we learned how differently each species responded to pressure. (Goats scatter, sheep flock together.)

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: I think much of the book’s success is due to your choice of the prophet Natan as narrator. How did you arrive at this decision?

GERALDINE BROOKS: It was the reference, in the Book of Chronicles, to a “Book of Natan” which, of course, we do not have any more. But the idea that there was once such a book about David’s life—“all his acts, from first to last”—deeply intrigued me. What else would we know about David if we had such a book, authored by a man who wasn’t afraid to be critical of him and to confront him?

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Throughout the novel, Natan’s prophecies guide David’s decisions. How is David’s free will to be measured against events that are fated or divinely ordained?

GERALDINE BROOKS: Is Natan always a reliable narrator? Is he really divinely inspired, or does he only think he is? That’s for the reader to decide. He has a certain view of himself and his motivations, but other characters in the story express skepticism about his abilities and his motives. So I think it is for the reader to determine whether he is as influential as he thinks he is, and what role, if any, the divine is actually playing here, or whether David is in fact merely responding to the human guidance of a wise, but very mortal, adviser.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: The biblical narrative of David’s life is uniquely comprehensive, a long arc from childhood to old age. However, like all biographies, the writer(s) chose what to put in and what to leave out. Is there an event or relationship in your novel that differs significantly from the Bible, either in detail or emphasis?

GERALDINE BROOKS: Well it’s all so terse in the biblical telling. Almost a Power Point Presentation with bullet points; this happened, then this, then this. There’s no room for these incredible episodes to stretch out and breathe. I was trying to imagine what else happened; the quotidian detail, the emotions, the personalities, the background histories.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: In the biblical narrative there is an emphasis on cause and effect but a dearth of psychological insight and emotional coloring. What were your greatest challenges—and delights—in providing what was left unsaid in the Bible?

GERALDINE BROOKS: Exactly. So it’s in the nature of a midrash, and there’s a deep and rich tradition of that in Judaism. And it’s what we do at my shul every Shabbat: take the words of the week’s parsha and hold them up to the light of our own lived experience, squeeze them for every bit of juice they’ll give. Judaism gives enthusiastic permission for that.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: David had a ruthless approach to statecraft: “Whatever it takes. What was necessary.” Have times changed? Would a modern David be more likely to rely on diplomacy?

GERALDINE BROOKS: That was a brutal time, but then, so is our own. He was trying to knit together fractious tribes with divisive histories. And guess what? We’re still fractious and divided, and statecraft is mostly ruthless. Even though most wars end at the negotiating table rather than on the battlefield, we still make heroes of our warriors and ignore the grinding, crucial, life-sparing work of diplomats.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: In your book, Natan says: “A man will silence the voice of his conscience when it suits him to commit sin.” Despite his manifold sinning, David is generally held in a high regard. Your thoughts? 

GERALDINE BROOKS: What’s different about David—his greatness—is that he admits his failings when he is confronted with the truth. And then he tries to make amends.

I just don’t see that in modern leadership. Not Trump, not Clinton, not Bush, not Putin, not Netanyahu. None of them, not one, owns up to their sins and their flaws. They deny and they prevaricate and they blame others.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: I was particularly fascinated by your handling of Batsheva’s feelings and point of view. She has a more modern temperament than I remembered.

GERALDINE BROOKS: I think the plain words of the text tell you everything you need to know about her predicament. David, we’re told, sent “men” to fetch her from her home. This wasn’t a polite invitation, clearly. The power imbalance is blindingly obvious. How she survived and thrived—to be the wife with the power at the end of David’s life—the Bible gives us no details of those intervening years. But it’s fascinating to imagine how she played what was initially a terrible hand in order to secure the throne for her son.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Throughout the book much is made of David’s extraordinary talent for playing the harp, singing, and writing verse—his famous Psalms. What is “the secret chord” that David played?

GERALDINE BROOKS: Well, if we knew, it wouldn’t be secret! But the many references to his beautiful voice and the power of his musicianship, coupled with the evident and enduring lyricism of the psalms.… What can you conclude other than this was an exceptionally talented guy?

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: In the book’s Afterword you wrote that: “… David must have actually existed, for no people would invent such a flawed figure for a national hero.” What does this say about the Jews as a people, that they value such a complex and conflicted character as the “lamp of Israel”?

GERALDINE BROOKS: A certain clarity about human nature. We’re all flawed, we’re all going to come up short. But that doesn’t have to define us. As ha tzaddik Leonard Cohen put it, there’s a blaze of light in the duality of the holy and the broken. And If God could love David in spite of his many flaws, in spite of his brokenness … well, it’s consoling and a hopeful sign for the rest of us.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Are you able to share with us the subject of your next book?

GERALDINE BROOKS: It’s based on the true story of a remarkable nineteenth-century racehorse and the people—mostly enslaved—who trained him in the antebellum era and saved him during the Civil War.

(Geraldine Brooks photo credit: Randi Baird)

Geraldine Brooks     


Steven Jay Griffel is an Amazon bestselling novelist, an editor, and a publisher. His latest novel, The Ishi Affair, was released in March 2017.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.