Geraldine Brooks - author of The Secret Chord

Author Q&As

Tell us about your book – what inspired you to write it?


I think my fascination with David’s story began when my nine year old son asked if he could learn to play the harp. Watching him, dwarfed by his teacher’s beautiful concert instrument, brought to mind images of the other long ago boy harpist.  When I finally picked up a bible and began reading, I realized I knew only a fraction of David’s story—the hackneyed Sunday School incidents.  What I knew was a pale sliver of the rich human story scattered through the  books of Samuel, Chronicles, Kings and the psalms.  I was amazed by the women in his life—women who are much more fully drawn individuals than is typical in the rather patriarchal pages of the bible.  Basically, I realized that everything happens to David; every conceivable human joy or sorrow, triumph or tragedy. Natan became the narrator when I picked up references to accounts of David’s life said to have been written by Natan—accounts which we don’t now have.  This man-- counsellor, castigator, prophet—intrigued me.  I began to wonder what kind of account such a man would have set down.
Do you use your own experiences when writing?


I wouldn't be able to write the books if I had not had, as prelude, a decade and a half as a reporter, often in the world's hot spots and war zones--the mideast, Africa, the Balkans. A battlefield on the Faw peninsula is not the US the Civil War, not Second Iron Age Israel.  But though the weapons are different, the effect on the human body is much the same.  The sounds, the smells...  A foreign correspondent enters people’s lives at the worst of times and mines them for the most terrible details.  You write the story, hoping someone who matters will read it and give a damn.  And then you try to forget about it so that you can go and do it all again; some other war, some other person’s desperate sadness. You try to clear the cache. But you can’t.  You can’t drag and drop your memories into the void. 
So, I try to use the experiences that I have had, to make the suffering I witnessed count for something. 
Which author/s or book/s have had the biggest influence on your work?


The Persian Boy, by Mary Renault, showed me how you can write about lives removed by centuries and geography, but still make the characters emotionally recognizable and immediate.
Do you have a message for aspiring writers?  


Write!  Practice every day, even if it's just a few hundred words, and even if they're no good. My friend the sculptor Sarah Sze describes her process: "Mess. Mess. Mess. Art."  If you don't practice making the mess, you'll never make the art. 

How and where do you write?

In my study, or at the table by the kitchen fire in winter, if no one else is home.  Or under a sunny window.  It doesn't actually matter where.  In the early stages of each novel I write by hand in a specially selected notebook--there's a book binder here on the island and I usually treat myself to one of her handmade books for each novel.  But once I get going and have many chapters to keep track of, I retype it all into my laptop and go on from there. 
Do you have a lucky writing charm?  


Different ones for every book.  A replica rubber rat for Year of Wonders, a Civil War belt buckle for March, a little harpist figurine for The Secret Chord...
Can you tell us what you are working on now?  


A new novel about a remarkable race horse of the 1860s and a missing painting of the horse....