“Mess, Mess, Mess, Mess, Art” – Geraldine Brooks on writing

Geraldine Brooks was one of the guests of honour at HNS 2017 and I can’t say enough of how compelling she is as a speaker – clear, great tempo, a wonderful blend of humour and seriousness, and carefully chosen words that reminded me of her novels. She had us spellbound.

I took notes, of course – I’m an inveterate note taker as I find the act helps me concentrate and then I can return for inspiration at a later date.

Geraldine Brooks began by telling us she looks for “the story you can’t make up”, the “implausible truth.” And each of her novels has found one of those moments. She had no idea that novels would be her life’s work. Instead, from a relatively young age she wanted to be a journalist. As it turned out, she was a journalist, hired first for the Sydney Morning Herald in the sports department of all things. Further education led eventually to the Wall Street Journal and reporting from troubled spots – Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East – “where history was unfolding.”

Brooks’s first example of “implausible truth” was the seed for Year of Wonders. Out walking in England with her husband, she came across a sign for the small village of Eyam – Plague Village, the sign said – and her mind was off conceiving a story set in 1666 with a young woman’s battle to save fellow villagers as well as her own soul when the bubonic plague strikes.

“Novels,” Brooks said, “are about exposing the truth” of who we are and who we have been, particularly women. “Someone rises up from the grave and begins to talk to me.” Often these are lesser people like servants or slaves. And where does she go to “hear their voices?” According to Brooks, “sadly, you go to the courts” – the English Assizes, the Spanish Inquisition and others – where verbatim testimonies were recorded.

Reporting has informed her writing career. Geraldine Brooks said she hopes her novels “make the suffering I have witnessed count for something.”

As for the title of this post, Geraldine spoke of the writing process as “mess, mess, mess, mess, art.” In other words, the process is iteratively messy until art emerges.

On a personal note, I’ve read two of her five novels, People of the Book and The Secret Chord – both kept within reach of my desk as examples of truly wonderful writing. You can find my review of The Secret Chord here.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

The Secret Chord by Geraldine BrooksI purchased Geraldine Brooks‘s latest novel The Secret Chord for the twenty-hour trip home from New Zealand. It’s set around 1000BC in the second iron age, the time of King David and had all the qualities I was looking for:

  • long story – check;
  • interesting historical times – check;
  • excellent author – check;
  • intriguing first page – check.

Brooks, a Pulitzer prize winner for her novel March, had many votes for favourite historical fiction author in 2012, 2013 and 2015.

Most of us know the story of David and Goliath, but how many know of David’s life after that? According to the Books of Samuel, David was the second king of the united kingdom of Israel and according to New Testament accounts, an ancestor of Jesus. In addition to his skills as a leader and military man, King David was a brilliant musician and composer. According to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, “It is safe to say that David’s musical genius and commitment to the worship of God cast a refreshing shadow over the entire book of Psalms.”

The Secret Chord reveals the man behind the legends, a man with both great strengths and great failings. Told from the perspective of Natan (Nathan), the king’s prophet, Brooks has created a compelling drama of David’s life. I couldn’t put it down.

Using the the top attributes of favourite historical fiction from the 2013 historical fiction survey, here’s my perspective. (I should confess that I did not read with pen in hand, which means I have no detailed notes from which to write a review.)

(1) Feeling immersed in time and place – right from the prologue I was in a long ago time “I have laid my head down in many places–on greasy sheepskins at the edge of battlefields, under the black expanse of goat hair tents, on the cold stone of caves and on the scented linens of palaces” … “from across the wadi, I can hear the thin squeal of the planes scraping upon the logs. Hard work to get these trees here, felled in the forests of the Lebanon, lashed together into rafts, floated south on the sea, dragged up from the coast by oxen … soon the king will come .. I know when he arrives by the cheers of the men. Even conscripted workers and slaves call out in praise of him …”

Brooks engages all senses immediately and consistently throughout the story. She offers names, language and imagery of the time: merkavot for chariot, stela for an upright stone slab, “picking at the skein of my deeds like a woman at her weaving basket”, eved hamalek which means servant of the king, Beit Lehem for Bethlehem — and these are in the first chapter.

(2) Superb writing – Brooks’s prose flows almost like a song, giving the feeling that she has polished every phrase to a glossy, lyrical shine. Scenes are well structured, and very little – whether dialogue or description – seems superfluous. Long sentences are artfully interspersed with shorter ones to provide pleasure in the reading. Each chapter left me eager to turn the page.

(3) Characters both heroic and human – kings, generals, prophets, warriors, royal wives and their children populate the story with jealousies and love, heroic deeds and barbaric ones, great wisdom and blind stupidity, loyalty and betrayal, deaths and births, friends who become enemies, enemies who become friends.

Told through Natan’s voice in first person, two characters dominate, King David and Natan his prophet, although many others enrich the story. Through David’s eight wives  we see great love and passion as well as political shrewdness and cruelty. His pampered sons and daughter show us the tender side of King David along with his blindness to their faults and rivalries. Those who are trusted advisors include David’s nephew Yoav (Joab) who becomes his leading general.

(4) Authentic and educational – In The New York Times Book Review, Geraldine Brooks refers to King David as a man who “shimmers between myth and history in the Second Iron Age.” She describes Natan as “a Hebrew prophet, which means he’s a much blunter truth-teller” and “the pebble in the shoe, the goad in the hide, a courtier who doesn’t always have to be courtly, because it’s understood that he serves a higher power.”

Brooks gives us a full accounting of David’s rise to power, the forging of a unified nation from the tribes of Judah and Israel, the formation of what will eventually be called Jerusalem and the destruction of all but one of David’s sons.

Although David’s authenticity is disputed, Brooks declares she is “with the British politician Duff Cooper, who says he did [believe], since no people would make up such a flawed figure for a national hero.”

And even if he didn’t live, The Secret Chord offers a clear window into the way people lived, thought, fought, and survived so long ago and the faith that sustained them.

(5) Dramatic arc of historical events – Geraldine Brooks has written a superb drama. Every chapter reveals the dilemmas and challenges of the times, building to a climax that is hugely rewarding. The Secret Chord, whether based on myth or truth, will captivate you from beginning to end.

Two additional thoughts: (1) time shifts were not always distinct, so I occasionally struggled to know where I was in the story, and (2) at the beginning, ancient names like Shmuel for Samuel and Shaul for Saul added unnecessary challenge to deciphering who was who.

I’m stingy with five star reviews, but, in my opinion, this one deserves such a rating.

For the highlights of King David’s tumultuous life check out this article on Wikipedia.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.