When Geraldine Brooks was a 15-year-old in Sydney, Australia, she became obsessed with Jewish history. Although her family wasn’t Jewish, her father was “a classic lefty Zionist” who had served in Palestine with the Australian army and saw the socialism of the kibbutz movement as the answer to everything. “This was the background noise in my childhood,” she says. “I was a pretty nerdy kid. I memorized Yevtushenko’s poem about Babi Yar. I think I was the only kid in the Sydney school system who wrote about the Suez Crisis.”
When she fell in love with a Jewish man (fellow journalist Tony Horwitz), she converted. “There was no way I was going to be a part of the end of the line,” she says. “It was more about history than anything faith based.” Since leaving the life of a war correspondent behind to start a family, Brooks has written three works of nonfiction and five novels, including two with Jewish themes: The People of the Book, about the Sarajevo Haggadah, and most recently, The Secret Chord, which imagines the life of David, the Biblical king, musician, warrior, lover, hero, and imperfect human being.
“His failings are very commonplace failings,” Brooks says. “His willingness to betray his own principles: that happens every day in Washington. It was interesting that David Petraeus was called King David by his soldiers. Most kings aren’t willing to address their failings. When confronted by Nathan, David says, ‘How can I clean up my mess?’ That’s an important lesson.”
Brooks credits her years of war reporting for character development. “I drew on it for this book to bring a certain reality and vividness to the battle scenes,” she says. “I kind of used Saddam Hussein’s morally lost sons to imagine Amnon and Absalom. And I drew from women in the Middle East who have no public power but who nevertheless have a lot of agency.”
Although she was surprised to find that David exists in no other historical record outside the Bible — which calls his historical legitimacy into question — Brooks believes he existed. “No people would make up such a flawed character as their national hero. Everything happened to him. That’s the most intriguing thing. Every possible blessing and every possible curse.”