From the Women’s Prize Archives:
With just over a week to go until this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced, we caught up with Geraldine Brooks, 2016 longlistee. Read on to find out more about Geraldine’s longlisted book The Secret Chord, her research trip to Israel and why Mary Renault and Hilary Mantel provided Geraldine with invaluable inspiration.
Why did you decide to write about the life of King David in your latest novel?
His is really the first richly detailed political biography that narrates a full life from early childhood to extreme old age. It predates Herodotus by half a millennium. And everything happens to him; the best and the worst of human experience. I was a fine arts major at university and I recall being struck by the diversity of the images of him–Michelangelo’s idealised man, Donatello’s effete youth, Carravagio’s street-wise tough. Then, when my son was nine, he decided to learn classical harp, and the boy-harpist in my sitting room reminded me of that other boy-harpist, the warrior, lover, scoundrel, poet.
There are some brilliant historical nuggets in the book, such as characters scraping calfskin to write on – did you do any particular research to enable you to write so convincingly about this time period?
I went to Israel and visited the places associated with David; soured archeological digs and texts for unvarnished details of the material culture of the Hebrew tribes in the Second Iron Age, and tried, as far as possible, to have experiences David might have had–herding sheep on a hot afternoon on a hillside in the Shelfala, for example. Misty, moisty Rebanks’s Lake District it’s not, I can tell you.
At times The Secret Chord is very gory – where did you get the inspiration for these scenes?
I was a newspaper correspondent in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans for almost ten years, covering conflict pretty constantly. The weaponry is different, but the effect on the human body is the same. I’m afraid that everything I describe in regard to the battlefield detail is based on something I witnessed as a journalist. We remain a very brutal species.
Were you inspired by any other authors while writing this novel?
Two, in particular. Mary Renault’s absolute genius for transporting readers to strange and distant times, while never losing the emotional connection that makes her characters so recognizable and resonant. Hilary Mantel, who so brilliantly captures the precarious relationship between king and consiglierie.
Do you have a particular place where you like to write?
I have a study that looks out on a little stream and the paddock where my alpacas graze. But on a cold day, if the house is empty, I set up shop in the kitchen, in front of the hearth. Delicious.