Geraldine Brooks and Tony Horwitz to speak at Winter Words on Tuesday
If You Go …
Who: Geraldine Brooks & Tony Horwitz at Winter Words
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, March 15, 6 p.m.
How much: $20
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
Novelist Geraldine Brooks doesn’t cast about for historical nuggets that might make good books. They tend to find her.
Hiking in the British Pennines, she happened upon a village where, during the plague, residents quarantined themselves instead of fleeing, and her “Year of Wonders” began. When she moved to Martha’s Vineyard with husband and fellow writer Tony Horwitz — with whom she will speak in a Winter Words presentation Tuesday — she began meeting native Wampanoag people. As she learned more about them, and found the first Native American graduate of Harvard came from the island in the 17th century, the novel “Caleb’s Crossing” was born.
Her new novel, “The Secret Chord,” imagines the life of the biblical David, from harp-playing shepherd to king. The moment that spawned this novel was when her son, then 8, decided he wanted to play the harp.
“Seeing him dwarfed by this massive classical instrument, I started to think about that other boy harpist,” Brooks said recently from Martha’s Vineyard. “And I read the story — I didn’t really know the story. I went to Catholic school and they’re not keen on letting you read the Bible because there’s too much sex in it.”
Digging into the life of David in Scripture — the warrior, the giant-slayer, the musician and ruler — she realized that his story in the Bible, from boyhood to old age, was the first political biography in recorded history, predating Herodotus’ histories by half a millennium. She began to fill in the blanks and imagine an interior life for him and fuller lives for the secondary biblical characters who surrounded David — especially women, his lover Yonatan and the prophet Natan, who became her narrator — in what would be “The Secret Chord.”
“The Bible is a blokey book,” the Australian-born novelist said. “It tells everything from the male point of view. There are all kinds of fantastic women in there, but we only see them insofar as how they affected him. So it was fun to switch the perspective and look at him through their eyes.”
Though it’s set some 3,000 years ago, the relationship between Natan and David — the powerful leader and his lieutenant working behind the scenes — is recognizable in contemporary times. Think Jack Burden and Willie Stark in “All the King’s Men,” Tom Hagen and Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” or Dick Cheney and George W. Bush in the White House.
Modern politics, however, offered few models for Natan’s hopeful disposition, Brooks said.
“He’s a Hebrew prophet, so he’s all about light, not dark,” she said. “He’s about dragging this powerful figure toward his better self, not his worse self. There aren’t contemporary versions. Dick Cheney? No. Unfortunately, there are very few Hebrew prophets in positions of influence. If there were, maybe we wouldn’t be in such a mess.”
Brooks, who came to fiction from a career in journalism, said Horwitz drew her toward an interest in history. Author of historical narratives like “Confederates in the Attic” and “Midnight Rising,” Horwitz’s early interests skewed toward academic history, while Brooks’ centered on journalism and current events. Building a life together and marrying in 1984, they each had profound influence on the other’s work, according to Brooks. She “dragged him all over the world” and showed him the joy of a writing life outside of university archives; he fueled in her a new passion for the past that led her into historical fiction. Each went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
“We’re both working with history,” she said, “but he says I’ve gone to the Dark Side because I make things up, which he does not. He’s grounded in the hardwood forests of fact.”
So what happens when you put them onstage together?
“Partly it’s a discussion of the uses of history,” she said. “And partly it’s how we can use history to understand our modern predicament. And partly it’s about the shenanigans that happen when two writers are married to each other.”
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