New Take On Old Tale: Novelist Retells King David's Story Geraldine Brooks is a Pulitzer Prize winning historical novelist. Her latest book "The Secret Chord," tells the story of King David. NPR's Rachel Martin spoke to her about her conception of the flawed king.
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New Take On Old Tale: Novelist Retells King David's Story

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New Take On Old Tale: Novelist Retells King David's Story

New Take On Old Tale: Novelist Retells King David's Story

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As children, we learn about the inspiring victory of David over Goliath. As adults, we are warned of David's adultery with Bathsheba. Novelist Geraldine Brooks, in her latest book, "The Secret Chord," has filled in all of the human bits in between. She's the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of "March" and "Year Of Wonders." The Old Testament drama of King David intrigued her, and she went back to her Bible to piece his life together.

GERALDINE BROOKS: I sort of started at the end of the story because the story of David, it's not neatly packaged in the scriptures. It's broken up in several different places. And I think that the first piece I found is really the scene where David is close to death and everybody is maneuvering for power around his sick bed. His oldest surviving son is about to claim the throne against his wishes. And there's Bathsheba, the woman who has caused so much chaos in the court because of David's adultery with her earlier in his life, there she is at the end, maneuvering with the Prophet Natan to get her son Solomon on the throne. And I thought, this is "Game Of Thrones."

MARTIN: (Laughter) You tell David's story through the eyes of this young prophet named Natan. He's seen his family murdered by David but still becomes what others call his conscience. Did using Natan in this way give you a kind of distance that helped you understand David?

BROOKS: I don't know if it was distance I was after, but I was after a voice to tell the story. And there are the most wonderfully intriguing references to the Book of Natan in Chronicles. And I started reading about Natan in the David story. And the fascinating thing about him is that his principal role is to turn up when David has failed or has behaved in a flawed way and to basically tell the king, you suck.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BROOKS: And I thought what is the career path for this man? And that got me into a whole study of the Hebrew prophets who were some of the most disturbing men who ever lived, as the great writer Abraham Heschel observes, you know. These are the goads in our hide, the stone in our shoe, the people who tell us what we don't want to hear.

MARTIN: David is adored by many of the people around him. He has deep relationships with mentors and wives. Avigail, in particular, they have a deep affection for one another. But there's a slight divergence between your tale and the one in the bible, and it is David's first love, his relationship with Yonathan.

BROOKS: I wouldn't characterize it as a divergence. I would characterize mine as a modern reading of the plain words. Their souls were knit together, the scriptures say. And when Yonathan is killed in battle, David composes one of the most beautiful poems of lament that we have, where he says, your love to me was more wonderful than the love of any woman. And to me, that is an unambiguous description of a full relationship.

MARTIN: In the telling of Yonathan's tale, it is Mikhal, his sister and David's wife, who comes into greater relief. I wonder if, in the construction of these particular characters, was it liberating for you to write the backstories of these women, to imagine their fully dimensionalized lives or did it start to become horrifying?

BROOKS: I think that one of the things that attracted me to this story is that there are well-drawn women in it. You get a sense of each of these characters. Even though there's only a few sentences about each of them in the scripture, they're wonderful sentences. They're masterpieces of economy because you get a glimpse of these powerful characters. These women who have very little overt power, and yet they use what they have quite brilliantly to navigate their precarious lives.

MARTIN: Do you remember a bit of scripture that - a line that you thought really encapsulated a female in the book?

BROOKS: I think Mikhal, the last thing that she says to David - he has just danced the arc of the Torah into Jerusalem and he's in the most ecstatically joyful moment of his life. And this is when Mikhal chooses to make her retribution for this marriage that's turned so sour and she says, didn't the king of Israel do himself honor today exposing himself before slave girls?

Because as he's danced, his tunic has, you know, lifted in an immodest way. And he says, you know, I was dancing before the Lord who chose me over your father, and I'll do that again. And I don't care if you despise me, but among those slave girls you mentioned I'll be honored. And it's just like, whoa (laughter).

MARTIN: (Laughter) It is a coincidence that you happen to be the second female author we've got on the show this week who is retelling an old story that's been mostly told by men. So I suppose I just wanted to ask you about what does it mean to reclaim stories that are usually told by men?

BROOKS: I think, obviously, you're going to look at it in a different way and I think - you know, I read a tremendous number of Exegesis on David and most of those are written by men, as you say. And it's very hard to find anyone that really flips the point of view - particularly the story of Bathsheba is an interesting example of this. You know, guys tend to feel that David sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof and he seduces her and isn't that romantic?

And I read that story and go, wait a minute. Somebody came and dragged you out of your house in the middle of the night and how much say would you have had in that? The guy is the king. Your husband's away in battle. He's putting you an incredibly perilous position. You can be stoned to death as an adulterous. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. Was this a seduction, or was it a rape? So I think when women retell these stories, they ask different questions.

MARTIN: Geraldine Brooks, her new novel is called "The Secret Chord." Thank you so much for talking with us, Geraldine.

BROOKS: Thank you for having me.

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