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I saw the wonderful Geraldine Brooks speak about her new novel The Secret Chord late last year as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. She was everything I hoped she would be – intelligent, wise, humble and  warm.

I took brief notes, as a true nerd does, and when I pulled them all together and tidied them up a bit I thought I had perhaps managed to glean some insight into the ‘how’ of it all; that some of the shiny bits of Geraldine’s words had survived my hasty scribbles. I know a couple of my writer friends would like to read my notes, and I thought perhaps other writers out there- writers who, like me, read Geraldine’s books with an odd mixture of wonder and dismay (how does she do it?) might like to read them, too.

So, here they are.

  • Geraldine mentioned Mark Twain, how he said that truth is stranger than fiction because fiction must be plausible. (I think she was referring to ‘Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.’)
    Geraldine looks for ‘implausible truths.’
  • She talked about writing from known historical facts. But things really get interesting when ‘the line of fact begins to fray and disappear.’ That’s when the novelist ‘swan dives in’ and begins their work.
  • She spoke about walking through fields in England and seeing the ‘Plague Village’ sign in Eyam (goosebumps!) which lead to Year of Wonders. 
  • She talked about the character of David, and said she chose him to write about because he had so many facets that he had experienced all the emotions and events a person possibly could. He was a king, an artist, a killer; he was gentle and brutal. ‘What’s not to like?’
  •  On the use of original Hebrew names in the The Secret Chord- Jonathan is Yonatan, Nathan is Natan, Samuel is Shmuel, etc. She used them, and Hebrew placenames and phrases, because she wanted them to feel ‘strange and unfamiliar- as they should be’. She deliberately chose words that are ‘evocative’ and ‘foreign’ and ‘far away.’ This was tricky- an audience member asked her about it and said that they kept Googling Hebrew terms as they were reading. Geraldine seemed to have mixed feelings about this- she said, ‘The last thing you want to do is take your reader out of the story.’ And that she didn’t mean to ‘torture’ anyone!
  • On POV – Geraldine writes in first person because she thinks it creates the strongest connection between protagonist and reader.
  • On research- Geraldine does enough research to let her ‘hear the voice’ of her character. Then she starts writing, and stops when she needs more research. She does this to avoid cramming in research for the sake of it- because it was interesting, or particularly hard to find. She spoke about a book she read that had a scene with a piano tuner. Someone asked, ‘how do you tune a piano?’ and there followed ten pages of piano tuning description. Geraldine tries to avoid ‘piano tuning.’
  • She spoke of what she researched for The Secret Chord– what people ate, what their houses were like, what palaces looked like; weapons, battle tactics, harps and what music would have sounde like.
  • Regarding weapons and violence- The Secret Chord is brutal. Geraldine called upon her experiences as a war correspondent to write the violence. She saw the effects of modern weapons on the human body, and said that historical weapons are ‘different, but the effect on the body is not different.’
  • An audience member asked: ‘How do you know when the writing’s good?’ She answered, ‘You never know. It’s never enough.’ She said it’s never right, but that you have to ‘surrender’ it at some point. She said there are already two changes she will make in the next edition of The Secret Chord.
  • ‘I write what I like to read myself. If it sounds like a book I’d like to read, I know I’m on the right track.’

My friend Lauren Chater and I with Geraldine.
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