Rebecca Kanner joins us to talk about her latest book, Esther.
Melissa: I’ll admit that Esther has never been my favorite Bible story. While the Sunday School teachers and pastors often talk about her courage, I’ve always felt she had to be prodded a little more than I hope would have been necessary if I was facing the same situation. What drew you to her story?
Rebecca: I was drawn to a character who had to grow up before her time. While her delay in telling the King that she was Jewish might lead some people to believe she was weak, or was having trouble summoning her courage, in my novel she’s using the time to weigh her options and think through her plan of attack. I don’t believe that a passive or unintelligent girl—however beautiful—would be capable of captivating a king and saving her people. After all, the king had hundreds of beautiful girls to choose from. I like to tell people familiar with ancient Greek coinage that “Beautiful girls were a daric a dozen.”
Melissa: I think you did a wonderful job of writing this book, but it isn’t a nice, sanitized, Veggietale version. It’s actually quite gritty and has some sordid details. What parts in this book are you holding your breath on and hoping they are well received by the reader?
Rebecca: Thank you! I’m always happy to hear the word “wonderful” associated with Esther. As for the seemingly provocative details I included, I didn’t feel it would be right to gloss over the physical side of Esther’s relationship with the King. As a young woman, Esther is just becoming aware of her own sexuality and she has many questions about what will happen. I felt it would be a disservice to the reader to downplay Esther’s experience. After all, she spent a year preparing for it.
Melissa: Esther is quite a complex story and captures a variety of issues surrounding the harem, palace life, the emotional toll of being queen, and the political intricacies of the time. Out of all the different issues that Esther faces throughout this story, which one do think would be the most difficult to overcome?
Rebecca: Many of the women in the bible are best known for their roles as mothers. As queen, Esther would be under enormous pressure to produce heirs for the King. But no child is mentioned. That got me thinking about the possibility that she didn’t have children, and that got me thinking about the possibility that she couldn’t have children. How would that have affected her?
Kids are a form of immortality. Without children to soften her struggle with her own mortality, Esther wanted to find another way to exist in the world after her death. In my novel, after an assassination attempt and before being called upon to save her people, she thinks: “I want… to be bigger than only my time upon the earth.” Without children, she needs something else to be remembered by. It was important to me to include what is at first a self-serving desire because I didn’t want to portray Esther as the embodiment of female perfection—a perfection which usually includes selflessness. I think that too often women are held to unhealthy, unattainable standards, and that this negatively impacts our feelings of self-worth. It was my mission to portray Esther as human.
Melissa: I cannot imagine the number of hours you spent researching this book. What are some surprising facts you learned that didn’t make it into the book?
Rebecca: My favorite research hours were spent poring over Herodotus’s The Histories. It is difficult to say how much of the history he writes is actually true and how much is flavored by his flair for story-telling. He wrote that Persians celebrated their birthdays above all other days, and had huge feasts which were heavily made up of desserts. He also claimed that each year the Persian king sent gifts to the man who had the most sons.
Melissa: One of the reasons I love this book is because it really highlights some points in Esther’s life that I never really considered. Until reading Esther, it never really sunk in how much of a normal future Esther lost when she was taken to the harem. When you were writing this book, what did you find really eye-opening and left you with that, “yeah, I get it” feeling?
Rebecca: In addition to losing the future she’d envisioned, she felt she’d lost part of herself because she had to hide that she was Jewish. I think most of us have something we’re hiding—something in our past, or a physical or mental condition, or our true feelings. Even if we’re hiding it for good reason the mere act of hiding it takes a toll and can result in intense shame. I felt this weight upon Esther’s shoulders very acutely as I was writing. There are times in the novel where Esther feels guilty for not following the dietary laws and sleeping with the king (a gentile). She wonders if she is still Jewish. She feels a sense of relief and power when she knows she’s going to reveal who she really is to the king, even if it results in her death.
Melissa: I’ve talked with Tosca Lee before about the challenges of writing Biblical fiction. I personally think it is one of the most difficult genres to write since you are oftentimes competing with preconceived ideas as well as long held beliefs. What are your thoughts about writing Biblical fiction? What parts do you find most challenging and how do you balance staying true to scripture while creating a compelling work of fiction?
Rebecca: I try to stay true to what’s written in the bible, but I also believe many of the passages are open to interpretation. In addition, there are a lot of gaps to fill in. Jews have a tradition of seeking out answers and offering various explanations for things that are mysterious or unclear. This study is called Midrash. My first book, Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah’s Wife, offers a midrashic explanation for why Noah’s wife isn’t named in Genesis. In Esther, I offer my own explanation for why Esther delayed in telling the King she was Jewish. Her feelings for a man who’s not the king influence her initial plan. Ok, I better not say any more or I’ll have to put in a spoiler alert!
Melissa: I found Erez an interesting addition to the story and I’m still not sure what I think about the storyline between him and Esther. It serves a good purpose within this story and I can certainly appreciate the appeal it will hold for readers. In a historical sense, where does he fit in or is he based on a specific historical character?
Rebecca: I’m a little beyond my teenage years (and by “a little” I mean two decades!) but I still remember how all-consuming boys were at that time. Having crushes, learning how to flirt, occasionally even talking to members of the opposite sex were some of the most thrilling parts of adolescence. I think it would be unusual for a fourteen year old girl not to have any interest in love or her own budding sexuality.
Erez arose organically as I was writing Esther. After being kidnapped and finding herself completely alone in the world, Esther is in that vulnerable state where connections can form very quickly. Erez hears her praying in Hebrew and gives her his Farvahar, a symbol of the Zoroastrian religion, in an effort to protect her by disguising her as a non-Jew. That is when she realizes she trusts him and starts thinking of him in order to get through all the trials that follow.
Esther has to weigh her feelings for Erez against all she has to lose by following them. This is the sort of inner struggle many of us have as we make our way to adulthood. Exploring Esther’s struggle was another way of making her human.
Melissa: I found it interesting that Esther frequently references Ahura Mazda. Throughout most of this book, it would appear as though Esther’s faith is a little weak, but from a historical standpoint, do you get the same impression? To what degree do you think she might have sacrificed her faith for her own self-preservation?
Rebecca: There is definitely some self-preservation involved in hiding her religion behind the dominant religion of the time. Even the name “Esther” is likely derived from “Ishtar” the Babylonian goddess of love, sex, fertility and war.
It’s also interesting to note that God is never mentioned in the Book of Esther. At times I felt His presence though. In my novel this was mainly communicated through the character of Ruti. Since Esther’s parents were murdered, Esther wrestled with her feelings about God. Yet still she starts praying on the march (see above).
I’m reminded of one of the teachings of the late Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer. He told a parable about a remote village in which the only watchmaker died. All of the villagers stopped winding their watches. All except one who, despite not knowing what time it was, continued to wind his watch every day. Years later, another watchmaker came to the village. He was unable to repair any of the watches because they had all rusted. All except for the watch of the man who had diligently wound his each day. Rabbi Meyer said the same happens with prayer. We must continue praying even when we are confused, because the human spirit can also become rusted.
I liken Esther’s uncertainty about God to the villager’s uncertainty of the time. Even during those times when her connection to God suffers, and she doesn’t know if it will do any good, she prays.
Melissa: What’s next for you? Are you going to stick with the Biblical fiction genre for awhile or try something different soon?
Rebecca: I’m working on a novel that takes place in biblical times, and there are some biblical characters mentioned, but they are peripheral. I’ll leave it at that for now because the more I work on it the more the theme changes. I sense there is going to be a lot of rewriting with this one.
Many thanks for your wonderful review and thoughtful questions. Hopefully I’ve managed to cast a little light on what was going on with Esther behind the scenes.
To find out more about Rebecca and her books, visit her website or connect with her on FaceBook.