Rebecca Kanner is the author of the new novel Esther. She also has written the novel Sinners and the Sea. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Cincinnati Review and The Kenyon Review. She teaches writing at The Loft in Minneapolis.
Q: Why did you decide to write a novel based on the story of Queen Esther?
A: I had originally...set out to write stories about the women in Genesis. I didn’t get very far; I wrote Sinners and the Sea [about Noah’s wife], and then I wanted to go beyond Genesis and write the story of Esther.
In the Megillah, her submissiveness and reaching for Mordecai [didn’t seem sufficient]—it takes more than a pretty face to win a king. I wanted her to be a little smarter. I wanted her to wait to tell the king she was Jewish because [of her intelligence].
Q: How much of your novel was taken from the biblical story of Esther and how much is your own invention?
A: I took the basics from the story, but there was still a lot to fill in. I like the writings of Herodotus. I wanted to mostly stick with the Megillah, but add to it, in the Jewish tradition of midrash, coming up with an explanation of why Esther delayed telling the king she was Jewish.
Q: How do you think the way women are portrayed in biblical stories compare with the way you present these women in your novels?
A: I went to Jewish schools, and the teachers were mostly women. They made it seem that women had an equal role in the Bible, and I didn’t realize they were given short shrift until I went back and looked on my own.
In the Noah story, she didn’t have a name, she was just Noah’s wife. [There’s a question] about the identity she would have, in the part when she’s on the Ark and if her husband and sons die, she didn’t have a name. I wanted to bring women out a little more. She’s the matriarch of a new world—you’d think she’d at least have a name.
With Esther, she was just pretty. She was not known just for her husband, and no children were mentioned, so it was an opportunity to see how she’d make her legacy.
Q: What did you see as the right combination of the biblical story and your own imagination?
A: I wanted to stay true to the Megillah, but my novel is 300-some pages and the Megillah is [about] 12, so you’d have to flesh it out…I needed setting, characters, and complexity…
Q: So some of your characters were added.
A: I added Erez. It’s unrealistic that a 14-year-old girl would have feelings only for a king she rarely sees. [Her situation] has got to be traumatic; she’s vulnerable, and forms connections quickly. For a 14-year-old, that’s in the form of crushes. There’s got to be someone besides the king.
I know some people might think that’s not the best idea, but I wanted to make Esther a real girl. Having crushes are a big part of being 14!
Q: And the character of Haman’s niece?
A: I wanted to add a female villain, not just a weak king and a male villain. I didn’t think Esther would have a lot of contact with Haman.
Q: How did you research the novel?
A: This book is a lot different from Sinners and the Sea. There’s a lot of information available about the Persian Empire in [Esther's] time period….I had to be more careful. I did a lot of research about what the palace was like. I read Herodotus—you never know if it’s completely accurate!
I’m a writer, and I like to think the story is the most important. There’s a section where Esther’s cousin is telling her how important stories are.
Q: Which authors have inspired you?
A: I don’t always stay within my genre! I have read various historical fiction; not a lot of biblical historical fiction. I like Philippa Gregory, and I wanted to bring some of her page-turning abilities to Esther.
I can’t say I modeled myself after incredibly serious writers. I was looking at Game of Thrones for the intrigue and interesting characters.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I was working on a book about the exodus. It’s interesting to consider how people who were slaves would think about freedom.
Then a few weeks ago…I got a book, a thriller, and couldn’t stop reading. I decided I have a thriller stuck in me, trying to get out. I’m in a mystery-writing group, so I might as well take advantage of this opportunity.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb