Q: What inspired you to write The Seventh Handmaiden, and how did you create your character Darya?
A: For as long as I can remember, I have had stories taking up residence in my mind. I had been teaching Ancient Persian history in middle school for many years and tying it in with the Book of Esther.
And at some point, I began wondering about the seven handmaidens who are mentioned as being assigned to Esther. Who were they? Where did they come from? What was their story? These questions became my focus and the answers became the seeds of the novel.
In my teaching, I used a great deal of historical fiction to help make history come alive for students, and I saw a need for books that contained accurate historical detail.
I shared some of my thoughts and ideas with my husband, who gave me a book called Esther, Ruth, Jonah, Deciphered, by Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg. A historian and archaeologist, Dr. Rosenberg clearly shows how the Book of Esther blends perfectly into the history available about Ancient Persia.
So my musings about one of the handmaidens, now called
Darya, evolved into more than a story. They became the elements of a historical
fiction novel that could bring both Persian history and the Book of Esther to
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I had actually been researching the book for many years before I even thought about writing it.
Research is a major part of teaching, and since I taught about Ancient Persia year after year, I was always researching one aspect or another, and that included the Book of Esther. I visited museums, read books, watched videos and did Internet searches.
Some things that surprised me were the technological achievements of the Persians, like figuring out how to cool their homes and supply their cities with water in a very hot and dry climate.
I was also struck with their mixed attitudes toward women. On
the one hand, women could be secluded in the king's harem, but on the other,
they were celebrated as warriors and given the freedom to work and run
Q: What did you see as the right blend between your own characters, the historical record, and the Book of Esther?
A: I tried to keep the story of Darya front and center, because that is what the book is about and I didn't want it buried in the history of the time period. But Darya's story is entwined in Persian history and in Queen Esther's story and so they automatically became part of the novel.
As I already mentioned, I was very influenced by Dr.
Rosenberg's book. I dislike historical fiction that deviates from the
historical record in the service of creating the storyline; therefore, I was
determined to avoid that pitfall. I tried to follow the history and the Book of
Esther as best I could, and configure my story within those contours.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: There is so much I would like readers to take away from this book, but some of the main elements are that there is evil in this world, but there is also a great deal of good to counteract it.
People are not one-dimensional. They are complicated human beings made up of both positive and negative impulses. The friendship and love we offer to each other make each of us able to cope with whatever life brings.
Some people are overwhelmingly powerful, but even those who
seem powerless can sometimes effect change. And most of all, people need
resilience to survive.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: At present I am working on the third book in the Mister
Lister series. These are children's books about a third-grade boy who is
socially awkward. They follow his challenges and successes when he enrolls in a
new school and must navigate making new friends, interacting with teachers and
meeting a very special librarian.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I have been writing my entire life. I wrote stories and poetry throughout my schooling.
As an adult, I wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, including a local history column and a guidebook to Philadelphia. I also taught writing, and became a language arts, history, and journalism teacher.
But I was never able to find a publisher for any of my fiction until 2018, when I was already a grandmother. I had given up on that publishing dream time and time again, but something always drew me back to it.
And then the right editor saw just the story she was looking for and everything began to click. All the previous rejection letters had been painful and difficult to bear, but they faded into the background once my first Mister Lister book was published.
Mister Lister Strikes Again came next, and finally my novel, The Seventh Handmaiden, was published by Green Bean Books. Like so many other things in life, becoming a published author requires a great deal of effort -- and a healthy dose of perseverance and luck.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb