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Jewish Girl Seeks Favor with Persian King to Save Her People

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 Esther by

Jewish Girl Seeks Favor with Persian King to Save Her People

An exclusive Authorlink interview with Rebecca Kanner, Author of Esther

By Diane Slocum

February 2016

by Rebecca Kanner
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Esther is a teenage Jewish orphan when she is rounded up by King Xerxes’ Immortals and brought to the royal harem. There, she finds favor with the head harem eunuch and with her Jewish maid who grooms her for her one night with the king. A favorite concubine sees her as a prime rival and sets out to destroy her. Further complicating her situation, Esther has strong feelings for the Immortal who captured her. But the survival of her people depends on her conquest of the king

” I was inspired by looking at pictures of Anne Boleyn and reading descriptions of Cleopatra.”

AUTHORLINK: What led you to write a fictionalized version of the Biblical Esther’s story? What is it about Esther’s character that intrigues you?

KANNER: I was intrigued by the feat that Esther carried off—saving her people. The Book of Esther is a biblical fairytale in which an orphan girl wins the love of the Persian king because of her beauty and is then able to save her people. I retold the story so that beauty and obedience weren’t her most important characteristics. I was inspired by looking at pictures of Anne Boleyn and reading descriptions of Cleopatra. While these women are widely believed to have been gorgeous, they were not actually pictures of traditional physical perfection. Their personalities, including both wit and charm, are what I believe accounted for much of their attractiveness. We have continued to mythologize their beauty as an explanation for their success (however short-lived it was for Anne Boleyn), instead of focusing on their intellects.

AUTHORLINK: On what did you base the details of Esther’s life in the harem and as queen? The clothing, the food, the hierarchy and such?

KANNER: Most of them are taken directly from the Megillah, which contains the Book of Esther that Jews read as part of the Purim holiday celebration each spring. From couches of gold and silver to the six months of treatments with oil of myrrh that the women receive, the Megillah emphasizes the luxury and splendor in the palace. The hierarchy, too, is taken from the Megillah and also from Herodotus’ The Histories, which talks about the special place of esteem eunuchs could hold as trusted advisers.

AUTHORLINK: Why did you change certain things that are in the Biblical story?

KANNER: I didn’t change things so much as add to them. I merged the Book of Esther with the history of Persia, which I researched in various sources including Persia and the Bible by Edwin M. Yamauchi, The Royal City of Susa which was put out by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and my favorite, Herodotus’ The Histories.

In addition to all the details I added, I also gave Esther the space to be a full, imperfect, human being, a young woman dealing with her own sexual awakening in an environment where women are seen as sex objects instead of sexual beings with their own needs and desires. I think it would be unusual for a fourteen year old girl not to have any interest in love or her own budding sexuality. After being kidnapped and finding herself completely alone in the world, Esther is in that vulnerable state where connections can form very quickly. Erez, the soldier she later falls in love with, 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.

“I hope that Esther will give people the courage to do things they fear.”

AUTHORLINK: How is Esther’s story a lesson for us?

KANNER: I hope that Esther will give people the courage to do things they fear. I really like the Georgia O’Keeffe quote “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”

AUTHORLINK: How was the writing and publishing experience different with this book than your first, Sinners and the Sea?

KANNER: I wrote Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah’s Wife, unsure if anyone other than friends and family would read it. That afforded me a lot of freedom. With Esther, I knew my publisher was going to see it because in my contract for Sinners and the Sea they were granted Right of First Refusal on my second book. Also, by the time I was writing Esther, I’d read lots of reviews of Sinners and the Sea and it was hard not to hear some of the praise and also the criticism from professional and customer reviews as I wrote Esther. Most of the reviews were really positive and helped me during moments of self-doubt. There were some angry reviews as well, that were focused on sexuality or other mature material in Sinners and the Sea. One person even sent me a couple of nasty emails and told me she’d burned the book. I tuned out the criticisms I’d received as best as I could but it was hard to tune them out completely. Publication has been a dream come true–I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world—but it definitely has put a little more pressure on my writing.

“.I kept reminding myself that Kathryn Stockett received sixty rejections before finding a publisher for The Help . . . “

AUTHORLINK: What advice can you give others who are hoping to publish Biblical fiction?

KANNER: Be prepared for strong reactions. Most people will be incredibly touched and grateful, but some will be offended. Also, I know it sounds like a cliché, but have faith in yourself and don’t give up. Most writers receive lots of rejections before they become successful. I kept reminding myself that Kathryn Stockett received sixty rejections before finding a publisher for The Help, which went on to be a bestseller and major motion picture.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

KANNER: I’m working on a thriller set in St. Louis, MO and various parts of Minnesota. The cold is a factor, which isn’t hard to write about now as it’s ridiculously cold here in Minnesota right now. Perfect writing weather.

About the Author:

Rebecca Kanner has a MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. Her short stories have been published in The Kenyon Review and The Cincinnati Review and others. Her awards include the Loft Mentorship.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.