Rebecca Kanner Retells the Biblical Story of Esther in Her New Novel


Q: Can you describe how you went about doing the research for this book? 

A: I knew that I wanted to merge The Book of Esther with the history of Persia. I used 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. I only read two books from start to finish (The Book of Esther and Purim and the Persian Empire). For the most part, reading and researching were interspersed. Sometimes the best way to figure out what research you need to do is to start writing.


Q: Why did you choose the first person point of view? 

A: I originally wrote Esther in the third person. Then I realized that I’d made her somewhat annoying. I decided to try first person, because when starting a sentence with “I” it’s harder to follow it with something that paints the character in a negative light. Esther is fourteen when the story begins, and in trying to portray her youth and inexperience, I’d made her a little too temperamental. It’s nice to leave a character a lot of room for growth at the beginning of a novel, but not if she ends up turning off readers.


Q: In your previous novel, Sinners and the Sea, you adopt the voice of Noah’s wife. Can you say more about that?  

A: I attended Talmud Torah Day school as a child. The women of Genesis were very present for me, especially Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, because my teachers added them to the Amidah each morning. I got to begin each day with these women. They were the teachers and friends of my youth. 

As an adult I was surprised to find that I couldn’t remember any details about Noah’s wife. I went back and read the story of the flood, and saw that she was only mentioned in passing. She was never even named. Without a name, it’s hard to talk about her, or even to think about her. I wanted to bring her to life. If she raised her family amongst sinners and brought them through the flood to the new world, she performed a great task and surely had a story to tell.

Identity naturally became a theme in the novel. I dismissed the possibility that I found least interesting—that Noah’s wife had a name but she was so unimportant it wasn’t mentioned. When the novel begins she actually doesn’t have a name. She is only able to be identified by her relationships to other people—wife, mother. There is a point in the novel where she asks Noah for a name, and he tells her he’s already given her one, “wife.” Later, when they are on the ark and she considers the possibility that Noah and her sons might die, she wonders, if they die, who will I be?

I came to this question and the other questions I raised in the novel with a Jewish sensibility, one of enquiry and exploration. The narrator wrestles with questions of whether G-d is watching over her or not, and whether this G-d is benevolent or wrathful. Some Christian fundamentalists are upset by these questions, as you can see by looking at the reviews or taking a peek at my hate mail.


Q: You’ve said that Sinners and the Sea morphed from short story to novel almost without your volition; why?  

A: I was enjoying it and finding new questions to explore as I went along. Also, I really loved some of the characters. There’s a madam who runs the town, and while some might find her to be too course, I got all kinds of vicarious thrills from the obscene things she said and her eventual heroism.


Q: Do you plan to continue in this historical/Biblical vein? 

A: I was writing a story about two sisters during the time of the Exodus. It was stimulating but very slow going. I got tired of all the research I had to do. In October I started a thriller that’s set in St. Louis, MO (the protagonist is a graduate student at Washington University) and various parts of Minnesota. The cold is a factor, which isn’t hard to write about as there have been several bouts of ridiculously cold weather here in Minnesota lately. Or, what I call “perfect writing weather.”


Q: What’s obsessing you right now? 

A: The idea that I could flee to a warmer climate if only enough of my friends and family would come with me. I just returned from Mexico and am not sure why.


Q: What question do you wish I’d asked? 

Do you by any chance have hundreds of pictures of your cat in your Android that you’d love to show me?

As the only thirty-something Jewish woman that I know of without kids, I sometimes feel like an outcast. I think the Jewish community is more family-oriented than most, but then again I’ve never tried being a childless Catholic woman. A cat isn’t usually considered an acceptable substitute for children, but I usually pretend I don’t know that.

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