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Brothers Judd interview of Rebecca Kohn, author of The Gilded Chamber


We recently reviewed The Gilded Chamber by Rebecca Kohn, an exceptional historical novel about Queen Esther. Ms Kohn was kind enough to take time and answer some questions:

First, a few questions about the book itself:

[Q:] Congratulations on a terrific novel, especially impressive for a first effort. Is there a particular reason you chose the story of Esther for your first? Was this a story that you'd wanted to tell or one that appealed to you for a given reason?

Thanks! Actually, this is my fourth novel, but it is the first one published. It is my second historical novel. I chose Esther because I thought it would be fun and interesting to try to understand the story both in its real historical context and from Esther¹s point of view. I had just read a marvelous book about the political implications of the story, Yoram Hazony's The Dawn, and realized that the characters could have so much more depth than we traditionally attribute to them.

[Q:] It seems that you stayed quite true to the core of the Bible story but then fleshed it out in the margins: are there alternate contemporaneous versions or just the Book of Esther? Did you have a free hand to create a background for Esther or do we know more about her?

I was adamant about staying true to the story, since my objective was to try to imagine how it might have really happened and to fit the biblical events into the context of historical events of the time in which it is set. Several different versions of Esther exist and redaction of the story has been the subject of much scholarly work. I did my best to find the various versions but in the end I followed the most commonly accepted redaction. The differences tend to be very small and insignificant in terms of the story events.

We do not know more about Esther than the biblical account tells us. I created the back story for her with a plausible explanation for why she was orphaned and what she was doing living in the house of her older unmarried cousin (which has, historically, greatly troubled the rabbinic scholars, since it is rather improper.) Archaeological evidence tells us of a treasury official at the time of Xerxes by the name of Marduka, though that was not an uncommon name at the time. There is also a shrine in current day Iran (in the Hamadan province) known as the Tomb of Mordechai and Esther, though we have no clear evidence that they are in fact the two people buried in the spot.

[Q:] One of the most interesting choices you do make is to have Esther (then Hadassah] and Mordechai be not just cousins but betrothed, was there a certain dynamic that you thought that would give the story that it might not otherwise have?

I sought to make sense of why this young attractive orphan was living in the house of an unmarried cousin. At that time it was common, even desirable for first cousins to marry. So it made sense to me that they would have been betrothed. After I thought this through, I discovered that some of the old rabbinic texts from about the year 200 or so speculated that they were in fact betrothed when she was sent to the king.

In terms of the story, the dynamic of loss is much greater with that attachment. It also brings a sense of betrayal or perhaps weakness from the man she trusted to take care of her, which makes her realize she has to rely on herself. In the biblical story we see she is brave and thinks for herself. I wanted to provide some motivation for that. People don't talk much about Mordechai and what he would have had to give up to be a successful court Jew. I try to imagine that and then show how he goes through a change. The romantic attachment allowed for a greater motivation there, too.

[Q:] Based on the level of detail you include about life in the harem, the research you did for the book must have been prodigious. What sorts of resources did you draw upon for Persian history and social life?

I was very fortunate with source material; the archaeological evidence from the period is very rich and many wonderful books on the subject are available. Reconstructions of the palaces and material arts, and even the music were very helpful to me. I consulted any number of social histories in the role of women in ancient Persia, Jewish life at the time, and the military. Herodotus was a main source of information (albeit he can be a little unreliable on historical facts!) The classic history of the Persian Empire by Olmsted and the work of biblical scholar Edwin Yamauchi were my constant companions. I used four or five different translations but did some of my own translation work (with the help of my husband) when I wanted to use a direct quote as dialogue, which I did as often as possible.

[Q:] The theme of the essential otherness of the Jewish people seems to be at the heart of Esther's story: was this one of the attractions of the tale for you? What are the lessons we can draw from it? Are they still applicable in the world today? In America?

You know it wasn't the Jewish angle that first attracted me, beyond the fact that I felt Esther had not gotten a fair deal in the way contemporary Jews portray her. I think it was the question of otherness that you point out (whatever that otherness might be) that really interested me. Living in a small liberal college town and yet holding pretty conservative views has made me think about otherness in a new way. I feel that the real message of Esther is incredibly apt today: that you can be true to your ideals and yet find a way to live in your society, even to effect change. Of course this is much easier to do in The United States than anywhere else ! But even here you still see the pressure to be quiet and conform, to turn a blind eye to injustice as long as it's not hurting you. Esther tells us that some things are worth risking everything for: I guess that is certainly relevant in today's world.

[Q:] Esther ends up delivering her people, at great risk to herself, and Moses is likewise a deliverer--is there a danger to Jews in the belief in delivery or is faith that God will provide a deliverer a necessary element of Judaism?

Well, I am no expert and as far as I can see there are about as many different types of Judaism as there are Jews, maybe more! But as a practicing and somewhat observant Jew, I believe (and the literature supports this) that we are expected to do our best to make the world a better place each day. Judaism is not about sitting around and waiting to be delivered. I am most uncomfortable with those elements of Judaism that seem focused on the world to come, or any kind of messianism. I do not believe that Mordechai was right when he said to Esther that if she didn¹t help someone else would.

Next, a few questions about the writing:

[Q:] If it's not too intrusive, can you tell us how you came to write the book? On the dust-jacket of the book there's a comparison to The Red Tent and recommendations from best-selling historical novelists Margaret George and Steven Pressfield--this seems like a book that a publisher has great confidence in (and deservedly so). That's got to be somewhat unusual for a first time novelist, not to mention immensely flattering, how hard was it to find folks in the industry who believe in the book so completely?

I think this was the most tremendously lucky thing that ever happened to me. I had secured an agent for my previous novel, a historical piece sent in Medieval Cairo. She was having a wretched time selling it because I was unknown and the setting very unfamiliar. (I used to go around telling people that I would have to write a novel about incest during the Civil War if I ever wanted to be published.) Somewhat discouraged and not excited enough about the piece I was working on at the time, I decided to take up the Esther story because I thought at least I¹d have fun working on it. My agent was ready to give up when the editor from Rugged Land, Chris Min, told her that while she didn¹t want to start with the Cairo book, she thought I should write something based on the story of Esther. My agent had not told her that I was in fact already at work on this very thing! So I guess it was meant to be.

I am fortunate to be working with such a wonderful group of people at Rugged Land, a small commercial publisher that really gets behind its authors. They are wonderful. It was well worth the wait.

[Q:] Brian Lamb of Booknotes (C-SPAN) always asks a question that I find interesting. How do you write? Is there a particular place you like? Do you write longhand, type, use a computer? Do you write a set number of hours a day?

I am compulsive in my work habits. I work on a computer in one room in my house. No one else is allowed into my office or to get on the computer. I am surrounded by the mountains of books I¹m using for research, which never stops even after I begin writing. I work from 4:30 am to noon, with a break to take my daughter to school. I do not answer the phone and I try not to look at email. I sometimes use a stopwatch to make sure I am getting in at least six hours. I work a full day every day except Saturday.

Each book has been carefully planned so I have a lot to work with. But when I sit down to write the actual chapters, I have to see it all playing out before me. I have to hear the characters speaking and see where they are, what their gestures are, and so on. Sometimes I think it is more like acting than anything else, since I am trying to become each character. Distractions make this very hard to do.

[Q:] Do you have plans to write other novels?

I am working on another biblical project for Rugged Land, the story of the Exodus from the point of view of Miriam and Tzipporah. After that I hope to move a little forward in time, though I love the genre of historical fiction. I am just now finishing a two year term as president of my synagogue. I have threatened to write a synagogue comedy based on my experiences. I might just do that!

Thank you for your time and best of luck with the book