1. The Seventh Handmaiden tells the story of a slave serving Queen Esther in the fifth century BCE – can you give us a thirty-word pitch for the book?
An all-powerful king and a mysterious young woman who becomes his queen. These are the main characters of the Scroll of Esther, a Biblical tale of ancient Persia. But seven handmaidens who serve the queen are also mentioned. Who are they? The Seventh Handmaiden is the story of one of them.
2. The story is compelling historical fiction. Were you keen to make the book accurate – or was your priority to write a page-turner? What is the right balance between history and fiction?
Keeping the book accurate and making it a page-turner were equally important to me when I wrote this story. I kept the Scroll of Esther and various history books open on my desk to ensure that I didn’t stray from the facts. But I was not writing a documentary; I was writing a story that I wanted young people to read. I knew they would only keep reading if the story intrigued and enchanted them. I could not let the facts overwhelm the story element. But I am vehemently opposed to changing history in an attempt to make a story more compelling. To me, that would be betraying my readers. I would never want them to come away from my book confused about what was fiction and what was truth.
3. Do you think being a teacher has an impact on the way you write and what you choose to write?
Most definitely being a teacher impacts my writing. The Seventh Handmaiden is a direct outgrowth of the fact that I taught ancient history for many years, and Judaic studies for several years as well. I was intrigued with the Persian Empire and the story of Esther. In addition, I found that one of the most effective ways to make history come alive for my students was to have them read historical fiction. Stories of people who lived in the times and places of the past make those times and places real. But, as I said before, the stories must be accurate to be useful. I previewed novels that were not true to history and I would not include them in my curriculum. I wanted to write accurate and readable historical fiction, and I hope to write more.
4. How did you research The Seventh Handmaiden?
Since I had been teaching about the Persian Empire for years, I had already done a significant amount of research on the topic before I had the idea for the novel. Once I decided to write the story of Darya, the handmaiden, I read more widely, watched videos about ancient Persia, searched for answers to specific questions, and discussed the information with people well versed in the material. I delved into secular history as well as Biblical writings. I had been familiar with the story of Esther since childhood, but now I studied it as an adult and examined it from more mature angles. I was greatly influenced by the book, Esther, Ruth, Jonah, Deciphered, by Dr Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg. He is an historian and archaeologist who very neatly blends the events of the Megillah (Scroll of Esther) with Persian history. All of this research together laid the foundation for the novel.
5. Which Jewish children’s books would you regard as classics?
I turned to the experts – my children and grandchildren – to answer this question, and compiled this list:
- Something from Nothing, by Phoebe Gilman. The detailed illustrations in this picture book are a feast for the eyes, and the message is timeless.
- Is It Shabbos Yet? by Ellen Emerman. The story captures a small child’s feeling of impatience, waiting for Shabbat to begin.
- K’tonton, by Sadie Rose Weilerstein. This is a true classic of Jewish children’s literature; the stories still have the power to captivate young children.
- It All Began with a Doormat, by Rachel Atkins. This tale is a brilliant way to illustrate to children the difference between wants and needs.
- The Yossi and Leibel series, by Dina Rosenfeld. All in rhyme, with beautiful illustrations, these books teach classic lessons in a fun way.
- The Bakers’ Dozen series, by Miriam Zakon and Emmy Zitter. These books are timeless and worthwhile fun for children aged between nine and twelve.
- The Kids Speak series, by Chaim Walder. Young people relate to these ‘for kids, about kids’ stories that teach lessons about life.
- The Bina and Benny and Chagai Hayona series, by Yaffa Ganz. These are a delightful way to get into the Jewish holiday spirit with children.
6. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Dear Aspiring Author,
Every writer’s story is different, but I found that reading about the experiences of other writers was helpful to me – their successes and failures; their frustrations and fulfilment. If you are like me, you write because you must. The stories are in your head and you have a need to write them. The characters are alive and invite you into their world. But you do not just want to write; you want to be published. Show your work to people you trust – friends, family, other writers – and listen to their responses. Hire a professional editor, if you can. Research publishers. Then take a deep breath and send out your book. But be prepared to read rejection letters and send out your book again. And again. And again. Writing is very personal and the rejection letters are painful, but keep looking for that publisher who wants the very book you wrote for his or her list. There are no guarantees, but it is certainly worth the effort.
7. What advice would you give to teachers to make history interesting for their pupils?
Rather than calling this advice, I would like to share some things in my teaching that successfully captured students’ interest. I already mentioned using historical fiction. After reading, my students researched the time and place of the novels they had read, then presented what I called ‘Book Talks’ for their classmates. In costume, they told the stories they had read, intertwined with audio-visual presentations of their research that they had created. They also acted out historical plays, using props to enliven them. They read and watched videos; created sheets of real papyrus and wrote on them in hieroglyphs; used reeds to write cuneiform characters in clay; played historical Jeopardy with questions I formulated from their studies; and created original board games using the material they had learned. My curriculum included a great deal of serious reading and research, but was liberally sprinkled with hands-on activities, performances and games that reinforced the book learning in fun and entertaining ways.
8. How many stories have you written? Can you say how long each takes?
I have written two children’s books and I am currently writing a third in the series. Mister Lister and Mister Lister Strikes Again are about a socially awkward young boy who finds that lists help him make sense of his world. The books are between sixty and a hundred pages, and each one took me several months of consistent effort to write. The Seventh Handmaiden, on the other hand, is a novel of approximately 250 pages, and took about six years to write. I worked on it mainly during summers, since I was teaching full time, and I did not write consistently. If I had been able to focus on it for more extended periods, I can guess it might have taken about two years. However, I always need down-time during the writing to allow a story to percolate and develop in my mind.
9. What would be your dream project as an author?
When I wrote The Seventh Handmaiden, I would have loved to visit the actual places I was writing about. This was impossible for me, so I had to rely on research and do my best to ‘feel’ what I was reading in books and seeing in videos. In a dream writing project, I would be able to experience the setting physically.
10. Do you think it’s important for Jewish stories to have a Jewish author? (Similarly, for a Buddhist tale do you need a Buddhist illustrator or writer?) Do you need an intrinsic understanding of the topic or can a writer research everything?
Writers must have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of what they are writing about. Knowledge of a culture can be derived from intensive research, but understanding needs full immersion in the milieu. It is certainly more likely for a Jewish author to have that immersive experience in Jewish culture, but I do not believe it is impossible for a non-Jewish author to achieve it as well. However, simply being Jewish, or immersing in a culture, does not confer full understanding on writers. There are multiple Jewish lifestyles, and living within one of them does not automatically enable an author to write authentically about a different one.
Thank you for this moving and compelling historical tale!