Tuesday, June 08, 2010
Queen of Secrets: An Interview with Jenny Meyerhoff
Back in February I interviewed Debra Spark, author of Good for the Jews, an adult novel based on the story of Purim. The Megillah inspires a lot of modern writing, apparently! Today I've got an interview for you with Jenny Meyerhoff, author of a young adult novel based on the Megillah, called Queen of Secrets. When I met Jenny last summer at the Planet Esme Reading Room, she told me this book was in the works. I am pleased to say that this very interesting novel will be released this summer!
Jenny, where did the idea come from to write a modern novel based on the story of Queen Esther?
Growing up, always loved the story of Esther, probably because it was one of the few stories I remember learning in Sunday school that featured a female as the main character. One spring a few years ago, I was thinking about the story again, and it occurred to me that Esther most likely would have been a teenager. I began to wonder what her story would be like if it were occurring today. How would it be the same and how would it be different?
What about Queen Esther's story in the megillah is particularly compelling to you?
As I already mentioned, I’ve always loved biblical stories about strong women. As a young girl I had a comic book bible and I read several stories over and over, particular the story of Rachel and Leah. Beyond the fact that Esther was a strong heroine, the other Sunday school lesson that always stuck with me about The Book of Esther is that there is no mention of G-d in the story. I found that fascinating. If it’s in the bible, but it’s not about G-d, then what is it about?
Later, when I started thinking about writing QUEEN OF SECRETS, I reread The Book of Esther. What struck me upon that first rereading, was that there is almost no characterization at all. Everything I remembered about the story, about why each character did what they did and what kind of people they were like all came from commentaries. In the actual text, what we get is mainly a cataloging of events. This freed me to come up with my own motivations and back stories for these characters.
The original story and your retelling both include issues of hiding your identity and trying to fit in. How do you think those issues are different now than in Queen Esther's time (if you do think so)?
Well certainly in Queen Esther’s time (and story) we are dealing with the threat of actual death, possibly, when Esther’s identity is finally revealed—both death for the Jewish people, through the edict sanctioning their slaughter, and for Esther, if she approaches the king to intercede and he is angry that she lied or that she is a Jew. In QUEEN OF SECRETS, the death I’m dealing with is metaphorical, Social Death, which is clearly not as big a threat. But as adults, I think sometimes we tend to minimize something like Social Death because, well, at least you still have your health. But to a teenager, very few things are as painful as being ostracized and then having to face those who’ve made you an outcast on a daily basis. I think most of us would go to great lengths to avoid facing that situation. Jewish teens today, especially those attending high schools with very small Jewish populations, can still feel very much “other.”
I see this as a coming of age story, in which Essie learns to stand up for herself, stand by her friends, and do what's right. She's brave, as was Queen Esther. But would you say the original is a "coming of age" story too?
That’s a really interesting question and a hard one to answer because of the issue that I mentioned before about very little being revealed about the inner workings of the characters in the actual text of the story. We don’t know how Esther felt being drafted into the king’s harem. We don’t know what she thought of Mordecai’s advice to keep her religion a secret. However, she certainly goes from a girl who does whatever she’s told to a girl who must speak her truth.
Before I wrote QUEEN OF SECRETS I did a lot of thinking about what kind of story The Book of Esther is. Is it a coming of age story, is it a love story, is it a family story? Ultimately, the part of the story that spoke most strongly to me, the way I decided to read the story for this retelling is that it is a story about living in the Diaspora. So while QUEEN OF SECRETS absolutely is a coming of age story, for me it’s also an exploration about what it is to be a Jewish teen in America right now, in a time when (in many places) Jewish people aren’t really considered a minority any more, in a time when, while overt anti-Semitism does exist, most Jews are much more likely to encounter something far more subtle.
In my life, I’ve been in many situations where I haven’t felt quite comfortable admitting that I was Jewish. Usually that’s following someone else’s assumption that I’m not, and this vague sense that I get that our whole relationship dynamic would change if that truth about me were revealed. This is compounded by the fact, that most people would tell me that I was paranoid if I expressed this hesitancy. A lot of people believe that anti-Semitism isn’t something that exists in America anymore. It’s not relevant. I definitely got this response when I was agent shopping this story. But now that the book is out there, I’ve heard from many more people who tell me this is real. This is still happening.
Please talk a little about the issue of Jewish identity in your book. Micah's family is observant and Essie's is not, so she struggles with "how Jewish" to be. Was this an issue for Queen Esther or is this a totally modern addition to the story?
Hmmm. Again, this is a hard question to answer because we don’t get many clues into Queen Esther’s mind in the megillah, but yes, I suppose this was an issue I added to the story because it’s one I think about in my own life and have thought about since I was a teen. I really think there are two parts to this question, an internal and an external. One the one hand Essie is looking to discover a connection to her religion and a level of religious practice that feels real and meaningful to her, and that I think is wonderful. But sometimes it’s hard to avoid outside influences in that decision, for example, Essie finds comforts in rituals like lighting Sabbath candles but it takes a long time for her to incorporate them into her life because of what others, including her grandparents, would think. In an ideal world, all of us would base our religious and spiritual practices from a place of inner truth.
As in most modern fiction, Queen of Secrets presents us with the villain's personal history and challenges so that we understand the source of his "evil" and feel some sympathy. I notice that we never do learn the fate of Harrison (Haman) after he toilet-papered the house of Micah (Mordicai). Is it too hard to punish a villain that you feel sorry for?
No, I don’t think it’s hard to punish the villain. I think of punishments as the natural consequences of one’s actions, especially in fiction, and while I understand why Harrison was such an angry young man, I think he made really poor choices and deserves whatever consequences he gets. As to why those consequences aren’t in the book, I think that’s more to do with a storytelling choice. This is Essie’s story. Her journey, the one we are following in the book, comes to fruition whether or not we know precisely how Harrison was punished. She’s coming forward and pointing the finger at Harrison. She has convinced Austin to do the same. I feel pretty certain that Aunt Shelli and Uncle Steve will press charges, but it all feels like part of some other story.
How was writing this book different from writing a story that is NOT based on some other source story?
Well, at first I think it was a lot easier because I didn’t have to fabricate an entire plot out of thin air. The story was all set out for me. But when it came to revising, it was a lot more challenging because I wanted to stay as close to the original story as I could, but ultimately, the book had to work on its own, as its own story. Normally when I’m revising, if a plot element doesn’t work, I can easily eliminate it. Here, more often than not, I had to try to figure out a way to make it work. But that actually became kind of satisfying, like a really intricate logic problem.
Jenny, thanks for speaking with us and good luck with your new novel!