Authors' Spotlight

INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NL HERZENBERG|AUTHOR INTERVIEW

It is my pleasure to host author N L Herzenberg on my blog today. Her recent release Queen of the Jews is currently available for purchase.

Me: Can you tell us what Queen of the Jews is about?

Herzenberg: In contemporary New York City, a Jewish woman falls in love with a Palestinian wall painter. Where she sees a hard-to-reach riddle of a man, he sees a woman who is swept up in a global conspiracy—all because of The Hasmonean Chronicle, a book she has written about the ancient Hasmonean dynasty. Chapters set in contemporary New York City are intertwined with chapters set in second century BCE Judea. Yet the relationship of the Palestinian man and the Jewish woman is not the essence of the novel: at a deeper level, the novel explores the theme of attachment to, and the loss of, identity. We see that when one of the protagonists loses her group identity, she gains an individual one. Basically, the novel is about various ramifications of the theme of identity, the one we are given at birth and the one we find on our own, when we mature.

Me: What made you pen down “Queen of the Jews”?

Herzenberg: There were several reasons that led me to writing this novel. Reason number one : it was simply “dictated” to me by an inner voice, sentence by sentence, page by page, from the beginning to the end. I will describe the process in greater detail in my answer to your third question.

Me: It is not only love story set in contemporary New York, between a Jewish woman and a Palestinian man, but goes deeper into the history and culture of both lands. What did you do to keep the account authentic and facts real?

Herzenberg: This novel is set in contemporary New York and in ancient Judea. I’ll talk about the historical part first. One day, as I was sitting at my desk, I heard a voice dictating something to me, sentence by sentence. I didn’t know what the story was about, or even whether there was a story, but the sentences seemed interesting, and there was an urgency to them, so I began writing them down. I thought, why not. I just wrote down what I heard. After about fifteen pages of it, I realized that the story was set in 2nd century BC Judea, and that the protagonist was Judah Maccabeus. I was writing about Judah Maccabeus’s private life, about his wife and his love for a woman he was not married to, about the defilement he saw in the Temple the first time he stepped inside after the Syrian Greeks had left. I was writing down everything the voice was dictating to me. I should emphasize that I was born in the Soviet Union where I had zero Jewish education. I barely knew names of the Jewish holidays, and before the dictation, I knew there was someone by that name–Judah Maccabee or Maccabeus- in Jewish history, but I didn’t know much about him except his name, and that he is mentioned at Hanukkah. Basically, I knew nothing. Yet here I was writing in great detail about his life, and the lives of his brothers, Jonathan and Simon, and their wives, and their descendants, and the palace intrigues, and the wives’ conversations about the meaning of God or gods, Judaism and Hellenism, and the doomed future of the Hasmonean dynasty. After some fifteen or twenty pages of simply writing from the dictation, I decided to do some research–and I found out that a large part of what I was writing –the names, the battles, the geography–was real; these were facts, not mere imagination. Details of their private lives are not known to anyone, they are not part of the official record, so there is no way to either confirm or refute them. I don’t want to give out the plot, so I’ll just say that at some point chapters set in second-century BC Judea and those set in New York begin to reflect each other in ways that would have been impossible if there were only parts set in our time or in ancient Judea. Thus, the relationship between the Jewish woman and the Palestinian man in New York had thousands of years of history behind it–not the history we think of when we say “the conflict in the Middle East.”  When I finished writing the book (or, when the book finished writing itself), I realized that I was led to write it for a reason, as it is a necessary book for our time.

Me: Describe Galia and Alejandro in three words each.

Herzenberg: I can’t describe them in three words each; it just won’t be enough. Although the contemporary part of the novel, set in New York, seems fairly simple on the surface, as there are only two protagonists, at the same time it is quite complex. The main thing to keep in mind, in order to understand what is going on with the characters, is to remember that, like Romeo and Juliet, they come from two warring camps. Their ethnic and religious backgrounds are not conducive to a close relationship, but as we read the book that Galia is writing, the chronicle of a family in ancient Judea, we see the two protagonists exchanging identities – the Jew becomes a Muslim, and the Arab becomes a Jew. So, this is not just a love story but a story of disengagement from one’s own group identity (the identity received at birth); it’s a story about becoming free of the bonds of a group. There is also another point beneath the surface of the novel, about seeing myths and fairy tales for what they are, i.e., just stories; about not taking myths too literally. So, that’s the deeper level of the novel.


Me: The plot is also heavy on suspense. Did you have the whole thing figured out before you started writing it or did it evolve as you went on?

Herzenberg: I didn’t have the whole thing figured out before I started writing. It came to me by itself, without any conscious knowledge on my part, as a kind of dictation, something that I heard inside my head, which, I realize, sounds almost crazy, since this is the way schizophrenics talk about hearing the voice of God.  There is a wonderful quote from Joseph Campbell: “The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight”, which basically means that the very thing that drives some people insane can help other people create, i.e., for some these are waters of insanity, for others, of creativity.

Me: What is your favourite genre to read?

Herzenberg: I read mostly poetry and literary fiction, i.e., short stories and novels by writers such as Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende, Vladimir Nabokov, Umberto Eco. These are the writers whose work I loved for many years, since I was quite young.

Me: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Herzenberg: When I’m not writing, I paint, and I also make root sculptures, “koryagi” in Russian. In pre-COVID times I liked to travel– mostly to Europe, Mexico, and South America. I haven’t been to India yet, and I’d like to go there.

Me: Are there any new projects underway?

 Herzenberg: I’m working on several new projects, such as a book about my family, tentatively titled “Dictionary of the Twentieth Century: Story of a Family” and a bilingual literary journal, in English and in Russian.


NL Herzenberg is a pen name of Nina Kossman, a bilingual Russian-American writer, poet, translator of Russian poetry, and playwright. Among her published works are three books of poems in Russian and in English, two volumes of translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems, two books of short stories, an anthology she put together for Oxford University Press, several plays, and a novel. Her work has been translated into French, Greek, Japanese, Spanish, Hebrew, Persian, and Dutch. Her Russian poems and short stories have been published in major Russian literary magazines in and outside of Russia. She received a UNESCO/PEN Short Story Award, an NEA fellowship, and grants from Foundation for Hellenic Culture, the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, and Fundación Valparaíso. She lives in New York.

Find Herzenberg at:

Website

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