Interview: N.L. Herzenberg

N.L. Herzenberg is a pen name of a Russian-born artist, writer, poet, and playwright. Under her real name she is the author of several books of poetry and prose. Her work has been translated into several languages, including Japanese, Dutch, Greek, and Spanish. She Lives in New York.

The novel, Queen of the Jews, can be downloaded for free from



Is Queen of the Jews based on real events?

This novel is set in contemporary New York and in ancient Judea. So this question, whether it is based on real events, is a complicated one, and it doesn’t have just one answer, it has two or more: one for the contemporary part and one (or more) for the ancient, or historical, part. I’ll try to talk about the historical part first. One day, as I was sitting at my desk, I heard a voice dictating sentences to me. 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 Greeks had left. I was writing down everything the voice was dictating to me. I should emphasize that I was born in Russia where I had zero Jewish education. I barely knew the names of Jewish holidays, and before the dictation, I knew there was someone by that name–Judah Maccabee or Maccabeus- in Jewish history, but that was all I knew. 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. No details of their private lives are 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 began to reflect each other in ways that would have been impossible if there were only parts set in our time or in ancient Judea. 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 about when we say “the Middle-East conflict.”  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.

Who are your influences?

Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende, Vladimir Nabokov, Umberto Eco. These are the writers I love. I hope that I was able to create my own voice–the voice that dictated the text had its own cadences, its own music. I tried to record it as faithfully as I could.

The book portrays a relationship between two people from very different backgrounds and with conflicting ideologies. How did you manage to make this relationship seem so authentic and believable?

The Galia character is very familiar to me. She is a totally secular Russian Jew who becomes a somewhat alienated Russian-American. Like most Russian Jews, she is not very Jewish, i.e. she is not at all observant, and when pressed by Alejandro to define her Jewishness, she says, “I’m a Memorial Jew,” i.e. she is a Jew only in memory of her grandparents who were killed for being Jews even though they didn’t live as Jews. As for the male character… well, I live in New York, and I meet people from all kinds of backgrounds. He was based on someone I knew, and when I started writing the contemporary part, his speech and his reactions to Galia’s actions seemed clear to me. Like with the dictation of the ancient Judea part, it seemed as though his words were right there, all I had to do was be very quiet and listen, and I would hear it. That, basically, is what I did.

You write in a number of different forms, including poetry and drama. Do you tend to focus on one project at once or do you work on things simultaneously?

I often work on several projects simultaneously. I work on small projects, such as poems or short short stories, which can be written in one evening. I write them whenever inspiration strikes me; when an idea comes to me. There were years when I lived without (or almost without) inspiration, and I don’t want to live like that again: life seems dull without inspiration.. So, whenever I feel the stirrings of inspiration, I try to do what I can with it, I sit down and try to work on it, to give these stirrings form. Sometimes they need to be shaped into a play, sometimes into a poem or a short story… Since I’m bilingual, in addition to the choice of writing a poem, a story, or a play, I have a choice of languages. Nowadays I write mostly in English, but I still write in Russian every once in a while, and while this ability to be creative in both languages might seem like a good thing, in my case it is actually a curse rather than a blessing, because I feel torn between my two selves–the self that thinks in Russian and the one that thinks in English. It is to escape this somewhat torturous bilingualism that I turned to painting and making sculptures. The language of art is silent, and the silence is soothing to the bilingual self.

Are you working on anything new at the moment?

I’m working on several large projects and several small ones. I paint and make root sculptures almost every day. It’s something I can do whenever I have any free time. One ongoing project is combining a poem with a painting, i.e., writing a poem and making a painting that goes with the poem. This is what I really love. Large writing projects are also on the horizon, at various levels of development, but I’m not ready to talk about them: I have to keep them inside before I see whether they will turn out to be something real.



Gonçalo M. Tavares

Let me tell you about one of the greatest writers of our time.

I blogged about Gonçalo M. Tavares’ novel Jerusalem a couple of years ago, describing Tavares as “peerless”.  An over the top description maybe, but having read one of his books, I was of the opinion that I’d finally encountered the perfect novel.  I’ve now read all four of the books in his “Kingdom” cycle – a loosely connected series exploring similar themes – and remain convinced that Tavares is a writer like no other.

These four books can be read in any order.  For me, Jerusalem makes a great starting point as it’s gripping enough to hook you straight onto the others.  The ultimate Tavares novel is Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, described by the publisher Dalkey Archive as “another chilling investigation into the limits of human experience, mapping the creation and then disintegration of a man we might call “evil,” and showing us how he must learn to adapt in a world he can no longer dominate.”








Silence by Annette Greenaway

Top news for fans of Annette Greenaway’s remarkable poetry collection, The Joy of Atheism.  Annette’s poem Silence has been set to music by New American Voices, a performance of which can be seen here:


The Words:



I have decided that I will spend the next year silent.

I will not speak or write another word.

I will recycle my phone and my laptop.

I will carry a set of cards with me wherever I go.

One of the cards will say, “Yes.” Another will say, “No.”

Another will say, “Two sugars please.”

One will say, “I adore your shoes.”

One will say, “Apologies. I am spending the year silent, And cannot respond to your query at this time.”

One will be a picture of a flower.

One will say, “Good people don’t kill people.”

One will say, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

One will say, “No explanation required.”

One will say, “Insert amusing anecdote here.”

One will say, “I love you.”

Two of the cards will say, “I disagree entirely with your last statement.”

One will be written in lower case, and the other in block capitals.

One will say, “Sex please.”

One will say, “OK, you can stop now.”

One will say, “It’s your turn.”

One will say, “I’m sorry.”

One will say, “I’m terribly sorry.”

One will say, “Why?”

One will be completely blank, and I will hold this card against my face,

Matching my expression.
You may think I am doing this because I am unhappy,

And I want to wallow in my own misery,

But I’m looking forward to being wordless.

I have a feeling it’s going to be twelve months

Of uninterrupted joy.


New stuff by Philistine authors

So, here’s what’s going on with some Philistine authors at the moment …

Richard Britton (The Birth of Taliesin the Bard / Words From The Sky) has launched a new online publisher, Icarus Books (, specialising in narrative poetry. Submissions are open now – visit the website for details. Very exciting!

Secondly, Gaurav Monga is currently involved in a project run by Conflictorium Museum of Conflict (, which is currently seeking submissions of work themed around the relationship between text and image:

call for submission-20151125-093703471

Finally, Lochlan Bloom (Ambi and Anspi) has a new novel, The Wave, due to be published soon by Dead Ink Books. I’ve had the pleasure of reading the novel, and I can confirm it’s a truly original piece of work.

An extract can be read here.


Review – Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr 


Central to Melissa Mohr’s very interesting and entertaining book is the way offensive language has changed over time. In the Middle Ages, for example, sexual swearwords formed part of everyday conversation, while religious curses were on a par with the other nine Commandments. Fast forward to Victorian Britain, where certain four letter words were almost unutterable (at least among the middle classes who seem to get most of the attention in history books). Nowadays, racist and homophobic language, most of which has its roots in the 19th Century, is by far the biggest source of outrage, while ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ are tame as goldfish by comparison. 

The book begins at the very beginning of time, and suggests one possible early version of the Adam and Eve myth … I was told as a child that Eve was created from Adam’s rib, which explains why men have one more rib than women. But, as Mohr points out, men and women have the same number of ribs. And humans are one of very few mammals who do not have a bone in the penis. 

#justsaying, as they say. 

Review – The Scatter Here is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer 

This is going to sound terrible considering the book subject matter (the story centres around a terrorist atrocity) but I finished The Scatter Here is Too Great feeling kind of uplifted by the freshness of the storytelling. 

There’s something shambolic about this debut novel, intentionally so perhaps, but also because you get the sense that the author is still finding his feet and will no doubt go on to create bigger and better things.

Review – The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier 


The Illumination is one of those books which someone is bound to turn into a film one day and completely ruin it. Who could resist the opportunity to combine true to life human stories with some cool CGI? If I had a hundred million quid to hand, I’d make it myself.

I’m not against adaptations, but some books will only ever work on paper, and unless Alejandro González Iñárritu gets his hands on it, The Illumination will remain one of them. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is, read it before Alejandro does.