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 www.philistinepress.com.
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.