Game of Queens puts a distinctive new spin on the traditional story of King Ahasuerus of Persia, Queen Esther, the repudiated Queen Vashti, the famous kingdom-wide beauty contest, and the circumstances that led to Esther's saving of the Jewish people (the origin of the Festival of Purim). The novel is partly told from Vashti's point of view; she's neither evil nor a rival of Esther's; and... well, I don't want to give too much away, but please read the interview (and the book!) to discover more. Game of Queens is published by St. Martin's Press this month ($28.99, hb, 400pp).
India is generously offering a special giveaway for blog visitors. Two selected winners will receive a set of both Game of Queens and Gladys Malvern's Behold Your Queen!, which you can learn more about below. This giveaway is open internationally. Fill out the form at the very end to enter.
You’ve mentioned that Gladys Malvern's Behold Your Queen!, an older novel about Queen Esther, is one of your all-time favorite books. Why does it stand out for you?
Behold Your Queen! is one of the first historical novels I ever read. BYQ! came out in 1951, and I read it when I was eight or nine – fortunately, the elementary school library had a copy. (Back in the fifties, BYQ! was considered a children's book; now it's considered YA.) So it made a huge impression on me, just as Young Bess did.
And the writing in BYQ! is wondrous; not one word too many, not one word too few. It has a clarity and a purity that's rare. BYQ!'s Esther is an amazing character: intelligent and wise; kind, loving, and strong. Yes, she's also physically beautiful, but it's her inner beauty that leaves the most lasting impression.
What played into your decision to write your own version of the Esther story?
Well, I had this two-book contract… The first book on that contract was for a book about Delilah, and the second was about A Biblical Woman To Be Determined Later. People kept suggesting I do Esther, and I kept saying "Esther's been done a zillion times, and besides, my book won't be as good as Behold Your Queen!" I think it was my sister who suggested I do the story from Vashti's POV. It's really Vashti who sets the ball in play, because her refusal to obey Ahasuerus's command to show herself off to a banquet-hall full of drunks makes everything fall apart for Esther to put back together.
How did you come up with Vashti's family background in Game of Queens?
Tradition tells us that Vashti was Nebuchadnezzar's granddaughter, which would make Belshazzar her father (tradition says a lot of things about Vashti, most of them not very nice). I made Belshazzar her grandfather to suit my storyline.
However, I strongly suspect you're actually asking about Vashti's grandmother, Ishvari of the Black Horse People. She's totally fictional – and she's in Game of Queens because I didn't want to spend a whole book about women talking about Vashti's grandfather. So I created a Scythian princess of great pride and beauty and gorgeous horses and incredible riding ability who's sent to marry Belshazzar. (Walter Farley and his Black Stallion series have a lot to answer for, literarily speaking….) (And you know, there's a really good reason that fiction's littered with orphans who have no relatives at all, living or dead. Boy, do relatives get cumbersome to keep track of in a manuscript.)
Book One, "The Lion's Den," covers the backstory of Daniel the seer. Why did you decide to begin the main part of the novel there?
Seriously? Because he's the oldest. No, really – you see, I write a book in scenes, not beginning-to-end (and I cannot too strongly recommend that if you can, write straight through, not as your whimsy takes you), and so I had what I considered just Absolutely Fabulous openings for each of the main characters. Each of which would have been a perfectly corking beginning for the book…which wasn't actually possible. So it (eventually, and after much shuffling around) opened chronologically.
The amusing banter among the characters in that section was unexpected and fun to read -- Daniel has a good sense of humor. How did you decide on that approach?
Daniel needs a good sense of humor, especially since he doesn't have much sense! The dialogue flowed from the kind of characters Arioch, Samamat, and Daniel were, and I'm glad you found it amusing, because humor is much, much harder to pull off than serious dialogue.
In Game of Queens, you've managed to create appealing personalities and realistic motivations for Vashti, Esther, and Ahasuerus. The story works well, yet none is cast as the villain of the piece. Why was this important to you?
There really isn't much need for additional villains when one of the characters is Haman The Horrible! Not only that, but writing villains gets tiring very fast; no one thinks of him/herself as a villain. Once you're in a character's POV, it's a real tightrope-dance to keep a villain, well, villainous. This is one reason there's not more about Queen Mother Amestris in the book – it would have been far too easy to wind up with her as another main character for whom I felt sorry.
The toughest thing was turning the Bible's Ahasuerus, King of Kings But Not Any Too Bright, into a door prize that a nice Jewish girl like Esther would want, let alone into a mate worthy of her. I had to start just about from the time he was born to try and pull it off.
Anyone reading Game of Queens will recognize that you're an animal lover. Did any of your own pets, former or current, make it into the storyline?
Vashti herself is based on my Best Cat Ever, Vashti, who was a silver Persian with chatoyant opalescent eyes (you can see photos of her on my website). Unfortunately, once I'd done that, I was stuck for visual reference for ages – like many writers, I stare at pictures of people who look like my characters when I'm working on a book. I started work on my Vashti-and-Esther novel in 2008, handed in the first version in 2010, and at that point photo reference of beautiful girls with white-blonde hair were about as rare as that hair color is in real life. Then I started watching this miniseries starring Sean Bean (the reason I watched in the first place) and Jason Momoa (a delightful surprise when he turned up), and unvirtue was rewarded, because it turned out there was a girl with long flowing white-blonde hair in it too!
Now that you've written four historical novels set in biblical times, can you pin down any qualities you look for when choosing a heroine to write about?
Ideally, she's a woman who hasn't already been written about recently, or too often. The Esther story's the exception, since it really has been done so often there's always room for one more Esther novel. I mean, who can resist that beauty contest? Other qualities are less tangible; I can't get excited about Ruth, for example, or Deborah, although they're both admirable characters. I'd hate to think that's because there's not much opportunity to put either in Sumptuous Raiment, but I'm afraid that's probably a consideration….)
Back when Queenmaker was first published, back in 1999, the popular trend of "biblical women" novels was just getting going. Do you have any thoughts on how biblical fiction has changed since then? What suggestions would you have for other authors thinking of writing in this period?
The trend may be dying out at the mainstream houses, although there will always be a market for novels about biblical women at the Christian publishing houses. If mainstream isn't interested, and inspirational isn't for you, consider self-publishing, which has changed dramatically in cost and reputation since I self-published Queenmaker.
And it doesn't matter how many other people have written about the woman you want to write about – if 127 authors retell Esther's story, each story will be different. For instance, there are 126 other girls in the reality series "Who Wants To Be Queen of Queens?", and each of them has a story of her own….
Thanks very much, India!
And now, for those who enjoy biblical fiction, here's a special opportunity to read two novels about Esther and Vashti... India Edghill's own take on their story, plus another novel that she highly recommends.
Fill out the form below for a chance to win! One entry per household, please; void where prohibited. Deadline Monday, September 28th.