Thursday, February 11, 2021

Lori Banov Kaufmann

As soon as she learned of the discovery of the first-century tombstone that inspired Rebel Daughter, Lori Banov Kaufmann wanted to know more. She was captivated by the ancient love story the stone revealed and resolved to bring it back to life.

Before becoming a full-time writer, Kaufmann was a strategy consultant for high-tech companies. She has an AB from Princeton University and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. She lives in Israel with her husband and four adult children.

My Q&A with Kaufmann:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title Rebel Daughter refers to Esther, a real-life character who lived through events which changed the course of human history. She was captured during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the first-century and ended her life as a freed slave in Rome. The book is my attempt to bring her remarkable story to life.

Of course, women in ancient times didn’t have the freedom we’re used to today so the word ‘rebel’ must be viewed in the context of that time. Sexism was not only alive and well, it was considered necessary for the proper functioning of society. And I was absolutely committed to writing a book that was historically accurate. I felt an obligation not only to Esther, but to my readers.

What's in a name?

The discovery of Esther’s two-thousand year-old gravestone in southern Italy, an exciting and important archaeological find, gave me her name. Actually, the name on her gravestone was Aster which is the Latinization of Esther. When I read about the gravestone, erected by the man who loved her, I wanted to know more. Who were these people? How did a girl from Jerusalem end up as a beloved Roman freedwoman? And how did Esther and this man, whose peoples were enemies, find each other?

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenage self would be shocked that I spent the last 10 years researching the first-century. (Truthfully, my adult-self is a bit shocked too!) I’ve always loved historical fiction but for me, history ended around World War II. I was never interested in ancient times. But the mystery and love story behind the stone drew me in and made me want to know more.

And from there, I began to research the time period. I was stunned to find out how little I knew about one of the most formative eras in human history. It is a fascinating period that has many parallels with our world today, especially the civil discord and religious fanaticism.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Great question! I knew when Esther lived and when she died so I had the narrative arc more or less defined, with a beginning and end. But my original version had Esther’s owner standing by her recently-erected gravestone. My editor thought that was too sad so I opted for a more hopeful ending.

In many ways, I didn’t find Esther’s story. The story found me. And I wanted to tell it as truthfully as I could. There was much I had to imagine but I wanted to make sure that whatever happened in the story could actually have happened, at least from a historical perspective.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I would like to believe that I could be as brave and resilient as Esther. But being caught up in violent rebellion tested her in a way few of us (thankfully) have been tested. My characters lived in a world so different from ours today – a world where war, torture, genocide and famine were commonplace; where women were subjugated and slavery was ubiquitous; when knowledge about the natural world was limited and people sought answers in magic, spirits and demons.

The beliefs and customs of their society were quite different from ours today – but in many ways, people were the same. They questioned how God could allow evil to flourish. They wanted to protect their families, to live their lives in freedom and dignity, and to find love. So while their world was different, people were the same.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I was tremendously influenced by the leading historians, professors and world-renowned archaeologists with whom I worked. They had high standards for historical research which, in retrospect, were appropriate for academia but not necessarily for fiction writers.

The research became an obsession. I had a sense of obligation to portray the time and setting as accurately as possible and a fanatic attention to detail. I read literally hundreds of books, dissertations and conference proceedings. Luckily, I live in Israel and had access to the artifacts at the Israel Museum, the archaeological sites all over the country, and the world-class scholars at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University. My “process” is why this book took me 10 years to write! In retrospect, I realize that I went completely overboard with the research but it truly was a labor of love.
Visit Lori Banov Kaufmann's website.

--Marshal Zeringue