Shimon Adaf is widely regarded as one of Israel's best contemporary poets and novelists. He won the Amichai Prize for poetry and the Sapir Prize for fiction and is the author of three collections of poetry and six novels. His first novel in an English translation, Sunburnt Faces, is published November 1 by PS Publishing, and launched at the World Fantasy Convention.
Lavie Tidhar is the World Fantasy Award winning author of Osama and many other works. His latest novel, The Violent Century, is out now from Hodder & Stoughton.
This conversation was conducted by email in September 2013.
Lavie Tidhar: I think the first time we appeared together was in the special anniversary issue of Fantasia 2000 [a legendary Israeli SF magazine published between 1978 and 1984; the 30th anniversary issue came out in 2008]. It's obviously a magazine that's influenced both of us at a critical stage, and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that?
Shimon Adaf: Thinking back, it's really astonishing that Fantasia 2000 came out in the first place, and more wondrous that it came out in what seems to be a short termed flourishing in speculative fiction publishing in Israel. Israeli literature is predominantly realistic. It derives its main models from the psychological and social realism of the 19th-century novel, with a twist: its concern is the national aspect of Israeli society. Growing up, in Sderot, a small town in the south of Israel, and coming from a religious Moroccan family, that is, a minority in local terms, I couldn't be further off the conventions of the national story. I felt alienated from Israeli fiction—it was hard for me to identify with the narrative being told and retold in Hebrew books, the characters, the major themes. For me, speculative fiction, both SF and fantasy, offered a different model of identification, and a way to deal critically with the ones found in local literature. I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, I was too young, and as a novice writer, writing in Hebrew, I saw myself as part of Hebrew literature, and at the same time very perplexed, since I wasn't able to consider my personal history and upbringing as part of it. Fantasia 2000, which was such a treasure trove of SF stories and articles about SF, was a real save for me. There I discovered works that enabled me to look for my own voice, not to mention the sheer joy of reading thoughtfully and wittingly crafted SF works: the more experimental and literary sides of writers I liked, such as Roger Zelazny's weird tribute to Moby Dick in "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth", or the work of Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.) in a story like "The Screwfly Solution", or Fredric Brown's and Ray Bradbury's work—and lastly I started to get to know your own work through the anniversary issue (which showed what an impact Fantasia 2000 had on our generation's speculative writing). But for you it was a different story, wasn't it?
Lavie Tidhar: I thought I was supposed to be asking the questions!
A while ago I described Israeli mainstream literature as faux-realist, since in its concerted attempt to create a national identity, it essentially becomes a work of meta-fantasy. In that view, science fiction and fantasy almost become the more honest literature. They highlight the absurdity of realism while being able to comment on reality (on the reality behind the reality, which is a very Philip K. Dick sort of thing, isn't it!).
We've talked about this before, that you and I come from opposite ends of the Israeli spectrum—I'm from a kibbutz in the north, very much born into the ruling narrative of the new Israeli society, but I never felt I belonged in it much. I discovered Fantasia 2000 in the kibbutz library—I think it was out of print by then, and I'd hide in the little SF/F alcove of the library and read them (I still have a handful of copies).
I think there were two things about the magazine, for me. The first one was their coverage of American SF/F—I remember seeing pictures of Roger Zelanzy at a convention, things like that—it was almost as though these people were real! And of course it seemed such a long way, a whole different world away from where I was. I think I had to be insane or very arrogant to start having this ambition of being a writer and one day doing this sort of thing myself! It really was like reading about another universe.
The other thing for me was the original Hebrew fiction the magazine published. I particularly remember "The Stern-Gerlach Rats" and "The Conman and the Tin Beggar", by Mordechai Sasson, which I think were almost uniquely Israeli—I borrowed the whole idea of robotic beggars and the setting for my own science fiction stories much later on. I think it was the eye-opener for me—that you can write distinctly Israeli fiction, that it didn't all have to be American or, distant second best, British.
But you describe the magazine as a "real save." What was it saving you from? And did you think of becoming a writer very early on?
Shimon Adaf: Oh, I don't mind being in charge of the sombre tone of this conversation. Life is such a cheerful experience that you have from time to time to put on a serious face in order to survive. I guess that SF/F in general, and the magazine was for me the epitome of reading SF/F, helped me define my taste, it functioned as a horizon for my ambition as a writer. Once again I'm speaking from a mature point of view. I started writing very early, as soon as I learned to read. And my first steps in writing were trying to create in Hebrew similar stories to those I liked, which were translated from other languages. Or, in other words, I tried to copy the works I enjoyed. But there was this tension, this dissonance that grew throughout my growing up and I couldn't really express its nature, between the Hebrew language, the Jewish tradition I was so acquainted with, and the stories I wanted to write. They just didn't fit together.
When I came upon the science fiction section in the public library—it was a two-shelf section—I was caught by the marriage of the philosophical tone and the sense of wonder. Yet it made things harder for me, because it made the distance between my own existence and the literature that I felt at home in immeasurable. In one of those leaps that distress forces one to take, I first turned to poetry. It seemed to me that in poetry I would be able to bring together the yearning for the out-of-the-ordinary, and my personal baggage—small town, Jewish lore and Hebrew language. For me the affinity between speculative writing and poetry is a fact of writing. And I think that for you as well. You also started by writing poetry, in Hebrew, and you integrate poetry into your novels, mainly using the heteronym Lior Tirosh. How do you see the connection between these two modes of expression?
Lavie Tidhar: That's true! For me, poetry was a revelation, that you can do things with words in a way I never thought you could. In a way I think—I think I said that to you before—that that's my tragedy—that I'm a decent enough poet but I'll never be a great one. I would have preferred to be a poet but I settled for being a fiction writer, if that makes sense! Whereas for you, you're widely considered one of the premier Israeli poets of your generation.
In a way, when I look at my early Hebrew poetry, I think I've lost that part of me. They're expansive, they're not fully controlled, but the poems feel fresh to me still, they come from a place I may have lost. These days I mostly work poems into the novels and short stories, knowing no one is ever really going to make much of a reference to them.
But it's an odd starting point, isn't it? Poetry and science fiction? And, of course, you're not considered a genre writer at all. I remember when Mox Nox [Shimon's 2011 novel] came out and I was reading the reviews, and they uniformly ignored the fantastical elements and just pretended it was a full-on realist work. That was very strange! How do you feel about incorporating the fantastic into your fiction?
Shimon Adaf: We're constantly changing, something is always lost and something is gained. The energy of youth can't be maintained for long. It's replaced by slower, less immediate forms of energy, and making poems should be the craft of attending the change. I mean, for me, it started by trying to write kind of sci-fi poems. I was influenced by Samuel R. Delany's work back then. I love the way he is able to fuse the epic spirit of poetry and the lyrical one in his work. I think that SF/F literature can serve as the true heir of the epic form of poetry in our era. But I can never forget the lyrical aspect that has to do with basic expression of the self, emotion, and experience. So I'm trying to marry the two in fiction through merging genres: injecting the fantastic into my autobiography and following where it leads, or vice versa, starting with my autobiography and letting it open to the encounter with the fantastic. The encounter can wear many shapes: it can be religious, it can be mystical, it can conclude in unexplained feeling of amazement, and it can turn into a hell of a ride, an adventure full of twists and turns, metaphysical mysteries, and shady villains working in the background towards some kind of apocalypse, as they, for some reason, tend to do in millennia of storytelling.
In Mox Nox I was trying to clash the model of the portrait of an artist as a young man and the classic ghost story. It starts with describing the experience of the narrator growing up in a religious family, in the shadow of a strict Jewish father, loosely based on parts of my biography, but at the same time very different from it. The story, for instance, does not take place in the current Israeli reality, but in a slightly alternative one, whose history is a bit changed, and this, with the ghost story elements, becomes apparent as the novel goes along. It's the narrator coming to terms with the actual nature of his existence that was important to me in the novel. I wanted to write about living in a ghost world, not as a metaphor but as a metaphysical situation. It was very easy for Israeli readers to ignore the fantastic elements, because they are biased toward naturalism. So this novel was accepted as an autobiographical work. But to some extent all my work is autobiographical. This has to do with another convergence between poetry and the fantastic—standing in front of the ineffable. For me, poetry is about what you can't do with words. You stretch your capabilities of expression and they are not enough, dark enigmas are floating in space, like alien fleets, beyond your reach.
I do believe that your novel Osama, not less than its poignant political themes, is a depiction of the metaphysical sense of facing the enigma of reality. And there, as in your other works, you merged different genres. Do you think that it's possible for you to write otherwise? Does the option of "pure" SF or fantasy hold significance for you as a writer? Was there ever such a thing as "pure" SF/F?
Lavie Tidhar: I think Osama is very autobiographical, though perhaps less noticeably than in your own work—it only becomes obvious to people who know me. I've become increasingly reluctant to write looser, less personal material—I feel as if I need to go deeper inside of myself rather than project out, if that makes sense. The book I've been working on this year, I think, is my most personal, at least in terms of having to go deeper than I ever dared before, and into the dark, nasty side that's inside all of us. It's why I admire James Ellroy, for instance—that willingness to put everything on the page. I don't yet have the courage to quite do that . . .
But it's interesting that you mention Delany, who had a similar influence on me—it's that mixture of the high and the low, a very poetic style mixed with very street, down to earth dialogue, and also his willingness to both tell a Story, but to go beyond it, to have something profound to say in that story. I wonder to an extent if we liked him partially because he seems an outsider in science fiction, that he was very much not a part of the ruling narrative of science fiction at the time, being gay, being black—I also love his engagement with the narrative of pornography, which as you know has been something I've been fascinated with (especially in terms of pulp fiction about the Holocaust which, I'll grant you, Delany thankfully never wrote!).
But to answer your question, yes, I do love writing "pure" SF, which I get to do in short stories. There's something very joyous about it, I think, for all that short stories seem such a doomed media, reaching a very small audience at best. And we talked about this before—you're really not a short length writer, are you? Why do you think that is? What is it about the wider scope of a novel that you find so attractive (and in such contrast to writing a poem, which is a very concise, very concentrated form)?
Shimon Adaf: I do wonder why certain parts of biography become recurring patterns in writing, and obsessively so. Why these parts and not others? And what's the urge to defuse them via writing? Because when we talk about our work being autobiographical, we mean that it is obsessive in that sense. . . .
When I was sixteen and began writing poetry, I knew, I think, two things—that my poems weren't good enough and that poetry is my only way of self-expression and exploration. And I assume writing serves as a device of self-exploration. It adheres to the simple principle of technology, in my view: it externalizes your consciousness, materializes it, so you can take it in, in new form. Anyway, somehow at the age of sixteen I felt that stories and narratives were lost to me. I couldn't even consider writing fiction. Plots, characters, dialogue, they all seemed so foreign suddenly. At the age of thirty, something changed, a shift in my psyche occurred that I cannot account for. I was far away from Israel, in the United States, a guest in Iowa University's international program, and I had a complete blueprint for a novel. It was a detective novel, though my main interest wasn't the detective genre in itself (I love detective novels, don't get me wrong. Even though the fact that they tend to have a solution in the end bums me out). It was the form, the structure, the knowledge that I had a device—the mystery—that would keep the narrative running that would enable me to dive deeper into the protagonist's abyss of consciousness. Finishing it, I knew I always had the knowledge about writing novels, that the transition from writing poems to writing novels is natural, exactly because of the complexities involved. In a poem I tend to condense many layers of Hebrew and meaning and imagery. When I try to unfold it and spread it, these layers are translated into atmosphere and characters and themes, and they demand a huge space, the space of a novel. When I write short stories, on the rare occasions that I write them, I start with an amount of raw material worthy of a least a novella. Why shouldn't I write a novel instead? It keeps my anxieties at bay for a longer period and I don't see a categorical difference between the two crafts.
But you pointed to a difference between your short stories and your novels. And since you dodged the question about genre mash-ups, I'd like to bring it up back up in a different manner—you may write "pure" SF in your short fiction but it's never naïve SF. You seem to have in them a level of reflection upon the genre, its history and goals. And it's far more prevalent in your novels, where you lean towards meta-fiction and apparent and subtle tributes to SF history (I, for one, can never miss the latent references to Cordwainer Smith's work, but you include references to very obscure works as well). Why is that?
Lavie Tidhar: I was actually thinking about that recently, in a different context—I was asked to do a literary event to talk about the future. The future! When does the future become science fiction? And my argument was that it happens at the seam where it stops being the projected present, and becomes weird. And I was thinking of all the SF iconography that never happened—not just jetpacks and hovercars, but domes, human-shaped robots, all that detritus from the 1940s and 1950s and onwards—and I seem to be fascinated by it, it keeps recurring in my SF work. So my SF is very much in conversation with American SF that, to be honest, a lot of modern readers might not even be familiar with anymore. It's both conversation and critique, I guess. I love Cordwainer Smith, who is probably one of the most obscure SF writers, and who mostly worked in short fiction—I love the immense scope that his stories seem to reveal, while at the same time being very focused on specific instances. You always get the sense there is so much more going on than you actually see.
To me, I think, novels don't come naturally. I hate the length! The obsession. The immersion. You finish a novel and it's like coming out of a daydream that lasted months and you look around and you're not even sure where you are.
Short stories are fun. You can do one in a day! You get it out of your system and go on with life.
I find books obsessive. The one I'm writing at the moment. . . I was writing it so fast, mostly at night, inhabiting this very unpleasant twilight world. Why do you think this is? Why do you have this need to write? What difference do we make, in the end?
Shimon Adaf: But Smith is not a good example for a short story writer. He creates an epic vision of the future in fragments (and widely so, time-span-wise, there's no writer like him in SF history). He is one of my favourite writers as well. I gave a class last year about 20th century SF at Ben Gurion University and we discussed his story "Scanners Live in Vain." It's a genius story. The way in which he deals with the classic theme of the passion to be human from a post-human point of view, the way he projects the theme on to the nature of space and the question of mortality, not to mention his unique style, left a big impression on the young students, who were supposed to have been exposed to all the history of SF imagery and iconography. It brought back to me the first time I read the Instrumentality of Mankind stories.
So you ask about difference? In the grander scheme it probably makes no difference. But try to imagine yourself without the books that were important to you when you were a child, a young adult, a matured person. I know that I can't describe myself without my history as a reader. I think that for all writers there was a moment in which reading took the form of revelation. It doesn't have to be an event full of pathos, with light coming down or angels with burning swords, but a small knot of pleasure and sudden, tacit knowledge that the written word would hold for them a deeper way of being, or a fuller one. I can testify to this myself. I have a practical answer: when I write I am better. Yes, I'm consumed by the work, I spend half of my time in a detached state, but I sleep better, my digestion functions better, my body is more alert, sharper. So we are doomed to exist in this split state, when the spirit surrenders to its ticks and spasms, the body is at last at peace with its corporality. I'm neurotic in everyday life, I suffer from insomnia every once in a while, I have strange aches and a general feeling of discomfort. But when I write. . . maybe it's the other way around, that when we write we are waking from our mundane dreams of the world into a higher awareness of existence? And maybe I'm exaggerating. It's easy for me to drift to certain metaphysical arguments. What about you? Though I can partially figure your metaphysics from your work, we never had the chance to talk about it. What are your views as to the nature of things?
Lavie Tidhar: You know, that's the sort of question you need to answer with a novel . . . so I might take a rain check on that! But to me, not writing becomes an itch. I get restless, I get irritable, I annoy everyone around me. It becomes a physical need to sit down and write. In a very real way, I don't care as much about the publishing side of it—by the time a book or a story comes out I am so far removed from it, all my excitement is on the current work. And again, as soon as I finish writing something, I can quite happily never even look at it again, as consumed as I was by it for months and months.
But I guess publishing is important to me, getting it out there—whereas you've expressed to me several times recently that you're reluctant to continue publishing. And I have to ask—why is that? Why the reluctance?
Shimon Adaf: So I'll be waiting for the novel. Or have you written it already . . . ?
I have a myth of writing in the back of my mind. A myth that is a residue of modern concepts of art, of art being the goal for itself, l'art pour l'art, so to speak. And publishing, it makes you deal with issues of the conversation you want to take part in and the identity of the people you are conversing with. The image of your readers. The myth has to do with being young and feeling free and having no expectations from the outside pressing you or influencing you in any way. There are two aspects to the external pressure I feel, pressure that I fear is starting to leak, or slither into my work, a space in which I wish to be completely independent: the first is the reactions of the readers. They enjoy certain parts of your work and other parts they find hard or they're indifferent to them. The temptation to develop the likable parts of writing and to avoid the others is constantly growing as you publish more and more. It verges sometimes on frustration, because you can get confused as to what you really need to write.
The second kind of pressure comes from the publishing industry. Israel has an uncommon history of publishing. Because literature played for so long such a major role in the encapsulation of social and national identity, books, both of fiction and poetry, were considered a cultural necessity. And editors in all publishing would prefer in two out of three cases a novel with artistic value to a novel that appeals to the wide public's taste. But in the recent three decades the publishing scene has become increasingly and very rapidly commercialized. It has become an industry and a market, less a cultural field. So you kind of know what sort of books, what type of writing, editors are looking for—more straightforward plots, amicable characters, linear storytelling, transparent language. It's not that I don't appreciate these characteristics of writing, it just that I don't like any imperatives in writing, and I don't wish to adopt any unknowingly.
And if I'm not willing to take part in the pre-set rules of a conversation, why would I be engaged in it in the first place?
What about you? Even though you say you love publishing you tend to get annoyed when you feel you're not understood. And once you have an idea for a novel you go on writing it, though you estimate it has a slim chance for getting published. What is this appetite for publishing? I know it's more profound than just getting acknowledged.
Lavie Tidhar: I'm going to have to disagree with you a little. I don't see Israeli publishing of the past as some sort of Golden Age. I think a lot of it is what you'd call "recruited" fiction, fiction in service of a national narrative. The books I'm struck by, in a way, are the Fortean objects, the timeslips, the marginal books. Something like Ram Moav's Luna: The Genetic Paradise, for instance, which is terribly obscure [written as the author was dying of cancer, it describes a scientist's miserable childhood and equally miserable adulthood in contemporary Israel, alongside an idealised future utopia on the moon]. If you read it—it's not a very good book, in all honesty!—but it's an incredibly damning text. And it discusses things like the way the refugees from the Holocaust were treated in Israel—with shame, suspicion—that question of why did you survive when the others died? What did you do? And they were being called "soaps," as a reference to the Nazis supposedly making soap out of human fat. That's such a cruel thing. The Holocaust is very much a part of my personal narrative, one of my overriding obsessions.
But I'm struck by what you call the myth of writing at the back of one's mind. I very much have a romantic image of myself-the-writer—the idea of hiding away in a cheap Parisian apartment in the 1950s and writing—very much the Hemingway or Beats cliché! (And I did in fact live for a short while at Shakespeare & Company in Paris, when I was 18, and in a way I never outgrew that!) And I'm reluctant to write for money, or to write purely for entertainment—I want to write the things that are important to me, and I think publishing is about communication. So it's a balancing act, in a way, and it can be challenging—you have to trust your instincts, you have to believe in what you do, but at the same time you think, well, this could be the one that kills my career before it's started . . .
I've mostly resisted the easy path, I hope. As you know, I've agonised over the current novel for a very long time, I am very worried about the reaction from my editor, or my agent, or indeed readers if it makes it into print! But I still wrote it. I still feel it was right. And I think I finally resigned myself to it, took a deep breath and just said, let's roll the dice. Let's see what happens. I'm very selfish as a writer—I want to please myself first.
Shimon Adaf: Yet I never said what those values were. I agree that they were shaped by a subliminal nationalistic discourse, a discourse shared by writers and readers. All the same, you can still find fine writing in these works. If I'm not mistaken, Ram Moav's novel, Genes for Geniuses, Inc. [literally translated the Hebrew title is something like "Genius Sperm"], is completely a Zionist novel, dealing with the enhancement and preserving of certain Jewish genes.
The capitalist discourse is much more conscious than any ideological one, and seemingly more dangerous. It presents itself as neutral—it doesn't propagate any specific beliefs. The market is "free," it's based on supply and demand, so we're told, and you're only judged by how many people are willing to pay for your goods. It could be hell for writers. The ideology, which you could resist once you noticed it, is replaced by a mechanism that grinds you down . . . I got carried away a bit. It's hard for me to forgo a neatly shaped generalization. Things are probably more complicated and nuanced. But at the core, I think I'm right. What I've been trying to say is that I didn't decline one world view just to adopt another one. And I do separate writing from publishing. I don't believe that I'll cease writing. I might avoid publishing so I can enjoy untainted freedom of writing. Am I obsessed with the notion of freedom and autonomy? I think I am. Maybe it's my version of being selfish.
About that—there are stories that you have to write, there are themes you work hard to get out of your system, but what about characters? Do you have characters that you would like to go back to? That won't leave you? I'm talking about fictional main characters, not real personae. Because I remember well your Osama Bin-Laden period. And of course, your insatiable interest in Hitler . . .
Lavie Tidhar: So, you want me to not talk about Hitler? Because I'm fascinated by Hitler, I'm obsessed by Hitler—I've been obsessed by his sex life, which is shrouded in rumour and gossip more than hard facts. What shaped Hitler? We know he was an abused child—his father was a drunk, and he probably beat Hitler's mother, and the boy himself. Hitler's later relationships with women were very unpleasant—he was controlling, domineering so that his niece, for instance, killed herself. And yet it's suggested he could only be satisfied by being dominated, humiliated, sexually.
But that isn't what you're asking, is it!
To answer your question, I've been drawn recently to more quiet stories, particularly with my Central Station cycle of stories (which have not quite worked out as a novel, though I still hope to get there one day). I've been fascinated by the changing landscape of Israel, and in particular the Asian economic migrants on the one hand, and the African refugees on the other—how the old Central Station area in south Tel Aviv has become this huge enclave of "foreign" elements—a sort of modern-day ghetto, almost.
And my Central Station stories follow their children in the far future, but focusing on the day-to-day, on love and relationships, amidst the weird science fictional architecture and gadgets and so on. I am drawn to smaller characters, smaller actors.
You know, when I came back to Israel [for a year and a half, and when we met], one thing I really wasn't expecting—perhaps naively!—was how important one's "ethnic" origin still is. That my identity was very much bound externally in being from European origin, being Ashkenazi. And you, of course, come from a Moroccan family, and I know there's been this pressure on you to write to order, almost, to represent. We've been joking that if you wanted success you should write the big realist immigrant novel. And you've resisted that.
How does that background, that identity, affect you and what you write?
Shimon Adaf: Poor little Adolf. And I thought that his envy of his Jewish classmate Wittgenstein budded into a full frontal anti-Semitism. But no, I'm not going to give you more leeway to talk about him; it will take over our conversation. And not the best segue as well . . . Israel is ethnically diverse, but so homogenously Jewish conscious. That's so true. We both lived in Jaffa at the time, a place where you strongly feel the innate tensions—Arabs and Jews from all over the globe, native inhabitants and tourists, the allure of the only real metropolis in Israel (Tel Aviv), and the hardiness of the periphery. Yet the discourse is still Zionist at its core, with xenophobia as basis.
This xenophobia wasn't directed just at non-Jews in the past, but also at certain Jewish communities, namely the Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews, i.e. Jews that emigrated from Arab countries. The result was, as I mentioned, that there was very little representation for the Mizrahi Jews and the existing ones were ultimately negative: criminal, primitive folks.
I think the Moroccan community had the worst stereotypes attached to it. "Moroccan Knife" they would say about the men, meaning of the short-tempered violent type; and "Freha," they would call the girls, meaning flimsy, extravagant, low brow kind of female. The first response to this was a protest, during the '70s and '80s of the previous century. I grew up with the political and cultural protest in the background, though I wasn't much aware of it, in a town mostly populated by traditional and religious Moroccan Jews, but already I was indoctrinated to the Israeli mode of thinking via the horrid marvels of the local educational system. So I came out a hybrid.
The first wave of upheaval against the homogeneity of Israeli identity focused on negativities, trying to hold Israeli society accountable for the damages to the minority and of robbing them of opportunities and of their heritage, and demanding compensation.
I say "them," "theirs," because I'm a bit alienated from that form of resistance. In literature the protest surrendered from the beginning to the widespread models of representation, the realist account of life, and a defensive, furious, and sometimes winning tone.
I wish to express the richness and positive content of the Moroccan Jewish life that was an important part of my first 21 years, and still is, as I visit my hometown and family every two weeks. That's why I'm continuously looking for new modes of expression, and trying to create a Jewish-Hebrew literature that bypasses the Israeli aspect.
For instance, in my novel The Buried Heart (2006), I tried to create a fantasy that starts in an imaginary small town in the south of Israel, and goes to other hidden parts of Creation, that take their inspiration from medieval Jewish philosophy. The plot is based on a strange passage in the book of Genesis. All the characters are of Moroccan origin . . .
My novel Sunburnt Faces, that's now coming out in English, is set also in the south of Israel, and it's about the birth of fantastical experience of the world, as told in certain Jewish scriptures and in British YA fantasy books, in the mind of a young girl from a traditional Moroccan family. The novel recounts her struggle to keep at bay the Israeli world view that tries to replace the wondrous experience with its banal political interpretation of life.
And I just finished a huge trilogy, The Rose of Judea, which raises the question of Jewish identity in a post-national reality and uses most genres at hand—from poetry and science fiction to the conspiracy novel and the techno-thriller. But enough about me. Your work deals often with the Jewish and Hebrew aspects of your identity, but the Israeli aspect usually is unpronounced or removed (like kibbutzim on Mars)—what produces that effect?
Lavie Tidhar: I am still waiting to write my great Israeli novel—it was supposed to be the next book but I got distracted by Hitler, as you do! To my mind, The Rose of Judea is magnificent—you won the Sapir Prize [the Israeli equivalence of the Booker] last year for the middle book, Mox Nox—in a way, I feel they gave it to the wrong novel! I thought Kfor (2010) was a masterpiece, and it's a novel that's had a huge influence on my own work, I think. We've been talking about writing for self, trying not to be influenced by success or the lack of it—but I can say, from my own experience, I found winning the World Fantasy Award last year very reaffirming, in a way.—Osama was such a gamble, and to be recognised for it felt a little like a vote of confidence. And I was wondering, is this what it felt like to you? The Sapir was very high profile, it was a big media event—and I know you weren't expecting to win! I loved your acceptance speech, where you said something like, "I wasn't expecting to win so I didn't prepare a speech, but I did iron a shirt"—which is such an Israeli thing! (My agent made me wear a shirt for the World Fantasy Award—he sent me back to my room to change!)
We don't necessarily seek acceptance, but it's nice to be appreciated, maybe?
Shimon Adaf: Thanks. When I was writing Kfor I was going through deep mourning. My beloved older sister, Aviva, passed away at the age of 43. Strange thing, I can't speak about it in Hebrew, but in English it's easier. Maybe because for me the English language contains distance. Hebrew is too intimate. At the time, a year after her passing, I'd already finished a poetry book in which I'd processed some of my grief, my loss. The book came out [Aviva-No, 2009], but the experience wasn't exhausted. So I turned to fiction. I was angry—at the world, at myself. The poems were a form of primal scream, immediate expression that didn't require conscious effort. The poems were born directly out of my going back to my childhood synagogue and praying, out of my being immersed again in Jewish scriptures that accompanied me in my early years, out of religious tradition . . . The poems transmitted the familiar side of this experience. But the experience also had another side, unfamiliar, eerie almost. You see, in the synagogue time stood still. Boys inherited their fathers' faces, and nothing seemed to change. I was forced to spend part of the year of mourning in two worlds, the one of my childhood that had been infused with the presence of my sister and the one of the present, in which she was terribly missing. I was skipping between them uncontrollably, and they both were like simulacra of yet a truer unperceived world. So Kfor is set in a future Orthodox Jewish society, which was my way to come to terms with the eerie aspects. I did try to familiarize the Jewish Religious community I knew, and ask how this community can cope with the huge advancement in technology coming its way, when it desires freezing.
I was angry, and detached. All I could do was write, write. The narrative broke under my hand into fragments and sub-plots and interplay between layers of consciousness and a discussion about the means of representation and language (again, our dear friend Delany pops up. We once had a conversation about The Einstein Intersection . . .). While I was submerged in a reality of a young Yeshiva in which boys are mutating into Seraphs and Holy Beasts, and the goys are speaking Latin and are part machines, Aviva-No won the Yehuda Amichai award for poetry. The winning felt like an external event, not connected to my writing. I wasn't surprized when the novel was met with some resentment. In fiction most readers seek to understand, empathize with the characters. I treated Kfor as a work of poetry, in which I offer the experience of language.
I completed the first draft of Mox Nox before Kfor came out. So I wasn't influenced by the reactions. In this novel I intentionally went in the other direction—a uniform, seemingly realistic story, set in a ghost copy of present Israel. When it won the Sapir Prize, it felt once more an event external to writing.
The other day a friend told me I should write more Mox Nox kind of novels and try to avoid the wildly inventive—his expression, not mine, and he used it in a slight derogatory manner. I told him that the "wildly inventive" novel is more loyal to my life, because I don't have a foothold in the world. It seems a good answer. But is it right? You travelled the globe and lived in different cultures. It's very apparent in your work, which is the most multi-cultural SF I know. Do you think it's also the reason for you to keep writing speculative fiction?
Lavie Tidhar: I think for me anger is certainly a part of it. In writing you can try and seek out a better world, or try to shape the world into a better place. It's a way of trying to make sense of the world but also to rail against it. Everyone who knows me accuses me of complaining all the time. But I think there's something very Jewish about it, in a way. You complain both about the bad things but especially about the good things, as a way of warding off bad luck—like breaking a glass at a wedding. You know what they say, if you have really good chicken soup and people ask you how it was, you say, "Well, it could have done with a bit more salt." One literary scene that has always struck me is in James Clavell's King Rat, where the King makes Marlowe a fried egg (which is of course all but impossible to get in the PoW camp where the story is set). He asks him—with evident pride!—how it is. And Marlowe, being British, gives him the highest compliment he knows: "It's not bad." And the King explodes! "What do you mean it's not bad! It's bloody amazing!"
I think, to aspire to art, rather than mere entertainment (and assuming, and having the hubris to claim, that I attempt to do that), is to be moral. To try and grapple with the part of yourself that isn't. And see how deep you dare to go. I was struck by what [the Holocaust writer] Ka-Tzetnik said of Auschwitz. He began by calling it Planet Auschwitz, that it was another world with different rules, but he changed his mind. He said every one of us could have been the bored guard watching the inmates. And that's what we have to guard against.
I'm sorry, this isn't very cheerful! I do try to look for the fun part of fiction, the playful part, the games of fiction. I think a lot of what I write is funny, even if it's a weird sort of funny. I think the Hitler book I've been doing is very funny!
I have a theory of writing. I follow what I call the Enid Blyton Rule of Writing: as grim as everything gets, you have to stop from time to time and have some ginger beer and biscuits. You know, maybe this rule will be my one contribution to literature. I can live with that!
But I think we should probably wrap this up before it turns into a book! So tell me—your most recent Hebrew novel was Undercities, which completed the Rose of Judea trilogy you've been working on. Sunburnt Faces comes out in English for the first time this November, with a launch at the World Fantasy Convention—which I'm very excited about! And there are plans for Mox Nox to be published in English too, I believe? What's next for you—I'm hoping you don't abandon publishing too quickly so I get to read more of your work!
Shimon Adaf: Ah, I just cannot allow myself to miss the opportunity to take a stab at you: I complain a lot, too. That's why I've been keeping my lines of communication under tight regime—no Facebook, no blogging, no twitter . . . Kidding. I know that blowing steam is healthy for you (healthy and Jewish? We are scraping here some huge paradox). I would never have figured you out as the complaining type based on your style. Your prose is so tight, so polished, so restrained. I think it reaches its peak in the forthcoming The Violent Century.
Recently I've been asked several times whether I'm planning to write a sequel to the detective novel I published ten years ago. I have, as I said, my reservations as to the formalistic model, which poses a serious challenge for writing a sequel. How can I refuse a good challenge? It might be my next project, once I have rested.
The writing of The Rose of Judea trilogy was very demanding. At the end of Undercities I was at the end of my resources. But I managed to complete two short works of fiction. One is an experiment in how realist narrative, pushed just a little, can expand for me to poetry and speculative fiction. The second is an SF novel. It follows a young agent from a future project to reconstruct the lost centuries prior to the 21st, who is sent to a specific event in Jewish history, which, accidently, takes place in Israel, now perished. It is a tribute to the YA and SF novels I grew up reading. For those two reasons I'm going to adopt your Enid Blyton Rule. It's Ginger Beer (in Hebrew it was translated into "cold juice") and biscuits then for me. Oh, Secret Seven, oh childhood days gone by.
Lavie Tidhar: Thank you! And I have to admit I had to google what the bloody kids drank in all those Enid Blyton novels. What the hell is ginger beer anyway? I guess maybe we'll find out in Brighton . . .
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