Nir Yaniv is an Israeli writer, editor, and musician. He founded and edited the influential online magazine of the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy for seven years, and recently became chief editor of the Israeli print SF&F magazine Dreams in Aspamia, where he also had a story in every issue up until he took that position. He was also a contributing editor to the Society's print magazine The Tenth Dimension and has released Israel's first SF-themed music album, The Universe in a Pita. Yaniv's first short story collection, Ktov Ke'shed Mi'shachat (One Hell of a Writer), came out in early 2006.
Lavie Tidhar: Let's start with your being an Israeli science fiction writer—I think for most people that's a revelation in itself! How did you first discover science fiction, and how did that lead to your writing?
Nir Yaniv: I guess it's my good luck to have been born in the '70s. A tremendous amount of excellent science fiction and fantasy was translated into Hebrew during that decade (and the early '80s), and by the time I got the hang of reading—and of public libraries—all I had to do was choose.
I first discovered SF when, at about seven years old, we moved to a new town. My parents bought me a subscription to the local library, because I used to read quite a lot even then and the school library wasn't enough. I had no idea which books to take, however, and my father, upon noticing that I was bringing home all sorts of crappy adventure books, took matters into his hands. Verne. Voila! Then I found in my school library "Lost Planet" by Angus MacVicar. Mama-mia! Then came Heinlein. Hallelujah! (His first book that I read was "Friday." I didn't understand much of it, at seven years of age, but I did know that I wanted more. . . .)
Then and now, I read almost every book that I can put my hands on—mainstream, mystery, adventure, history, popular science—everything except for cookbooks, which to this day I fail to dig. But somehow, I enjoy speculative fiction the most. And when I started writing I found out that I can't write anything which isn't, at least in some way, speculative fiction.
I've no idea how or why I became a writer. I just sat one day and wrote a story. In English. That's the Israeli-Beginning-Writer First Error: "SF Should Be Written in English." Bah. But even without considering this, the story was quite bad.
My friends loved it.
I was 19 at the time, doing my mandatory three-year service in the army. I wrote several more such stories. They were terrible. My friends loved them all. Then I forgot about the whole thing.
Several years later, the newly-formed Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy conducted a story contest, collaborating with Israel's biggest newspaper. I was studying music at the time. I sat down and wrote a story about a futuristic rock band. In Hebrew. It was a good story. It didn't win. It was published later in the Society's magazine, The Tenth Dimension, and recently re-published in my story collection, One Hell of a Writer.
Some of my friends don't understand it to this very day.
I guess that at about that time I started writing seriously—stories, poems, columns, articles, reviews. I also took upon myself the maintenance of the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy website, which I made into an online magazine in 2000, and thus became an editor as well.
But I think that the biggest opportunity for me, as a writer, came when a new print magazine appeared, Dreams in Apsamia, dedicated to original Israeli SF&F stories—and paying! In Israel, having a very small readership, this was no less than a miracle. And suddenly, writers who used to publish only in Internet forums got a respectable, printed venue. There's a story of mine in each and every issue of Aspamia so far, though I'm not sure I'll keep that going, now that I have become its chief editor.
LT: You were present at the formation of the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy. How did that come about, both the Society and your involvement with it?
NY: The Society was, as I understand it, born in the mind of a fifteen-year-old boy named Avner Friedman. That was back in 1996. He contacted some of the big names in the field: Amos Geffen, who was the first to translate modern SF into Hebrew; translator and editor Emanuel Lottem; Dr. Aharon Hauptman, who edited Israel's first serious SF&F magazine, Fantasia 2000, back in the early '80s; and several others. They formed the Society. Brian Aldiss's visit to Israel, at roughly the same time, was either planned by them or a very good excuse.
The first time I heard of it, I was told that Aldiss was in Israel, and that there'll be a meeting with him at some people's place in the city of Rehovot. There has been an SF activists' cell there for many years. To this very day I've no idea how I found out about it, but I did and I went there. I knew no one of the other guests. Many years later I found out that present there was also one of Israel's most prolific SF writers, Guy Hasson, now a good friend of mine. That was before either he or I published anything. So Aldiss gave a good lecture, and then we were told that a new Society was being formed, and that its first general meeting would take place the day after, in Tel Aviv. I went there with a girl I knew. I managed to impress her to no end, when she saw Brian Aldiss waving his hand at me casually and calling me by name. She was a big fan. I like fans.
Well, some fans.
During that first meeting, the members present were asked to volunteer for any operational position they thought they could handle. I volunteered to create and manage the Society's website. Been doing that since then, till last April.
LT: I think it's safe to say the society site has become, under your editorship, probably the most important electronic publication for SF in Israel, publishing both fiction and non-fiction. And now you're editing Dreams in Aspamia, a printed magazine. What does it take to maintain this?
NY: It takes a hand of steel, a will of platinum, lots of patience, and mostly—stubbornness! Finding writers, nudging writers, cajoling writers, seducing writers . . . that's the most difficult part. There are other Israeli genre magazines, printed and web-based, and they all compete for a limited amount of existing good writers. One of my goals is to find new writers, of both fiction and non-fiction, and help them become better—not because I'm a better writer than they are (though you'll never catch me admitting to be anything less than the best when talking to me in Hebrew, of course), but because editorial feedback is, I think, vital to the development of a writer. I always ask fellow editors and writers to go over my own stories, just to get that precious second opinion. I don't always agree with what they say, but handling criticism is another necessary skill for a writer.
It should be noted that, unlike the situation in bigger countries, the Israeli SF community is so small that many of its people serve in more than one position. For example, Rami Shalheveth, editor of the Israeli online magazine Don't Panic, also translates SF&F books, serves as a text-editor for Dreams in Aspamia and is a staff member of The Tenth Dimension, the Society's printed magazine. Vered Tochterman, who until recently was chief editor of Aspamia, is also most famous in the Israeli SF&F community for the stories she writes and her SF translations. As for me, during my period as editor of the Society site I was also a staff member of The Tenth Dimension, wrote forewords to all the stories appearing in Aspamia, and wrote personal columns for both publications. And all that is the simple part, really—when it comes to Israeli conventions, things get really complicated.
LT: I'm interested in particular in the fiction you publish as an editor. Where do you get the stories from? Do you read a lot from slush? Is there a type of story you tend to go for?
NY: My threshold is rather high, so I don't publish fiction by as many authors as I'd like to. I'm also not above cajoling writers whose work I like into submitting stories to me. I'm horribly good at this. Add a picture of me smiling in my special threatening way to this interview, and the readers will see why.
I'm looking for stories which are both speculative and well written. It is very important to me that the writer knows his craft, and the language, and has a style of his or her own. I cannot bear stories which, despite having interesting ideas or characters or plots, are poorly written. For example, I'd probably never accept a submission by someone like Robert Forward, may he rest in peace. I loved his books when I was a kid, but speculative literature cannot be good without being as much a literature as speculative.
Of course, putting too much stress on the so-called literature element, especially when it comes to overusing emotions, can be a problem as well.
You may have noticed that I didn't say "SF" or "Fantasy" here. That's deliberate—when the story is good enough, speculative enough, it doesn't matter one bit if it's SF or F or something utterly undefinable.
LT: What about SF writing in Israel that isn't necessarily done in Hebrew? I know there is an active community of professional Russian SF writers living in the country following the mass immigration from the former USSR—does the Hebrew community have much—or any—contact with them? What about people writing in Arabic?
NY: Indeed there exists a large and very active Russian SF community is Israel, but unfortunately we get to see only very little, close to nothing at all, of its output. Which is a pity. Also, only very few Russian SF&F books get to be translated into Hebrew. For instance, only one or two books by Russia's most famous authors, Arkadi and Boris Strugatzki, have been translated into Hebrew, which is quite a shame. I assume that the Russian community here faces just about the same problem that Hebrew authors face when trying to publish in English—the translation problem. Which is probably why, in all the years I've been editing magazines, not even one Russian story was submitted to me, nor do I reckon on seeing any such story in any of the other Israeli magazines. However, I think this will change, eventually, as the Russian community will merge into Israeli society, a thing which requires mostly time.
I have no idea whether there is any kind of SF&F activity held by Israeli-Arabs, or by Palestinians, for that matter. I know that there are some Egyptian and Syrian SF writers who are famous in their countries, and lately there was a rumor of an SF convention recently held in Damascus, but as far as I know, none of their works was ever translated into Hebrew. Which is, again, a pity.
I'd love to read (and publish!) some Israeli-Russian and Arab SF&F, the only condition being that it'd be good speculative fiction (and, well, that it's translated into a language which I can read, i.e. Hebrew or English). Come to think of it, I'd love to publish my own stories in Russian and Arabic as well, and maybe I should start looking into how this can be done.
LT: There has been a small "wave" of original fantasy and science fiction books published in Israel in the last few years. You are known as a sometimes-harsh critic: what do you think of the books published, and what does it mean that they are getting published at all?
NY: We should distinguish here between self-published or vanity-press books, and the real articles. Sadly, most of the books you talk about can be counted among the former. I assume that the gentle readers of this interview would not need me to tell them where self-publication or vanity presses should be shoved, so that's that. The fact that books of this kind are being published signifies nothing except for the size of their authors' bank accounts.
As for the rest—we've seen some very interesting genre books recently, though not all of them were written by "genre-aware" authors. Which is not bad at all, really—the borders between SF and mainstream are getting fuzzier as time goes by, which means that mainstream becomes more speculative. About bloody time, if you ask me, that mainstream took its finger out of its nose. But anyway, we got some really good books that way. One of them even won the 2005 Geffen Award, a Hugo-like award given by the Israeli Society for SF&F every year, named after Israel's first SF translator and editor, Amos Geffen. The book is End's World by Ophir Touche Gafla.
Some other books, however, were chosen for publication mainly for being generic fantasy. Again, I'm sure the gentle readers will not care to experience in this particular place my full arsenal of somewhat less-gentle descriptions aimed at this particular sub-genre, so I shall end it here.
But in any case, there's still hope for Israeli SF, as I, having managed to publish a story collection, am now planning to publish a full length novel. Stay tuned!
LT: Language plays an important part in your fiction. How much do you think Hebrew affects and informs the fiction published in Israel? How does it shape what you write?
NY: Hebrew is an interesting hybrid—on the one hand you got the language of the Bible, many words of which are still being used as part of modern Hebrew (many of which have different meanings now), and on the other hand you have a huge amount of words which were cannibalized from other languages, or invented especially to allow for modern times. So yeah, you can say that for English too, but here it's all more . . . fresh.
Hebrew distinguishes between the sexes much more than English. Writing a reasonable Hebrew sentence which will include no information about its subject's gender is a work of trickery, because all the verbs contain this information. I don't envy Emanuel Lottem, who recently translated The Left Hand of Darkness into Hebrew.
All this leads to several facts: one, that English translated into Hebrew, even at its best, doesn't really read like original Hebrew prose, and since many or our authors consumed a tremendous amount of translated SF&F during childhood, sometimes some marks remain. Most writers, however, get over this, and some editors, myself included, help them in the process.
Another fact is that Hebrew is a great language to write in. There are word games which are quite impossible in English (of course the opposite is also true), and there are many layers and levels to it. While compound words usually don't work well in Hebrew, a good compensation is the fact that it has a "root" system—most verbs are built upon a three-letter root which can be added to and used in various ways, not all of which mean the same basic verb. In the hands of a good writer, this can be made into a very powerful tool, especially in the speculative genres, where logic isn't always what we think it is.
Writing dialogues in which Israeli characters mess up their own language, having their actions influenced by that—because both actions and dialogues are, after all, forms of communication—is probably the most fun a Hebrew writer can have by himself. Well, almost.
LT: How important is it to you to succeed outside of Israel? One of the biggest stumbling blocks for that is obviously translation, but are there any attempts to bring Israeli SF to non-Hebrew readers?
NY: While of course I would very much like for my stories to be published outside of Israel, I still prefer writing them in Hebrew. Good Hebrew-to-English translators who can cope with SF&F are quite hard to find (we have some very good English-to-Hebrew translators, of course), and finding someone capable (and willing) to edit the translation afterwards is considered to be a small miracle. The Israeli Society for SF&F now runs an English translation project, which is aimed at helping Israeli writers find translators and editors for their stories, but its resources are limited, and so is the number of writers who can be helped.
Still, translation and editing are the easy part. After the story is ready, there's the small matter of getting it published. But in that respect, I don't think that there's much difference between us and other countries. I'd say the key to getting published is composed of equal measures of good writing, patience, and stubbornness.
LT: There is very active fandom in Israel now, with several conventions throughout the year and a lot of smaller meetings. Can you tell us a little about that?
NY:I believe that Israel now has more conventions a year, and bigger ones, than many a much bigger country. There are two big conventions and numerous smaller ones every year. The biggest is named ICon (Israeli Convention), and takes place every Sukkoth holiday (October) in Tel Aviv. It involves the three most dominant organizations in the field: The Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy; Starbase 972, the Israeli Star Trek Fan Club (which now deals with everything media); and The Society for Promotion of Roleplaying Games in Israel. It includes everything you'd expect at a convention: hundreds, sometimes thousands of people; famous guests of honour (Orson Scott Card, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tim Powers and Neil Gaiman have all been guests); lectures; panels; film and TV series screenings; role playing games; street shows; book stalls; spaceship models; filk . . .
But Israeli fandom goes deeper than merely cons. There's a live and kicking Internet community, spread over numerous sites and forums. There are discussion forums, writing forums, fandom forums for specific books, films, and TV series, and other forums to which I dare not enter for fear of my poor brain melting. There are smaller organizations dedicated to specific subjects—-Tolkienists, Buffy fans, whatnot. There are active fandom cells in various cities and universities, like Be'er-Sheba, Haifa, Rehovot, and Jerusalem, whose members arrange all sorts of activities by themselves. Quite a lot of activity for such a small country as ours.
LT: Where do you see science fiction and fantasy writing going in Israel in the next few years?
NY: I see two fronts advancing towards each other. One is that of writers from within the community, or near it, such as Guy Hasson, Vered Tochterman, and myself, and some others. More and better books will come out on that front, and it is my hope that at least one of them will become such a notable commercial success that even the big publishing houses will be forced to accept the existence of SF&F as a legitimate genre.
The other front is that of the mainstream, producing more and more genre or near-genre works. While some of those works may look simplistic to the experienced genre reader, others may prove to be either very interesting experiments or "just" very good books.
And sometime in the future those two fronts will start interfering. Not only here, by the way, but over the whole world. But here in Israel, since genre writing is so young, the results should be particularly interesting.
LT: Finally, what's next for you? What are you working on now?
NY: I'm now working on a novel, or such I hope it shall become. In fact, there are two such projects I'm messing with, because somehow one isn't enough. One deals with a crazed bunch of immortals in a futuristic Israel in which the language is weird mix of Hebrew, Arabic, English, and a bit of Russian (which is in fact not as far as one would think from what you can hear in an average Israeli street these very days). It'll involve a one-man live reality show, a religion war, and quite a few gags. The other project deals, of course, with Zeppelins. Every SF writer, if he or she is not heartless, must have at least one story dealing with Zeppelins.
I'm currently recording, in my studio, a soundtrack for an Israeli SF film. That kind of work fascinates me. I find that the fields of writing and music-making complement each other. There are many musical characteristics to my stories—tempo, meter, timing—and there are some storytelling qualities to my music, even—especially—when it's instrumental.
I also have a plan for a future concept album, which will tell the story of a rebel robot, with such potential hits as "You Think therefore I Exist," "I Hate DNA," and the gentle ballad "Mama was a Washing Machine." I'm also a member of several bands, but currently none of them have anything to do with SF. I'll fix that.
I can fix anything.
 "Filk is a musical culture, genre, and community tied to science fiction/fantasy fandom" (Wikipedia, "Filk").