Dorit Silberman Interviews Author and Film Maker Etgar Keret. This is the first in a planned series of interviews with authors and other key figures in the Israeli and international Culture and arts.
Etgar Keret’s last book Suddenly, A Knock On The Door was recently selected for Amazon’s Editor’s Pick – Best Books of the Year list.
/ By Dorit Silberman /
Etgar Keret is an Israeli writer whose work is characterized by a unique humorous style. His short stories certainly win the title “The shortest stories in the world”, however though short they contain all the abundance of the ocean. As a native of Tel Aviv myself I will always remember this particular description in one of his stories: “all the traffic lights became green for her”, and every time I get a ‘green wave’ of traffic lights while driving downtown these words resonate all over again.
There is an additional connotation here: until Keret the use of the word ‘green’ in Israel had been reserved for nature and for topics vaguely ecological. But Keret’s witty writing manages to legitimize the urban lifestyle as also being ‘green’. Keret’s surreal fiction is written in highly realistic manner, which though contradictory enables the reader to detect underlying realities represented by his impossible scenes, and thereby realize something important about human nature.
Keret’s last book Suddenly, A Knock On The Door was recently selected for Amazon’s Editor’s Pick – Best Books of the Year list. His best sellers are translated into many languages, and have even become extremely successful in Poland, though he does not address the Holocaust or the Israeli-Arab dispute, as demanded by international book agents.
– In your opinion, what are the elements that are drawing world-wide attention to your books.
“It has been a long process. My first book that was published in the U.S in 2001 got almost zero attention. However, the book succeeded later in climbing up from the bottom. Ira Glass, the host of the popular radio show, called This American Life used to read parts of the book on the show and helped make it a cult book. In 2007, a private film based on my book Kneller’s Happy Campers got on screen. The movie was called Wrist-cutters, a Love Story and became a cult movie as well. I feel that all is growing from the bottom and not being dictated by forces above”.
– How did it come about that you, the son of native Poland holocaust survivor Jews, do not write about the Holocaust
“My parents spoke Polish, but for me that was always the secret language I was not supposed to comprehend. But the place where I learned the most about good humour was at home. My mother has always been supportive of my writing, but reading my stories in her native language can bring her to tears. While this may be due to my wonderful translator, my mother has always claimed that actually I’m not an Israeli writer at all, but a Polish writer in exile. This may explain my extraordinary success in Poland”.
– A short while ago I read that someone in Poland built the smallest house in the world for you.
“That is correct. One day I received a phone call from a person who spoke English in a strong Polish accent. He told me that he was out walking with his son, who suddenly darted from the path. He rushed after him and discovered a narrow slot between two buildings. He felt as if this slot was urging him to build a house inspired by my stories. I replied “…you should follow your heart, but I’m pretty busy right now… “. The man paused and told me that he felt that I maybe didn’t quite take him seriously. He was right. Later on he came to Israel, we met and he described what he had gone and done. Then it certainly did sound serious: he had built the narrowest house in the world and even registered it in the Guinness Book of Records and now it has become a tourist attraction. On the one hand it is a public monument, on the other hand it looks like my house, even with my family pictures in it. The insurance policy for it apparently allows only two people be inside the house at the same time, so we have started a series of encounters for two. On each such occasion I enter the house with one of my readers and read him one of my stories, upon his or her request”.
– So you may not write about Polish Jews, but you write like a Polish Jew…
“Look, I’m convinced that my humour is Jewish and cannot be considered American. Israeli humour imitates Jewish humour in its manner of laughing at the absurd ‘other’. The Jew is usually laughing at the people around him. However, it’s the Jewish way of showing affection- if you are not fond of someone why waste a joke on them? My late father told me “… in half your stories I’m dead, and in the other half I’m an idiot, but I’m not insulted because you still love me in all of them”. For example the story Gratification describes a child that grows at the expense of his parents. The bigger he gets, the smaller they become, until finally he puts them in his pocket and goes with them to a date, while they are giving him date tips from inside his pocket. I’m a “Sabra”, but I also feel like a Jew in exile, and I resent Israelis who try to erase their “Jew in exile” feelings. That is why I could not take part in the writers team of the Israeli satire show A wonderful Country, the Israeli version of Saturday Night Live. My humour laughs at someone, but does not alienate them emotionally”.
– So let’s go back to the wonderful review of your latest book by Steve Almond in the New York Times.
“It’s the first time that it has happened to me. Amazon’s critics have decided to place Suddenly, a Knock on the Door on their Editor’s Pick – Best Books of the Year List. The book has also won the single Audio Book award in the U.S. Some of my earlier books got good reviews, but this book has got much more attention. Writing it had been the greatest challenge for me, helping me cope with changes in my life. I got married at 38 and I now have a son. The book marks the shift from being a free spirit to becoming a responsible parent, who writes from a child’s point of view and at the same time speaks to his father in a child’s voice. It is the first book I have written as a parent, and it’s also the first time I stop moaning about life and start teaching my son about the beauty of being alive”.
– Please Explain more…
“When my son Lev (Heart in Hebrew, D.S) turned 3 years old I took a cab, taking him with me. He accidently kicked the Mercedes ashtray and the driver yelled at him: “Don’t you know what you are doing? You idiot!” I shouted back: “How are you talking to a child, aren’t you ashamed?”. The driver replied: “How come he is kicking, it’s a new car!” I replied: “Hold the wheel in both hands and watch out, or I’ll make sure you lose your license”. We yelled at each other some more and then there was silence. At this point my son asked: “What did the man say?”. I answered: “He said that you should have been more careful, and not kick and damage the car”. My son asked: “What did you tell him”? I told him it’s not nice to yell at a little boy. “But dad, I heard that you were yelling too”. “You are right”, I said. I turned to the driver and told him sincerely that I apologize for yelling and that I should have spoken in a calmer tone. After a while he replied: ”Now he has to apologize too”. He was a big Russian guy, and I did not want to make him angrier, so I told my son: “I wouldn’t like to disturb him while he is driving. It may not be easy to say that you are sorry, but I’m sure that he feels sorry too.” Lev thought about it and told me: “I don’t think that he’s sorry at all”. And then, in the middle lane, the driver stopped suddenly, turned back and told Lev quietly: “Believe me, I’m sorry”.
– Your son is 7 now. Are you teaching him Jewish values?
“I have two brothers. My older brother is an anarchist who used to live with his wife in a tree house for eight years. He is also a gifted software engineer who founded the Israeli party Green leaf (advocating for legalization of marijuana in Israel. D.S). My middle sister is ‘Haredit’ (an Orthodox Jew). I have a strong emotional bond with her, and wrote about her. Once Lev was asked at school if someone in the family believes in God. He replied: “Yes, my aunt. My mother doesn’t, and me and my father have not decided yet”. On another occasion he told people that there is a god, but he can be found only in Jerusalem”.
– Let’s talk again about you. So many writers out there are dreaming of a worldwide glory. Your fiction is read in Poland, U.S.A, Mexico, Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia and many more places. Is it also an economic breakthrough?
“ International best sellers are usually ‘flight fiction’ books. Israel may be the only place where Amos Oz beats all other authors and Bulgakov’s The Artist and Margarita hits the charts. I sell well in some countries, but Israelis read more than any other nation in the world, so my books are usually sold in greater numbers in Israel. My last book sold 80, 000 copies”.
– You also write scripts. You were in the writing team of the satirical show “The Chamber Quintet”. You co-wrote with others screenplays for the movies “Something Total” (2000) , “Daddy” and the 2007 movie “Jellyfishes” which won the ‘Golden Camera’ award in Cannes with your wife, Shira Geffen. Do you describe yourself as an author or as a filmmaker?
” Both. As a Jew in exile, I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. If I cannot get a budget for a movie – I will write a book, and if my writing gets stuck – I will make a movie. I like to cooperate in writing. I write my movie scripts with friends and the script for “Jellyfishes” I wrote with my wife Shira. We also wrote two children’s book together. Making films is a way of breaking the writer’s loneliness. To me the cinema is a human miracle, integrating multiple elements of the human mind to a single creation. Being an author is terrifying, adopting this title as well. Telling a story is the most intuitive thing I can think of, and I never know if I can come out with another story. That is why I wrote a comic book with illustrators. In 2009 I wrote a script for an animated movie called $9.99, a joint Israeli-Australian production. This year I co-wrote with Dov Alfon the movie What’s In Our Pockets which was accepted by the Sundance Festival.