Interview with Assaf Gavron
Questions by Nadia Jacobson
Assaf Gavron is an Israeli writer and translator. He is the author of five novels (Ice, Moving, Almost Dead/Croc Attack, Hydromania and The Hilltop), a short story collection (Sex in the Cemetery) and a collection of newspaper columns (Eating Standing Up). His fiction has been translated into many languages and adapted for the stage and cinema. He is the winner of several awards including the Israeli Prime Minister’s Creative Award for Authors, Bernstein Prize, Buch fuer die Stadt in Germany, and Prix Courrier International in France. Assaf is responsible for the highly regarded English-to-Hebrew translations of J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels. Assaf has taught fiction at the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University, at Sapir College and the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School. This summer he is moving to Omaha, Nebraska for up to two years, to teach Hebrew literature and creative writing as recipient of a Schusterman Fellowship.
Nadia Jacobson met with Assaf Gavron in Tel Aviv in a café just off Rabin Square to discuss conflict, writing, and Assaf’s most recent novel, The Hilltop—a dark comedy about a man who finds a free hilltop in the West Bank and claims it for himself. Over time, the illegal outpost becomes an established settlement, undisturbed until a journalist discovers its existence. The Hilltop will be published in English by Scribner’s this autumn.
The interview took place on June 22, a few weeks before Operation Protective Edge.
Nadia Jacobson: The old guard writers, such as David Grossman, feel that part of their role as writers is to take a political stance, and they feel the need to express their political views in what they create and give their opinions elsewhere as well. What do you feel your role as a writer should be?
Assaf Gavron: I personally feel that I’m not totally comfortable with coming out and expressing my opinion clearly or writing a column in a newspaper every week or month. I do think that if you have this status and you’re in this position, you are expected to do something with it, something more than the books, in the outside world. I’m a member of Narrative 4. We’re a group of writers, mostly American. We meet once a year in June. We are involved in a project of creating meetings between teenagers, usually from across some sort of divide− it could be a meeting between kids in middle-class Chicago and “ghetto” kids, or meetings between kids from Haiti and New Orleans, who both experienced natural disasters. It could be in Ireland, between Irish and English kids. And there is also an idea of eventually doing it in Israel between Israelis and Palestinians, or between Israelis and Israelis—teens from development towns and north Tel Aviv. This is one thing I believe in and want to be a part of, and it’s very exciting. The idea is that people exchange stories—they each tell another person their own story, and then the one who heard the story tells it to the group, so he kind of owns the other’s story. So through story you create empathy and a connection between people.
NJ: The Hilltop was well received even by those leaning to the right. I find it interesting in a country where political opponents tend to demonize each other.
AG: I did wonder whether friends who share my left-wing views would think I was too sympathetic to the settlers, and if the settler friends that I made throughout the work would be offended, but everyone who looked at the big picture and saw that the characters were real people and that the narrator was mocking everyone equally liked the book.
NJ: I understand that for research for The Hilltop, you lived on the settlement Tekoa Dalet. Did you feel it important to go and live there, as someone who lives in Tel Aviv?
AG: It was part of the research. I tend to do a lot of research, probably too much. As someone who lives in Tel Aviv and who is secular, I needed to at least connect to the place, to the people and to the synagogue. I needed to see how people live. So I travelled there a lot. I wasn’t in a position to move there for a few months because I have a family and small kids. I probably would have done it if I was younger, the same way I travelled to America to research my novel, Moving.
With the help of a friend I kind of zoomed in on Tekoa Dalet. For a couple of years I followed it closely. It was the main inspiration for Ma’aleh Hermesh C in the book; the landscape, but also the structure of the way it looks, of the hilltop, and even the little hut, the tzimmer where Gabi lives, is actually based on a real place. I got to know the guy who built it, and then they let me stay in it and write there.
NJ: Some people say that it’s the foreign settlers who are the most violent. Do you feel the West Bank settlements are a frontier world for American immigrants?
AG: The American connection was something that I was interested in exploring. I didn’t really distinguish between who is more violent. Josh [an American settler] is definitely one of the angrier ones. And you have the French and you have the Russians. I didn’t mean to say ‘the American settlers are like this, and the Russian settlers are like that, the Israelis are like this, and the French are like that,’ because I don’t know whether there is a clear distinction, but I was definitely interested in the American style of things. Josh is who he is—a young guy, an angry guy, who came after 9/11. He does not represent all American settlers.
NJ: You’ve said that most of the writing for this novel was done in Berlin. Did it help to be outside of Israel to write about Israel?
AG: I think it helped in a sense. I mean, it wasn’t planned in that way. I didn’t know when I’d be where, and I got this fellowship in Berlin after I started working on the book. Looking back, I think that it was good to move away because being so connected and travelling to Tekoa Dalet every week and feeling the intensity of the situation made it difficult to maintain a realistic perspective. On the one hand I wanted to feel the intensity—it’s frightening, and there’s a lot of friction and you feel it when you go there. But then when I was given a year when I couldn’t go there, and I was living in this relatively peaceful neighbourhood in Berlin, I think it gave me some perspective. It allowed me to relax.
NJ: Do you regard yourself as an international author writing in Hebrew, or do you consider yourself an Israeli author?
AG: I think I’m an Israeli author. I wouldn’t say I’m international, definitely in view of my recent books. My first books also had Israeli characters, but they tended to move out of Israel and to try to also move out of the Israeli literary tradition in a way. Now I don’t try to follow any Israeli tradition, but I’m an Israeli by birth, Israel is where I live and grew up. So I would say I’m an Israeli writer, but in my own way. I don’t think I’m so comparable to the traditional Israeli writers, definitely not in language, in Hebrew. My style in Hebrew is not very flowery or poetic. In that sense, in style, I think I’m more in line with what I read in the States.
NJ: Your style feels fresh and fast-paced. It doesn’t feel “thick”, as in each phrase thick with resonance and meaning. You’re out to tell a story.
AG: I don’t want to categorize all American literature or all contemporary literature, but the things that I’m more interested in are story and pace, as you say, and humour and fun. I think I try to entertain. If you analyse classic Hebrew literature I don’t know if entertainment is the right way to describe it. I do like to deal with Israeli subjects and this book is very much about the Israeli situation, and also my previous two books, but my style, I think, is maybe more contemporary and international, if there is something like that.
NJ: Almost Dead (Croc Attack in the UK) is a picaresque, while The Hilltop is much more farcical and has lots of characters in one place. Do you feel you’re able to take greater risks the more you publish or fewer risks as you develop as a writer?
AG: That’s a good question. You make a good point that in The Hilltop there is less movement; it’s more rooted in a way because it’s one place. I think I would say that, overall, I take fewer risks as a writer now. The more you make a name for yourself and the more you have readers and publishers—even if you don’t like to think that way, and even if you are not trying to please—the more you’re thinking about all those different interests and people. Also, you come to better understand the commercial side of it. It influences the risks that you might take, whether you go to experimental places or do whatever is on your mind. There’s still room for literary writing that is not just commercially driven—I don’t think that any of my publishers, in Israel, in Germany and elsewhere, expect me to sell Stephen King numbers. My publishers in America are the publishers of Stephen King, so they have Stephen King for that. But at the same time, you know [your publishers] and you read stories and know how the industry is shaping up, and you know they’re not going to want to lose money on you forever, so you need to think about that as well. If you look at my writing, in my first book, Ice, I was freer. I was young; I did whatever I wanted. I liked writers who were not mainstream, who were more risky, more experimental, and I just did what I wanted to do, because I didn’t have readers to think about. It’s not that I sit down now and think, “What would readers like?” because no one knows that. And every year there’s a big success story, and every year it’s different than the previous year. Last year it was Fifty Shades of Grey. Who would have expected an explicitly sexual story to be commercial? It is true that when you already have a name and you have publishers you have quite a good chance of publishing whatever you write, so in a way you’d think you’d have more freedom, but all in all, if you’re smart and if you understand the way the market works, you’re inhibited in some ways.
NJ: How do you look back to previous novels and short stories you’ve written? Do you look back fondly, ‘Oh that was me in those young days,’ or ‘Oh my God I’ve learnt so much since’?
AG: I had an experience last year. I published my first novel, Ice, in digital format because the rights were mine—when the contract was written there was nothing about digital rights, though some publishers go back and rewrite the digital part of the contract. I didn’t even have the original files. I paid my niece 2,000 shekels to type it up from the book. So I had the file and then I reread it, and, you know, I liked it. It’s a good book. It’s me. It’s me when I was twenty years younger but it’s still me. Now I’m in a different place and I write about different things, but I didn’t say, ’Oh my God, what was I thinking, why did I do this or that?’ I had the opportunity to edit it, but I hardly touched it—a word, or half a sentence here or there because it looked redundant, but all in all I left it as it is.
NJ: You have translated a lot of books into Hebrew. How does the creative process differ? Do you feel it differs?
AG: It’s very different. I see [translation] more as a job, as work, and my own writing as a creative process. I mean, I separate, and I give more weight to the writing. This is where you invent. Although a lot of the work is not the actual invention. When you look at the writing process, you have this first draft when you actually create the story, but after that there’s a lot of rewriting and rereading and technical stuff like proofing, and all the stuff around it—the publication, the PR, the interviews, and so on—but even if the creative part of the process is only a small part of it, I still look at writing as a creative thing and translating is just work. You do have to write well to be a good translator, and you have the responsibility for the words, for the text, but it’s much more technical than creative—it’s really someone else’s work, you don’t have responsibility for it in the creative sense. I enjoy it to an extent and I learn from it. I look at it as my creative writing course, because I never did one. I’m teaching, but I never learnt, myself.
NJ: When you translate, I presume you take on the writer’s voice. Does it stymie your creativity when you get used to writing in someone else’s voice? Do you find it distances you from your own work? Can you split it?
AG: I split it. I don’t usually do it at the same time. Lately I’ve been teaching a lot more instead of translating. In a few weeks I’m going to Nebraska to teach full time. I’m used to teaching creative writing at Bar-Ilan and at other places in Israel, but now I’m going to be teaching literature. For me, the most important thing is writing, but I support it with work that is related to the field of writing, and both translating and teaching literature fall into that category.
NJ: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
AG: I like the connection with the students. And I like the creative process, because I find that I’m always impressed in a positive way by students’ writing, even if it’s a first-year BA class, which I taught at Sapir College for a few years, but also at other schools, and definitely at [the MA program at] Bar-Ilan, where there are older, more experienced people writing in English. Maybe I was lucky in my year at Bar-Ilan, but there was a lot of good talent and great discussion.
NJ: What for you is home?
AG: I see Israel as my home, my only real home. I’ve been to England, and I’ve been to Canada, and to Berlin. So I know enough, I’ve seen enough, to know that Israel is my only real home and where I feel most comfortable and where my language is. Where my family, not all my family but my family, and where my friends are.
Home is language. It’s my language. It’s my work also—my work in both senses, the industry, and the material I write about. I have publishers in other countries and I have other materials that I could write about. But what I’m interested in and what I write about is Israel. I write in Hebrew and I’m not going to change that. My English is good, but it’s not good enough for writing prose. This is where I grew up so I’m just comfortable with how things work, with the people. But I do like to take breaks. Maybe I need to miss it. I need to remember that it’s home. And now the summer is coming…I hate the summer.
NJ: Is it escaping Israel, escaping conflict that makes you want to leave?
AG: There is some intensity to life here, and some of it is the conflict. I mean, I think we don’t see the conflict, definitely not here [Tel Aviv], and not day to day. We see it if we turn on the news, but we can decide not turn on the news. Even if we do, we wake up in the morning, take the kids to school, and I write or work or do whatever. But the conflict is there, and I think it feeds this whole atmosphere of intensity. It could also be the weather, the hot weather that makes people hot-blooded. There are a lot of friendly people, but there’s also a lot of aggression. I think that violence is somehow inherently part of our society. The Hilltop is a lot about that violence. The book is ultimately about today’s Israel, and not only the settlements in the West Bank. Violence plays a big part in the way the country is today.
NJ: Why do you think that is?
AG: It’s being in constant conflict, a contention about land, in the middle of a very small place, and being so close to a situation where there’s an enemy—some people like to heighten this enemy idea. There is constant hostility and you can’t really run away from it. I think that as long as the conflict isn’t resolved it feeds everything. I feel it’s part of this intensity that I’m talking about, that I like and is part of this home that is my home. There’s something real about it, and warm about it, the openness, the open nerve endings or electrical wires, everything out in the open. But it’s nice to take a break from it occasionally.
On the other hand, being in a place like London…my cousin, who is a writer, lives a comfortable middle-class north London life. What can he write about? Of course writing can be about anything; it’s always personal, about family, relations and other people. You don’t have to have a war around you to have good fiction, but there is something more exciting about it.
NJ: You have a partner, children. How do you feel these relationships affect your writing or characters in your novels? Are your concerns any different?
AG: I think you evolve every day, you develop as a person, you understand things, and it doesn’t necessarily have to relate to having a relationship or family. Even if I were on my own, at this age I’d be more mature and more understanding of life than I was twenty years ago. And you read more, you know more. It all develops you as a writer. But at the same time—well, we talked about my first book before. There’s something there that I wouldn’t be able to reproduce. There’s some energy and hunger and not caring; there’s something really free about that writing. On the other hand, in The Hilltop, there are small children—I wrote that with my firsthand knowledge of the subject, and in the book that I’m writing now, there’s a six-year-old girl. And in Almost Dead/Croc Attack there are no children. So what you know affects and feeds your writing and gives it more dimension and more depth.
NJ: I thought the description [in The Hilltop] of Gabi attacking his child because he’s not able to bring things up with his wife was very powerful. You often see women who have been abandoned take out their aggression on their children, but in your book we see it through male eyes. In some ways, he’s going through post-natal depression, and displacement of anger onto an innocent person could also be seen in a broad way—how people who have nothing to do with the problem often suffer, how people end up as scapegoats.
AG: It’s interesting, you’re right. You don’t always think about the implications or the other meanings, but they are there, for example, the meaning of how we treat Palestinians.
And Gabi—it’s not entirely his fault. I’m not trying to make everybody a symbol, but he’s a certain type of Israeli. You have an Israeli like Roni, who is very successful, who is macho and thinks he can do anything and own anything, and actually succeeds to a point in doing that, but then he faces the consequences. And then on the other hand, you have someone like Gabi, who is more innocent in a way, introverted, quiet, humble, but even he has these parts of him…this rage. In a way, they are both ‘typical Israelis,’ either taken together or two examples out of a range of people you can find here.
NJ: What are you working on now?
AG: It’s contemporary. It all takes place now, in 2013 to be exact. It’s about a taxi driver who is looking for a friend who disappeared – an old lady. He discovers that there is a whole group of people who are dead or disappearing, and it all goes back to one particular event that took place in the British Mandate era, 67 years earlier.
I have a British side and it’s something that I’ve never really explored in my writing. I think that there’s nothing better than the Mandate to explore British-Israeli relations. There’s so much that happened there and so much that is left from that time. It has been explored a lot in movies and books, but I feel there’s still room for more. There are really only a handful of people still alive who lived through that time. I think there’s this conception among Israelis that the British were really evil and the Mandate was really evil and the underground resistance bombed them and scared them away and managed to get an independent state. But there’s also a lot in the Mandate that laid the foundation for what we have today, and there isn’t a lot of recognition of that. The fact that we’re a modern country—we always say we are the only democracy in the Middle East—has to do with the Brits, much more than people give them credit for. The organization of our civic society, for example. There’s a lot of shit here, excuse the language and that’s also partly thanks to the Brits. I’m not writing a book to claim recognition for the Brits, because I think that more than anything they didn’t know how to deal with it, they changed their mind every week, but they did do a lot of good. I really wanted to voice this, at least from the point of view of the British characters, those guys who are really fed up with the ungrateful Jews.
I think that one of the things I like to do in my books, and it’s true for Almost Dead/Croc Attack and The Hilltop, and I think for the new one, is to explore issues that many people look at from a very black-and-white perspective—Palestinian terrorism, or the settlers, or the British Mandate—and I just go a little deeper inside and try to see all the shades, all the complexities which are much more than this black- and-white view. And I think this is what fiction does, and is supposed to do. When you read a novel, you are committed to giving it a few days and going deeper into something, and think about it more than just seeing a headline.
NJ: I remember Russell Banks saying at the last International Writers Festival how rare it is for foreign writers to be translated into English in America. In Europe, are people more prepared to read translated work?
AG: In England and America they have a lot of very strong, very powerful, very good writers and they don’t feel the need to open up. In Germany, maybe in response to the Holocaust, I see a lot of openness not just to Israeli writers but to translated fiction generally. They say that 3% of books published in America are translated, whereas I think in Israel it’s about 30-40%, and in Germany it’s close to 50%. It’s a huge difference. I’m very happy to be published in English, it’s my second book now and I hope it will continue.