An Interview with Etgar Keret
This interview was conducted by Dolan Morgan for issue 3 of The Atlas Review, Winter 2014. Etgar’s next book, a memoir called The Seven Good Years, is forthcoming from Penguin Random House in June 2015.
Dolan Morgan: How has your day been so far? What will the rest of it look like?
Etgar Keret: Fun. I just got back from Cyprus with my family last night. My son fell off a bicycle there. And took advantage of it not to go to school this morning so we’ve been playing Xbox games all morning. The rest of the day will be more busy with a couple of work meetings but there is a good chance it will be fun too.
DM: Your forthcoming book, The Seven Good Years, is a memoir about the time from the birth of your son to the death of your father – and a departure from short fiction. I’m curious about this transition because so many of your stories contain elements of magic or fantasy or the surreal – how has non-fiction affected this trait of your work? Have you found opportunities for magic in telling your life, or has it been a relief to work without it? Bonus: what are some titles for other parts of your life that you won’t be writing memoirs about?
EK: For me fiction is the most intuitive form of expression. It is much easier and more exciting to invent a story than retell something which has already happened. I’ve always written autobiographical pieces for the Lives page in the NYT or for other places. But I wasn’t thinking of trying to have a book in that vein before my father had died. With his death I suddenly had this inexplicable urge to have a book telling the story of my family and to somehow weave together the birth of my son and the death of my father. And to tell the story of how, in a relatively short time, I’ve moved from being my father’s son to being my son’s father.
Other periods in my life: I can think of half a dozen names for the three years I’ve spent in compulsory army service: Dazed and Confused, Odd Man Out, the 2nd Worst Soldier in the IDF (the 1st was definitely my older brother), & A World Full of Shit are just a few title options.
DM: I was so moved by the documentary following the book tour after your father’s death. How has your father influenced your writing, and can you share with us a story about him? Bonus: What kinds of stories does your son like to hear? What kinds does he tell?
EK: When I was nine they gave me a school assignment which included writing down which things I ever did that I was most proud of. Being a lazy bum, I asked my father this question, hoping to steal his answer for my homework. My father thought a little and then said: in my life I’ve fought in six wars, in all of them I fought as an infantry soldier in the front line and yet I’ve never hurt anybody. This was my dad and I think that a lot of his oxymoronic values have trickled down both to my character and to my stories.
My son loves stories. He often wants me to tell him my “grownup” stories. I never read them to him but I tell him orally a usually more softcore version of them. He also loves family stories. Especially ones about my older brother. He isn’t that much into telling stories but he is an excellent and very imaginative liar so there is still hope.
DM: With you in mind, an architect recently constructed a tiny house between two buildings, made, as you’ve said, “in proportion to my stories.” Since then, what role has this building played in your writing? In your family?
EK: It has been a year since my last visit to my tiny house. I’m going there next Thursday and I’m really excited. My son wasn’t there yet but loves it from the stories and has shown its model to friends. I didn’t write anything substantial in it yet because last time I was attacked by many neighbours and fans who had brought me presents (got some excellent homemade jams and red wine) and had told me fascinating stories. Maybe this time it will be quiet and relaxed enough to actually write something.
DM: You’ve said that you “never know where the story is heading… It can’t be premeditated.” Much of your work contains an undeniable tension around people getting what they deserve (or not), around a general sense of right and wrong that is either upheld or undermined. Is this an inevitable byproduct of storytelling, or is there some kind of underlying Keret-ethics or worldview peeking out through your work?
EK: I think that for me writing is a way to try and deal with all those confusing territories in life which I find difficult to digest and articulate. And ethics is, for sure, a main issue. Being a child of Holocaust survivors and growing up in a reality that is stuffed with ethical and moral paradoxes, those issues are always in my mind and, I guess, always in my stories too.
DM: Could you give an example of “those confusing territories in life which I find difficult to digest and articulate”? Have the ethical and moral paradoxes that influence your work changed over the years, or do you find you’re consistently working through the same knots in different ways?
EK: It could be the silliest thing: A man at the bus stop who holds a take-away Starbucks coffee cup in hand and has a newspaper under his arm. Every time he wants to take a sip the newspaper falls and after picking it up he keeps trying only to see the paper fall a second and a third time. Something like that can bring me to tears. Not because it is so tragic but because it connects to something I already know and experience about life but in a different and weird way. It is these kind of things that get me writing.
As for ethics: I must say that becoming a father has opened a new territory when it comes to moral dilemmas: Should you always tell the truth to your son or is it ok to hide stuff?
How tough can you be with an older kid picking on your kid in a park?
What should you say if your son says to you that he thinks one of his teachers is bad (when you think he is actually correct)?
And these are the ones which do not involve pets which, somehow, make every moral dilemma even more difficult.
DM: In addition to short stories, you’ve written comics, children’s books, films, television, plays, and now memoir. Which did you find the most difficult? Is there a medium you’d like to try but haven’t?
EK: I find poetry the most difficult form. Many people say that I’m not really coherent when I speak and that I’m too associative. What saves me in storytelling of any sort is the plot. In poetry you don’t have the plot to back you up and without it, whenever I try to take a crack at writing a poem, I feel like I’m free-falling.
DM: In a recent issue of Asymptote Journal, Yardenne Greenspan says that “Israel’s contemporary young writers seem more concerned with the minutia of everyday life than with the big picture stuff.” How do you separate the minutia of everyday life from the big picture?
EK: You can’t separate them. They are both always there. It is just a question of which one of them is in the foreground and which one is in the background. The traditional Israeli fiction was obsessed with the big picture, and a lot of contemporary Israeli writers, feeling that the big picture is reductive and inaccurate, attempted to find smaller and more reliable building stones to construct a reality. But at the bottom line, the everyday small–detailed reality of the region I live in is very much affected by the big picture and vice versa.
DM: When is the last time you wore your father’s shoes?
EK: I wore them a few days ago. They still fit.