Israeli short fiction writer and film-maker Etgar Keret’s discussion with Mexican writer Juan Villoro was one of the hottest tickets at the FLIP literary festival in Paraty, on the Rio de Janeiro coast, last week. It seemed everyone was anticipating fireworks from the combination of outspoken writers from countries both promising and deeply troubled. I met Keret on the afternoon he arrived in Paraty and we sat down over coffee in the town’s newest ‘literary hostel’. I soon got an idea of how he lives up to his name, which means ‘challenge’.

 
Sophie Lewis: Last year I used your story to teach a short fiction class. I find it a brilliant example about why we write and how to approach writing short stories. The figure of the children’s magician makes a great analogy for the writer: using simple, everyday, found objects to make magic, mainly through engaging the children’s attention in particular, focused ways. Also the trick itself has something short stories generally need: the element of reveal, the epiphany, if you like. What is your approach to writing? How do you think about it, practically?

Etger Keret: When I write stories it’s a very intuitive thing. It’s not that I have a plan or a method. Usually I have some kind of an image or a thought or a sentence. And when I write a story, it feels very much like I’m with my characters and I’m going out on this adventure and I’m as anxious and as excited as them to see what’s going to happen next. So it’s not that I had any kind of plan when I wrote ‘Hat Trick’ but, when I read it, it felt very much as if I was talking about the creative process in the sense that when I write a story, the magician puts his hand into the hat but he doesn’t know what he’s going to take out. It could be the head of a beheaded rabbit or it could be a dead baby. So for me it’s very much that when I write a story, I am whipping something out of a hat and I don’t know what it will be. Often the more perverse or the stranger things I find inside myself, the more entertained my audience. So, I’m much like this magician who has all these horrible things come out of his hat at children’s birthday parties, and asks himself: ‘Why? What does this say about me?’ while, at the same time, he becomes this snuff magician whom all the children love.

Often I may write a story about vulnerability and fear, or about awkwardness, but then I read it to people and they find it hilarious. So I feel that ‘Hat Trick’ is not only a story about writing but one about the relationship between a writer and his readers.

SL: Is it as if your having dared to write this sad or disturbing or difficult material becomes a licence for people to relax about it or take it on board in some way?

EK: What I feel about fiction is that it’s removed from life, that nothing in it is real, the characters can die or have wings. For me it’s a great release. I’m the kind of person who thinks about the consequences of his actions. Especially as the youngest son of two Holocaust survivors. One of the first things I knew about my mother was that her mother and her brother were murdered in front of her eyes and that a year after that her father was murdered too. She was in the Warsaw ghetto. So from very early on I realized that if my mother were to ask me if I wanted to eat another cucumber, regardless of what I might or might not want, if I said yes, then this woman, whom I loved more than life itself and who had suffered so much, would be happy. And if I said no, then she would not be happy. So the idea was that whatever I felt or did resonated in life, caused people pain or happiness. This gave me a feeling of huge responsibility even as a child – to the extent that sometimes I had to block my own feelings or wishes. When I started writing fiction, suddenly I was allowed to do what I wanted.

SL: Was this a revelation or something you realized more gradually?

EK: I think – again – I’m not a very conscious person. You might ask me why I’m crying and I’ll reply (weepily) ‘I’m not crying’ . . . From the first story I wrote, when I was nineteen, during my compulsory home service, I realized that this was something that could save my life. I loved the story. When I read it, I didn’t know how people would react. That first story was called ‘Pipes’ – it was the first time I wrote a fiction text. I was a soldier at the time. I looked at it and I was sweating. I felt that this is something I have to hold on to: writing. At the same time I couldn’t articulate why. It took me a long time to work out why.

SL: It’s quite paradoxical that fiction is a release for you; people aren’t dying when they die in your stories, and yet fiction has changed your life; has saved it, maybe.

EK: Yes – the idea is that you go into a padded cell with your fiction. In the sense that you can run and bang your head against the wall; you can do stuff and it doesn’t have those direct consequences. At the same time, you realize that the experience you have and what your readers experience are not necessarily the same thing.

I love this! I really believe that a story is a writer-reader collaboration. In films, I feel that the film-maker brings 90 per cent and the audience brings 10 per cent of the story. It’s not like in a story where you imagine the character’s voice, you imagine how he looks, you imagine how quickly things have happened. . . I would say that an average novel is a 70 per cent writer to 30 per cent reader split. In my stories, it’s a 50-50 split. I think we’re equal partners.

I have a story called ‘Crazy Glue‘. It’s a story about a married couple who have an argument. The woman buys a tube of Crazy Glue and in the commercial they show a guy glued to the ceiling and they say it can hold your weight. The husband says, ‘They Photoshopped it, it’s bullshit; you know it’s not real.’ The woman says, ‘No, no, it’s real.’ Basically, they’re actually arguing about their relationship. So the guy goes to work. He calls his lover and he says, ‘You know, something’s wrong with my wife. I don’t know, perhaps she’s really onto me. We’d better cancel for tonight. I’m going home.’ Then when he goes home he finds the apartment empty. He tries to pick up a glass but it’s glued down; he tries to open the fridge but it’s glued shut; he goes to phone someone but the phone is glued down. He gets angrier and angrier and then he tries to kick something but that too is glued in place. When shouts in pain he hears laughter and when he looks up, he sees his wife, totally naked, glued to the ceiling by the soles of her feet. When he sees that, he’s scared. He asks ‘What are you doing? You’re crazy. I’m going to call someone.’ But while saying this he finds himself looking at her and she seems rejuvenated: hanging upside down, her breasts seem firm again, and when she smiles her smile seems natural and effortless as if gravity itself is creating it. It’s like an old photograph – and he falls in love with her again, though upside–down of course. Then he brings books and piles them up and says he’ll get her down, though it might hurt a bit. At this she makes a joke and he goes to kiss her, and he feels the books falling away from his feet and he’s there, in the air, just held by her lips.

The reason I mention this one is that it was adapted into nine short films whose interpretations ranged from romantic comedy to horror movies. One of the film-makers thought of a Chagall painting and the romantic couple floating in it, another focused on the lips being held and then torn by the glue – real gory horror. For me, both those readings are legitimate. There is something amazing when different people find something in common that keeps them together, and I also think it’s horrifying, so it’s kind of like ‘bring your own’. You read this story and you bring your own interpretation.

SL: Does length matter? Do you find short fiction works better for you?

EK: I always edit and shorten my texts substantially. I have many stories in which I don’t manage to begin at the place where the story itself actually began.

Also, in many of my stories, there is a sense of urgency. Let’s say, when you call for help or when your house is on fire, you want people to get it, to understand. For me, stories make a kind of movement, they have a sense of direction; they’re not a physical embodiment of anything.

It’s funny; there is a story I always tell in readings: a text called ‘Asthma Attack‘ which is the shortest story I’ve ever written. I tell them how I wrote the story. I’m asthmatic and I found myself in an emergency ward during Hannukah. So I couldn’t breathe and this charming Hugh Grant figure of a doctor asked me what was wrong with me. I said to him, gasping for breath (gasps dramatically), ‘I built – ah – this menorah – ah – out of plastic. . .’ – trying to tell him the story of what happened. But he put his hand on my shoulder and said ‘Son, you don’t have to tell me everything. Just tell me what’s important.’ And I said to him, (more gasps) ‘I can’t breathe.’ And he said, ‘See? That was easy.’ Then, while I was in this inhalation mask and he was seeing to other patients, I found myself writing this text, which is about how, in urgent situations, when you don’t have access to enough words, choosing to say to someone ‘I love you’ or ‘I truly love you’ makes a huge difference, because it’s an extra word which could have been ‘ambulance’ or ‘help’. If you say it, it’s because you mean it. So this connection between urgency and conciseness is very important for me.

I once met this very good writer. She told me that sometimes she comes upon a metaphor or a description and she writes it down on a notecard and keeps it in a box. Then when she writes a story and her character is taking a walk, she thinks OK, I’ll take a walking image from my box of notes. And I said to her, ‘Why? The guy is already walking.’ I don’t think a text should be beautiful. We’re trying to say something, to help something. It’s like sticking a feather on a guy’s back. You know he either grows wings for evolutionary reasons or he doesn’t have feathers. That’s my attitude to writing – although there are writers whom I love who I can see obviously don’t write this way.

SL: Tell me how you feel about money, or finance, in your stories, and also about capitalism. Are we in a phase in which capitalism seems to be driving stories? Or is this always the case?

EK: It’s true that in my latest collection (Suddenly, a Knock on the Door: Stories), economics is a frequent theme. I think it’s that I often write about things that I see are a crucial part of life yet I can’t quite grasp them; they seem strange to me. For example, the stock market always seems very strange. Let’s say you have a company, based in a big building, and you own fifty trucks. Then people say the building is worth five hundred million, but the next day it’s worth a hundred million. Next thing you know, it’s worth a billion. Yet all this time it is still the same building and the same old trucks. What is there to speculate about in that? So I think it’s to do with all those things that drive us further away from our basic intuitions. I’m always very curious about these, and try to understand them.

SL: So you’re picking away at the weirdness of these things.

EK: Yes – and when I started writing some of the stories in that collection I began to read all the financial newspapers. I started asking questions to my bank manager but he said you don’t even have an investment portfolio so why should we answer? So I began investing just in order to talk to them, to begin to understand their psychology and the kind of relationships they have with investors. It was a lot of fun. I wrote these stories and then I thought I’d sell what I’d bought and they told me, ‘you’ve just made four thousand dollars.’ And that was very strange!

SL: You’re not deep in this world; you’re looking from the sidelines.

EK: But while I may not walk the walk, I can definitely talk the talk. When I meet investment bankers, I can talk to them for hours. I feel very much like a spy in the sense that what interests them doesn’t interest me at all, but I realize that by holding these conversations I can learn something about human desires and the transcendence and absurdity of existence.

My son likes me to watch him play video games. My wife always asks, ‘Why do you do that? It’s so boring.’ For me there’s something about the physicality of a conversation. In my mind I strip it bare and it’s all about humanity. We might have a conversation and afterwards I might hardly remember anything you said, but I’ll remember the way that you touch your lips when you listen, or the way I perceive that you’re excited about storytelling. It’s about the physicality.

When I was young – this is a true story – I always wanted my parents to take me to football games. I had no interest in the teams; I just liked the people. I did have a distant relative who worked in a football club. The club had a fixture against an opposing club in which the losing team would drop down a division. I didn’t care about that; I just wanted to watch people and I felt the vibe and was into it. What happened was that my relative’s team lost in the last minute of the game. And he had got me there sitting on the front bench – I was six or seven years old. My interest was so abstract that when the other team won, I ran into the pitch and started hugging the players – and my relative didn’t speak to me for ten years after that, because for him I was a traitor. But for me, I was just going to games for the joy of the players. Whenever I went to games, I focused on people who were happy. I was trying – and able, in fact – to be part of it. For me, it was beyond this totally arbitrary team thing. But when I tried to explain this to my relative, he almost killed me. It was one of the most aggressive experiences of my life.

SL: I have to ask how you handle writing, or surviving even, when the conflict in your own country is so intense.

EK: I must tell you that since this latest conflict started I haven’t written anything apart from a couple of opinion pieces, one for the New Yorker and one for the LA Times; both appeared first in Hebrew dailies. They were both very linguistic. About the fact that I think using the word ‘peace’ destroys the actual possibility of peace occurring. Instead we should stop using ‘peace’ and start using ‘compromise’. When you use a word, it’s a pact, a deal; you’re signing a contract. If I say to you, ‘Let’s make love,’ or if I say ‘Let’s fuck,’ then in each case we have a different deal. So for me, in Israel the word ‘peace’ has a kind of Masonic aspect: you pray for peace. But if you use ‘compromise’ you cannot ignore that there is someone on the other side; you cannot ignore that you have to give up on something to achieve it. Peace could be a gift. It’s a word that doesn’t assume any responsibility. It’s not attached to you, nor to the other side.

SL: You could go so far as to say that ‘peace’ is by its nature non-contractual, non-conditional, while ‘compromise’ is always talking about a contract.

EK: And ‘compromise’ is not utopian. In Israel many people say we’ll never have peace. Why? Because they’ll always hate us. But you can have a compromise with somebody who hates you. It’s OK! They don’t have to like you. You just have to agree that you’ll stop trying to kill each other and then you’re getting somewhere.

I also wrote about how the feeling is that we’re going in circles, but in fact it’s not really circles, it’s a downward spiral. When we reach the same point, we say ‘Oh, we’ve been here before.’ But we’re not where we’ve been before; we’re in a worse place. I am trying to build a case for this. This thing that looks like repetition is not really repetition but descent. When you make a mistake and you do something terrible, it’s a tragedy. But when you keep making the same mistake and horrible things happen, then your claim of innocence disappears.

I must say, I love writing fiction; I hate writing opinions. It’s just contrary to everything that attracts me to writing. What I like about writing is that it has no consequences in the real world. With non-fiction you introduce this enemy, this feeling of responsibility. Among the madder responses to my pieces were: ‘We hope your kid dies from cancer,’ or ‘We should throw your kid out of a plane over Gaza without a parachute,’ or ‘We took all your books and threw them in the garbage bin because it disgusts us to see your name on the cover.’ So it’s a different kind of dialogue. When I write fiction, it’s as though I’m floating in air. When I write opinion, it’s as though I’m washing dishes. I hate it and the only reason I do it is I don’t feel I have a choice.

Usually my wife makes fun of me. Every morning I wake up and I say I have this idea for a film, for music, a TV series, an app; anything, you know, it doesn’t matter. Every morning, I say, so it’s this story about a movie star who goes to have a vasectomy and the doctor steals his balls and sells them to Russian mafia guys. . . Every morning! But since this war started, I don’t have any ideas whatsoever.

 

Photograph courtesy of Editora Rocco

First Sentence: Melinda Moustakis
Five Things Right Now: Alan Warner