'Writing Was Always an Act of Losing Control': An Interview with Etgar Keret

The author of The Seven Good Years on peace versus compromise, Hebrew Book Week, and how writing fiction is like dreaming.

Tobias Carroll writes fiction and nonfiction. He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and his writing has recently appeared in Tin House...

Author Etgar Keret (Yanai Techiel)

In Etgar Keret’s fiction, the surreal becomes quotidian: a goldfish grants wishes; a woman discovers a zipper in her boyfriend’s mouth that transforms him into an entirely different person. But beyond the stranger aspects of his stories, the underlying emotions are tactile, realistic, and immersive; these are works that beguile you with their sense of the absurd and then overwhelm you with a sense of emotional truthfulness. Much of Keret’s nonfiction, on the other hand, reveals an entirely different side to his work: he has written periodically about Israeli politics, including a memorable piece from 2014 exploring the ideas of peace and compromise.

Keret’s new book, The Seven Good Years, is a memoir, though it abounds with as much everyday surrealism and heartbreak as his novels and stories. Told in a series of short vignettes, the book spans the time between the birth of Keret’s son and the death of his father. In between, Keret travels to a series of international literary events, muses on everyday life, and ponders the notion of homelands.

I spoke with Keret about his memoir’s origins, the state of being an internationally read writer, and much more. An edited version of our conversation follows.


When did the idea to bring all of these pieces together into one work come to you?

When my father was dying. At that point, I had been writing small pieces about my family, and especially my father. I never saw myself as a nonfiction writer. I didn’t even consider writing such pieces before my son was born. The first piece I had written in this vein was the day my son was born. Even though I had written some of those pieces during the years, either for papers or for myself, I never saw them as a book. Only when I realized that my father was about to die, I wanted to write this book that covered those seven years, from the time my son was born to the time my father died.

Much like your fiction, the pieces that make up The Seven Good Years are all short and concise. Is it different, writing one rather than the other?

It’s a completely different process. When I write short stories, I really don’t know what’s going to happen. When you’re writing a nonfiction piece, you’re retelling something that has already happened; you’re not inventing a story, you’re retelling a story. I must say, when I began writing, I looked down on nonfiction pieces. It looked to me like a lesser thing.

[But] when I began writing those pieces, especially when I began writing about my dad’s illness, or the pastrami piece, where me and my family are in the middle of a missile attack, I realized that there was something about the fact that when you retell a story, you learn a lot about how you experience things from what you choose to tell and how you choose to tell it. When I wrote nonfiction pieces and I looked at them, it sharpened the way I saw my past experiences. If it was something that was a little, how do I say it, not sharp? After I wrote it down, I would realize how painful something was for me that, at the time, I took more nonchalantly. Or how something I was very stressed about was actually very amusing in hindsight. So it gave me this perspective that you have when you look at a photo album and you see something: the photograph tells you something about your experience. Only here, I took the photograph from a difference of time, and when I took it, it told me a lot about the experience, in hindsight.

Since finishing this book, have you found that it’s had any effect on the way that you write fiction?

To be honest, it’s a period in my life in which I don’t write a lot. I have those periods; I’m not too stressed about them. I worked a lot on this book, and when I worked on finalizing it, on the editing processes and adding a couple of pieces to it, it was a time in which I didn’t write fiction. Right now, I would say that in the last year or so, I’ve written very little fiction—a couple of short stories.

[But] I would think it wouldn’t have much effect on the way that I write fiction. My fiction-writing process is very specific. It’s very intuitive. I often write from the point of view of a character in the story trying to understand which universe I was planted into. It’s really, really different, in process and in tone, from the way that I write my nonfiction pieces.

Structurally speaking, you have pieces at the beginning and the end of the book in which you mishear something crucial: a scene in Germany where you think someone’s made an anti-Semitic remark, and later, when you realize you’ve misremembered hearing the phrase “Kiss me.” Was that intentional from a structural perspective?

No. Less than a structural thing, it’s actually one of my traits. I tend to mishear things, and I tend to mis-see things, and I tend to imagine things that didn’t really happen. I think that it says more about my biography than it does about the way that I structured the book.

Have you found that your writing is viewed differently from country to country? As a writer who occasionally writes about Israeli politics, are those pieces received differently in, say, New York than in Israel?

There is a difference, of course, between writing fiction and writing op-eds. The reaction to op-eds is different between Israel and overseas. But when it comes to stories ... In Israel, I’m much more well known than anywhere else in the world. Some of my stories are in high school curriculums; basically, every student who’s graduated knows at least a couple of my stories. My books sell about 100,000 copies. There are fewer than six million Hebrew speakers, so [a large percentage] have read my work. Even the countries where I’m the most successful, like Poland or Turkey or Mexico, I’m not as well known as I am in Israel. There’s something about a dialogue; there’s a different dialogue when you’re a literary writer than when you’re seen as a best-selling author. This affects the kind of dialogue I have.

In different countries, people get connected to different stories. I get asked different questions. For example, I just came from Vietnam. The most common question that I was asked, both in interviews and in reading events, was: How do I know when a story ends? That was a question that I had never been asked, anywhere else on earth. I remember that when one of my books appeared in Korea, everybody asked me about a story called “Black and Blue,” from Suddenly, a Knock at the Door. This book has appeared in more than 20 countries, and no one had asked me about that story anywhere else; in Korea, everyone asked me about it. Different stories resonate differently.

I can tell you that, in Turkey, a country in which I am very successful, the thing that got me my readership there is a story called “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” from The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God. In the United States, it was made into a movie called Wristcutters: A Love Story. It tells the story of an afterlife for people who committed suicide. This has something to do with Shiite religious structure; I would come to events in Istanbul, and a huge portion of the readers, the people who would interact with me, were religious Muslims, Shiites, who had a strong emotional connection to the story because of their Muslim belief. Being a Jew in a country that is not totally friendly towards Israel, it was a very interesting experience.

In the book, I wrote about a literary festival in Indonesia. Indonesia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. It was very difficult to enter the country with an Israeli passport. But I can tell you, my book is doing very well in Malaysia, and Malaysia also doesn’t have diplomatic relationship with Israel. I can’t go and promote my book, because they won’t have me. But still, they’re happy to read my book. There is something very heartwarming about it. The same goes for the Palestinian Authority. The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God was the only the only book that was published during the Second Intifada. It came out there, and when I talked to my publisher, he said, “They’re buying the books. I can’t figure out if they’re reading them or burning them.” Especially when you have an Israeli identity like the one that I have, you see how writing can be a bridge that can take you and your emotions places your passport can’t get you.

There’s a piece late in the book where you discuss a house that was built for you in Poland, and you quote your mother as describing you as “a Polish writer in exile.” What do you make of that observation?

Every country where I’m successful, I try to understand why I’m successful there. Usually, when I talk to the readers, some kind of explanation comes out of it. For example, in Mexico, people—my publisher among them—have told me that there’s something very similar between Israeli life and Mexican life. Both people have led difficult lives, very violent realities, and are fighting to be hopeful, to have some shred of optimism. The idea of people who could both be your friends and could kill you, depending on how things would go—they said, “We always thought it was a very unique Mexican trait, but we see that Israelis are like this, too, and this is what makes us connect to your stories.”

In the Polish case, I discovered that my books have a very Polish sensibility; my humor is very Polish. I grew up in a family where both of my parents were Polish immigrants, but at the same time, they didn’t speak Polish at home. I realize now that I grew up in a house where what made my parents laugh is what makes Polish people laugh. So my idea of humor, my idea of drama, the aesthetic ideals that I grew up with were basically that of two Polish people raising their child to appreciate things that Polish people appreciate. But since it was done in the Hebrew language, I had to start publishing books in order to realize that.

You work dreams that you had into several pieces in The Seven Good Years. Do you often remember your dreams? Are they often that vivid?

I don’t often remember my dreams, but when I do remember them, I remember them in great detail. I’m not a guy who every morning remembers a dream, but when I do remember one, I can tell you which shirt the receptionist in the lobby wore, you know?

Does that ever play into your fiction?

Yes, for sure. I really think that the way I write fiction is very, very similar to the way we dream our dreams. I think that, for most writers, the experience of writing is an experience that has to do with control. When you write, you control the elements, you control the plot arc, the fate of your characters, the weather. With me, writing was always an act of losing control, basically connecting to my unconscious. Because of that, I think that when I write, I feel very much like I’m in a dream. I’m half-passive in my experience of telling a story; the story presents itself. Many times, when you write, you feel like you’re in a dream, you feel like you’re lost. I have made the comparison between writing and the trust fall, you know? For me, when I write a story, I don’t know what I’m trying to write, and I close my eyes and fall back and hope that the story will catch me. This idea of losing control, or someone else telling the story, is an experience both when I dream and when I write.

A few years ago, I read your piece on soccer player Eyal Berkovic in the anthology Jewish Jocks. Have you written anything else about the sport?

A few pieces, but I mostly wrote about it for the French press. For soccer, they were the ones most interested in it. I wrote a piece that was very important for me—do you remember the World Cup final where a player headbutted another player and got a red card? I wrote a big piece about that, about how I saw in this an act of freedom, in the sense that when you had a player for whom everyone has expectations, and he’s caught between who he’s supposed to be and how he’s supposed to retire. We are almost confining him, and by doing this thing that was totally irresponsible and totally out of place, there was something almost liberating: “I’m a human being and I’m going to do what I want to do, not what the entire world would expect me to do.” I wrote a few pieces like that.

I wrote one piece for The New Republic about why soccer is my favorite sport, and my case was that in most sports, the better teams wins, and it’s exciting and people score. With soccer, it’s very much like life. It’s not always that the good guys win. Some of the time, it’s very boring, and there are only those five seconds that elevate you above reality. It’s much closer to real life than, say, basketball.

In your new book, you wrote about going to Hebrew Book Week when you were a child. Do you see the seeds of your own life as a writer in those experiences?

I grew up in a house with people who really, really loved books. My brother taught me to read when I was three years old; it was very important for him. The way that he taught me to read was that he would have me read a sentence, and if I made a mistake, he would stick a piece of chewing gum in my hair. My parents were very impressed at how I knew how to read well at the age of three, but they also wondered why I had holes with no hair at the top of my head. Those things were very, very strongly connected.

So I knew how to read from a very young age. I didn’t like going to school, and with my parents being Holocaust survivors, they were happy to let me stay home, because it always seemed to them that I was safer at home. I would spend a lot of my time as a child reading. There was always something about Book Week, especially coming from a town like Ramat Gan, which was very close to Tel Aviv, but felt very provincial, very much the difference between New Jersey and New York. It was the only chance in my life to see a writer, or to see any sort of an artist. For me, it was realizing that there were real people who picked their noses and farted, and those real people wrote books, that books didn’t come out of factories or machines. There were humans writing them.

I remember that it really excited me as a child, regardless of the fact that they were good writers or bad writers, or if they wrote bad books or good books. You knew that this was a possibility, that one day you could sit on a chair and autograph other people’s books. One day, you could write something. Those people were not distinct from me; they didn’t have a different set of organs or more eyes or more ears or more fingers to type on the computers. They were just people, you know? This was very powerful for me.

As well as the fact that, when you live in a country where there are always emergencies having to do with wars, when you see a lot of people gathered together, it usually has to do with demonstrations. Those demonstrations, even when they’re for peace, usually have something very aggressive. Seeing a community gathered together usually has to do with danger or a protest—something not pleasant. Book Week felt like this huge AA meeting for book lovers. Their sweat mixes with yours, and the only thing you have in common is your love of books. I remember, as a child, that it was a very pleasant experience, knowing that you’re not alone. There are many other people like you who find books important in their lives.

Is there anything you’re reading right now that you’d recommend?

Right now, I’m reading an advance copy of a book called Killing a King from Dan Ephron. It’s about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. As someone who lives in Israel, I thought I knew everything there was to know about it. Reading this, I realize that there were many things that I didn’t know.

You’ve written about the idea of peace versus the idea of compromise; do you feel, as of late, that the ideas you advanced in that essay still hold true?

Yes. I think that right now, Israel has a very right-wing government. In that government, many of those people, I would define as racist. They’re not willing to give up any of the land of Israel. They would define themselves as peace-lovers. I think that if you talked to leaders of ISIS, they would also say that they are peace-lovers. Everybody likes peace. But the question is, if you need to behead your enemies to reach that peace, the ISIS way, then that peace is really meaningless. I really think that the concept of peace is the ideal where you will not be stressed, you will not need to be afraid, you will not need to employ aggression. This is a universal wish. I don’t know one person in this world who doesn’t want peace. But when it comes to compromise, it’s surprising how many people are willing to tolerate a violent life out of the sheer fear of experimenting and giving up some of the things that they want, just so they and their children can have a better life.

Tobias Carroll writes fiction and nonfiction. He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and his writing has recently appeared in Tin House, Midnight Breakfast, The Collapsar, The Collagist, Joyland, and Underwater New York. His collection Transitory will be released by Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2016.