Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Etgar Keret: Whole Worlds in a Handful of Pages

Fifteen minutes into our interview, Etgar Keret is apologizing again. He is, he explains, doing last-minute preparation for a trip to the States. “Would you mind – could you call me back in half an hour?” he asks. “My wife needs some help.”

Keret may be one of the most critically acclaimed writers in Israel, but he seems refreshingly free of ego bloat. He’s also exceedingly considerate – which, he says, is part of the reason why he loves to write fiction. “If you’re a considerate person, whenever you want to do something in life, you think about how it will affect other people,” he says. “But you can break all the windows in your fictional house, you can burn the walls down, and nobody gets hurt. If you’re rude to your characters, they don’t get hurt because they don’t exist.

"So you can connect to your inner emotions and fears – all those things that you don’t want to express because you don’t want to hurt people or get in trouble, you just want to be nice.”

Keret's short stories generally crystallize one thing – an emotion, a certain type of relationship or personality, a stage of life – while reverberating with many other echoes. Part of a seriocomic Jewish tradition that includes S.J. Perelman, the Marx Brothers, and Woody Allen, he punctures hypocrisy, pomposity, and other human weaknesses without wagging fingers. Funny, poignant, wildly imaginative, and shot through with surrealistic absurdism, his stories are intelligent but never weighty, dark but never depressing. The best contain whole worlds in a handful of pages.

One of the most popular living writers in Israel and the only Israeli author to have been published in the Palestinian Authority since the beginning of the latest intifada, Keret also has plenty of fans abroad. He’s been featured in magazines like The Believer and Tikkun and invited to contribute to papers like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian. “I’m much more successful in the US than I ever expected to be,” he says. “As a foreign writer who writes short fiction, I’m not playing in the main court.”

His stories have also made it onto the global film circuit. Wristcutters: A Love Story, a smart, English-language black comedy based on a Keret novella, hit a string of film festivals before landing in a few U.S. and U.K. theaters last year.

Foreign publications often ask Keret to write about the political situation in Israel. He finds those requests “completely legitimate” – and, at the same time, a little absurd. “I think it’s strange that people think writers should have some kind of answer,” he says. “In my mind, people who write are not usually very good at dealing with reality in the first place. I always say, if people ask me for a recipe for cheesecake, I’m happy to give them one, but they may find a better recipe on the Internet.

“Usually when I write about a political situation, I don’t want to write from this reductive point of view that says: ‘This is the way that we should go to lead us to the Promised Land.’ I like to be in a slightly more Socratic position, trying to challenge existing views or to show things in a different light. What you usually do in fiction is the opposite of simplifying the situation. You write about ambiguity, you write about character, you write about this wonderful life that is so difficult to contain and to articulate.”

Keret works in many media, writing children’s books, graphic novels, plays, screenplays, TV shows, and skits for a popular TV comedy he calls “kind of the Israeli equivalent of Saturday Night Live.” He has won significant awards as a filmmaker, most recently sharing the prize for best first feature at last year’s Cannes Film Festival with his wife, writer Shira Geffen. The two (pictured above) won for Jellyfish, a surrealistic film written by Geffen and co-directed by Geffen and Keret.

“I love experimenting with other mediums and genres,” he says. “The thing I am mostly interested in is basically telling stories. The more I shift between the mediums, the more I learn about storytelling, and many times I can transport strategies from one medium to the other. It’s kind of like a continuous education: you learn new things, and you experiment with them. For example, I’ve learned from working with film to look at a story I’m writing in terms of not just how it occurs in my head but thinking about mise en scene and other things outside the character’s reality.

But short stories – especially very short stories – are “always the home base for me,” he says. “You can write from so many places – from your brain or your heart – and I always say I write from my gut,” he adds. “And this kind of instinctive writing, it’s very difficult to write long fiction from it. My stories are like explosions, and it’s very difficult to explode slowly.

“I think basically for me, writing is an act of losing control. When you write short fiction, you don’t hold back; you just try to go as hard and as fast as you can. You’re trying to go somewhere, and you don’t know where that place is.”

So how does he know when he’s gotten there? “For me, writing is a place of honesty and sincerity, and it is always easy to know when I’m not honest. Sometimes I see I am just trying to look smart or trying to impress people or whatever. The moment I know that is it sincere, the only thing I ask myself is if it is interesting. Sometimes it can be very sincere and very boring.”

While he hasn’t been consciously influenced by any other writers since Franz Kafka and Kurt Vonnegut inspired him to write his first story, during his miserable obligatory stint in the Israeli Army, Keret feels a kinship with contemporaries like George Saunders, Miranda July, and Nathan Englander. “I really love their stories,” he says. “I feel like they’re the same species as mine, the same kind of animal – more at the core than in the style.”

That sense of kinship, he adds, is “a wonderful thing. As a human being, you don’t want to be lonely. You don’t want your stories to be lonely either. You want them to have some friends out there.”

At 40, Keret has been writing steadily for about two decades. “I’m developing as a writer as I’m developing as a human being: I don’t necessarily think I’m becoming a better human being, and I don’t think I’m becoming a better writer,” he says.

“It’s like looking at yourself in a photo album when you were ten years younger. For some people, it would be very clear that these were the good years or the bad years, but I think for most people, you think of some things you miss from those years and some things that you have now that are better – like your family. So I don’t think I get better; I think I just change.”

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