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Interview with Etgar Keret

By Daniela Hurezanu

The interview was conducted at the AWP Annual Conference on Saturday, April 10, 2010 in Denver, where Keret was one of the main featured presenters. On Friday night, April 9, Keret read together with George Saunders in front of an audience of about 1,500 people. On Saturday night, the Denver Starz Film Center presented 9.99, a film realized after several of Keret’s short stories.

Daniela Hurezanu: The first books I read as a child have marked me forever. Do you remember the first books you read?

Etgar Keret: Both my parents were Holocaust survivors. My mother was in the Warsaw ghetto—they were kids during the war--and my father on the Russian-Polish border. They didn’t have any books, so my grandparents made up stories for them. So, for my parents the parental duty was to make up stories for us. For them, to read from books would have been like McDonald’s.

DH: Were they very literate?

EK: Very literate. They didn’t have any formal education, but both of them read a lot and they spoke several languages. My mother would make up stories like Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver's Travels, but in her own version. My father would make up stories that had in them drunks and things like that. Not very PC. So, I grew up with oral literature. I started reading when I was very young because my brother taught me when I was three, and when I was five, I read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer in simplified versions. So, in a way, when I write in colloquial speech I always go back to Mark Twain because his books were the first books I ever read.

DH: Funny, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the first book I read. Did you read folktales or mythology?

EK: I read Greek and Roman mythology as a kid, but also Scandinavian. My sister became religious when she was 22—we grew up secular—so, because I had very little in common with her and she wouldn’t read my stories, I started to read Hassidic tales so I can communicate with her.

DH: It’s interesting because I read Buber’s Hassidic Tales and I can see them, somehow, in your stories.

EK: In tales—Hassidic or not—the characters don’t have a realistic psychology; rather, all the characters make one psyche, the story itself is like an organism.

DH: I always felt that your stories are not written according to realist logic, though there is realism in them. Your characters are not developed according to the realist tradition, though they are really strong.

EK: It depends on which story we are talking about. Most of my stories are not realistic because I am very much interested in the subjective experience of reality. I don’t want to write stories that are factually true, but that are fundamentally true. I am much more interested in portraying an emotional situation than in a correct ontology of the world.

DH: I can’t help noticing that you used the word “true.” In American academia you are considered retrograde if you believe in such a think as truth. Do you believe in truth?

EK: I am not a relativist, I really do believe in certain objective values. I think that there is something in nature that we can never articulate. I believe that there is a truth. I believe it is very difficult to articulate that truth. I try to go in that direction, but I don’t pretend I will get there.

DH: So, you do believe in a transcendental truth?

EK: For sure. But I don’t believe in God, Jesus or UFOs.

DH: Last night at the reading you said something very interesting. You said you were interested in “creating something out of something” as opposed to “creating something out of nothing.” You said, “Anyone can create something out of nothing.” First of all, am I interpreting this correctly, is this directed against the Judeo-Christian creation myth? Did you even have that in mind?

EK: I was talking about the artistic mechanism. Creating something out of nothing means making something up. But when you make something out of something, you take things that are already there, like an emotion, and you turn it into a narrative. The nature of literature is not to invent things, but to articulate what is already there. When you read a good book you don’t think that the author is making up lies, but you say, “Oh, yes, I know what he is talking about.” The fact that you know this means that it isn’t made up.

DH: What kind of books do you read these days?

EK: I really love classics, especially Russian writers: Gogol, Nabokov, Isaac Babel; I love Kafka, Yiddish writers, such as Shalom Aleichem and Bashevis Singer. I really like young Jewish-American writers, like Jonathan Safran Foer, Gary Shteyngart, Michael Chabon. There is something in the Jewish-American identity that is actually closer to me than the Israeli identity because over there people are trying to fight or hide their Jewish roots. They have something almost anti-Jewish.

DH: Are you a fan of Philip Roth?

EK: I read his books and I appreciate him, but he was never a model for me.

DH: What about Paul Auster?

EK: I really love some of his books.

DH: Do you read in translation? I assume you can read in English.

EK: I read in Hebrew. I am not comfortable enough in English. It would take me three times longer to read books in English.

DH: Do they publish a lot translations in Israel?

EK: Yes, a lot.

DH: I am asking because in this country less than 3% of the books published are in translation, and of these, less than 1% is literature.

EK: Yes, I know, it’s terrible.

DH: I know you teach Hebrew Literature.

EK: Actually, I teach something like creative writing.

DH: So, is creative writing in Israel like here? Do the students write something and then the professors critique it?

EK: Kind of. But the way I do it is a little different because I really don’t believe that you can teach someone else to write. So, for me this is like an AA meeting, it’s not a class, it’s a support group. There is nothing wrong with a support group, but I think people should not delude themselves. They won’t become writers, but it can be a supportive environment that helps them do the work themselves. Now, there are many great American writers who came out of these programs. But basically, I don’t think anyone taught them to write; rather, the environment helped them write, but it’s not like going to an engineering school.

DH: Do you think there is an essential difference between what people think a good story is in contemporary American literature and in other parts of the world? I mean, do you see a difference between what is considered a good story here and, say, in Israel?

EK: I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but what I can say about the US is that there are many readers and creative writing professors who are into the tradition of the “well written story,” which is something I completely dislike because it focuses on the craft machine. I tell my students that they should focus on writing “the badly written” good story. There is something paralyzing if you are thinking all the time about the form; it can stop you from focusing on the true passion and emotion. Here I can see that some people could characterize my stories as “shaggy dog stories” because they say, “OK, this is about a guy who went to a bar, etc., but this is not literature” because I don’t write the typical New Yorker story. I think this is very American because it goes with the Protestant work ethic: when you read a story you should see that someone worked very hard on it. But when I write something I want to hide my effort. I want people to feel that I am speaking to them. If it took me two months to write it I want it to look as if I didn’t make any effort. This is something that clashes with the American tradition. If you compare Bob Dylan singing a song with someone from American Idol, the latter sings better, he has a better voice. But the guy from American Idol is thinking about “singing well,” while Bob Dylan is thinking about the song. So the American kind of “well written” story is about creating an American Idol kind of story.

DH: The concept of “craft” is based on the assumption that this is a universal concept and any writer in this universe thinks about craft, when in fact it’s an English concept. It’s even hard to translate.

EK: I don’t even think it’s English; it’s Anglo-American. When the Beatles wrote “Yesterday,” they said they wrote it in five minutes. They didn’t say, “Oh, we worked really hard.” But there is something in the American tradition that is about investing time and effort. I too can work on a story. In the story I read last night, there is one word I was looking for, so I called many people to ask them. And people were surprised that I would call them just for one word. But I work very hard to look rugged.

DH: What writers have influenced you?

EK: My greatest influence was Kafka. What I read yesterday, “Fatso,” is a sort of metamorphosis. Also, Shalom Aleichem, an Yiddish writer whose protagonists are not particularly articulate, but they talk a lot. I really like Kurt Vonnegut’s work. There is something apparently non-political about him, but in fact he is really very political.

DH: I can see the same thing in your stories.

EK: I take a Socratic political position not a programmatic one. It’s about making people rethink what they know. Also, I think there is something about Salinger’s view of childhood that affected me a lot. The story “Laughing Man” (from Nine Stories) is one of the stories that have affected me the most. It’s also a story about storytelling. There is something that is beautiful, but inherently tragic because there is something about the beauty of childhood: you either get stuck in it or get detached from it. Childhood is something that cannot survive.

DH: As far as I know you are a short story writer, you don’t write novels.

EK: I wrote this one novella, about a colony, Kneller’s Happy Campers. It’s about afterlife after a suicide.

DH: What do you think is the main difference between a novel and a short story, and why do you think you are a short story writer?

EK: There isn’t much of a difference between a classical short story and a novel. But a very short story, like those I write, is different. A novel has to be planned and premeditated. The very short story can surprise you. I write a story because I want to know what is going to happen.

DH: So when you start a story, do you already know what will happen?

EK: I know something, but only the beginning. It’s a quest.

DH: I always thought that the premise of the novel is entertainment.

EK: Writing a short story is a very internal process. You write a novel for other people, it’s more like a dialog. But when I write a short story I write it for myself. It’s a much more intimate process. It’s a difference of acoustic, like playing in a stadium and playing in a little cabin.

DH: Some of your stories are like dialogues, like scenes. They are like a play. Do you feel that you sometimes write a story as if it were a play?

EK: Usually, when I read stories I like first-person narratives because I can identify with the character, but when I write it’s different. When I write a story there is something very visual for me. Something cinematic.

DH: Do you think you are influenced by pop culture?

EK: I was very much influenced by cinema and music too. I taught a course last year about telling stories in songs. I learned a lot about building characters from Randy Newman or writing stories from Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan. There is something about the rhythm of a song. Sometimes I can write in meter independently of the content. When I write, I often write several very short sentences, followed by a long sentence. This rhythm is essential and it’s something I got not from poetry but from songs because as a teenager—I began writing when I was 19—I was much more exposed to pop music than to poetry.

DH: I believe in that, and it makes sense, given the fact that your stories are not premeditated, but they start based on sound or rhythm. Now, you are a writer that in this country we read in translation, so there is problem with that.

EK: The problem is that English is 30/% longer than Hebrew. In Hebrew you can really construct very short sentences. In know this because I work with two very, very creative translators. And many times I don’t want them to be loyal to the text, but to the meter. For example, I have a story that begins with a series of compliments about a guy; but when my translator translated the story, it didn’t work because she wanted to translate the word, but the rhythm didn’t work. So, I told her, “Forget about the word! It should be ta-ta-ta.”

DH: Let’s talk about the film that will play tonight, 9.99. I am curious to know how you feel about the shift from page to screen? What do you think changes, how do you feel the stories are represented?

EK: In Jelly Fish I co-directed the film. In this movie I wrote the script. But basically, what I like about the movie business is that I work with many people, that it’s a collaboration; the film is like a child because it is a collaboration.

DH: As long as there is indeed a collaboration and no one forces you to swallow their ideas.

EK: No one can make me swallow their ideas because I am very stubborn.

DH: As long as you don’t work with people from Hollywood.

EK: I don’t work with Hollywood.

DH: Does 9.99 combine several stories or is it just the story titled “9.99”?

EK: There are six stories.

DH: Are they combined in a way that makes it a whole?

EK: Yes. They are all constructed in relation to each other. They are like shortcuts.

DH: Obviously, a film and a short story are different works of art. But in what way are they different?

EK: For me, writing is essential. A film is like going to a party. We all need a good party. But it’s not as essential as writing.

DH: Do you really recognize on the screen what you created in your story?

EK: I think it’s a different entity altogether. When writers are asked, “Did you like what they did to your book?” I think: they did nothing to my book. I don’t think a film does anything to a book. I am completely released from the stress many writers have. They can make a crappy movie from your book, but it doesn’t matter.

DH: Another thing I noticed last night. In one of stories you use your real name. This is a technique many writers in Eastern Europe use. But in the States this is rare, and here many people would be tempted to call that story “non-fiction.” What do you think, first of all, of the distinction fiction/nonfiction?

EK: In nonfiction there is always an element of fiction because there is always an interpretation of reality. And in fiction there is an element of nonfiction because you always talk about an emotion—something out of something. I have no problem with that. I think that if I do something that confuses my readers, that is very healthy.

DH: I believe that too, but in this country people often need laws, rules.

EK: Yes, but I think disorientation is good. It goes hand in hand with morality. Atrocities were never committed by confused people; they are usually committed by very convinced people. I think there is a moral function in being confused.

DH: That’s a very good point. Dictators are never confused.

Published Apr 22, 2010   Copyright 2010 Daniela Hurezanu

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