Talking with Etgar Keret (supposedly)

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Keret on his translators: "Others openly admit that they prefer translating dead authors who are not trying to befriend them."
PHOTO BY MARTINA KENJI VIA TABLET

You can't imagine the writerly crisis I experienced typing up the questions for my Etgar Keret interview. What responses could I possibly elicit from Israel's most prominent fabulist that would rival the odd, sparkling stories of his latest, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (FSG Originals, 208pp, $14)? Better just to publish one of his pieces, perhaps the titular account of a man forced at gunpoint to overcome writer's block or the story of the guy who falls (via a buried gumball machine) into a world populated by characters from the fibs he's told over the year.

But running through the -- dare I say -- whimsy of his work, there is a metallic vein of reality about life in the Middle East. Far be it for me to deprive Guardian readers of the chance to hear original thought from Keret. And so I wrote, and he wrote back, and I wrote again, and he wrote back again, and so it went until we had fashioned a call-and-response that just nearly did justice to his books. He'll be in town, in conversation with Michael Chabon at the Jewish Community Center on Mon/23. That'll be a fun thing to hear, also.

>>Ira Glass reads the titular story from Suddenly, a Knock on the Door. For more information on the book's star-studded audio release featuring Willem Dafoe, Ben Marcus, Gary Shteyngart, Michael Chabon, and others, click here

SFBG: Hi Etgar. We're conducting this interview via email, can you please tell me how my readers and I know it's really you answering the questions?

EK: Well, to be honest, it isn't really me answering this. It is the same guy who writes my stories. He is really good and hardworking and starting June 1 he'll start walking the dog and playing with the kid too.

SFBG: Speaking of language boundaries. Do you ever chat with the folks who translate your work before they start? What advice do you give them?

EK: I always try to have a dialogue with my translators. Some of them are happy with it, others openly admit that they prefer translating dead authors who are not trying to befriend them or send them 15 consecutive emails about a story's title. The bottom line is that translator is the boss but I'm very happy to help if they are willing to let me. 

SFBG: How do Israeli and United States audiences react to the work? Can you sense a national difference in its reception?

EK: There is something very intimate with a Israeli audience, the most common Israeli question I get is if a certain story is about a guy that served in the army with them. It is fun to be close to your readers but it is also very rewarding to have a dialogue with readers who come to my stories tabula rasa and who don't personally know your mom.

SFBG: You went through a spate of writer's block before writing Suddenly, a Knock on the Door that you once attributed to the change in lifestyle you underwent when you became a family man. How did that writer's block feel?

EK: Most of the time I didn't feel it. But there were those moments when I thought I had a story to write but when I sat down in front of the computer I found out I didn't, which felt very much like a phantom pain.

SFBG: How did you pull out of it?

EK: I'm not sure. After a very long time thinking that I have a story to tell and then discovering I don't know how to tell it, I sat down next to a computer and a story did come out.

SFBG: Have you gone through spates since in which you weren't inspired?

EK: I hardly wrote any fiction in the past 18 months. But know, after I've overcame a block, it feels slightly less fatal. (But it is still very scary.)

SFBG: Do we get the full experience of your stories when we read them in English?

EK: They read very differently in any language which isn't Hebrew. The thing I like the most about Hebrew colloquial speech is that it allows you to switch between registers mid-sentence. A typical Hebrew slang sentence would be reconstructed both from ancient biblical words and from Russian, English, Arabic, or simply made-up ones. There is something about this tension between the ancient and the traditional on the one hand and the chaotic and the contemporary on the other that creates an amazing and explosive energy in almost any random sentence. Many times my stories intentionally and unintentionally tap into that energy and this is one thing that inherently doesn't pass translation. I couldn't wish myself for better translators to English but there are times in which the only thing that we can all do after looking together at some Hebrew sentences is to start crying or to bang our head into a wall.    

SFBG: Tell us about your writing routine. Has it changed over time?

EK: For me, the term "writing routine" sounds like an oxymoron. It is a bit like saying "having-a-once-in-a-lifetime-insight-which-makes-you-want-to burst-into-tears routine." There has never been anything routine-like about writing for me. I sit down and start writing only when I have a story in mind. In my 20s this could have happened three times a week, these days it happens much less often but when it does, it feels much more like getting an unexpected present than like something I actually initate.

Etgar Keret in conversation with Michael Chabon

Mon/23 7pm-8:30pm, $17-$25

Jewish Community Center

3200 California, SF

(415) 292-1200

www.jccsf.org

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