Born in Ramat Gan, Israel, Etgar Keret is one of his country’s best-selling writers of fiction. Six of his short story collections have been translated into English and he contributes frequently to NPR’s This American Life. Along with his wife, Shira Geffen, he directed the 2007 film Jellyfish, which won the Cannes Film Festival’s Caméra d’Or. His new memoir, The Seven Good Years, is a collection of personal essays that covers the seven years beginning with the birth of his son and ending with the death of his father.
Keret’s fiction is fantastical, funny, and often heartbreaking. In his story “Lieland,” the lies that we tell are made manifest in a place discovered by Robbie, a compulsive liar, who now has to face up to the aunt who developed cancer, the injured dog who needed to be taken to the vet—made up excuses Robbie used at one point or another to get out of work or school. In “On the Nutritional Value of Dreams,” a narrator wakes one night to find a creature has come out from under his bed and is devouring the dream he was having of his ex-girlfriend. Dreams are all the narrator has left of this woman he still pines for, and in that way the far-out premise is made human.
The Seven Good Years offers a glimpse into the worldview that has informed Keret’s previous fiction. The memoir’s fidelity to actual events doesn’t mean Keret is any less surreal and, more importantly, it doesn’t mean he’s any less fun.
The Rumpus: The essays in The Seven Good Years reminded me a lot of the short stories in your most recent collection Suddenly a Knock at the Door. In both works, the unexpected is always upon us and you have the uncanny ability to make the personal universal, the universal personal. Reading the memoir I realized for the first time just how much of you must be in the fiction.
Etgar Keret: For me, the experience of writing fiction is very personal. Everything I write is a strange projection of my very limited life experience. Maybe a cashier is being rude to me while I’m buying my groceries and somehow I make that into a story about an alien invasion. My wife always says I have an exaggerated reaction to life around me. I feel super guilty when I should just feel a little guilty. I get really stressed when I should only get a little stressed. I get emotionally attached to taxi drivers. I fight with people in the street and then go feel bad and visit them and bake them a cake. Everything is too much. This is both enjoyable and sometimes tiring, but when you take it into a story you can turn it into a nice emotional surrounding. In real life it’s just me being weird.
Rumpus: You lived in a house in Warsaw that was only 47 inches wide. Your son was born at the same time the hospital was being flooded with victims of a terrorist attack. Your short fiction has been called surreal, but your life seems a little surreal, too.
Keret: Everybody’s life is potentially surreal, but the attitude we have is to block it. There are gateways to surreal worlds but we just pass by them. I’m staying in New York in an apartment house and I started talking to the guy who owns the property. He’s Israeli. He’d heard of me. He said, “You know I’m a bit of an artist, too. I play the French horn and I’ll move you to the best apartment in the building if you play a concert with me where I play the French horn and you read stories in the basement of the building.” I said, “Sure.”
That evening the building’s super was suddenly wearing a sweatshirt that said SECURITY and he stood in front of the entrance to the basement and sold eighty tickets. I sat there with this French horn guy reading my stories in this little basement. This building owner was the Miles Davis of the French horn and it turned out to be one of the most moving events I ever did in my life.
Rumpus: When was this?
Keret: Two days go. Saturday night. So you see, I’m not so sure what Jonathan Franzen would do if he were in this apartment building and a guy said if you read in the basement while I play French horn I’ll give you a better apartment. I think he would probably say that he’s fine with his apartment. He’d probably like to block some writing time and not do strange things in the basement with the super impersonating a security guy.
Life can be very surreal if you allow it. The French horn guy and I are friends now, by the way.
Rumpus: You mentioned getting attached to taxi drivers. There are a lot of taxi drivers in the memoir, and I think they’re perfect for your form. Your stories tend to be short and have an anything could happen feel. Interactions with cabbies are typically brief, too, and they are also unpredictable. When you get in a cab, anyone might be behind the wheel.
Keret: I think that has a lot to do with my upbringing. My father was the friendliest guy on earth. If you rode in a taxi and got to your destination without knowing the driver’s name or his family condition or his hobbies or you didn’t even have a chance to give him one bit of advice about a problem he had, then you were utterly rude. The guy’s driving you somewhere, he’s helping you out. All my life I try to play down, but even when I play down I guess I’m much friendlier than the average guy.
Rumpus: Does any sadness come with these brief, yet meaningful, interactions you have with cabbies and other strangers? For instance, after you leave New York, there’s a good chance you’ll never see the French horn guy again.
Keret: There’s an aspect to interacting with strangers that puts you in a more sincere position because there is no price to pay for your sincerity. I can be much more generous with a stranger because it’s not putting a bar into place that will commit me. If I do this thing, I won’t have to do it again next week. There’s something about that that lets me be looser and totally in the present because there’s nobody around to remind me who I was a week ago or who I’m going to be a week from now.
Rumpus: A few of the essays in The Seven Good Years actually deal with times in your life outside of that seven-year window. For instance, “Shit Happens” is about the first short story you ever wrote. What struck me most about that piece was that you were writing really short pieces from the start, and you were writing unconventionally, too. As a young writer, did you ever face any pushback against your unusual style, your unique voice?
Keret: In university I studied in an honors program which was a very snobbish little program and took very few people. I gave my stories to other students, but it was kind of a harassing act because I would go to a course (not necessarily a writing one) and ask someone if they wanted to read a story I wrote. People were nice, but in hindsight I know they made fun of me for doing that. I didn’t know it at the time but they were all saying, “Oh here comes the guy with the stories. What weird thing did he write about now?”
Eventually I got connected to this guy who had just graduated from the program, and everyone said he was one of the smartest guys to graduate. He was working as the night editor in a newspaper and everyone thought it made sense for me to show my stuff to him. He was older than me and very smart. He read my stories very seriously and afterward we met in the university cafeteria and had a long talk. He said, “I’ve taken a few classes with you and you’re really, really smart and have a brilliant future ahead of you in academia as a researcher. This is why I feel I have to say to you very bluntly don’t waste your time on writing. You just don’t have it. When you talk about academic stuff there’s something very mature and grown up in you. But your stories are just a bunch of childish clichés.” I said, “Thank you.” Then I went home and kept writing stories. I never wrote because I felt I was good at writing. I wrote because I felt I had to.
I didn’t see that guy for many years and then one day I was in a shopping area and I saw him from a distance and he was walking next to a little a girl. He saw that I saw him and he pushed the girl into a store to avoid my eye line. So being the person I am I ran to the store and immediately went inside to say hello. Apparently this was a kind of store that sold sexy underwear for women. I see him standing there with his daughter and I go up to him and say, “Hey remember me. We had that conversation.” This was eight years later, ten years later. He said, “Yes, yes. Of course I remember.” He was kind of quiet and then he said, “Listen, there were so many times I thought about bumping into you. I feel like such an asshole. I feel so bad that I told you stop writing and now you’re published and doing well.” I told him to not feel bad about it. He should have felt bad about it if I’d stopped writing. I had asked him for input and he gave me honest input and it was okay. So many people in my life have told me I write crap. Anybody who gives his work to enough to people has heard this I’m sure.
Writing is a little bit like dating. If you go on a date and the girl says that you’re not her guy, you don’t go home and think that you’re ugly or stupid or evil. You say, “Okay, this girl is just not for me.” Offering writing is like offering friendship. Some people want to be friends and some people don’t. It’s actually more surprising for me when people connect with my stories. I think it’s the default for people to think your story is just a bunch of words on piece of paper written by a guy they don’t know. Why should they feel anything about it? More often than not it doesn’t happen and that’s okay. The miracle is when it works.
Rumpus: In “Bombs Away” you write about a period of your life when you and your wife use the specter of nuclear war as an excuse to stop doing the dishes, to stop all household chores, and instead take out a loan and buy a big TV. Both this essay and “Pastrami” get at this looming existential threat that is a reality for Israelis that I don’t think most Americans understand. Did you feel any kind of duty to convey to an American audience these realities that are the everyday in your country?
Keret: I hate associating the word ‘duty’ to writing. I feel like I’m on duty my whole life and when I write I feel some kind of release from it. If you make me define the duty I feel as a writer, I would say that it is to humanize the human experience. It doesn’t matter if it’s in fiction or nonfiction, I’m not beautifying things. My characters maybe fuck up and do wrong, but there is a part of them that doesn’t want that to happen. So part of me is trying to humanize life in Israel. But that’s not a political statement. In “Pastrami,” my son refuses to lie on the ground during a missile attack and I describe how we play a game called Pastrami Sandwich where my wife and I lie on him and together we form a sandwich. That’s my way of making him lie on the ground before the missile explodes without shouting at him or forcing him. If you’re going to say that this correlates to my political world, then a footnote should be added that while my family is doing this there are kids in Gaza who don’t even get a warning alarm before the missile explodes. Even if my son is traumatized by this fearful experience then at least he gets to keep all his organs intact.
When I write these kinds of pieces, I don’t try to write my deep truths about the region, but to instead convey the human and ambiguous moments I have as a parent raising a child. It’s those damned if you do, damned if you don’t moments, those places where someone asks you a question and you don’t have the right answer. It’s so much more confusing and beautiful than what you see on CNN or Fox News.
Rumpus: You seem to put a very high value on empathy, both as part of your writing process and in everyday life.
Keret: Sometimes I get very angry and condescending toward people. I’ll read an op-ed or see something on TV and think, oh my god this guy is such an asshole. If this feeling stays and nags at me, I’ll sit down and write a story in which this guy who I think is an asshole is my protagonist. When I write the story, it forces me to be closer to him. I wrote a couple of good stories this way.
I wrote this story that came out in McSweeney’s about a woman who builds an app that will find the closest beggar to you. If you want to feel like a good person, you press the button for this app and it tells you there’s a guy two blocks away so you can go and give him money. It came from a piece I read by woman who said she gave money to homeless people because she wanted to feel good about herself. I thought about writing a sarcastic letter to the paper in response to this. I was thinking all sort of nasty thoughts. Then I wrote a story about a woman who does that, who creates this app. The story is about this need to feel like you helped somebody, and how that need is as strong as the need of somebody to be helped. It was really a human story and after I finished it I liked the woman who wrote that original piece. I could imagine myself sitting with her and trying to convince her not to write her piece, but at the same time she’s a good human being. Now that I’ve written about her I’m not allowed the privilege of total alienation.
Rumpus: One last question about the memoir. I was curious why you chose to organize the pieces around these specific seven years of your life, especially when a few of them are about your childhood and teenage years, well outside of the seven-year timeframe.
Keret: The definition of those seven years came very naturally because the first nonfiction piece I ever wrote was the day my son was born. I’d never written a diary before but the fact that I became a father made me feel this sense of the future that came from knowing I’d had a child who was going to grow up. It seemed important to document it and show it to him one day. My emotions were very confusing and I thought if I wrote them down I’d maybe better understand what I felt.
A few of them, like the one about how I wrote my first short story, I wrote in hindsight. But most were written on the fly, the night they happened. I never thought they would be a book. Some were published in magazines. It was only when my father became terminally ill that I realized I wanted to turn them into a book so it would be a readable tombstone for my father.
Rumpus: What’s next?
Keret: I still write fiction all the time, but not as intensely as I used to. Especially since the Gaza war last summer. I got sort of sucked into the world of op-eds and people insulting me and wishing me death on my Facebook page. It was very difficult for me to dig myself out from there.
The main thing I’m doing is working with my wife to develop a TV series for a French TV channel. It’s a series called The Middlemen. It’s about real estate and time travel, two of my favorite topics.
Rumpus: Can I get you to elaborate on that?
Keret: It’s about a real estate guy who under really strange circumstances inherits a building in Paris and he discovers that every time he goes to sleep in this building he wakes up forty years earlier in the same building. He becomes the super of that building in the past and lives a totally different life than the one he has in the present. He finds this big mystery and if he solves it he’ll understand how he became the man he is, which is a divorced compulsive liar who has problems developing relationships with human beings.
Rumpus: Keep us posted on that.
Keret: The way it is with TV people is that they say, “Show me some TV series that involve real estate and time travel that have already been successful.” Right now we’re trying to convince the channel that it’s not too weird, just a little weird.
Author photo © Yanai Yechiel.