The documentary Etgar Keret mentions in this interview, Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story, screens this Wednesday at E Street Cinema. This piece was originally published on October 16, 2015. -ed.
Author Etgar Keret recently released his first memoir, Seven Good Years: A Memoir. You may know Keret from his short story collections. Or his This American Life appearances. Or his New Yorker fiction. You really should know Etgar Keret’s work. It may make your life better.
Keret’s writing makes the world feel like a smaller place. Small is good. His writing is concise in both style and word count. Extremely approachable and easy to digest, Keret’s work feels welcoming. His conversation style is the same. We had a chance to speak with Keret about his new work, disconnecting from the artist, his father and more.
Brightest Young Things: You’re the kind of author that makes having a child a little less scary.
Etgar Keret: The first time me and my wife thought about having a child was at the height of the Second Intifada. In the neighborhood where we lived everyday would be suicide bombing and I said to my mother that I think maybe we won’t have children because to bring a child into such a reality seems almost irresponsible. And my mother said to me, “You know what, if I could have brought you up during the Holocaust, you could find some optimism in you too.”
BYT: That’s a lovely, amazing, powerful and also a very sad message. Do you have a lot of readers and fans of you from This American Life that just want to bear their soul to you when they meet you?
EK: My brother-in-law is an Israeli rockstar. We have The Voice and he’s one of the judges and he’s the most well-known rockstar in Israel and many times when he greets fans he’s polite but I can see how much he’s suffering, how he compromises his privacy and people can sometimes be really obnoxious. All of my experiences meeting readers and fans have been exclusively positive.
Maybe when you write books people who have any interest in you are usually people who kind of get your sensibility because they like your books not just because they saw you on T.V. I would like to think that the people who read and care about my books are nice and intelligent people. So I’m thinking of somebody who comes to you and says, “You wrote something that was meaningful to me,” what could be better? It’s not even for writing, somebody could come up to you and just say, “You know what, I just saw you on the street or you did something and I looked at you and it made my life better,” then that’s really as good as it gets.
BYT: It’s my job to interview authors, musicians, and filmmakers and whenever I talk to super famous people I really don’t care what they think about world events as much as I care about someone like you or a great graphic novelist that I enjoy. In a weird way I’m looking to creators like yourself for answers that can’t possibly be answered.
EK: I think that every person who reads my fiction or nonfiction can have a really good angle on how stressful and confused and uncertain I am about so many things. So you know I actually think that in the Israeli tradition of writing, there are writers like Amos Oz or David Grossman that really you look at those people and you think, “Wow I would like this guy to babysit my kid,” you know? “But the truth is that I don’t think that so many people would want me to babysit their kid and I think that all of the authors that I love, writers like Kafka and Bashevis Singer, I wouldn’t want them to babysit my kids either. I wouldn’t want Kafka to be the Prime Minister of Israel or Bashevis Singer to be the President of Israel because he would sexually harass everybody around him, you know? But at the same time I think that the connection that I have with the writing is more of like I feel like I’m part of a support group, like people in an AA meeting. I feel that when I talk to people that care about my stories they say, “You know what I never got that right either, and I thought I was wrong and now you don’t get it too so we can sit here in the dark together.”
BYT: You mentioned something in that statement that you seem to be able to disconnect the artist from the art, do you find that to be true for yourself?
EK: Completely. I often say, and I truly mean that it’s not just a nice thing to say, that I actually think that my stories are much smarter than I am. For me, a good story is a kind of story that I look at it and say, “Oh wow, I don’t know how I made it. I don’t know where it came from.” And I think that like many artists that, let’s say, their art was very intelligent and they were not, or their art shows a lack of compassion and they were not compassionate, or their art showed morality and they were not moral. For sure there is a connection between who you are and what you write but many times what you write is a very specific projection of a side in you, and this side can sometimes be released in art but could be totally absent in your life.
BYT: When it comes to memoir, is that even possible? It has to be about you, you have to believe these things, you have to live these things, or you’re lying on the page. The book does not read like you’re lying on the page.
EK: Oh no, I personally think I don’t lie on the page but most people who write memoirs do. I actually am very suspicious of people who write memoirs because I always kind of imagine that there is some sort of a vicious mix between the fact that first of all you write about your life and about events that really happened and on the other end, you’re kind of advocating for your decision in a sense. Even if you are criticizing what you did at that moment you’re like a senator who is apologizing for cheating on his wife, or doing drugs, you know what I’m saying?
In the public sphere it’s very, very difficult to be totally sincere and it’s much easier to be sincere in fiction. Think about Nabokov, when you read Lolita the guy has a pedophile side to him. When you read Lolita maybe you can find the pedophile side in yourself too. It’s would be very difficult for me to imagine him writing a memoir in which he says, “I had sex with an underage girl and it was okay.” But when we write fiction, the emotions that are released are kind of in a sphere in which they have no effect or reality, they have no context. It allows you to show sincerity I think it’s much more difficult to sound up when you write nonfiction about your life.
BYT: You mentioned a wife and you have a wife. What does she think about the memoir?
EK: Well for one thing, she was a very strong advocate not to publish it in Israel. Her father is a very popular children’s poet and he wrote many poems, lyrics for songs about her and as a child it wasn’t a good experience for her. So I think that she prefers that it would be more fair for my family to not publish it in Israel. She thinks that all of the characters in the book came out like they are in real life except for her and that she’s nice in real life, that’s what she said.
BYT: She doesn’t come off as not nice.
EK: I think she’s right, I think there’s something when you write in nonfiction you always take choices that it’s not life as it is ….. and I think that in my story, my wife kind of has the role of the person who criticizes me and it’s true because that’s a side of her but there are many other sides of her that the narrative didn’t have any function in the book so they are less apparent. So I think that when you write about somebody in a book they always come out a bit didactic so when it becomes a character it kind symbolizes something and I can understand why she said that but she said it in a very happy and nice way. It kind of reminds me of these things that my father once told me about my fiction. He said that he read all of my stories and that in half of my stories the father is stupid and in the other half the father is dead, but that in all of them he feels how much I love him. I would say that even though it’s my father’s quote, I think that when my wife read the memoir that was her feeling. She would say, “Why do you portray me like that? But I see how much you love me.”
BYT: I didn’t realize that your wife’s father was an accomplished writer and lyricist so it sounds like he was a lot more flowery with his words and you definitely write with an economy of scale in mind. It’s very short and compact and tight and that’s one of the things I love about it. When you write do you keep that in mind? Or is it just a lot of editing down?
EK: I think it’s both. I think that I become very impatient when I write because I don’t really know where I’m heading. So when I write stories if I stop and write a description of a tree in autumn, instead of me saying, “fuck that tree,” I want to know what happens next. So I think that this creates some of the economy but I think that the other side of it is when I have a story already written and when I edit the stories they always become shorter. But I think that comes from the same thing. I think the best thing with very short fiction is that it’s less universe and more motion, a bodiless motion. It’s moving on water trying to get somewhere and everything that is excess baggage you just want to throw overboard. It’s not about only words, or only descriptions, it’s about kind of being that reaper on the water after a storm. There’s something for me, in this kind of writing, that’s a little bit bodiless. Everything you have that is not necessary kind of encumbers you.
BYT: Is it frustrating that your name is iPhone auto-corrected into Ethan?
EK: Oh I think that not only iPhone autocorrects my name.
Right now they’re shooting a documentary about me and in all of the emails they misspell my name. And I said to them, “Look, I don’t want to be really petty about this but if you’re making a movie about my life then maybe you should write my name correctly.” But I don’t blame them, it’s a very strange name.
BYT: Do you worry about the documentary? You’re really not going to have much control over that.
EK: Whenever I find myself worrying about it, I say to myself that it’s a Dutch documentary and I don’t know anybody in Holland. I’m pretty safe.
BYT: I think you’re popular enough though so some people will see it in other countries.
EK: Yeah but it’s okay. When I was a kid my father told me, “Life is like a dog that you meet in the streets, if you’re nice and friendly to it, it will play with you but if you’re scared from it, it will bite you.”
I think it goes for documentaries too. I was able to avoid the documentaries for 20 years of my career if not more, but once I did it, you know, they’re really nice guys, they’re very young, they’re very smart. One of them he is a stand up comedian. I like those guys and if it’s going to make me look like an asshole then they’ll probably do it in a very artistic and inspiring way.