The Urge to Tell a Story

Talk with Etgar Keret

If an alien came to Earth and saw Lars von Trier’s movies it would want to destroy the human race. I don't think that would be the case, if it read my stories

4 minutes reading left

Zofia Zaleska: Your present visit to Poland is related to the screening of $9.99, an animation by Tatia Rosenthal, based on your stories. More than 40 short films have been based on your prose so far. What makes your writing so inspiring for filmmakers?

Etgar Keret: Every writer has some dominant sense, which is reflected in his work. What inspires me the most is image and dialogue. Two things that constitute a film. A lot of my stories begin with visual images, so filmmakers can easily adopt them. My work’s minimalist character enables different interpretations. In my first collection Pipelines there is a story Crazy glue.

Etgar Keret, photo: Yanai YechielI think there have been made at least ten adaptations of it. One of them – a very good one – was Polish, from the film school in Łódź. Filmmakers from all over the world made the adaptations. The amazing thing is that among them there were a romantic comedy, a horror, a psychological drama, and a fantasy. It was wonderful to see that my work can be read in so many ways. My stories are minimalist but very dense. It’s like when you have a concentrated juice – if you mix it with water you’ll get one thing, if you mix it with vodka you’ll get a different one.

You’ve been a film director yourself. What attracted you to making movies?

I see myself more as a storyteller then just a writer. Writing is most natural and important to me, but what pushes me is the urge to tell a story. In that sense I’m attracted to other mediums. What underlies my interest in film is the desire to overcome solitude which comes with writing. There is something very attractive in the collaborative nature of film making. And it’s not only that people spend time together. There is this great moment in the end, when you are screening the movie with all your crew watching it. You all look at the screen and see your common work. I always say that making movies is like an orgy but without sex. Great intimacy builds between people who collaborate in such a thing. It’s like having a baby together. The baby has its mother’s eyes and its father’s smile. All those people recognise themselves in it.

Do you like people?

Etgar Keret

One of the most popular Israeli writers. Born in 1967, known for his short stories, graphic novels, and scriptwriting for film and television. His first collection of short stories Pipelines was published in 1992. Since then his works have been translated into more then 30 languages, including Arabic.

Very much. I always look for intimacy with others. When I was young this need was so strong that many people found it disturbing. Many times, when I was talking to girls, they thought I was hitting on them. I didn’t want to marry them or make love to them. I just wanted to be close. I don’t smoke cigarettes. I’ve started smoking pot – this is a true, but not very legitimate story – because of the specific ritual of smoking. When you pass a joint, your fingers touch the fingers of the other person. Yes, you get stoned, but more importantly you share some kind of intimacy. You share a secret. This has always attracted me as much as smoking itself.

Your first story, Pipelines, which appeared in a debut collection in 1992, was about a man, who builds a huge secret pipe to get out of this world. He feels he doesn’t fit in. This sense of incompatibility often troubles your characters. They constantly struggle with fears and sadness. In one of your stories even the fish is depressed. Are you a pessimist?

I think my stories are very sad, but it’s not pessimism. If you’re a pessimist and something bad happens to you there is nothing to be sad about. You knew it was going to happen. But if you believe in the mankind and its potential you have reasons to be sad because you constantly get disappointed. You lack  belief in the mankind and dislike people. For me Lars von Trier is a pessimist. I see my stories as very empathic. They always refer to a gap between what we do and what we could have done, what we are and what we could have been. They always deal with some sort of yearning. And this yearning is a declaration that we can be better. If an alien came to Earth and saw Lars von Trier’s movies it would want to destroy the human race. I don’t think that would be the case, if it read my stories. The sadness in my stories results from the fact that there is something fundamentally sad in being a human. At the same time it is a beautiful endeavour. These things are not mutually exclusive.

As we can see in your stories, sadness is always bound up with humour?

Yes, humour and sadness form an unbreakable bond. I don’t know any good humour that wouldn’t be sad. Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, John Cleese – all of them are melancholic and depressed characters. Sadness isn’t something that I’m scared of. I don’t even dislike it. It’s just a part of my life experience. If one never gets sad, I think there is something wrong with them, something false. Maybe they’re lucky, but they’re not normal.

You’ve mentioned several times that you started writing to cope with death of a close friend. Writing helps you communicate better with your emotions and your past. Is the creative work still a kind of treatment for you? A secret pipe, a way to escape from fears?

Yes. My brother once read my collection of stories and said to me: in your first book a lot of stories happen in a bus, in a second one they take place in a taxi and in the third one in airplanes. You can see how your social status grows, but also that your life hasn’t become any easier. I think that my need for writing came from the fact that there is always something about me that I don’t know and it is difficult for me to articulate what I feel. When I was young I wrote obsessively. Now I write much less.

Maybe it’s because you’re doing so many other things – making movies, writing screenplays, creating comic books and stories for children, working for television?

No, there is something about my inner dialogue that changed. If the stories are like my children then when I was young they were living with me, and now they only come to visit. At the beginning my writing had a very strong survival aspect. If I hadn’t written for a few days, I would have died. Today I feel different. I realised that I’ve learned a lot about myself and about my feelings. I’m not that writing dependent anymore.

Still you do write.

That’s true, but I’ve been writing much more essays and non-fiction than I used to. It’s mainly due to these protests happening recently in Israel. Maybe it’s arrogant to say, but I really enjoy writing fiction, while writing essays is like enjoying a colonoscopy for me. I simply don’t appreciate it. When I write a story, I’m proud of it. Writing essays has a pragmatic aspect, it doesn’t make me proud of myself. In the last years many things have happened and I felt I needed to react. Perhaps this year’s events and emotions will make me write a novel.

What do you think about the Israel situation after the recent Arab Spring uprisings and after a threat of diplomatic isolation appeared following the crisis in the relations with Turkey and Egypt?

The Israel isolation is not an outcome of these events only, but also of the Israel’s bad conduct. We haven’t done much to win the friendship and the loyalty of these countries. For years Egypt has been taken for granted as an ally. The Israeli government has been stagnant and hasn’t shown any strong commitment nor initiative to reach a peace agreement with Palestinians. I’m not saying that if they had tried harder they would have reached one easily but I haven’t seen any attempt of it over the past decade. In these circumstances when there is stagnation in one area and a lot of changes in another it is hard to predict the future. Of course if you consider things on a local level you’ll see that all those changes in the Middle East have certain political reasons. The anti-Semitism is not a European monopoly. This idea goes beyond Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, there is going to be elections in Egypt and one way in which the Muslim Brotherhood can gain a lot of power and popularity is to project hatred towards Israel. The same concerns Turkey. They have a lot of internal problems. There has always been a tension between the religious community and a secular one. Israeli issue helps Erdoğan create some sort of national pride and project a strong leadership.

Do you think Natanjahu should support the recognition of the Palestinian state by the United Nations to gain points in its favour from other Arab countries?

This United Nations thing is completely stupid in my opinion. I don’t mind if Palestinians have a state, but this state declaration means nothing. As long as Gaza is shooting missiles against the Israeli territory and we are bombing their country, what meaning does it have that they are a state? It’s basically a spin. The big question is: will there be options for negotiations? Will Hamas and PLO (The Palestine Liberation Organization – ed.) come to some sort of understaning?

What about Natanjahu?

He doesn’t think in such perspective. He doesn’t want to gain points. His politics are driven by anxiety and fear. I interviewed him last June and everything he said was rooted deeply in fear. He is completely passive in a defensive sense. I don’t really think that Natanjahu wants to negotiate or has any negotiation plan. I don’t think he believes that there could be peace between Israelis and Palestinians. His politics is just gaining time. I don’t know any country that improved its position by doing nothing. I think he is a terrible prime minister and that we have a terrible government.

In Israel we have a leadership crisis. The country is ruled by politicians with no vision and no charisma. I think this was one of the reasons why we had such strong protests this summer. I was very heavily involved in these protests. At first it was about houses and prices, but during the manifestations people have raised issues of social justice. They talked mainly about the alienation of the government, about politicians without heart and compassion, about the lack of dialogue between the society and the government.

Your short stories are all about the contemporary Israelis and they problems, but you never tell your readers what is right or what is wrong. Have you ever felt a temptation to do so, to be a moralist?

I am a moralist but it doesn’t mean I have to impose opinions on readers. I would like to believe that people who read my works become better people or at least not worse. But there is a difference between this and imposing something, creating some kind of authority. As a University professor I don’t teach this way, and I don’t write this way neither. A conclusion that one reaches on his own is inherent to him. A dictated one can be easily changed. I don’t promote moral ideas the way movie stars promote coca-cola. That would be disrespectful to my readers and to those ideas. You can revolutionise some pragmatic facts and you can revolutionise a discourse. I’m interested in the latter.

By posing questions, implying doubt?

When you read Plato’s Dialogues you can say that Socrates is a guy who only likes to argue, and says nothing. Yet socratic position carries important moral values for me. Being raised in a society where everything is strongly articulated and clear, creates a strong need of a certain ambiguity and confusion. I can be just another person who says: let's be good and not bad, let's be nice to each other. What for though? I’d rather take you on a journey that will put you in an authentic position, where you are in contact with your emotions, and see the world a bit differently. It is much more effective than just constantly saying: let’s be good.

Have you ever considered living outside Israel? In Poland, for example? Jakub Szczęsny, an architect, is building a special temporary house in Warsaw, an art installation really. It is designed especially for you. It’s being constructed in a very narrow gap between two houses and will be only 155 cm wide. Are you going to use it?

One of our worse enemies is a force of inertia. I like different experiences, new places, people and situations, so certainly I’m going to visit it and maybe write there. Poland is one of my favourite places in the world. What comes to my mind first when I think of a place, is not architecture and landscape, but people. I like talking and spending time with you here. And I think this is not only that I’ve met fine Poles. This is something much more fundamental. We share history, we carry similar scars, we question our identity. That I’m particularly interested in. I like visiting here but it would be difficult for me to imagine myself living anywhere else than Israel. My parents have always taught me how important it is to live in a country in which your place is not questioned. As Holocaust survivors, they really felt this was crucial. I’m in a very strong opposition to the government in my country but this is my government. Nobody will tell me that I must go away, that I don’t have anything to do here. We can dispute and argue about ideas, but nobody will question my position and legitimacy in this discourse. This is important for me. On the other hand I must say, that having a young child causes strong anxieties. When I think about his future, and a world or a country in which he’s going to live in, I’m worried. Hopefully things will get better.   

You were teaching creative writing in the USA. What are the tricks that you teach your students? Do you believe writing is a craft that can be taught?

I don’t think that writing can be taught, but I think writing can be supported. I always say to my students: „This is not a course. This is a support group, like an AA meeting.” Like you stand up and say: „Hi, I’m Zosia and I write stories.” And we say: „We love you, Zosia.” For me the biggest challenge in creative writing workshop is not to teach somebody to write well, but to help them write like themselves. It’s really common that in everyday communication we feel free and relaxed, but once we start writing we become petrified. Usually people write in a higher register than they speak. They want to project something and this detaches them from themselves. I always give a sport’s example: when you see basketball or football players in a game, each of them has a very distinct character: one is aggressive, another is quick. But when you interview them they all become very stiff, and they say the same clichés. There is something in a situation of addressing other people that deprives us of our individuality and personality. The same is with writing. You write stories like they should be. You try to write an important one. You loose this kind of simple, instinctive urge to tell a story.

Do you like teaching those clasess in the US?

The thing that bothered me in the US is that they have always treated writing as a craft. I find something very sterilising in this approach. They write the same way, as they build a table. I think the most important thing in a story is the passion behind it. Americans always talk about a concept of a well-written story. I want to introduce a concept of a badly written good story. The form shouldn’t be in the centre. The meaning, the yearning and the passion to tell stories – this is what really matters. In shows like American Idol people are often singing Bob Dylan’s songs. Yet we always like original Bob Dylan’s version better. Maybe this guy from American Idol is a better singer. But when Bob Dylan sings he thinks about what he’s singing, and when this guy sings he thinks about singing well. There is something about this kind of well-written story approach that makes people write like guys who compete in American Idol.

What do you need to do in order to write in an authentic manner?

It’s about forgetting the world when you write. I have huge problems with many of the New Yorker’s stories. They’re so predictable. I can invent a typical New Yorker story right away: two elderly people go on a cruise. The man is getting a little bit senile. It causes him to do irresponsible and dangerous things but he refuses to acknowledge it. He has a conflict about it with his wife. In the end we have some kind of reconciliation. Nothing happens, they sit together in a sundeck. They close their eyes and feel the sun going through their shut eyelids. I’m reading this kind of a story and I say – who gives a fuck. The guy who wrote it didn’t care. This is a show of skills. He shows that he can document all kind of human behaviour. I can hire this guy, but I don’t know what interests him. He is certainly trying to create something that is beautiful, perfect and intelligent. It resembles a flower arrangement rather then a story that will pull on your heartstrings.