Interview with Etgar Keret

(from SH:22)

Short story writer, filmmaker, children’s book author, and graphic
novelist, Etgar Keret was born in Tel Aviv in 1967. His stories have
been translated into over twenty languages and collected in the U.S.
in The Nimrod Flipout and The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God. His
debut as a film director (Jellyfish) won the 2007 Palme d’Or at the
Cannes Film Festival. Keret’s latest collection, The Girl on the Fridge,
was published in April 2008.

Interviewer’s Note: Etgar Keret, the writer/filmmaker, with his pen-
chant for terseness, gore, and crushing sadness, and his intimidating
proficiency in at least three media, does not prepare one for Etgar
Keret, the interview subject, with his drowsy smile, inviting garru-
lousness (our interview has to be at least four times as long as most of
his stories), giddy anecdotes about his son, and the tendency to lean
in confidingly in response to even the worst of questions. Keret and
I conducted the following interview one chilly morning this fall in
the lobby of his hotel, right as he was to embark on a 2-week, coast-
to-coast reading tour. The man whom Salman Rushdie has called
“the voice of the next generation” kept his luggage at a safe distance
as we discussed such sundry topics as writing naked, his plummeting
pension, kicking walking canes out from under the elderly, and the
tyranny of “The Well-Written Story.” —Mikael Awake

Salt Hill: I was struck by this idea of your stories coming out of the
subconscious, and what it meant in terms of your response to the
stories. What’s the difference between a successful story and a failed
one?

Etgar Keret: I think there are a few parameters by which I judge
a story, but the first and most important one is sincerity. Because
sometimes when you write stories you want to dress, you want to
look smarter than you are, you want to be funnier, or funny for the
sake of being funny, and the moment that you read something and
say, “That’s not me. That’s not what I’m feeling,” then it’s a failed
story.
After that you just ask yourself, “Okay, so there’s honesty in this
story, is it interesting in any way? Does it say something maybe that
I didn’t know? Does it show things in a different way than I thought
it would?” And—it’s not the only way to write a story—but I always
like it when I write a story that I think will get my reader a little
bit off balance. Make him less certain of things he was certain of
before. I think there is something moral about admitting your own
confusion or the limited knowledge that you have. So in that sense,
I almost kind of have this Platonic conviction of going to my reader
and saying, “Hey, you think you know things? I actually think you
know less.”
So, I think it’s a combination of all these things: trying to be
honest, trying to get your reader off balance, and saying things that
are not obvious.

SH: Speaking of parameters, you’ve said before that you don’t like
to “close doors” in your stories, which I take to mean that you don’t
offer certain details in a story that will close imaginative doors. For
example, naming a character closes a door in the reader’s mind on
all the other possible names that the character could have. Are there
other similar “don’t close doors”-type guidelines you have?

EK: When I write something, I always look at it, and after writing
it, I say, “Do I really need it?” Because many times, you write to build
speed, to generate things. The stories that I write are usually sixty
percent of the length of what I’ve actually written. Usually, I would
say one out of every two stories I write, I lose the beginning. I lose
the opening paragraph. I wrote it because I needed it to get started,
but I don’t need it.
Most of my stories, I lose a big chunk in the middle, because
many times you go on these detours to find your way. Just when I
finish a paragraph—sometimes you just go forward with the story
—but if I finish a paragraph, I make myself coffee, I get back to it,
and I always take one sentence out. I have a lot of patience, let’s
say, as a person; I have no patience at all as a reader—as a reader of
my own texts especially. So when I read something I’ll keep saying,
“Why the hell did I need that? Why did I put it there?” And usually
the answers to these are not rational. Many times, if you ask me why
I have this sentence, I can’t tell you why.
There is something very stressed and full of anxiety in my deep
perspective of life, and if I can draw on this for metaphor, I could
say it’s like a sinking ship and I keep throwing things overboard so it
will stay afloat. And basically for me the story is more like a direction
or a movement than substance. Maybe it’s not a sinking ship: it’s
just a ship where you throw things away so that you can build speed.
It’s not about buying myself a piano or fridge. It’s about where I’m
heading. If I had to pantomime my stories it’s always like [makes
swatting gesture] getting things out of the way. It’s not inspecting
them. It’s not checking them. It’s about getting there. For me when I
write, there is this feeling of urgency. It’s just kind of like going down
into the subway at rush hour and you’re in a hurry. It’s not about
description; it’s not about anything. It’s about getting there.
You know, it’s impossible for me to write when there are people
around me. The few situations when there were people around me,
they were actually stressed based on my…

SH: …Really? Is it a physical thing?

EK: Yeah, I talk to myself. I walk around. Most of the time, I write
naked.

SH: No way.

EK: …in my underwear. My wife thinks I’m a little bit crazy. I talk
to myself, you know, I laugh, I hit the wall. I lose a bit of my self-
awareness. It’s like I’m somewhere else. If I were to take my pulse
while I’m writing, it would be really, really fast. I have this feeling
that something is trying to escape me. I don’t know. It’s like if you
try to catch this butterfly—going on a route is not necessary—and
this butterfly you’re trying to catch is inherently uncatchable. There’s
something transcendent about it. I think writing is this process of
trying to catch it, trying and failing. But because it’s all about catch-
ing it, it’s all about this focus, being focused on this thing. I don’t
think that there’s one story I’ve written in my life where I’ve actually
caught it. But when you get closer, you really don’t want anything to
get in your way or to get you further away from that thing.

SH: These sessions, do they come in bursts? Or do you write one
story at a time?

EK: It really changed when my life changed. Because when I started
writing, I was single, now I’m married and I have a child. I always
write kind of not regularly. I usually can write one day a week or
something or one day a month. Sometimes not write for long pe-
riods.
In the old days when I would write, I could write for 28 hours
straight. I could write eight stories in a row. Five of them would be
crap, but I remember the sensation of realizing that you haven’t eaten
for more than a day or you didn’t sleep for more than a day. Some-
times when you see those bad sci-fi movies, where people moved
from one place to another. It’s very much like that. Actually, there
were times when I would write a lot and I would get physically ill.
Because I’d write naked and the apartment wouldn’t be heated. It’s
completely a situation of disconnecting from my physical self, and
it’s a problem with me. Now I’m working on it a lot not to be in
this condition. All the back problems I have, they really have to do
with that. I can write like this [hunches shoulders uncomfortably]
for 15 hours, and somebody could go into the room and say, “What
happened to your neck?” And I’d say, “Ah, okay. Sorry.” It may sound
romantic when I say it, but it’s actually, for me, a problem.
And having a child and getting married puts everything more
into perspective. I need to have some kind of perspective outside
of that, because in the past, if I started writing on Monday and I
finished Wednesday morning, nobody would notice. Now, I have
to pick my child up from kindergarten. I have to do all this stuff.
So, I put on an alarm clock. It’s not as total as it used to be. And I
don’t feel bad about it. I feel good about having more of a life. Most
of the time when I used to write, I wouldn’t have anything besides
writing.

SH: Who is your ideal reader?

EK: I usually look at myself as my reader. I always feel that my prime
objective in writing a story is so that I’ll be able to read it. When
I’m writing a story, my wish to get there is not to get there so I can
show it to people, but so that I can know it myself. I would say the
restlessness I have when I write is because, more than writing a story,
I’m actually reading it. I have to write so that I have something to
read. The action that I’m more conscious of is my reading than my
writing. When I stop writing and I’m stuck, I’m most stuck in my
reading. That’s what complicates it. It’s funny because in my life, I’m
worried for everyone around me and I’m very considerate, but writ-
ing is a self-centered experience.

SH: Do you think that your approach, and why you can’t write with
anyone around you, is somehow related to this idea of wanting a part
of your life that’s not focused on other people?

EK: Yeah, for me it’s almost a curse. Before I went on this trip, my
wife said to me, “You must promise me that you won’t be nice to all
the people that you meet, because there is something about me—my
parents and all they’ve been through—my mother saw both her par-
ents killed and lost her brother [in the Holocaust]—I grew up sur-
rounded by people that gave me a lot of love, but I’m always thinking
about other people. My wife, she can’t stand it.
We were in Italy, and we were in this place called Piazza Navona
—it’s a really nice piazza, and they have this fountain. People sit kind
of around the fountain, so my wife was sitting on the fountain, and
I said to her, “There is this five-year-old girl and you’re blocking the
fountain. She wants to look at the fountain.” And she said, “I don’t
care. It’s a public place. Everybody sits here. She can move a little bit.
When I sit, I sit. When you want to sit, you look around. You don’t
want to block anybody’s sight. You keep on standing. That’s why you
have lower back problems.” And that’s the thing about it. There is
something very liberating about writing. Because the moment it’s
complete you don’t need to think about it. Because for me, even if I
consciously decide not to be considerate, I worry always. It’s some-
thing that is always in my awareness. The people I hate the most:
you know those people, when you get on the escalator, and they get
off the escalator and then they start looking in their pockets, and all
the people coming up are going to bump into them. And I try to
understand why I hate them so much, and I realize that I hate them
because I’m jealous of them. I’m jealous of the fact that they can be
so inconsiderate. And I have to find in writing a kind of space where
I can be like them.

SH: Who are some of the writers you look to as influences? You’ve
mentioned Kafka and Yehuda Amichai. If you could talk about those
two maybe, or any others, and what it is about their work that you
gravitate to?

EK: I started writing during my compulsory military service in Israel,
and at the time, during my basic training, I remember reading both
Kafka and Kurt Vonnegut. I read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was in
the army. And that was a good time to read it. Both the Kafkaesque
situation of the army and Vonnegut’s experience of war. And there
was something that was a big surprise about reading them, because
they didn’t write the way I thought people were supposed to write.
In Israel a lot of the writing is slightly moralistic. Not the best writ-
ing, but most of the writing you find tries to teach you things about
life, and I felt with both Kafka and Vonnegut, there was something
very moral in the writing, but they were not moralizing. The moral
was not in them saying, “We have the answer.” I felt that this was
the trigger to understand that I could write. Because I don’t know
how things should be. But I know that sometimes they shouldn’t be
the way that they are.
You know, in the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut
talks about the fact that he was in a hospital with a general. He
broke his foot or something. And he was telling him that he was in
Dresden during the fire-bombing, and how he would take the bod-
ies of the dead, and he once took out the body of a young woman
that was hiding in a water tank, and the heated water had boiled her
alive. And the general says to him, “So what do you think we were
supposed to do? If we wouldn’t have bombed it, the Germans would
have never given up.” And he said, “I’m not saying what we were
supposed to do. I’m just saying that I was taking her out of the tank,
and she was completely burned.” And the fact that you could write a
story about taking someone out of a tank being completely burned,
even if you don’t know any better solution, but just kind of stating
that. That was something I really, really felt strongly about reading
Vonnegut. And there was something about Kafka: I really felt that
reading him had this disorienting effect. It kind of wakes you up to
your own life. You ask yourself, “Where am I?” I think the combina-
tion of those two really got me started. There are many others, too,
that affected me a lot: Isaac Babel, John Cheever, many of the
Russians writers like Chekhov, Gogol, Nabokov. But I think that
those two, Vonnegut and Kafka, they were the ones that changed
the way I perceived writing. The feeling I had when I was reading
Kafka’s short stories was that I didn’t know that you were allowed to
write like that. I thought that if you write like that they don’t publish
you or they put you in jail or beat you up. But if he could do that,
maybe I could write too.

SH: It seems like childhood is a very important part of your fictional
landscape—whether it’s your own particular childhood, or the idea
of it. In what ways do you find yourself going back to it?

EK: First of all, I had an amazing childhood. But not only that,
while having it, being a small child, my earliest memories were of
realizing that it would be gone, and it petrified me. When I was in
kindergarten, there was this one time when I stood on the table
and I started explaining to the kids why we shouldn’t go to school.
“When we go to school we lose our freedom. We have to do home-
work. We have to sit at the tables. We won’t be able to do what we
want to do.” Then I just burst into tears. They called my parents to
take me home. And basically since finishing kindergarten, I skipped
school for the entire school year. I wouldn’t go to school most of
the time. I almost got kicked out of school. I hated it. It’s amazing,
because I always had a feeling like I both enjoyed my childhood, but
while experiencing it, I knew that I was going to lose it, and that
there’s nothing I could do about it.
I now have a son and it gives me a chance to revisit this. I’m
completely jealous of him. I’m jealous not because it’s always happy
and great to be a child. I’m jealous of him even from seeing how sad
he can get about things that I don’t give a fuck about. It’s amazing,
you know. Even if you look at the physical side, babies can scream for
hours and hours and they never lose their voice. If you scream, you
lose your voice. And the reason they don’t lose their voice is because,
when they scream, they use their voice the right way. With time, you
forget how to use your voice the right way.
My son, you know, he can do somersaults, flip-flacks, and stuff.
He’s three years old, he’s crazy. When he falls, when he gets hit, he
heals in one second. He’s flexible, all the things about him. He ac-
cepts life; he’s proud of life. And you have this feeling that there’s
something about you that becomes more and more tight-ass and
more and more resistant to doing things that way. It’s not that I’m
saying that childhood is good, and being grown up is bad. There are
many fucked up things about childhood. But there is this, I would
say, more immediate connection to life. It doesn’t go through media-
tions, it doesn’t go through complications. It’s just you and life, and
it hits you real strong, you know. It’s almost a kind of masochistic
yearning, knowing that I can’t get hit the way it hits him today. I
can’t be caught off guard, which is the way life gets you when you’re
a kid.
Also, there’s this obvious aspect that childhood really keeps you
outside of society, so it makes it possible for you to be much more
critical of society. It’s like in a car where you have those blind spots,
you never see anything there. But when you’re a kid you would just
ask to get in the car so you could sit in the back and see those places
where a lot of grown-ups can’t see.

SH: Yeah, there’s an intensity of emotion that comes with childhood.
For example, how much an ice cream cone matters when it falls to
the ground. It’s a kind of insanity. Because they have no scale…

EK: Exactly. It’s funny, you know, because sometimes people hear my
son, and he’s very aggressive, but there’s a sincerity about him. The
kindergarten teacher says that it is very extreme, even for children—
his sincerity. He’ll tell you exactly what he thinks. The kindergarten
teacher can say to him, “What would be most fun to do now?” And
he would say, “Well, most fun would be to take a rock and throw it
at that girl. But I think it would get me into trouble, so I’ll just paint
something.” [Laughter] He’s really funny and extreme.
Now, he’s very aggressive. You know what he said to me? He
said to me, “You know what I think. If I could be quick enough, I can
catch a lightning. And once I have enough lightning, I can throw
it at people I don’t like.” And you know when there’s a storm, he’s
outside going like [making a snatching gesture]. He has this actual
frustration of not being able to catch lightning.

SH: It sounds like he wants to throw everything at people.

EK: No, he’s very aggressive, and he’s very confrontational. But there
is something about him, when he pushes a kid, for example, he feels
automatically bad. It’s kind of like he would want to shoot people,
but he wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt. He likes venting his frus-
trations, he doesn’t like people to experience pain. There is some-
thing also very pure and beautiful in it. Because actually, I think all
of us are like that. When I walk on the street sometimes, and I see
a guy with a cane, I feel like kicking his cane. Now I wouldn’t want
the guy to fall, but I say, “It would be cool to kick his cane.” So I
think there is something great about him, that he usually doesn’t do
those bad things, but he admits it. Because even when I tell you that,
I say, “Oh, he’s going to write that, and I’m going to look bad, and
all those people with canes in Syracuse are going to give me a look
next time I come.”
But basically I think that there is something good in accepting
it. I really think that most of the things that we call evil, the worst
thing that comes from people really doesn’t come from people be-
ing bad. It comes from people not accepting things in them and
turning those things into perversions. It’s like when you’re a teen-
ager and there’s this girl you really like. You’re always saying nasty
things about her to get her attention. My son would just grab her
and kiss her. Maybe she will say “Yuck!” and get away. He wouldn’t
do anything nasty to her. He would say to her, “Maybe if I throw
a stone at you, you will play with me.” And she will say to him, “I’ll
play with you even if you won’t throw stones at me.” Usually when
you’re sincere, things can’t get that bad, I mean, as long as you don’t
rape people…
And that’s the feeling you have as a child, but as a grown up
you don’t. All the time we change one emotion to another emotion
because we find it diffcult to accept it, or to deal with it.

SH: Your idea of sincerity seems more profound and layered than
what we think of when we hear that word. It’s not earnestness or
fake honesty.

EK: It’s also not sharing it with people, it’s being aware of it yourself.
It’s not telling people what you want. It’s knowing what you want.
Now there is this fall in the stock exchange, you know. And I have
my pension, and it lost 30%. And I was calling and yelling at this
guy from the bank, and I said, “You told me it was safe, and it’s not
safe!”

SH: Is it a state kind of thing, or is it tied up with a company?

EK: It’s tied up with a company, but the state makes you get one.
They made me get one, and now it’s a crappy one. I said to him, “I
just wanted the safest one, then I lose 30%. How safe can it be if I
lose 30%?” And then, at some point, I said to the guy, “I’m sorry I
shouted at you. It’s just that I’m afraid to die. I’m really afraid to
die. I’m afraid of dying and leaving my family. I’m afraid of getting
old. And that’s why I’m shouting at you.” It took me 20 minutes to
understand that. But the moment I did, I really understood it.

SH: I’m not quite understanding how losing 30% of your pension
caused that realization.

EK: All these things—pensions and insurance—they all have to do
with some sort of fear you have. So, basically the moment they took
some money away, my fear becomes bigger. And my fear becomes
bigger because the money was never an answer in the first place.
All the time, we act on one thing, when we’re actually experiencing
another.

SH: I see…You also teach. What do you teach?

EK: I taught filmmaking most of my life, but the last couple of years
I’ve taught creative writing, and also Israeli Literature.

SH: I didn’t know that. How many films have you made besides
Jellyfish?

EK: I did them in all different kinds of hats. I did a couple of feature
films as a writer. I did Jellyfish as a director. I did another TV drama
as a director. I wrote this story “Happy Campers” which was made
into Wristcutters: A Love Story. I was always around it. I wrote for
TV.
But there is something I find easier about teaching writing for
films, because it’s more formulated. You know, you have a three act
structure. And the screenplay is a public space. Everyone talks to you
about the screenplay. It’s like a blueprint of something. So it’s much
easier for someone to say move this wall, then to say to somebody
change your story.
I always say to my creative writing students that a workshop is
like an A. A. meeting. There are a lot of people and they say, “My
name is Larry, and I write fiction.” And we say, “We love you, Larry.”
And it’s mostly about that. It’s about being in an area where you can
have these acoustics, where you can read your stories, and see how
they resonate, and have people attack them and learn by that how
much you actually like them and don’t want to change them. So it’s
more like a laboratory. I don’t think you learn proficiencies.
I actually hate this American attitude of what they call “The
Well-Written Story.” I once taught at Wesleyan and I had this won-
derful class, and they kept counting verbs and adverbs and saying
that there are too many commas in this story. They were looking at
the subject like an exact science. I would say to them that I hate the
idea of a well-written story. I am all for this idea of a badly written
good story. Because what often happens when you focus on how you
write, sometimes you forget what you write.
I think it’s like, say, an “American Idol” singer. Listen to an
“American Idol” guy when he sings a Bob Dylan song. He will sing
much better than Dylan. He has a better voice. He’s very much aware
of it. But when he sings, he doesn’t sing it for the song. He sings
about his singing. So they tell you in those creative writing classes to
develop your technique. But actually writing is not about technique,
it’s about communicating. So I don’t mind if somebody will stutter
or repeat a sentence five times, if it’s in it, you know. But the moment
someone is extremely articulate…Used car salesmen are extremely
articulate, but what do they have to say to me? I don’t go to creative
classes to teach my students. I try to help them be themselves and
protect them from other creative writing teachers. There are many
situations where I say, “Hey! Stop telling my students to write in a
high register. I don’t like it.” I just want them to be whatever they are.
I always say to my students, let’s say, when I taught in film school.
I would say, “Don’t try to write like Tarantino, because Tarantino
will always be better than you at writing Tarantino. Just try to write
yourself.” And writing yourself is kind of making your own mistakes,
and going in directions you’re not completely certain about. It’s not
about writing those perfect sentences.
It’s not about not repeating the word. If you feel it, you could
repeat it. Don’t count your adjectives. And after that, you know, use
your compass to say, “Is that true? Is that not true? Is that neces-
sary?” If it’s not necessary, throw it away. Don’t try to construct a
beautiful story. Because stories have a function, even if it transcends
that meaning, and that function is not to be beautiful, it’s to project
something. So that’s the danger of those creative writing programs
sometimes. They teach you how to write beautiful stories. They teach
you how to write better than other people, when you shouldn’t write
better than other people. You should write yourself.

SH: In terms of the implications that has for personal style, do you
see, when you look back at a story like “Pipes,” an evolution in your
own work? What’s changed in your own style, if anything?

EK: I would say the only thing that’s changed is me. I would say
that when I started writing, I was much angrier. Now I’m less angry.
I think that there was something more extreme in my character. I
think my stories are still extreme but in a different kind of sense.
So I really think when I started writing, let’s say, I was horny, and I
could hardly find girls, you know. So there are stories about horny
people. Now I have stories about people in relationships that are
bored to death. So it always has to do with your position in life. I
always extreme-ize it. I always write about my fears, not my real-
ity. But anything will change, even, you know, I could tell you what
changed stylistically, but even if my style changed, it has to do with
some inherent change in me.