Ayelet Tsabari and I found each other via Twitter, and having now read her book, I thank Zeus for Twitter. The instantly friendly and delightful Ayelet sent me a copy of her short-story collection, The Best Place on Earth, which won the 2015 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, and was nominated for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. The stories cover various people and backdrops, as you'll see from her answers below, but they're united in being disarmingly honest and very skilfully built. They dig into their characters archaeologically, going deeper in a few pages than many novels do in 300. I gobbled this book. It made me restless, wanting both to travel and to get back to reading it whenever I could. I'm very glad to now know more about it and its author, who is Yemeni-Israeli-Canadian and lives in Toronto with her partner and little girl. I hope said little girl is letting her ma write more stories.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for your book? What made you pick "The Best Place on Earth"? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
The title story was the first story I wrote, so from a very early stage I used it as my working title. Once I finished the collection, I toyed with other titles for the sake of considering everything but The Best Place on Earth always felt like the right title for a book that speaks about place, displacement and home. It is funny how many people immediately assume that it refers to Israel, when in fact it I borrowed it from the old British Columbia slogan…
2. How did you find the sense of an ending (especially odd with a collection)?
Similarly to the title, the order of the stories fell into place effortlessly, without me having to do much shuffling. I felt like there was some movement forward in their arrangement, some kind of build-up. I also knew that I wanted to end with the title story, perhaps because to me the two sisters represented my two homes and identities, my two possible lives. And I liked that the last story corresponded with the first story, which takes place in Jerusalem.
3. Could you choose a piece of music to go with the book?
Hard question! Since it’s a book of short stories, I may have to make a mixed tape for it… Or at least choose two! "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" is a song I hadn’t known before but a couple of people told me that reading my book made them think of it. I listened to the Barenaked Ladies version and loved it, so I’m including it in here. I think it’s especially suitable for Tikkun, the first story.
Second is "Im Nin'Alu." by Ofra Haza. Israel’s biggest international music star was my idol growing up. She was young Yemeni woman (like me) who grew up in a small, impoverished neighbourhood in Tel Aviv. Her biggest claim to fame was her Yemeni Songs record, in which she sang old Yemeni Jewish songs and prayers remixed into dance numbers. The world went nuts! This is one of them and I think it would be a fine soundtrack to at least some of the stories.
4. The opening story, "Tikkun," is about a meeting of former lovers against the backdrop of a bombing in Jerusalem. Several of your stories involve reunions, most of which are uneasy. Can you talk about this?
I started travelling early on in life, which eventually led me to settle in a new country, so my life has been a constant stream of goodbyes and reunions. Obviously, goodbyes are hard. But I hadn’t realized at first just how difficult reunions could be. Many of the stories in the book deal with cultural clashes within families, especially families of immigrants, which is something I witnessed in my own family growing up (as a granddaughter of immigrants), experiencing myself now as an immigrant to Canada, and will likely continue to experience as my Canadian child grows up. So I think many of the reunions represent that clash between those conflicting identities, or the gap between our expectations and reality. Every time I go home to Israel I find myself feeling out of place for the first few days or even weeks. I would miss home so much then get there and feel like I no longer belong. Then, I often feel that back in Canada to a lesser extent. It is a common immigrant story.
5. In the story "Invisible," describing a Filipina caregiver working illegally in Israel, the contrast of grinding dullness and sudden magic struck me. Can you discuss how this works in your writing?
I know I sound like a hippie (that’s because I am) but I really couldn’t live through the “girding dullness” without opening myself up to some magic. That’s why I talk to strangers and walk the alleys and travel and do things outside my comfort zone as much as I can. My life is filled with crazy stories about strange coincidences and inexplicable gut feelings, and I can be unreasonably superstitious at times. When it comes to writing, I think I tend to write stories with a little more emotional intensity than the average Canadian writer—I have been accused of being a little too sentimental, which hurt at first, but then I decided to reconsider the term and reclaim it. I think too often what we call sentimentality is just feelings we can’t bear to feel. Writers, especially emerging writers, are often so scared of sentimentality that their work ends up being flat and the reader is less invested in the story and the characters. I think it’s a shame. There’s magic in passion and there’s magic in allowing ourselves to feel deeply.
6. Many of your characters exist on the edges, whether they are children, elderly, minorities, criminals, or observers. Why do these voices and stories draw you?
I grew up Mizrahi and a girl in Israel, a position that is inherently marginalized, and then I became an immigrant and a minority in my new country. But regardless, I have always been comfortable in the margins, felt like I didn’t fully belong, and I don’t know that I have a good answer as to why. Perhaps some people are just born with a longing in their heart (see? Sentimental!), or perhaps it is something about losing a parent at such a young age that makes you feel like an outsider. I write about marginal characters because these are my people. I care about their stories and I want them to be heard. Mizrahi characters in particular have been underrepresented in Israeli literature so writing Mizrahi stories was a chance to rectify my childhood experience of reading books where people like me didn’t exist.
7. This is also an amazingly sexy book! Bodies and sex are integral to many of the stories. I have to ask how you avoid Bad Sex Award-type scenes when you write these parts.
I sometimes think it has to do with my cultural background. Sex is a bit more explicit in Israel, or at least in parts of it—Israel is full of contradictions. When I first moved to Canada I was surprised I never heard people having sex through open windows in summertime… I have two rules about writing sex scenes: 1) no euphemism (unless you’re writing romance novels, then go right ahead). 2) Details, details, details. It’s a scene, right? So treat it like one and let it do what scenes do. It doesn’t have to be vulgar or graphic, but you have to provide straightforward details for us to feel immersed in the fictional dream. As a reader, I feel ripped off when I read sex scenes that are being glossed over, in a way that other scenes wouldn’t be. It feels like a copout.
I've heard more than one person say Lee Henderson is about the world's coolest man. His books The Broken Record Technique and The Man Game are critically beloved prizewinners. He's also an artist and curator. I saw him read in Victoria in March, which confirmed the reputation that preceded him. Without even trying, he had the room in his very cool fist as he read from his new novel, The Road Narrows As You Go. I was pretty excited when he signed my copy and drew a cartoon dog on the title page. And even more excited when he cheerfully agreed to answer my questions here. His answers echo the way he talks, and like his book are smart, lively, generous.
The new book is fat, almost Victorian-triple-decker fat. It hums and spits with energy and ideas--the gist involves Wendy Ashbubble, a young and secretly Canadian cartoonist, achieving highs of all kinds in 1980s San Francisco while trying to determine whether Ronald Reagan is her father. It's funny and sexy while being learned and sad (Jackie Collins meets Foucault, maybe?). It made me think about time.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for the book? What made you pick The Road Narrows As You Go? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
Yeah, what happened was I wrote the book for six years under the title Orphans and then I think it was after I sent that draft to Nicole Winstanley, my editor, in fall of 2013, that I came up with a new title. I remember she once asked me in a phone call after I delivered the draft if I wanted to stick with Orphans and I said I had a new title, and I told her, and she was like, Yeah, let's go with that one. I also told her I wanted to rewrite the entire book from scratch -- so in four and a half months I wrote an entirely new draft, and that's the book. So there's a draft called Orphans that took six years and is radically, ridiculously different than The Road Narrows As You Go.
2. How did you start this novel--an image, a word, a general idea?
Seems I usually get an idea about a location and work out from there. But this novel started in 2004 with the line "Say good-bye to the cartoonist," which rang in my head and still does.
3. How did you find the sense of an ending--did you know when to finish? Did the ending remain the same through different drafts?
Well, this novel was always going to be some kind of weird palimpsest of different competing texts. I make allusions to them throughout the story, about four or five different stories. The main two are Barrie's novel Peter Pan and Antonioni's movie L'Avventura, and I folded these narratives into the 1980s world of junk bonds, AIDS, Satanic Ritual Abuse Repressed Memory Syndrome, and newspaper comics. So the ending of this novel was already written for me, I just had to figure out how to combine the ending of Peter Pan with the ending of L'Avventura using my characters. Most of the book is just a big giant echo of those two stories.
With The Man Game, it was totally different. I had an ending in mind for eight years. I wrote it, submitted it to my editor, Barbara Berson, and she said the book was ready to publish, but needed a different ending. I almost lost my shit. How do you fix just the ending? It seemed impossible. But I also knew she was right. My ending was flat, it was inconclusive and basically it was a digression that avoided the real-deal ending I should have had. So I went on a long long walk. And just when I was about to give up I realized that it's all just fiction, if I can make up beginnings and middles, I can just as easily make up a new ending -- and then in a flash, a whole new ending came to me.
4. Could you choose a piece of music to go with the book?
"Biological Speculation" by Funkadelic off their album America Eats Its Young. Early on I started to imagine the record collection my characters owned, and the whole Parliament-Funkadelic discography became very important to them and my vision of their lifestyle.
5. You've lovingly constructed the entire living world of this book--a joyous, tragic, energetic organism. Some of it is real (actual cartoonists make appearances), some invented. How was it to go through that divide?
In particular it was very difficult to write about Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly -- two people I admire so much, and are so important to the history of contemporary comics because of what they did for the medium in the 1980s through Raw and Maus, etc. They had to be in the book, but those are the parts that took the longest to compose. I have more drafts of the dinner scene with them than anything else. I probably wrote it a good dozen times. It's one of the few scenes that stuck around from Orphans.
6. What was it about the 1980s Ronald Reagan that made you place him at the centre of the protagonist Wendy's dreams, shadowy as he is?
Yeah, Wendy is pretty sure Reagan's her absentee father -- he's this big absurd clown-cartoon of a patriarch presiding over the unfettered greed and free-market decadence of the 1980s, and she loves him unconditionally. Her obsession with Reagan is part of how she sheds her Canadian identity. By making Reagan her father, in her mind, she's already half-American. He was witty and brave, he won the Cold War, he ate jelly beans and connected with regular folks, but he set back AIDS research by a decade, he encouraged a privatized prison system, he was responsible for the Iran-Contra deal, and he kickstarted the hypocrisy of the never-ending Drug War. Wendy is equally flawed, and she finds kinship inasmuch Reagan's strengths as his flaws. She's loved him ever since she was a child and watched him host General Electric Theater.
7. AIDS is the black backdrop to all the hilarity. I'm interested in how you decided to write about it this way.
The 1980s were definitely amplified times. It was a loud, pinstriped, and shoulder-padded decade. It was a corporate decade that favoured the populist over the special interest. AIDS cut across the grain of '80s egotism. AIDS is the real subtext, the one subject that perhaps can't be avoided in any kind of proper portrait of the 1980s. And Reagan took the leadership role in the denial of AIDS. He refused to take AIDS seriously and his years of inaction cost America and the world millions of lives, for his voice could have made a big difference on the international stage had he found for AIDS the same kind of passion he found to end the Cold War.
How I decided to create this sense of a black backdrop was to begin on the theme of AIDS in the first chapters and then let that horror hang over the rest of the story, so when the characters get really rapacious and decadent and ego-driven and self-absorbed in later chapters, their 80s attitude seems all the more absurd and tragic. AIDS also becomes the locus in the story for all the questions about what's real and what's not real, what's a fiction and what's a fact, what's a valid fear and what's just an ego on fire.
I met my friend Melanie Murray during my first full year of teaching, the year I'd just moved back to Canada, had four new courses to prepare, and hardly slept. I was always relieved to see her in the hallway outside my office--a kind, wise, and calm presence. An experienced professor of literature and composition, she was always generous with her help and course materials, but she claimed she would never publish any creative writing herself. It would have to be posthumous.
Well. She's very much alive_, and in 2012 published a deeply generous account of her nephew Jeff's life and his death fighting in the Afghanistan war. As you'll see from her answers below, the book weaves myth with family history, biography with personal reaction. It elicited a huge number of responses, and it's hard to believe it's a first book. It's a compelling and beautiful read, and I'm proud to have it as the inaugural non-fiction work on Storybrain.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for the book? What made you pick For Your Tomorrow? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
The title came early in the writing of the first draft. It’s the epitaph on Jeff’s headstone, and comes from an epitaph on a WW II war memorial in India: For Your Tomorrow / We gave our today. It encapsulates the answer to some of the main questions I was exploring in the book: What compelled my thirty-year-old nephew to abandon his PhD dissertation and enlist in the military? Why was he willing to risk everything in a war on the other side of the world? What does serving one’s country really mean?
2. This is non-fiction, in part a history of your family as well as your nephew's death. You had much to draw on and to cover. So where did you start--an image, a word?
The seeds of the book were sown the day after my nephew was killed. It was during the long flight from Kelowna to my sister’s home in Halifax. Pondering Jeff’s life and death, I began to glimpse a mythical pattern. That night, I pulled Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces from Jeff’s bookshelf and skimmed its pages. I could see in the many passages he’d highlighted, his own story. So the tribute I wrote for Jeff’s memorial service, “A Hero’s Journey,” became the foundation for my book.
3. How did you find the sense of an ending? Did the ending remain the same through different drafts?
I knew from the beginning that the last chapter would be about “Renewal,” the final phase of the hero’s journey, and that it would focus on Jeff’s legacy, particularly his son Ry, born three months before Jeff deployed for Afghanistan. But the actual contents of
the chapter kept shifting as I tried to reach an ending that was life affirming. One July day, about a year after Jeff’s death, I was wading out into the Northumberland Strait with Ry in my arms; on the same shore that Ry’s father, and grandmother, and great
grandfather and great great grandfather had walked. So that Zen moment became the final scene of the book.
4. Could you choose a piece of music to go with the book?
Ry Cooder’s soundtrack for Paris Texas immediately comes to mind. Jeff’s love of Ry Cooder’s music is obviously reflected in his son’s name. And the stark, elegiac tone of his acoustic guitar twanging embodies for me the spirit of the book—thoughtful and sad yet somehow uplifting at the same time.
5. I know this book was very personal and difficult to write. Did finishing it change your view of the past?
Writing the book brought me much deeper into my ancestral past, and made me more aware of the impact of the past on our present lives—that we carry the legacy of our familial, our cultural, and even the mythical past within us; and that they shape us in
ways we’re not really conscious of. The book’s subtitle, The Way of an Unlikely Soldier, reflects this theme. In trying to understand what motivated Jeff’s radical shift in becoming a soldier, I discovered that the sign posts were pointing there all along—from the moment of his birth on Remembrance Day. As my sister lay in labour, she could hear out the hospital window the skirl of bagpipes drifting up the hill from the cenotaph. The bagpipes heralding Jeff’s birth were from the Second Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment—the same regiment that Jeff would support to his death in Afghanistan 36 years later.
6. The voice shifts between your own and a third-person, sometimes imagined view of your nephew's life. Did this structure come naturally? Were some parts easier to write than others?
The shifting points of view existed from the beginning but in a different form—more personal essay juxtaposed with biographical exploration. In the second draft I incorporated more of the devices of fiction to tell the story, creating scenes to show events and develop characters. I imagine scenes in Jeff’s life within the framework of available facts. The most difficult parts to write were the chapters set in Afghanistan. I relied on my reading about the war and the country, as well as many interviews with Jeff’s comrades. But it was a totally foreign setting and experience for me, and I was writing about real people who lived these events, and are still affected by what transpired there. So I was concerned with authenticity and capturing the spirit of the truth.
7. Images from the Afghanistan war blend with classical myth. You mix almost journalistic recounting with ancient stories. I'm interested in your thoughts about how this works in your book.
I was trying to evoke a sense of mythical time, or time immemorial, as opposed to just linear time; and to show that myths are not just dead stories from ancient times, but they resonate in our present lives. As Joseph Campbell puts it, “The myths help you read the messages of the world.” They certainly helped me read my nephew’s life and death in a new and more meaningful way, and I hope they have that same impact in For Your Tomorrow.
My agent and I are delighted to announce that All True Not a Lie In It will be published in the US by Ecco. Found out this morning!
It's Giller Time
I was sleepy after taking my kids to their second day of the school year, and about to get to work writing at Starbucks when my agent phoned me yesterday morning to say All True had been longlisted for Canada's Giller Prize. That woke me up and made me long for cocktail hour. I'm thrilled to be in such company:
I'malso proud to have been interviewing so many great Canadian writers here on Storybrain. Next installment tomorrow!
At last I've coerced the superhuman Doretta Lau into discussing her new story in Room magazine, "Best Practices for Time Travel." When not installing her own appliances, Doretta is a journalist living in Vancouver and Hong Kong. She also writes poetry and fiction; her 2014 story collection How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? was shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award, longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and was named by The Atlantic as one of the best books of 2014. The title story was a finalist for the Journey Prize. It is outstanding. Its name led me to think it would be dreamy, soft-focus, lyrical. Well, no. Its splintery teenage characters and their jagged Vancouver have stayed with me (see question seven below).
This new story has also burrowed into my mind. Porn, cities, music, race, friendship, time. I wanted to ask much more about it, but confined myself to these questions. Her thoughtful answers, like the story, make me want to whip her into finishing the novel and screenplay she's working on, and to talk with her in person.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for your story? What made you pick "Best Practices for Time Travel"? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
The working title for the story was “Flux Capacitor,” a reference to the technology in Back to the Future. I knew this wasn’t quite right, but Zoey Leigh Peterson read an early draft and mentioned that one of my characters talks about best practices and that perhaps this was the title. She was right.
2. No spoilers, but I will say that the story isn't closed. How did you find the sense of an ending?
I wrote the last line of the story early on, so I then structured the entire narrative to reach that conclusion. In order for a sense of an ending to emerge, the narrator had to experience some sort of emotional change. That’s the only way I know how to end a narrative because I don’t execute plot in a traditional fashion. The journey is across an emotional landscape, rather than a physical one.
3. This story has a backdrop of musical references, from Belle and Sebastian to Grimes. Could you choose one piece to go with the story?
I think I have to go with Taiwanese pop sensation Jay Chou’s “Twilight’s Chapter Seven” the first song from the album Still Fantasy (2006), which is referenced in the story. Chou directed the video and cast himself as Sherlock Holmes—so many levels of awesome.
4. The story is broken into numbered sections. In each, the past interferes with the present in some way--Google mistakenly reverting to the old street name of "Adolf Hitler Platz" in the first, for instance. Could you talk about that?
“What’s past is prologue”—I had to look this up to remember it’s from The Tempest. This isn’t to say that I think of the past as fate, but rather the past informs how we live in the present, how we will live in the future, and teaches us how we can change. I suppose in this story the past is a layer that lends depth and pushes the narrative towards a revelation.
The past has been on my mind a lot lately; I’ve been reading the “Survivors Speak” document from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Findings. It has been humbling to read these first person voices and to really understand the magnitude of how Canada has brutalized First Nations communities. I have been thinking about how as Canadians we’ve been complicit in these abuses and this continued injustice.
5. Racism and sexism soak these characters' lives. They laugh about it, but seem to me on the whole resigned to the system. What do you think?
I used get so angry about racism and sexism, but I’ve learned that this is unproductive. When I was in university I mocked a woman for saying that racism doesn’t exist in Canada; I wish I’d been kind enough to start a real dialogue instead of resorting to verbal pitchforking. For the story, I wanted to create characters who could talk about this kind of suffering without coming from a place of rage.
A friend just sent me an interview with the porn star James Deen where he says, “You can participate in racism without being a racist." Most of the time the people who perpetrate racism and sexism aren’t monsters. Sometimes they’re our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours and they really have no idea that their actions are so damaging. But these little things become malignant if unchecked.
6. One line resonates for me: "Sometimes the only thing you have in common with another person is a language and even that tremendous advantage is not enough." Can you talk about how this works in the story?
I was chatting to a friend on Facebook about his horrific encounters in New York. He’s a journalist from Singapore and his primary language is English, yet he’s had so many people say things to him along the lines of, “You speak such good English!” and “I had no idea you could write so well in English!” Or they just talk to him really slowly, like he’s hearing impaired or has just suffered severe head trauma. It seemed to me such an alienating experience of New York, so different from my own experience there.
After that, I started thinking that sometimes the only thing you have in common with another person is a language. I live in Hong Kong and I often encounter English speakers who seem so alien to me—I have no understanding of who they are and why they’re so bitter and unhappy when they have so much privilege. This line of thinking coincided with the narrative in “Best Practices for Time Travel”, so I decided write that sentence into the story.
7. A subtle element of fantasy creeps in. I'm always interested in the blending of reality with fiction, whether it's putting words in the mouths of historical figures or picturing the impossible. I'm thinking of another story of yours, "How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun," which does something similar with its ending, when a small group of characters paints an enormous wall. I'm interested in your thoughts about this mix.
I have trouble writing straightforward realism. My prose becomes inert and I’m unable to create a sense of wonder. Without the element of time travel, this story would just feature four friends talking to each other during a dinner party. I rely on the fantastical to reshape how we see everyday, ordinary life. What’s there beneath the surface? What magic are we missing because we can’t see past ourselves?
I'm the author of My Name is a Knife, All True Not a Lie In It, and The Old Familiar.