Etgar Keret & George Saunders
George Saunders: I was amazed by your stories, by the quality and quantity of imagination, and the unbelievable overflow of ideas. So I wanted to ask a question that’s probably unfair. Can you pick a story, and talk us through the process—where the seed of the idea was, and how you arrived at the finished story?
Etgar Keret: Well, there’s one story, I’m not sure I know its name in English correctly. I think it’s “Actually, I Do Have Hard-Ons Lately”? Something like that?
Saunders: Oh yeah. It’s “The Quality of My Hard-Ons is Very Excellent Lately,” I think.
Audience: “Actually, I’ve Had Some Phenomenal Hard-Ons Lately.”
Keret: That’s it. With that story I can tell you something about the process. I was sitting in a café and somebody with a cell phone at a table nearby said that sentence. He really said, “Actually, I’ve had some phenomenal hard-ons lately.” I looked at him, and he asked for a beer, and then I left. And I kept saying to people I knew, “I was sitting next to this guy, and he said this sentence.” And they’d say, “Um, okay.” And I’d say, “No, no! I really feel that there is something in this sentence, something in the grammar of it.” If he hadn’t said the “actually,” say, it would have been a different sentence, you know?
So I tried to invent this guy in my head. And the first thing that came to mind was that he had an affair with a woman at work. And what makes him feel best about this affair is that whenever they go to dinner, he can ask for the receipt, and it’s tax-deductible because she works with him. So he can cheat on his wife and on the IRS at the same time.
Saunders: Incredible aphrodisiac.
Keret: And the thing he likes about it is that when he does his accounting, and he staples the receipt, it’s a very nostalgic moment. He can think about this affair—and he can do it next to his wife, because he’s doing the accounting. And he can pet the receipt a little bit and then staple it. This was the image that came to mind for this guy in the café. It’s what was hiding behind that sentence. And I thought, “So this is the guy. Now what’s his story?” And the first answer was, “He likes his dog.” Because I felt this loneliness and this threat of sexuality—the idea that you have to fight so people will be convinced that you actually have some phenomenal hard-on.
Saunders: The story begins, “When Renault woke up that magical Tuesday morning and found his beloved terrier, Darko, between his legs licking his morning erection, a single razor-sharp thought shot through his dull and relatively unoccupied brain: Is this sexual?”
Keret: But it is not sexual. He feels that the dog does it to him the way that he licks a dew drop out of a flower. There is nothing sexual about it—it’s all about friendship, actually. And because the dog is the only one that doesn’t test him, he has great erections with the dog, but is impotent with women.
Saunders: The dog is very accepting. That’s great. So in the process of writing a story, you’re not calculating some effect you want to get? You’re not thinking in advance, “I want the reader to feel this at this moment.”
Keret: No. If I know the end of a story, I cannot write it—the process becomes very technical. There are some stories where I knew the end, and I found that I was just trying to reach that point. And because I’m an impatient person, I wanted to reach it very quickly, and there was no story in the middle. For me, the motivation and the energy in the stories come from wanting to know what’s going to happen. I write stories for myself, and because I’m so interested in what’s going to happen, I’m always pushing, pushing, pushing.
Saunders: I think you do the hardest thing—which is to write short, beautiful, explosive stories. They go right for the throat. Reading your collection The Nimrod Flipout reminded me of one of the deep pleasures of fiction, which is just to see another mind joyfully at play. When you were a kid, did your mind work that way? Did you a lively fantasy life? In other words, could you draw a line between the kid you were and the writer you are now and see the connection?
Keret: Well, I have said before that I was a rejected kid and nobody played with me, but that was just the advice I got from my publicist. There is a sad story—but it’s a different sad story. My parents are Holocaust survivors. My mother saw her mother and her little brother murdered in front of her eyes. And I could feel, as a kid, that they had suffered a lot, and I thought my role on this earth was to make them happy. I never cried, and I always tried to make my parents—and later, everybody else—happy. I had this huge superego, but no ego at all under it. There was just superego and id that didn’t communicate with each other.
My mother is always proud to say that she had a fabric store. And she says that before I knew how to walk, I knew how to compliment elderly ladies. That I would say, “Oh, you know, this brings out the green in your eyes, Mrs. Michinarker.” Or, “Mrs. Kronik, you’re so lucky to have this one as your baby.” I was a schmoozer. And I never had any writing talent. I was more skilled in mathematics and physics—things like that. But the moment I discovered writing, I discovered there was a place I could be myself and be honest and nobody gets hurt.
Saunders: One of the effects that your stories have is that, as a reader, I feel another human being reaching to me and pulling me over. Maybe it’s a form of saying, “You look really nice in that dress.”
Keret: Well, the only talent I had connected to writing is that I am a very good liar. I try to use my talents less and less, but I’m very, very good. I know a lot about the geography and the ontology of lying. For instance, when I lie, I always add many facts that are not relevant. Say I meet somebody and I don’t remember his name. I say, “Oh, I had this horrible car crash, and I hit my head, and I lost partial memory”—I make this elaborate story. And usually my motivation in lying is to make people feel good. And for this reason exactly, the most important thing for me when I write stories is to be totally honest and sincere. My writing is the place where I can say what I think—and maybe insult the reader, or confront him. That’s the gift that writing gives to me.
Saunders: My father was a salesman, and a very good one. I’ve noticed there’s a lot of that in storytelling. If you say something that’s absolutely impossible, you do what a good liar would do, which is to ask yourself, “How can I distract the reader here?” Make an explosion over there somewhere, and that lie will go down easily.
Keret: The first story in your book In Persuasion Nation is about a salesperson.
Saunders: It’s about a guy who works for a company that makes masks for babies so that they can talk earlier than normal. And he’s writing a letter to a dissatisfied customer. That voice was very natural for me. In our family, I was also the golden boy, but for different reasons—complex, Catholic reasons. I learned to take something that happened—say, a meteor kills your uncle—and spin it to make it okay. “I think he always talked about wanting to be killed by a meteor.” In fiction, that’s an important gift.
So let me ask you this. I teach fiction, so I tend to think about these things a little too abstractly. But on one level, your stories are just—I read them and come out feeling happier and 25 percent more aware of what’s around me. Do you have any thoughts about what the big purpose of fiction is? Or do you even care about that? And do you give a lot of thought to what fiction actually does when you put it out in the world?
Keret: I always wanted my work to have some moral implication, but I couldn’t tell the difference between being moral and being moralistic. Then I discovered Kafka and Kurt Vonnegut, two writers who break the force of nature, so to speak—or the force of habit, which, for me, is the most dominant force in life. I think that we do many of the horrible things we do simply because we’re not sharing the minute. We’re going through the motions. A good story—a good Kafka story, say—can disorient you, and wake you up to your life. A good story is like a slap. It makes you think, “Where am I? What’s happening?” I don’t want to write stories that will tell people, “Be good,” or, “Don’t be bad.” I want to write a story that will make people say, “Huh?” And then maybe look around and see things a little differently.
Saunders: That’s interesting. My wife and I are Buddhists, and one of the things we hear again and again is that your habitual mind is your worst enemy, because every day you have your decision made before you get there.
Keret: I think that this rationality doesn’t allow ambiguity. It says, “This is a good thing. This is a bad thing.” And life isn’t like that.
Saunders: I’ve read some of your interviews, and they got me thinking about the role of an Israeli writer. It seems to me a real act of courage to be able to hold on to ambiguity in the midst of so much murder and hatred.
Keret: Some people think that if you live in the Middle East and you write a story that doesn’t deal directly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then you’re decadent, hedonistic, egocentric, whatever—that you don’t take responsibility for the situation. But I think that when you are in extreme situations you need to introduce ambiguity. When you write a story with good guys and bad guys, or good ideas and bad ideas, then the reader says, “I’m the good guy. And I’m for the good ideas.” And he goes back to his life, and keeps doing the same crazy thing that he did before. But when you read Crime and Punishment, say, you think, “This guy killed a woman, but he seems nice.” Then you think, “Maybe I can kill someone, too.” And that says to you, “Things aren’t simple. Take responsibility.”
Many of my stories that don’t mention anything Israeli do deal with violence and xenophobia, and the idea that behind most of the violence in the world is some great fear. When you’re not afraid anymore, there’s no need for you to be violent. But you have two groups of people in the Middle East that both fear, more than anything else, actual genocide—something that an American perhaps cannot even imagine. I don’t know what the biggest American fear is.
Saunders: Lost will go off the air. That’s a big fear.
Keret: They’ll close Starbucks. No, maybe you can imagine being conquered by aliens or perhaps Iranians. But you cannot imagine that you will wake up one day and there will be no Americans on the face of the earth, and no one who speaks your language. For Palestinians and Israelis, that feels like a likely scenario. There’s an Israeli motto, “There will be no second Holocaust.” And after that sentence, nothing else matters—if you call a wall a “fence,” or how many sugars you take in your coffee. The bottom line is, “They’re going to kill us.” And it’s certainly mutual. We interpret reality as a conspiracy to wipe us off the earth, and, say, 20 percent of the time, we’re right. So it’s a different state of mind.
Saunders: You did a book, Gaza Blues, with the Palestinian writer Samir El-Youssef. Can you talk about what that was like?
Keret: Well, we did that book out of a feeling of incompetence. During the end of the first year of the second Intifada, there was a great desperation, a feeling that there was no hope for coexistence. It was just after the Passover massacre. We wanted to do something, and Samir and I don’t like petitions, so he came up with this idea. He said, “How about we make a book with some stories you have that present what it is to be Israeli from a completely personal perspective, and with my stories about what it is to be Palestinian. If we cannot coexist right now on earth, at least we could coexist in the book form. And maybe,” he said, “there will be some pro-Palestinian people that will buy the book because of me and will read you, and the other way around.” I tried to map what being Israeli is for me by choosing the right stories for it. I chose stories that had to do with the memory of the Holocaust, and also with a fundamental violence that I feel very strongly in Israeli society, which has to do with being threatened. You feel it in many levels in everyday life there—this aggressiveness.
Saunders: Something else I noticed in reading those interviews of yours—well, there were a lot of things. They say, “He’s the most popular, beloved, wonderful young writer in Israel today.”
Keret: It’s the same publicist who told me that I had a bad childhood.
Saunders: But there’s another riff, which is, “People are angry with him. They don’t like him. They’re uncomfortable.” For an American, the most common experience, if you’re a writer, is, “Huh?” No one knows who you are, no one cares. You’re down below the local TV weatherman. What is it like to have your writing inspire venom or love? And then how does that affect your creative process, if it does?
Keret: When people love your writing, it’s a great feeling. And the fact that there are many people who hate what I write? Well, I would say that, in Israel, society is built around taboos. The memory of the Holocaust, the memory of the soldiers who died in wars, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin—all those subjects are taboo. We recognize them in formal ways, so people can ask, “How are you set for Holocaust Memorial Day?” But we don’t really talk about them.
I have this story called “Rabin’s Dead,” about two kids who find a little kitten in Rabin Square. They call the cat Rabin after his memory. And it causes a lot of problems for them because people think it’s disrespectful to name a cat after Rabin. To name a geriatric hospital, where people shit in their beds, after Rabin, is okay, but to name the favorite animal after him is disrespectful. This is the story that got me in trouble.
And, really, the story came from an incident that I wouldn’t necessarily… I live very close to a supermarket that is open 24 hours, and I was there the night before Rabin’s memorial day. They sell these memorial candles with Rabin’s face on them, and it’s all donations for some peace process—one of those many “peace processes.” I don’t know if it’s strictly a Jewish tradition, but when someone dies, you light a memorial candle on their year day. Anyhow, on this night, a woman comes to the supermarket and tells the cashier she wants to buy one of those candles. The guy says to her, “We sold all of them.” She is very stressed about this, and she says, “Where can I go now when everything’s closed and I need to have one of those candles?” He is empathetic to her stress, and he says, “Listen, lady. I can sell you a normal memorial candle, without Rabin’s face, but it’s for people who die, and you can light it instead.” And she says to him, “Will it work?”
This is what got the story going. Because for all these very painful things, you have to go through a specific ritual—you have some committee who says how you grieve for this, and how you grieve for that. Being a son of Holocaust survivors, and losing my best friend in the army, and believing in Rabin’s peace initiative—there’s something in my stories where I try to claim those memories as my own. I say, “This is what I feel.” And it gets people angry.
Saunders: Here 9/11 is starting to get a bit like that. And the Iraq war. It got ritualized in a way that—to me, anyway—doesn’t have a real connection to the pain anymore.
Keret: Usually when something is so painful to you that you suppress it, they send you to therapy. But they don’t send nations to therapy. My prime motivation for dealing with, say, the memory of the Holocaust, is that the way things are being done now makes people my age and younger completely disconnect. The first thing they tell you when they teach you about the Holocaust is that if you were not there, then you are never going to understand. When I was a kid, my teacher said, “If you were not there, you’ll never understand.” And the teacher kept talking and I stopped listening. By respecting it in this way, you make it exterior to life. And making it exterior to life means that you cannot communicate with it. But I have parents who went through the Holocaust and I know that you can communicate with it. When I was a young kid, my father said to me, “Of course you can understand what the Holocaust was like. You know what it means to be afraid, and you know what it means to be cold, and you know what it means to be hungry. I was much more afraid than you are, you ever were, you ever will be. And I was much hungrier and I was much colder. But I didn’t experience any emotion during those years that you do not know.”
Saunders: It’s such a beautiful idea about writing, too—that even if you haven’t experienced X, you can engage your powers of empathy, and draw a line from some victim to yourself, and in that way we’re not really strangers.
You said something in the Believer interview, that I—I stopped reading and had to think about for a day it was so beautiful. You said, “I think that any authentic feeling one has of life should be a feeling of defeat.”
Keret: Well, you know, we’re all sitting here in this room, and the one thing we all have in common is that we’re going to die. Many of us very painful deaths.
Saunders: Do you know which ones?
Keret: Come to me afterwards and I will tell you. No, but the only thing we have in common is that all the people we love are going to die. I think that you have to accept that to start looking for happiness somewhere.
Saunders: I was just thinking today that, in a perverse way, those are the roots of comedy—to say what’s obvious a little more quickly and brutally than you should. To say, “Everyone in this room with be dead in 72 years and three months.” Or to describe the different underwear that people are wearing would be funny because it’s forbidden—and yet absolutely true. In troubled times like these, maybe the best thing you can do is be a Shakespearean fool. If it occurs to you, say it, put it out there, and hope that it stirs the shit up a little bit.
Keret: Well, provocation for provocation’s sake is something I don’t like. I always try to be nice. But my role is to say to people, “It’s not that simple.” It doesn’t matter what they say, because nothing is that simple.
Saunders: I read a story once. It begins like a dirty joke. Tolstoy and Gorky are walking down the street in Moscow, and they come upon some Hussars, who were sort of the Russian Green Beret. Tolstoy at this point is four hundred years old and newly celibate and angry. And he says, “That’s everything that’s wrong with Russia: the aggression, the cocksureness, the narcissism. That is the source of every Russian problem and it will be our downfall.” And Gorky—who wrote about this—says, “Wow, I never thought of that.” I don’t know if he said “wow”—there’s probably some Russian word. But he said, “I never thought of that. That’s absolutely right. It’s changed my whole way of thinking.”
And then the Hussars pass, and there’s this cologne smell and this clanking of sabers, and Tolstoy turns on his little heel and says, “On the other hand, that’s everything that’s wonderful about the Russian spirit: The power, the confidence, the action in world. This is the story of all great Russian triumphs, and it will be our victory.”
And Gorky leaves it at that. There’s this truth that is undeniable, and there’s this one that’s undeniable. So just let those fuckers sit next to each other and reverberate. That’s what I aspire to in fiction: the idea of constant ambiguity, which humbles your ass, and makes you think anew every time.