If you’ve read my reviews of One Night, Markovitch and Waking Lions, you’ll know how impressed I’ve been with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s work. I was thrilled, therefore, when Pushkin Press asked me if I’d like to interview her to celebrate the paperback publication of Waking Lions. Here’s what we talked about…
Waking Lions combines a moral dilemma, people’s attitudes to immigrants and a portrait of a marriage in crisis; was it one particular idea that made you decide to write this book or a combination of things?
I always start with a particular idea, a specific question I have in mind. In “Waking Lions” it was the hit and run. It wasn’t a literary question, but a real event which struck me: I was twenty years old when I met the protagonist of this novel. I was travelling in India and met a young Israeli who just sat in the guesthouse and stared for nights. He had a dreamy face and long, light coloured hair. He was just out of military service and was supposed to be having the adventure of his life. But there was something wrong with him. The guy looked frozen. He didn’t speak, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t do anything. He just lay on the hammock in the guesthouse and stared at the sky. Something was eating him up inside, that was clear.
Eventually I went to him and asked if he was alright. He admitted to me that several days ago he had hit an Indian man with his motorcycle, and fled.
I was haunted by this story for ten years before I sat down to write it, and one of the reasons was that I couldn’t find the right path for the protagonist. I didn’t want to write a 300 page-novel about a white guy feeling guilty and contemplating it in his decorated living room. Only after I realized that this person is blackmailed by the widow of the refugee he killed did I sit down to write.
Your characters are complex human beings; does your background in Clinical Psychology help you in creating realistic characters?
I think both jobs demand that you’d be willing to leave your own skin for a while, and try to enter someone else’s mind. When you meet a patient who has done things that you morally disagree with – hit his children, for instance – you have to be able to try and understand his motivations. Otherwise you won’t be able to help him, or stop him from doing it again. In everyday life, when we hear of someone doing something bad we just say “asshole” and move on. As a writer and as a psychologist, you don’t have this privilege. If someone has killed his landlord, you want to know why. And to do that, you have to find the place within yourself that’s capable of murder.
However, I do try my best to keep writing and therapy separate. When you write a novel you are the master of the world you create. When you meet a patient you must never forget that this is another man’s story here, he’s the narrator, and you’re just there to help him create a better narrative than the one he’s trapped in.
I’m interested in your female characters. Both of your novels have male protagonists but it’s women – Sirkit in Waking Lions, Bella and Sonya in One Night, Markovitch – that are catalysts for change; can you explain why you chose women to take such roles?
That’s a great question.
It was clear to me that the hit and run driver was a white man, the most powerful animal in the food chain. At first, I didn’t know if it would be a man or a woman who would witness the accident. But the more I thought about it, I realized it had to be a woman. The traditional female role – watch, and be quiet – is suddenly changed. Because what she sees when she observes the accident gives her power over this man. The roles are switched.
It was very important for me that Sirkit wasn’t this “black angel”, a saint, an African Maria. I wanted her to be a real human being, with dreams and desires and powerful ambitions. I think to portray her as a saint is just as dehumanising as portraying her as the ultimate evil. A “refugee” is no more a saint than a “middle-class man”. Both are labels, and behind those labels there are real people – who love, cheat, hate and trust.
Again in both novels, you mention people’s passions – in One Night, Markovitch there are many examples, including Yaacov’s passion for Bella, Bella’s passion for Rachel’s poetry and the passion of the soldiers who storm the fortress; in Waking Lions Sirkit’s passion for learning is something that Eitan recognises in her. What’s your interest in people’s passions?
I think passion and fear are the biggest motivators. It’s either what you long for, or what you’re running away from. When I think about my characters I always try to identify both. That’s the moment they start dancing on the paper
Waking Lions is a gripping, tightly structured book with a number of twists. How did you go about plotting the novel? Were the twists decided in the planning or did some surprise you during the writing process?
When I write the plot I see myself as the first reader of the novel: I don’t want to get bored. So I try to ask myself: what would surprise you on the next page? It’s a bit like playing hide and seek with yourself. In both my novels, I had no idea how the story was going to end until the very end of the writing process. It’s like going on a hike – you don’t want to know how the view from the highest point looks until you actually get there.
Waking Lions is very different in terms to tone, style and central idea to One Night, Markovitch; did you deliberately set out to write a very different book?
No. I had no conscious thought of “what’s the next move”. I finished the first novel, and I missed the characters. After spending so much time together, it was like losing a close friend. And then suddenly I met this new story within me, and I followed it. When the second novel was finished I gave it to some friends, and they warned me that readers who expected a light tone – as in the first novel – would be shocked by the second one. But the reason I love writing is because it’s the only playground open to adults. The only place where you don’t have to remain coherent, clear, predictable. You can do what you want, be who you want, whether it’s a tale set sixty years ago, like Markovitch or something much more rigid and realistic like Waking Lions. I’m working on my third novel now, and once again I’m using my right to do exactly what I want to do, regardless of what’s gone before.
Both of your novels have been translated into English by Sondra Silverston; did you work closely with her on the translations? How do you feel about having your words translated into another language?
It’s really weird: my English is not good enough to read literature. I only read “Harry Potter” in English in high-school. So imagine what it is for me to open my own novel, and not recognise half the words! I simply trust Sondra that these are indeed the right words, with the right music.
Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you tell us anything about it?
Just that I’m working. Hard.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite women writers?
I owe Virginia Woolf every word that I wrote after the birth of my first child. “A Room of One’s Own” is for me one of the most important texts ever written. It made me feel that I’m entitled to close the door and write, even if I’m a mother.
I also admire Elena Ferrante, “My Brilliant Friend” is my book of the year.
The Hebrew poet Yona Wallach is a big inspiration, both as a writer and as a therapist.
Huge thanks to Ayelet and to Pushkin Press.
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is the author of Waking Lions and One Night, Markovitch, both published by Pushkin Press. Waking Lions is published in paperback on 1st September, £8.99 pushkinpress.com