A Writing Life

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March 4, 2004
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Interview with Edeet Ravel

SUSAN BERRIN: It’s a rare book that leaves me wanting to know, so acutely, where the author’s story meshes with the narrative.

EDEET RAVEL: Lily’s story parallels my story in some ways. I was born on a kibbutz to Canadian parents who left when I was seven years old. I grew up in Canada and then returned to do my B.A. and M.A. in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University. That basic skeleton, as well as the time frame, fits. I married, though not an interrogator. Quite a number of my own experiences suited the novel. And many of Lily’s experiences — like being stranded in a Palestinian village — happened to me. As a writer, everything that happens inspires me. I can see someone in the supermarket talking to a child and suddenly a short story emerges. But this story took me by surprise because the events described happened 30 years ago. The novel came to me as I was driving home from work. The first sentence came to me, and by the time I got home, I knew most of the story. I must have been working on it unconsciously.

BERRIN: In the story, Lily’s lover is an army interrogator. Why?

RAVEL: That wasn’t something I deliberately decided. But, with Ami being an interrogator, Lily was confronted with a certain Israeli reality. This was a very dramatic way to introduce the novel’s political situation.

BERRIN: This could have been set in Israel today. Was there a particular reason why you set it in the 1970s?

RAVEL: It served a purpose; it compared the past and present. What has changed? What has not changed? It offered opportunities for irony, layering, and showing complexity. It is a novel about loss; so many different types of loss. Having moved away, I feel a loss for Israel. I miss it very much living in Canada. I think that Ami — his name means “my people”— represents the Israel I miss, the Israel that has lost its innocence, the Israel of my childhood.

BERRIN: Your novel includes exquisite ruminations on Hebrew as an eternal language. The passages demonstrate a deep attachment to the words and construction of Hebrew. Does this attachment transfer beyond the language?

RAVEL: I studied English Literature. But I think all writers have a very deep emotional relationship with words. And Hebrew, especially, is such a beautiful language. When my family moved to Montreal, I went to a Hebrew school where I was given a small book, a chapter from Genesis. I read the first sentence and fell in love with biblical language. It was so stunning. I took that book with me everywhere. I slept with it under my pillow! I have a very deep love for Hebrew.

BERRIN: You seem deeply connected to Hebrew as an eternal language, perhaps less so to the eternal nature of the State of Israel. Is that so?

RAVEL: It’s the first time I’m thinking about that, but it makes sense. There is something about Hebrew that is eternal; it’s lasted thousands of years. The language puts the reader in touch with a time that is beyond our reach, to a text that is so ancient. We can look into the past through the language and read amazing poetry. We can touch the imagination and memory of poets who lived in the past. The story of Israel, which I tell, is a story that’s changing all the time. We don’t know the future. It’s a very precarious, painful situation. But the language is something that, although it continues to evolve, is rooted in history.

BERRIN: You’ve written Ten Thousand Lovers both as an insider, someone who’s lived in Israel, and as someone who has lived outside of Israel. How does this inform the novel?

RAVEL: I couldn’t have written this novel had I stayed in Israel when I was a student, or even at the kibbutz. Had I stayed in Israel I don’t think I would have been able to look at the country from the outside. I would have written a very different sort of book. For this novel, the duality of being on the inside and outside is important. And it captures questions about the relationship of the Diaspora to Israel. The early Zionists felt that all Jews would come to the new country. And that has not happened. This book is the first in a trilogy, and in the next one Lily — who appears only in one sentence — returns to Israel. The situation captures a feeling of many people who live in the Diaspora but are deeply connected to Israel.

BERRIN: In a recent review of J. M. Coetzee’s new novel, Elizabeth Costello, the reviewer said that Coetzee was hiding behind the lectures that his protagonist, Costello, gives. The book is set up where each chapter is a lecture. The reviewer was suggesting that Coetzee wanted to use Costello’s voice as a platform for his ideas, lectures, and arguments.

RAVEL: That wouldn’t work for me in fiction. The minute I feel any agenda, I’m turned off. Any novel with an agenda is insulting. The reader must trust that a novel originates and stays within a fictional world. That world has its own needs and demands, and the writer must listen to those demands and stay within certain boundaries or risk losing the book’s identity. Given that, a novel might, depending on how it’s constructed, include lectures or philosophical discourse. The novelist might deliberately blur genres — without becoming didactic.

BERRIN: I recently heard a memoirist say that, although writers are taught to write what they know, she teaches students to write about what they want to find out.

RAVEL: Writing always surprises. I did not invent the dialogue in Ten Thousand Lovers, but heard it. Writing has to be a process of exploration because that’s what will make it interesting as a work of fiction.

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Edeet Ravel is the author of Ten Thousand Lovers, a novel set in Israel in the 1970s. A captivating story of love and politics, the book’s protagonist, a visiting student, is befriended by a group of bohemian Israeli Jews and Arabs and offered an insider’s view that proves enormously painful. Ravel, a finalist for the Koret Jewish Book Award in fiction, spoke recently with Susan Berrin, Editor of Sh’ma.

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