I’ve had the privilege of interviewing a number of writers in the past few years; Shimon Adaf is easily one of the most versatile, brilliant and fascinating I have spoken to and whose work I’ve read. English speaking readers are fortunate that they are now able to access Sunburnt Faces, the work that so excited the Sapir Prize committee, Israel’s largest literary prize, which Adaf won in February 2013. A conversation with him can range from how he created a blog for his protagonist and wrote it in her own voice to help him develop the character, to how he gets literary inspiration from Song of Songs Rabbah as well as American music.
This writer is way more interesting in his own words than in mine, so without further ado, Shimon Adaf.
Beth Kissileff: I had jokingly asked in an email to set up this Skype conversation whether you were ready for hard questions or should I go easy on you? You responded that “There's no such thing as an easy question.” Why is this?
Shimon Adaf: I think it is up to the one who is going to answer, not up to the question itself. Every question can be pushed to its limit. For me all questions can be complicated. I prefer them this way.
BK: Where did the idea for the story in your novel Sunburnt Faces come from? Did it start with the protagonist Ori’s youth or adulthood since the book covers both?
SA: I had this picture of a young girl waking up in the middle of the night and walking into the living room , watching television and hearing the voice of God coming from it. Then, I had several ideas but none really fit this mental picture. I didn’t know what her name was until the end of the first chapter. Once she changed it to Ori [from Flora, her grandmother’s name], I knew what her name was and understood what I was going to do with the character.
I like to walk on the seashore on the promenade [in Tel Aviv]. I was listening to a song(,) “Ring the Bell” by Jason Molina, an American singer, and I was stuck on one song in particular, two lines, “cause I stood at the altar and everything turned white / all I heard was the sound of the world coming down around me" and I understood Ori standing in front of the TV like in front of an altar, the world is collapsing, and she has a fall into life, carnal life, a life infused with a meaning that she cannot process.
Suddenly, I had another question. What is it for a woman to hear the voice of God?
BK: Speaking of women’s voices, your protagonist Ori Elhayani hosted a blog that at one time was more popular than your own author’s blog. Many were upset when it was revealed that she was a fictional character not a real children’s author as she becomes in the course of the novel . How did you feel having your fictional character’s blog be more popular than your own?
SA: I was exhilarated. It felt like a proof of something I knew, that in a way I am more communicative when I am being someone other than myself.
The blog was a crucial step to understanding her character.
I was writing the second part of the novel, stopped and then opened the blog. A certain dimension was missing from Ori and this helped me to understand what it was. Ori, after 3 or 4 posts, became so endeared to people, she would get emails, men wanted to date her.
BK: Is this something you’ve done with other characters?
SA: It is very demanding to write a blog for one of my characters and is not something I am going to repeat.
BK: You write in the acknowledgements that each chapter was inspired by a song. How? Is there a Sunburnt Faces playlist to listen to while reading?
SA: Someone created a You Tube site with all the songs.
It was like using a divination technique; I heard the song and meditated on the song till I got another mental picture of Ori, the work that had to be done, to go from the last chapter to the next mental picture. I was inspired by Philip K. Dick who used the I Ching for The Man in the High Castle. I borrowed this trick and put it into music.
BK: Do you recommend that method to students at Ben Gurion University where you teach?
SA: No! Never!
With students, usually you have to drive them into writing. Telling them to wait for inspiration to come when you hear music is the worst advice.
You summon inspiration by working hard. Like this “God says ‘Open for me something as small as the eye of a needle and I will open for you the most expansive corridors of the Great Hall.’” [Song of Songs Rabbah 5:2) This is good advice for writing, first work yourself then inspiration will come. You can’t expect inspiration to come and open something that is not there.
BK: You have translated Philip K. Dick’s book The Man in The High Castle into Hebrew. How is it then to see your own work translated by someone else?
SA: It’s exciting. When I translate something for myself, I need this thing to be in my world. I covet these words. In Sunburnt Faces, things like Shakespeare and Blake and Alice in Wonderland and The Snow Queen[by Hans Christian Andersen], are translated into Hebrew. Translation is: I want these (a desire for certain) words to be mine, in my own language, because I read so much translated work. If there is only one person who covets my words then I've seen blessing in my handiwork.
BK: One final question: What would you like readers to know about the book?
SA: It is not what they expect Israeli literature to be. What’s important for me and other writers of my generation in Israeli literature is not to report about what is going on in Israel but to transcend it.
If you are dying to read Sunburnt Faces (and we hope you are), check out the first chapter here.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.