The ProsenPeople

Interview: Daniel Silva

Tuesday, September 03, 2013 | Permalink
by Elise Cooper

In his latest book, The English Girl, Daniel Silva blends a riveting narrative together with historical content that makes a very suspenseful and intriguing thriller. Also included in every Silva book is the restoration of a painting that is somehow related to the plot. The main character, Gabriel Allon is an art restorer as well as an Israeli operative.

This novel has Allon doing a favor for the English by trying to solve the kidnapping of a rising star in the British government, Madeline Hart.

Elise Cooper had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Silva for the Jewish Book Council.

Elise Cooper: You begin the book with a quote, “He who lives an immoral life dies an immoral death.” Can you explain it?

Daniel Silva: It was a perfect quote to add that little bit of Corsican spice at the beginning of the book that was very relevant to the ultimate theme, just as I choose a painting for some kind of visual connection to the plot. By the way, for this book the painting chosen is about a woman in peril.

EC: Can you tell the readers how the Gabriel Allon character came about?

DS: Gabriel Allon was never supposed to be a continuing character. He was supposed to be in only one book and then to sail off into the sunset. It did not turn out that way. I was talked into writing a series; even then, I never set out to write one about an Israeli intelligence officer. Once I made the commitment to a series, I decided to write the characters and their point of views. Whatever happens in the series, Allon will always be at the center of the action. Allon and his colleagues are unapologetically Israeli and defenders of their country. I couldn’t write a character that was wishy washy on Israel’s right to exist.

EC: Do the quotes in The English Girl reflect your point of view?

DS: When Hannibal Lecter talks about liking to eat liver, no one asks the author, Thomas Harris, if he likes liver. Similarly, with Gabriel Allon, Ari Shamron, and Adrian Carter, they utter words that show who they are. I don’t agree with everything that comes out of my characters’ mouths. For example, in Portrait of A Spy, I have a jihadist who spouts off about Jihad and goes on an anti-American, anti-Israeli tirade. I don’t believe that, but that is what the character would say. A writer has to be a really good mimic.

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The Rise of the Gluten-Free Jews

Friday, August 30, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Slash Coleman wrote about love karma and the bruises of life, the first Jewish superhero in his family and being a "Walking Jewish Exhibitionist." His memoir, The Bohemian Love Diaries, is now available. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In my late teens, when the Air Supply song “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All,” was popular, I developed an allergy to wheat flour and white flour. Although it’s not as restrictive as a gluten allergy, it gave me a legitimate reason to pass on most of the foods that define us culturally. Matzo, matzo balls, latkes, challah, kugel and bagels were all out. My sisters joked that I got to “eat food out of nothing at all.”

As a result of my allergy, I’d spend most of the Jewish holidays as a young adult sitting around lightheaded, thinking about Farrah Fawcett in her red bathing suit, and wondering what the big deal was about Jewish food. My aunt Ernestine tried making me a charoset birthday cake with parsley icing one year, but it just made me feel more strange around my friends.

And so, I got to suffer through the dark ages in terms of gluten-free products. From the Middle Ages when everything had the consistency of corrugated fiberboard to today when everything tastes like a synthetic rubber automobile floor mat combined with a Ralph Lauren pillow case. (Actually, today, most if not all GF products, actually taste like the odd assortment of things in the discount bin at Urban Outfitters.)

All of this got me thinking about a theme snack for my future book club appearances. Since I’m southerner and I’m Jewish and I’m wheat-free, I’ve decided that the preferred food for my book club should be wheat-free vegetarian matzo ball soup and sweet tea. To help you host wheat-free authors like myself, here are the recipes for both the soup and the tea.

Slash’s Special BohoXO Wheat-Free Vegetarian Matzo Ball Soup

Stock:

2 boxes of organic vegetarian stock (or make your own)
2 cups of water
3 stalks celery (finely chopped)
2 TB of salt (more to taste)
1 cup parsley

Matzo Balls:

2 cups crushed up rice crackers
1/2 cup crushed up rye crackers
2 TB wheat free tamari
¼ cup of water
2 eggs or egg substitute
1/8 cup of rice flour
1/8 cup potato flour or other wheat-free flour

Directions:

Bring stock to a rolling boil for fifteen minutes and then lower to medium heat.Combine all matzo ball ingredients in a bowl except the flour and stir well until it becomes a glob-like mass. Add flours and stir until the balls become a bit dryer. From the mass, form into testicular-sized balls (or golf-sized balls) and drop them gently into the broth. Your little globlets will be done in about 30-40 minutes. Don’t stir them too much or they will break apart and disintegrate into nothingness. Serve in costume, preferably with a lot of hot, barefoot Jewish friends around.

Slash’s Special BohoXO Southern Sweet Tea

2 cups of white sugar
1 Lipton Tea Bag
1 ice cube
1 large glass

Directions:

Fill a a large glass with white sugar. Place an ice cube on top of the sugar. Place the glass in a warm room without an air conditioner for 10 minutes or until the ice cube melts. Put a Lipton tea bag between your teeth. Swigging the whole concoction down. Enjoy!

Slash Coleman is the author of The Bohemian Love Diaries, the personal perspectives blogger for Psychology Today, and an advice columnist at howdoidate.com (Ask Uncle Slash). He wrote, produced, and starred in the PBS SpecialThe Neon Man and Me, which also won the United Solo Award for best drama and is creating The New American Storyteller for PBS. Visit his website here.

Related:

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, August 30, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:




Find more of the latest reviews here.
 

Love Karma and Escaping the Bruises of Life

Thursday, August 29, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Slash Coleman wrote about the first Jewish superhero in his family and being a "Walking Jewish Exhibitionist." His memoir, The Bohemian Love Diaries, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When I was writing my memoir, which is sort of a chronicle of all my failed love relationships, each morning when I sat down to write it was like spinning “The Wheel of a Shtuken Nisht in Harts.” (This is a Yiddish phrase that means a painful, miserable memory that stabs the heart and hurts like hell.)

It was a literary smorgasbord of cupid’s failures. For instance, when I sat down, I’d think, “Do I write about the time my wife and I shaved our heads three days after our wedding and I no longer found her attractive? Or the fact that my cousin ended up marrying my old girlfriend so now she’s like a bugger on the finger of my life? Or my unusual courtship ritual that involved giving girls I had crushes on elaborate and large cardboard boxes that only ever ended in eventual and awkward singledom?”

I assumed that once my book was published that I’d have purged myself of those memories and the subsequent need to write about failed love. Instead, my book has given me even more opportunities to partake in this ritual. I now blog about relationships for Psychology Today and write a dating advice column at howdoidate.com.

Hence, I get to continue to push on all my relationship bruises - usually writing about one experience until I am too overwhelmed and then moving onto the next - sometimes having as many fourteen miserable memories open at once in my browser window. Such misery is my quintessential stereotypical Jewish experience.

It reminds me of when my grandmother, who was temporarily living with my family, decided to get off her prescribed meds – about 22 of them in all. She had to get off them because they were destroying her body. She was a Leo and she took them so she wouldn’t remember the bad parts of the Holocaust. (Leo’s are ruled by the heart, but it was ironic that the first thing the meds destroyed was her heart.)

The doctors ended up replacing one of her heart valves with a pig’s heart valve – which says a helluva a lot about karma. Well, the pig valve didn’t like her meds any more than her old valve and so she started going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She would sit around with a bunch of crackheads and heroine addicts and she eventually endeared herself to them. She had friends that wore leather and had deep profound scars just like her.

“I only took the meds the doctor prescribed,” she would say.

Eventually she kicked her meds, but the memories came back. One night, an imaginary Chinese man in a cape flew down into her room and took her hand. She called him “The Yellow Goy.” TYG led her to the edge of the staircase. He told her to fly away with him. I imagine it was all very romantic.

She ended up crumpled at the bottom of the staircase, bloody, crying, and wondering why all the love in her world had suddenly evaporated.

I think about her flight sometimes when I write. How, for at least a few glorious seconds, there must have been some magic in being propelled through the air with a Chinese Superman without the aid of a mechanical motor. How, letting go of such a great restraint must have allowed her to feel true freedom for the first time in her life, no matter how short the duration of that freedom actually was.

I think often about the ritual and rigamarole I put myself through to avoid the painful parts of my life. I’d like to believe that one day I’ll have purged myself of all my wonky love karma and at the end of my own staircase there will be my own Chinese Superman waiting to whisk me away with the ultimate reward - a few moments of flight without mechanical motor. Until then, I spin the wheel and purge and dream about flight.

Slash Coleman is the author of The Bohemian Love Diaries, the personal perspectives blogger for Psychology Today, and an advice columnist at howdoidate.com (Ask Uncle Slash). He wrote, produced, and starred in the PBS SpecialThe Neon Man and Me, which also won the United Solo Award for best drama and is creating The New American Storyteller for PBS. Visit his website here.

4 Jewish Cookbooks We're Excited About This September

Thursday, August 29, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

As summer winds down and we begin to prepare for the High Holidays (!), we've had something very important on our minds: food. Thankfully, this September brings with it four new cookbooks of particular appeal to our fellow members of the tribe:




Bonus: win a signed copy of Michael Ruhlman's The Book of Schmaltz, which was published earlier this month by Little, Brown + stay tuned for guest blogs from Jamie Geller later this month, whose new cookbook, The Joy of Kosher, will be pubbing from William Morrow in October.

The Walking Jewish Exhibitionists

Thursday, August 29, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Slash Coleman wrote about the first Jewish superhero in his family. His memoir, The Bohemian Love Diaries, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a keynote address at a middle school. My ever-proud Jewish mother insists on attending. As I’m waiting to be called to the stage, the principal and I start talking. He finds out my mom is in the audience. She’s been a teacher in his district for over forty years. He asks if he can go on a tangent before he introduces me. His eyes light up when he says the word tangent.

During his introduction he asks my mom to stand up and then he announces that she’s a Holocaust survivor. People applaud. This is the worst thing ever. It’s like pinning a bull’s-eye to my mom’s forehead. (If you don’t know, she’s the one in my book who reminds us each Hanukkah just as she wraps our menorah in an old rag and hides it in a mop bucket underneath the sink, “Don’t tell anyone your Jewish. They will find you. They will kill you. You will die.”) In some way, I know this is my fault. I’ve breached not only our family contract, but something more - I’ve put her survival at risk.

From backstage, I imagine my mom hunching over and figuring out how to make an exit. Finally, she stands up and runs out of the school.

When I call her afterward she says she’s sorry she couldn’t stay.

The problem with being Jewish is they make you do stuff,” she says. I've heard this before. She's quoting her favorite Jewish author, Eliezer Sobel. Whenever she wants to prove a point she turns to a certain page in his book Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken.

To make matters worse, Sobel is my friend, so whenever she quotes him it's like she's spooning on the Jewish mother guilt. "Eliezer says there are prayers for everything - upon rising, upon going to the toilet, upon eating fruit, upon smelling a new smell, upon seeing a deformed person, for baking challah, for building a sukkah."

I mostly tune her out and this gets me thinking about the 614th commandment that was added to our already long list of commandments that reads, “Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories. . . . They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz, lest their memory perish. . . . They are forbidden escape into either cynicism. . . . and a religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him.”

My mom says she doesn’t care about doing stuff anymore. She says she’s leaving that up to me and my nephew, Cody. She calls us The Walking Jewish Exhibitionists.

She refers to me in this way because of my first solo show, Slash Coleman has Big Matzo Balls, which debuted in 2007. In it, I attempt to come to terms with my mom’s surplus of perplexing social behaviors. During the show, I give birth to a matzo ball, have sex with a Jewish Fairy Godmother, do a stand-up routine dressed as Jesus, and talk to a sock puppet named the Super Cock.

The show manages to offend just about everyone. Many Jews said I didn’t have a right to tell the story because it didn’t belong to me. Christians threatened me. The reviewers hated it. Members of my synagogue dismissed my work saying, “He’s one of those (meaning a 2G). Let him do what he wants.” And, my mom hid in her room. She had spent a lifetime hiding her connection to anything Jewish and I was outing our family in the most public of ways.

When I hang up the phone, I call my nephew, Cody. He tells me he’s gotten another tattoo. This one, on his wrist, a Hebrew inscription - one of the most famous translations from the Torah. Moses asks God for his name and God answers “Eh-yeh Asher Eh-yeh” It means "I am that I am" or "I am what I am."

I think that things have come full circle now.

A generation of silence. A generation that questioned that silence and a generation that refuses to be silent.

When my mom finds out about the tattoo she calls and jokes that she needs a cootie shot. I think about holding her hand and drawing a circle and a dot on the back of it and repeating the phrase, “Circle. Circle. Dot. Dot. Now, I’ve got my cootie shot.”

“The problem with being Jewish,” I say to her, “is they make you do stuff.”

There is, as expected, only silence on the end of the line.

Slash Coleman is the author of The Bohemian Love Diaries, the personal perspectives blogger for Psychology Today, and an advice columnist at howdoidate.com (Ask Uncle Slash). He wrote, produced, and starred in the PBS Special The Neon Man and Me, which also won the United Solo Award for best drama and is creating The New American Storyteller for PBS. Visit his website here.

The French During the Holocaust and the Complications of History

Thursday, August 29, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lauren Grodstein wrote about her strange relationship with her son's all-American looks. Her most recent novel, The Explanation for Everything, will be published next week by Algonquin Books. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

For the past eight summers, I’ve taught creative writing at the Paris American Academy, a small school in a neighborhood dotted with plaques celebrating French heroism during World War II. The plaques are placed high on the walls: this one marks where one Resister was shot, that one reminds us of a reassuring speech of DeGaulle’s. But when I leave this neighborhood and cross a few bridges to the Marais, a traditionally Jewish neighborhood, I lift my eyes to other sorts of plaques: this one marks where Jewish children were taken from their school and shipped to Auschwitz, that one remembers the complicity of the French.

The complicity of the French. My family is of Polish and Russian descent; during the early part of the 1900s, they fled their Eastern European shtetls and headed west. Those who had the money kept going to New York. Those who couldn’t stayed in France. Many of those who stayed were sent to Auschwitz during the war. The few who survived, my cousins, live in Paris.

Every summer, while I’m in France, I have dinner with these cousins, and we talk about all sorts of things: travel and books and movies, nothing too serious. They’re wonderful cooks and serve very French meals, h’ors d’oeuvres to start, cheese to finish. We sit out in their garden after and sometimes I steal one of their cigarettes.

This summer, I mentioned that I’m working on a new novel, and that one of the characters has a grandmother who survived the war in France. My cousin Francois was curious. "How did she survive?"

I was embarrassed that I hadn’t hashed out the details yet – maybe she’d been hidden by a dairy farmer? Maybe her father had been a butter dealer before the war and used his connections to save her?

"Absolutely not," Francois said. "The Jews weren’t in the butter business, and anyway the dairy farmers were in Normandy, which was occupied by the Germans. Your character would have gone south, as close to Spain as she could. She would have stayed with subsistence farmers."

We went back and forth on the logistics of this character’s story for a while, with Francois describing the way the police kept records of its French citizens, the way they rounded up all the Jews one night, the way they stuffed them into a stadium and then onto the cattle trains. This all happened when his mother was seven years old; she’d spent the night of the round up away from home, with her mother. When they returned they found their apartment ransacked, her beloved aunts and uncles all gone. Within weeks her mother found her refuge with peasants in the south, where she lived out the bulk of the war. Many of the people she knew died in the camps.

As the details grew more gruesome, I found myself feeling off-balance. How could I spend summers here so blithely, in a country that hunted down my own family? And how could Francois be so proud to be French, to have married a French woman, to be raising French kids? To serve me these entirely French meals? "And you’re sure this wasn’t the Germans, doing these things?" I was used to thinking of Germans as the enemy.

"No no," he said. "It was the French."

I paused, then said something rather impolite, especially considering Francois’s eternal hospitality. "I just don’t understand how you can live here."

"Well," he said, calmly topping off our glasses, like we were discussing the weather. "How is it that you can live where you live? In the USA?"

"Francois, the USA never hunted down its own people!"

"Didn’t it?" he said. When I didn’t answer, he gave me that French shrug meant to convey the unsayable. I looked away.

"Listen, all countries have their own horror stories," he said. "And you know, it was French farmers who saved my mother, a French policeman who told my grandmother to stay away the night of the round up. French resistance members who found my grandmother her false papers. And years before that, it was France that welcomed them when they escaped the Cossacks."

"Yes, but – but then they -" He was right, of course – but I was also right, a little.

"Then they what? Some French people were good, some were not so good. History is complicated," he said. "It’s complicated for me, and for you, too, non?"

What to say to that? I picked up one of his cigarettes, compelled by the force of an old bad habit. France is complicated, and being Jewish anywhere is complicated, I know that. My own country is complicated, and so is the story of how I came to live there. But that night, lulled by the wine and the smoke and the cool French air, I gave in to not knowing how to feel. It wasn’t an argument I could win, nor was it one I wanted to win. What did I want to prove? France was bad? Its people were? Then why was I so happy there, with my French friends, French cousins, French summers? Why were people so gracious to me? Why had I eaten, on its sidewalks, some of the best Jewish food of my life?

I lit my cigarette, defeated by the complications and my heavy belly. So instead of solving anything, I decided to be grateful to be where I was, with the family that survived.

Lauren Grodstein’s books include the novels The Explanation for Everything, A Friend of the Family, and Reproduction is the Flaw of Love and the story collection The Best of Animals. Lauren teaches creative writing at Rutgers-Camden, where she helps administer the college’s MFA program. Visit her website here.

A Poem: The Quantum Rabbi

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 | Permalink

A poem from the recently published To Sing Away the Darkest Days: Poems Re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs (Holland Park Press), a new poetry collection from Norbert Hirschhorn:

The Quantum Rabbi

Nu, Einstein, with your ferret’s brain,
come sit at our Rebbe’s table and learn
a thing or two. So you made a rocket

to shoot at the stars? Which makes you 
a wonder? Ha! Our Rebbe opens his 
umbrella and he’s dancing on Mars.

You discovered relativity? Our Rebbe can fly
faster than light to greet the shabbos bride
from the previous night, returns looking younger.

Don’t beat the kettle about your Big Bang!
Who do you think was virtually there when G-d,
Master of the Universe, created time, heaven, earth!

And when the moshiyekh, the Anointed One,
comes to rebuild our Temple, our Rebbe will be
alongside – sanctifying, cantillating, praying.

© Norbert Hirschhorn 2013

From Norbert Hirschhorn’s poetry collection To Sing Away the Darkest Days: Poems Re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs, published by Holland Park Press

To Sing Away the Darkest Days is the culmination of a five-year project which saw Norbert Hirschhorn source more than one thousand Yiddish songs. The songs helped Norbert to rediscover and trace his own Jewish cultural history. However, some of the songs ‘spoke’ to him as a poet and begged for a new translation, or ‘re-imagining’ as he calls it, into English poems. The resulting collection tells the story of the emigrant, the Jew in the Diaspora. Norbert Hirschhorn is a physician specializing in international public health, commended in 1993 by President Bill Clinton as an ‘American Health Hero.’ His poems have been published in over three dozen journals and won a number of prizes in the US and UK. To Sing Away the Darkest Days is his fourth full collection.

A Southern Jewish Superhero

Tuesday, August 27, 2013 | Permalink
Slash Coleman is the author of The Bohemian Love Diaries, the personal perspectives blogger for Psychology Today, and an advice columnist at howdoidate.com (Ask Uncle Slash). He wrote, produced, and starred in the PBS Special The Neon Man and Me, which also won the United Solo Award for best drama and is creating The New American Storyteller for PBS. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
 

The call comes in the middle of the night.

“Your nephew’s got it in his head that he wants to have a bar mitzvah,” my mom says. “And you’re going to have to make it happen. Your sister wants no part of it and I’m too busy.”

“I’ve got this,” I say.

Cody is my sister’s kid. He’s one of two nephews I have that are half-Jewish and half-descendants from the great Southern war hero Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president of the United States and the last president to actually own slaves. You don’t get any more “good ol’ boy” than Zach.

Cody is being raised in a low income apartment project without a father a few miles from where I was raised in Richmond, Virginia - the capital of the confederacy. Like me, he’s groomed on bacon sandwiches, NASCAR, and chicken on the bone. His mom did what my mom did. She intermarried. But then she took it a step further and became Baptist. Cody wouldn’t know a Jewish star from a rock star.

If you’re familiar with my book, then you know I had a very unorthodox introduction to Judaism. I was taught Hebrew from a rent-a-rabbi out of a Volkswagen bus located in the middle of the woods. The rabbi and his orange bus are long gone and so I send queries to all the synagogues in the area asking how someone like me can help someone like my nephew become a bar mitzvah.

Rabbi Schmuley is the only one who writes back. A week later, I’m sitting in his office telling him that I don’t understand why a kid who’s successfully assimilated would want to embrace something that’s caused so much pain to so many people in our family. I flash back to the time in middle school when I’m beat up in the empty lot by the Stromboli sisters for being Jewish.

“Inside the hearts of all Jews,” he says, “there is a self-activating-randomly-firing-super-Jew-fuse enabling our personal path to Heebdom. If we did not have this, we would have been diluted in half and in half and in half and into nothingness by mixed marriage long ago.”

He says the fuse, in Yiddish, is called the “Pentele Yid.”

“The mysterious Pentele Yid is a tiny Jew ember that is carried through the Jewish blood line - it holds our passion, our rituals, and our world famous matzo ball recipe.”

He explains that Halfies - those with one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent - like Cody and I, encompass over 80 percent of the entire Jewish population. For guys like us, who barely connect to the meaning behind what it means to be Jewish, our Pentele Yid is but a tiny, cold, blackened seed, passed along to future generations. Cody’s Pentele Yid is like my own - a cigarette butt stuffed in the bottom of a Pabst Blue Ribbon can.

“Yet, for whatever mysterious reason,” the rabbi continues, “the Pentele Yid can and does ignite into flame, sometimes skipping one generation and hitting another one many years down the road.”

And it’s true, in less than a year, Cody’s Pentele Yid not only mysteriously ignites, but the heat is so intense that it singes my entire family. In less than a year, the little no-Jew sprouts into a sort-of-Jew and then blossoms into the first Jewish superhero in my family. He conquers Hebrew with a southern twang, starts Shabbat services in his mother’s house, and brings dates to the synagogue (young red-neck girls who smell like honeysuckle, shellfish, and pork rinds) who laugh with him in the back seat of my car on the way to shul. He not only wants to re-convert our entire family, he wants to convert his entire apartment complex as well.

At his bar mitzvah the two sides of my family reunite for the first time in many years. The super Jews beside the sorta Jews – my sister in a halter top beside my uncle in a thousand dollar suit and a yarmulke. It’s inspiring, heart wrenching, and profound.

How does a descendant from a slave owning good ol’ boy blossom into the first Jewish superhero my family has ever seen? Because like a heart that has been forgotten or a soul that has been misplaced, our Yid has been ignited and with it the heart and soul of my family returns.

“The Jewish soul is always inside the body,” the rabbi whispers to me after the service, “it is the individual who must follow the yearning to return to that soul when the time is right.”

Read more about Slash Coleman here.

Interview: Ofir Touche Gafla

Tuesday, August 27, 2013 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

Jewish Book Council recently had the chance to speak by Skype with Ofir Touché Gafla, whose first novel, The World of the End (Tor Books), was a bestseller in Israel and is now available for English speaking audiences to share the author’s vision of a consoling afterlife beloved by readers of diverse religious stripes. The book is about to be translated in Taiwan, Turkey, and France, so its appeal is clearly universal. Gafla is as funny and thoughtful in person as on the page, as our conversation ranged over a discussion of themes of his book and readers’ reactions, being a prose writer who teaches at a school for film and television writers (the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem), the importance of humor, what happiness is, and how he coaxes the best work from his students.

Beth Kissileff: Where did the story of this book come from? Not where did your ideas come from, but the story itself.

Ofir Touché Gafla: Whenever I start writing a book, there is a question. For me every book is the project of the question. I don’t have to answer it, but I have to make my reader ask it as well.

When I came up with this idea, I came up with the notion of end. The only endings that I know are manipulations, not genuine. This is not just in art. For example, when a person dies, that person doesn’t really die, he or she continues to exist in your memory.

A friend died at twenty-seven in a car accident, and whenever I think of her— I think quite a lot about her—I think of her as living, because the only memories we have are from living people. She continues to exist in my mind. She was a musician. When I play a CD that I think she would like, I think of her.

A month after she died, a CD came out by Portishead, a British band. I remember I went out to buy the CD, and thought, there is no way she doesn’t know about this CD, so I was thinking about the idea of ending, what does it mean….And then I thought, let’s write a story about a person who is writing endings for a living, who is looking for an ending to his own story.

I think this book is about the idea of possibility, people’s notions or idea of the process—what comes afterward, what they think, what they have been told over the years. It was very important to me that if I talk about something like the afterlife it would be unlike any of the conventional afterlives that you read or hear about, since there always has to be an alternative to familiar ideas. The very idea of an alternative is incredibly comforting.

BK: Your protagonist writes about his time in the afterlife, "The beginning of a story. It takes place here. In the Other World. The potential for storytelling in this world is simply endless." Is there something particularly Jewish in this optimism, not in staying in an end but creating a world of beginnings in the afterlife?

OTG: It is interesting because, as you may imagine, I’m not a religious man, although some of my family is very religious. My grandfather [Rabbi Yosef Mizrahi of Rehovot] was a big rabbi. I have always said I don't lay great store by the fact that I am Jewish because I had no say in the matter.

Having said that, I have a deep spiritual aspect. A good friend of mine, from France, who speaks Hebrew, read my books—we became friends through my books—argues with me ‘you are the most religious person I know. Your books are so religious, the way you translate religion.’

BK: Why write about the afterlife with humor?

OTG: I think that if there is one thing Judaism has that other religions lack it is humor. Seriously, you don’t find enough humor in other religions.

Whenever I saw other works that had to do with the post-mortem world, they were very grim and severe, I didn’t like it. I mean, can you imagine the promise of eternity without some humor?

BK: What is the genre of this book? It was published by a science fiction imprint, but I know nothing about science fiction, nor do I care to, and I found it wonderful.

OTG: I’m not a huge sci-fi fan, which might surprise some. I write fiction in the broadest sense of the word. If there's anything I truly dislike it is pigeonholing.

BK: You wrote in a lecture you gave in Iowa a few years ago about writing being your "work at happiness in progress." Care to add to that?

OTG: I think I wrote in another book of mine, The Day The Music Died, about the paradox of happiness—you are only happy whenever you forget about yourself. I only forget about myself when I read and when I write. This is true bliss, pure happiness. I am talking about reading because of all art forms, it is the most intimate and I think one can reach that state of happiness at the most intimate moments.

BK: Let’s talk about other parts of your life. How is it to be a prose writer at a school for aspiring filmmakers?

OTG: I am proud of this school because it aspires to excellence and indeed the students keep getting awards, international and local, every year for their excellent work. It is fascinating to be working with such students, to see how they start and how they end in terms of the evolution of their stories. My students encompass all of the Israeli DNA, a human map, it could be a reality show: religious, gay, Arab, settler, hard-core left winger.

BK: Tell me something of your sense of Israeli writing today, as part of a younger generation of writers.

OTG: First of all, I think something very good has been happening over the past decade. I think that writers are more selfish, and that's a compliment. When I say selfish, I mean a writer has to write about things that interest him, truly interest him. A good book is a book in which one can hear an engine of truth pulsating. Israeli writing today is very idiosyncratic; we write about stuff that really interests us. I think it makes for much better literature.

BK: Does this connect to how you teach students?

OTG: I do encourage them to self-probe—to write about the subjects that are dear to their hearts, to phrase and paraphrase key questions, or in other words, to find and explore their hidden subtext and then translate it into texts.

Ofir Touché Gafla’s other novels include The Cataract In The Mind's Eye, Behind The Fog, The Day the Music Died and The Book of Disorder.