The ProsenPeople

It's Always the Writer Who Commits the Crime

Thursday, March 02, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen confessed to the first story she ever stole. With this week’s release of her second novel, Waking Lions, Ayelet is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

People usually imagine authors writing in silence and solitude, but the truth is that there’s nothing more crowded than the room of a writer.

When I write a sexual scene I have my dead grandmother in front of my desk, telling me not to forget my manners. Sometimes it’s my parents, telling me to stop writing about family problems, or it’s the critics, the audience, the woman from the bookstore, my ex, my partner, my baby daughter. All of them stand behind me when I write and demand, “Why did you write this?

After my first novel was published, the choir inside my head became louder than ever. People kept asking about the next novel. My grandmother called on a daily basis to warn me: “Don’t name any character in your next novel after my friends—not even a cat!” For a while, I was completely silenced, paralyzed by all those critical voices. And then I remembered a sentence I had once heard, and have often recalled since: “Telling a secret to a writer is like giving a hug to a pickpocket.” Of all the pockets I’ve put my hand in, the most terrible secret was the one I learned in India.

It was ten years ago, in the Himalayas. He was a blue-eyed Israeli backpacker who just sat in the guesthouse and stared into space, night after night. He didn’t speak with any of the other backpackers, didn’t drink or eat. It took me two days to realize that he didn’t sleep either. That’s when I went to him and asked whether he was all right.

He told me that several days ago he had hit a homeless Indian man with his motorcycle, and fled.

He didn’t look like a bad man. More like a kid. He had a guitar on his back, an unassuming face. In just a few months he would start university. And though I wanted to be 100% sure that I could never do a thing like that, I wasn’t sure anymore. Prison in India can be an unpleasant place. A man can end his life in prison. Would I have stayed at the scene of crime, or is there a place within me that would also panic, think only of the consequences, and escape?

I decided to transpose the highly charged experience I had had in India to the story of refugees escaping Africa into Israel.The protagonist of the novel, Dr. Eitan Green, returns from a night shift at a Beersheba hospital when he accidentally hits an Eritrean refugee. He’s afraid for his family, for his career as a surgeon, and when he sees that the man is beyond help, he leaves him there. The next day, the refugee’s wife knocks at the door, and starts blackmailing him.

When Waking Lions was published I thought about that guy I met in the Himalayas. Israel is a small country—is he here, in Tel Aviv? Does he recognize his own story in the novel?

During the course of writing, a strange thing happened: as I changed the location from India to Israel, the story became closer to the world I knew. And the closer the story got the more personal it became. Instead of looking at that guy from the Himalayas, I started looking at myself—would I be able to do what he did, or what Eitan did? If I hit someone while driving back home to my family late at night, and thought I could never be caught, am I absolutely sure I wouldn’t flee the scene?

A writer is like a pickpocket: they what belongs to others and make it their own. But by doing that they are inevitably caught, not by the police, but by their own story. You think you write about other people, cheating or deceiving or committing a crime, but it’s always you who’s committing the crime, as you merge with your protagonist. And the reader, sitting on his couch, identifying with the characters, is committing the same crime with you, in his own living room.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen holds an MA in clinical psychology from Tel Aviv University. A recipient of Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize, she has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement and written award-winning fiction and screenplays.

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The First Story I Ever Stole

Monday, February 27, 2017 | Permalink

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel One Night, Markovitch won the 2013 Sapir Prize for debut fiction; this week she releases Waking Lions, which recently received the 2017 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. Ayelet will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Telling a secret to a writer is like giving a hug to a pickpocket. I stole this sentence from Amos Oz or A. B. Yehoshua, I can’t remember which one. But I do remember, very clearly, the first time I became a pickpocket—the first story I stole.

I was visiting my boyfriend’s family in a village in the north of Israel, when I noticed a strange house behind their fence. The house wasn’t especially dark or remarkably mysterious. There was no ivy on the walls, no bats hanging from the roof, yet there was some kind of sadness coming out of that yard, the way other yards had the voices of children coming out of them, or the smell of barbecue.

“Who lives this this house?” I asked.

“Beautiful Bella lives there,” my boyfriend replied. I gave him the look a girl gives to her boyfriend when he calls another girl beautiful, and he immediately added that Beautiful Bella was eighty years old, and the most miserable woman in the village.

“Why miserable?”

Apparently Bella was not just beautiful. She was really beautiful. The kind of woman who makes robins fly backward, turtles run forward, and men freeze in place. But from among all the men who froze in place—and there were many who still did so—she was destined to marry the most worthless man in the village.

“Why?”

That was the first time I heard about the heroic mission that had gone terribly wrong. It happened more than sixty years ago, but everyone in the village had been talking about it ever since. They held on to their story like other villagers hold on to an area’s famous recipes or secret wines. I discovered that during the Second World War a group of Jewish farmers left Mandatory Palestine in order to get into Europe. Their plan was to fictively marry Jewish girls who weren’t allowed into Israel because of the British law of the time. These marriages of convenience were to save the girls from Nazi Europe and smuggle them in under the noses of the British. Once in Israel, the couples would all get divorces and continue with their lives. But that was not the case for beautiful Bella, who had been married by a farmer who was so stunned by her that he refused to let her go even after they reached the Promised Land. He held her against her will, under the power of religious law.

This story became the core of my first novel, One Night, Markovitch. Markovitch was the name of my protagonist, a name I chose to disguise the real man from the village. While I knew nothing of the real farmer, in the novel he’s depicted as the ultimate outsider, the kind nobody ever notices. I decided he must have been the type of person that the eye just cannot remember, that your gaze glides over, like the kids whose names no one knows at school. It’s this kind of man, I figured, who wouldn’t be able to let go of a lovely woman like Bella. He knew he’d never have such a chance again.

I changed the names of people and places, but as the book became successful, I started to fear—what if someone recognized himself in the lines of my novel? While I was waiting for the people from the village to knock at my door, the phone call from my grandmother came completely unexpectedly: “How could you do that to poor Markovitch?!”

While I was busy hiding the identity of the man from the village, I had given no thought to the name “Markovitch.” It had just popped out, and it seemed right. I completely forgot that my grandmother had a friend called Markovitch. From all her friends, he was the most unmemorable; you forgot him a moment after you met him. And so had I.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen holds an MA in clinical psychology from Tel Aviv University. A recipient of Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize, she has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement and written award-winning fiction and screenplays.

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