by Beth Kissileff

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.

Beth Kissileff is in the process of fundrais­ing and writ­ing grants to devel­op a pro­gram to assist rab­bis of all denom­i­na­tions with writ­ing and pub­lish­ing books. Kissileff is a rab­binic spouse and author of the nov­el Ques­tion­ing Return as well as edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Read­ing Gen­e­sis: Begin­ings.