Israeli author Eshkol Nevo’s lat­est nov­el, Three Floors Up (vivid­ly trans­lat­ed by Son­dra Sil­ver­ston), is set in one of the rapid­ly grow­ing sub­urbs out­side Tel Aviv. It encom­pass­es three nar­ra­tives cor­re­spond­ing to char­ac­ters who dwell on one of three floors in the same apart­ment build­ing. Each is ter­ri­bly self-absorbed by their own wor­ries, but occa­sion­al­ly we glimpse each pro­tag­o­nist through the judg­men­tal eyes of the oth­ers with amus­ing results. Nevo places the read­er in the role of lis­ten­er to their ter­ri­bly inti­mate secrets, and the effect is absolute­ly captivating.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man: The idea of home” is tru­ly a pro­found and per­va­sive theme in your nov­els, and yet you nev­er seem to repeat your­self. I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by the con­trast between your ear­li­er book Neu­land,with its epic tem­po­ral and spa­tial sprawl (from pre-WWII Manda­to­ry Pales­tine to con­tem­po­rary South Amer­i­ca) and the sin­gle apart­ment build­ing in which most of the action takes place in Three Floors Up. Were you con­scious about set­ting your­self a chal­lenge in mov­ing from that ear­li­er expan­sive­ness to hav­ing to work with­in these rel­a­tive­ly claus­tro­pho­bic con­fines? Did you imag­ine your­self cre­at­ing a kind of micro­cosm of human behavior?

Eshkol Nevo: I guess I have an uncon­scious ten­den­cy to rebel against my own books. I pre­fer to always explore some­thing that is com­plete­ly new. It is not that I am afraid of repeat­ing myself, I just can­not. The new chal­lenge for me in Three Floors Up was in writ­ing char­ac­ters I am not in love with. The three con­fes­sors in this book are full of flaws. As I wrote I found myself resent­ing them — and also under­stand­ing them deeply. And that made the writ­ing process extreme­ly emo­tion­al. I wrote this book in five explo­sive months. I just couldn’t stop writ­ing. I want­ed to find out what hap­pens in the end. Both plot-wise and moral-wise.

ROS: I can’t imme­di­ate­ly recall anoth­er nov­el that made such mem­o­rable use of a sin­gle build­ing to sug­gest an entire soci­ety besides The Yacoubian Build­ing by the Egypt­ian writer Alaa Al Aswany.Was that book at all an inspi­ra­tion for you in imag­in­ing the chaot­ic, inter­sect­ing lives in Three Floors Up?

EN: The Yacoubian Build­ing is indeed a won­der­ful book. But actu­al­ly if I had to name one book that I was think­ing about while writ­ing Three Floors Up, it would be The Fall by Albert Camus: a man con­fess­ing to a bar­tender about his awful sin. I was try­ing to cap­ture this unique rhythm of a con­fes­sion, this I have a dark secret. I have been keep­ing it for too long. Now I am going to tell you” kind of urgency.

ROS: In Three Floors Up, as in your oth­er nov­els, homes are pre­cious spaces of belong­ing in both a famil­ial and a nation­al sense. Your char­ac­ters are seized by so much long­ing and nos­tal­gia for them. Yet in my read­ing of your works, they can often be very tense spaces imper­iled, by wars, divorces — all sorts of con­flicts. Why does the prob­lem of home seem to loom so large in your imagination?

EN: I assume it’s a com­bi­na­tion of the fact that I moved a lot as a child (thir­teen dif­fer­ent homes until the age of eigh­teen, includ­ing two in the Unit­ed States) and the fact that I am liv­ing in a coun­try built on immi­gra­tion. Even the par­ents’ What­sApp group of my younger daugh­ter’s class runs in four dif­fer­ent lan­guages — Hebrew, Eng­lish, French, and Span­ish. I think, though, that Three Floors Up rep­re­sents a dra­mat­ic shift in focus regard­ing the theme of home. The ques­tion is no longer Where is home?” but rather Can we be hap­py, free, and authen­tic liv­ing in a home with our fam­i­ly?” or Do we some­times have to lie to pre­serve a home?”

ROS: The tri­par­tite Freudi­an struc­ture of Three Floors Up is a mar­velous device; the three floors” of the Eng­lish title alludes to the man­i­fes­ta­tion of id, ego, super­ego in the three loose­ly con­nect­ed sto­ries. It seems as play­ful – we can’t avoid the provoca­tive pun of the idea of sto­ry” and the struc­tural­ly sep­a­rate sto­ries (floors) of the apart­ment build­ing – as it does pro­found. Was this some­thing you want­ed to explore for a long time? Toward the end of the nov­el, one of your char­ac­ters seems to con­tra­dict Freud in a deeply mov­ing epiphany.

EN: The Freudi­an topo­graph­ic mod­el wasn’t in my mind at the begin­ning. At the begin­ning I was only writ­ing, com­pul­sive­ly. Then, when I reached the sec­ond floor, I sud­den­ly saw the strong poten­tial of this psy­cho­log­i­cal archi­tec­ture of a build­ing. And the minute I saw it I could not resist the temp­ta­tion to build it. Of all the ideas Freud had (and he had a lot), the one that real­ly echoes with­in me as truth is the fact that every moment of our exis­tence is con­flict­ed: a strug­gle between com­pet­ing inner forces. I also dis­agree with Freud on cer­tain mat­ters – I don’t believe human beings are islands — and I think that is also rep­re­sent­ed in the book, espe­cial­ly in the conclusion.

ROS: Going back to your won­der­ful 2004 nov­el Home­sick, it seems that you have long expressed a fond­ness for the epis­to­lary form. You explore it even more ful­ly here either in the form of writ­ten let­ters, mono­logues direct­ed to an unseen inter­locu­tor, and, per­haps most mem­o­rably, in the form of an extend­ed series of answer­ing machine mes­sages. Much of that com­mu­ni­ca­tion seems to have a very con­fes­sion­al nature. Why are you so drawn to this subgenre?

EN: I was always fas­ci­nat­ed by con­fes­sion­als in church­es. Always won­dered what would it be like to share my sins with a priest and be imme­di­ate­ly for­giv­en. But I am a Jew — what can I do? Every book is a long let­ter to an unseen read­er, if you think of it.

ROS: I feel that Neu­land stands as a kind of mile­stone in the very long tra­jec­to­ry of Israeli cul­tur­al argu­ments about root­ed­ness vs. dias­poric attach­ments. In the ear­ly years of Jew­ish state­hood, the New Hebrew was con­fig­ured as utter­ly root­ed, unin­ter­est­ed in trav­el abroad, the antithe­sis of the Wan­der­ing Jew.” By con­trast, your nov­el seems to recast Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in the Dias­po­ra and indeed the very notion of Home­land itself. In your Neu­land, a father has gone miss­ing in South Amer­i­ca, and his adult son sets off in pur­suit. Trau­ma­tized by his war expe­ri­ences as well as the recent loss of his wife, father leaves a stream-of-con­scious­ness nar­ra­tion in his jour­nals that reveals a deeply wound­ed psy­che and a strug­gle to find a suit­able shell in which to shield him­self from his hyper-nation­al­ized mil­i­taris­tic past. I won­dered if in inhab­it­ing this char­ac­ter so empath­i­cal­ly, some­thing changed in your own view about home and belong­ing in some way? And how do you feel Israel has changed in this regard over the years?

EN: I am part of a new gen­er­a­tion of Israelis, specif­i­cal­ly those who led the big 2011 social demon­stra­tions that are men­tioned in Three Floors Up. We were born here. We speak, think, and dream in Hebrew. Israel for us is an axiom: we are less haunt­ed by the ghost of the past. There­fore we are not intim­i­dat­ed by trav­el­ing or even liv­ing out­side of Israel for a while. Wan­der­ing does not threat­en our iden­ti­ty. Israelis who choose to leave Israel and find their hap­pi­ness in Berlin or Mia­mi do not threat­en our iden­ti­ty. On the oth­er hand, we demand more from Zion­ism itself. Being a safe auto­nom­ic ter­ri­to­ry for Jews” is not enough any­more for us. We are look­ing for ways to add more val­ues to our nation­al iden­ti­ty (than mere­ly sur­viv­ing), and cul­ture is intrin­sic to that. Of course when I write I do not think about all of this. I am fol­low­ing the foot­steps my char­ac­ters. But when I look back on twen­ty years of writ­ing (my first sto­ry was pub­lished in 1997), I would like to believe that I am tak­ing part in this effort of cre­at­ing a new and more open-mind­ed Israeli society.

ROS: You cre­at­ed a mem­o­rable Pales­tin­ian char­ac­ter in Home­sick with his own sense of attach­ment to what has become a Jew­ish Israeli home. And in Three Floors Up, the Roth­schild Boule­vard social jus­tice tent protests of 2011 trans­form the life of a lone­ly wid­ow. In yet anoth­er sto­ry, there seems to be a hint that a character’s impulse rage and poten­tial for vio­lence might relate to his expe­ri­ences in the Intifa­da. Yet for the most part you seem ret­i­cent about cast­ing a strong didac­tic judg­ment about Israeli soci­ety in the man­ner of Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, and others.

EN: I am deeply inter­est­ed in the osmo­sis between pub­lic-polit­i­cal life and pri­vate-psy­cho­log­i­cal life. I care about my coun­try, but usu­al­ly I have more ques­tions than answers about that. And when I do have answers, or opin­ions, I write arti­cles. I have been doing it quite a lot late­ly since the cur­rent gov­ern­ment in Israel is try­ing to slow­ly change its demo­c­ra­t­ic nature and in my opin­ion this is a very clear and present dan­ger to the Zion­ist vision.

ROS: Apro­pos of my pre­vi­ous ques­tion, there is a star­tling moment when Devo­ra angri­ly recalls her late husband’s affin­i­ty for clean, well-ordered sub­ur­ban life (she dis­mis­sive­ly calls it bour­geoisville”), which he hoped would over­take the entire coun­try as the ful­fill­ment of Herzl’s vision of Zion­ism. Now he is gone, and in response to the agi­ta­tion of young men and women protest­ing on the streets, she retorts: Zion­ism is los­ing and the peo­ple in this build­ing are asleep while it’s hap­pen­ing. Until some­one knocks these walls down on them and they wake up — there is no chance that any­thing will change.” Iron­i­cal­ly, the pro­tag­o­nists of each sto­ry receive pre­cise­ly that kind of blow and are shak­en out of their com­pla­cen­cy for bet­ter or worse. This is such a high­ly-charged moment that I was left won­der­ing if it was express­ing some­thing per­son­al for you about how peo­ple are liv­ing their lives in Israel today? And from your per­spec­tive, did those social jus­tice protests achieve any­thing last­ing? If not, would you like to see a return to those days?

EN: It is return­ing. Actu­al­ly I am just on my way to a big demon­stra­tion against cor­rup­tion in the gov­ern­ment. Israel has the poten­tial to be the most won­der­ful place on earth, a light for the gen­tiles,” but hope­less and vision­less peo­ple who build their career on cre­at­ing con­flicts, instead of try­ing to solve them, cur­rent­ly lead the coun­try. Because we lack a real oppo­si­tion in Israel, the civ­il soci­ety,” as we call it here, has a respon­si­bil­i­ty to shout, once in a while: there must be anoth­er way.

ROS: Two of your most mem­o­rable female char­ac­ters in Three Floors Up, Hani (a woman whose life con­sists of lit­tle more than car­ing for her chil­dren due to her husband’s fre­quent trips abroad) and Devo­ra (a retired judge whose late hus­band fills her rest­less mind, and whose son no longer speaks to her) are excep­tion­al­ly three-dimen­sion­al and com­pli­cat­ed women. In cre­at­ing their rich­ly imag­ined inner worlds (or ear­li­er female char­ac­ters of sim­i­lar com­plex­i­ty) do you ever con­sult your wife or oth­er female read­ers, or do you sim­ply trust your own instincts?

EN: I have three daugh­ters, man. I am sur­round­ed by women in this house. In some con­ver­sa­tions at the din­ner table I actu­al­ly feel exclud­ed. Recent­ly my sec­ond daugh­ter got a male rab­bit as a birth­day present. I was so hap­py that I final­ly have a bud­dy! We watched soc­cer togeth­er. Had some man-to-man talks. Until one day a vet­eri­nar­i­an friend came to vis­it. I showed him my new bud­dy. He took it, exam­ined it and told me: Sor­ry, bro, but I have to tell you: it’s not a he, it’s a she!” Seri­ous­ly – I just lis­ten to women. And men. That’s all you have to do to imag­ine inner worlds of peo­ple: just lis­ten to what they are say­ing. And not saying.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.