Israeli author Etgar Keret is internationally known for his short stories, graphic novels, and screenplays. His latest book, The Seven Good Years, is his first work of nonfiction. The memoir spans the period of Keret’s life between the birth of his son and the death of his father.
Becca Kantor: The Seven Good Years is your first autobiographical work. In the past you’ve published several short story collections, and this memoir is also written as a series of vignettes. What in particular attracts you to the short form? What inspired you to turn the experiences you describe in The Seven Good Years into an autobiographical work and not into fiction?
Etgar Keret: I don’t experience my fiction and nonfiction as short, but as concise. There is something very intensive and full of energy in my writing experience. I once said that, for me, writing feels very much like an explosion — and I haven’t yet learned how to explode slowly.
As for my personal nonfiction writing: I think that the urge to directly document some of my personal experiences began, literally, the day my son was born. It is as if my entire conception of time had changed and I no longer lived in a never-ending present. Becoming a father made the terms “past” and “future” become more tangible, and overnight I became my family’s historian. The idea to make a book out of these pieces documenting the life of my family between the birth of my son and the death of my father became clear only very close to my father’s death.
BK: Tell me about the title. Did you always have “the seven good years” as a unifying theme for the memoir, or did the idea for the title come later on in your process? The biblical allusion is also very intriguing.
EK: The working title was “Insincerely Yours,” but as soon as my father died I found myself returning to The Seven Good Years both because those years in which I had the gift of being both a child and had a father were probably the best I’ve ever had, and also because I couldn’t ignore the parallel between my father’s terminal illness and the unstable future of the country in which I live. This is because of the existential dangers it faces both from the changes in the region we live in, and from the changes in the Israeli society itself.
BK: In “Imaginary Homeland,” you describe your complicated feelings about Poland: “Although most of my family had perished under horrendous circumstances there, Poland was also the place where they had lived an thrived for generations, and my attraction to that land and its people was almost mythic.” Has your relationship with Poland changed as a result of the time you’ve spent there? Has living in Warsaw demythologized the city for you? If so, how do you feel about this as a writer?
EK: I have quite a few close and dear friends in Warsaw. I’m sure the intimacy I’ve reached with them had to do with the difficulty my family has had with the country. Next month I’ll visit Warsaw with my family. My brother, my wife, my son, and I will join my mother for her first trip there since the war, and I have to admit that I’m both anticipating and dreading this upcoming trip. Poland might become demythologized for me at some point, but that time seems — at least for now — as though it will be in the distant future.
BK: You write about your heightened awareness of being Jewish when you’re outside Israel — especially when you’re in Eastern Europe and Germany. Do you feel that your books have helped to normalize Jewish people for those who haven’t had much previous contact with them? Has this ever been a conscious goal for you when you write?
EK: I don’t have any conscious goals or articulated plans when I sit down and write, but writing, when it finds a curious reader, has the tendency to humanize. That’s why I’ve always loved reading and that is also, I guess, why I began to write. The Seven Good Years has already been published in quite a few countries. From readers’ responses I’ve felt that, more than it has humanized Jews in the eyes of non-Jewish readers, it has humanized Israelis in the eyes of many Europeans whose information about Israel comes mostly from news shows and news magazines. Reading about the parental problems a person experiences when he is caught in the middle of the street with his seven-year-old child in the middle of a missile attack seems to transcend — at least with some of the book’s readers — political views, and reminds them for a moment that the human experience is more complex and ambiguous than a Star Wars movie.
BK: When your first book came out in Poland, your mother told you that you weren’t an Israeli writer, but rather a “Polish writer in exile.” Your father certainly seems to have shared your love of storytelling and your ability to address tragedy through sympathetic humor. How much do you feel your parents influenced style of writing?
EK: I think that my parents had a huge effect on my writing. The bedtime stories they invented formed the most powerful storytelling experience I’ve ever had. My father’s infinite empathy and compassion for people together with my mother’s amazing imagination were the best advertisements a kid could have had for humanity and mankind. I think that the fairy-tale quality of many of my stories comes from my continuous, unconscious attempt to echo something from those amazing bedtime stories that had a crucial role in forming my identity and yearnings as a child.
BK: Can we look forward to more autobiographical works from you in the future — or to works inspired by family history?
EK: The prime catalyst to publish this book was the death of my father. I think that this book is my way of saying goodbye to him. But my default when it comes to writing has been, and probably will always be, fiction. So I don’t really see myself returning to writing nonfiction in the near future.
Becca Kantor received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and her M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She has lived in Estonia, England, and Germany; currently she lives and writes in her native Philadelphia.
Becca Kantor is the editorial director of Jewish Book Council and its annual print literary journal, Paper Brigade. She received an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. Becca spent a year in Estonia on a Fulbright scholarship, writing and studying the country’s Jewish history, and another year in Germany volunteering at the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial. She lives in Brooklyn.