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.
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.