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 is the author of The Liar and Waking Lions, which won the JQ-Wingate Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book, and has been published in seventeen countries. She is a clinical psychologist, has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement, and is an award-winning screenwriter. She won Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize for best debut.