Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

With the recent announce­ment of the 2015 Sami Rohr Prize final­ists, we thought you might want to learn a lit­tle more about the five out­stand­ing writ­ers who made the list. Last week we intro­duced you to Ayelet Tsabari, who wrote a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries called the The Best Place on Earth. Today we turn our atten­tion to Ken­neth Bon­ert, whose nov­el, The Lion Seek­er, won a 2013 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. Set in South Africa, Bon­ert’s nov­el stretch­es across the 1930s and 1940s, fol­low­ing a Jew­ish fam­i­ly as they seek to find their place in a new cul­ture, hav­ing escaped their war-torn homeland. 

What are some of the most chal­leng­ing things about writ­ing fiction?

I think writ­ing well depends on being able to con­cen­trate for long peri­ods of time. You need to have patience, you need to make a sus­tained effort, to stick with it when it does­n’t seem to be work­ing. If your mind wan­ders, you need to train it to come back to the task at hand. I sup­pose it’s like a kind of med­i­ta­tion. Even­tu­al­ly you come out the oth­er side and find those moments of soar­ing excite­ment and clar­i­ty that car­ry you along. That rush of cre­ative expres­sion – – it’s what I live for.

What or who has been your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing fiction?

Life and books. I mean that the inspi­ra­tion for me often comes from a com­bi­na­tion of two things: hav­ing the spark of a good idea, and then find­ing the right lan­guage to trans­form it into a sto­ry. The ideas usu­al­ly come from life, from sit­u­a­tions. It could be some­thing that dis­turbs me, like a reac­tion to an argu­ment, or gnaw­ing on a dif­fi­cult prob­lem, or else hav­ing an insight into how some­one’s per­son­al­i­ty works … or it could be a flash of mem­o­ry, like the smell of rain in the woods, or a face pass­ing on a city street … some flick­er of feel­ing that I want to try to cap­ture with words and make per­ma­nent, a moment that sets the machin­ery of the imag­i­na­tion hum­ming into action. 

But then the inspi­ra­tion for the lan­guage and the struc­ture of the sto­ry, I almost always find in books. By read­ing care­ful­ly, I see what oth­er writ­ers have done and the pos­si­bil­i­ties are opened up to me, dif­fer­ent avenues I might try, exper­i­ments that will in turn gen­er­ate their own inspi­ra­tions until I’ve found what I’m look­ing for.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

I don’t have an audi­ence in mind when I write, at least at the begin­ning stages. I believe that would be a mis­take. You need to write for your­self and not try to please oth­ers. You need to write the kind of book that you would hon­est­ly love to read. Of course you hope that oth­ers will enjoy the book also, that it will find a large audi­ence, but I think it is fol­ly to chase after that. You would only be try­ing to guess the tastes of com­plete strangers, and that is sure­ly a mug’s game.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

Yes, I’m close to fin­ish­ing a nov­el which is a kind of sequel to The Lion Seek­er, although it’s a very dif­fer­ent sort of nov­el, one that draws more on my own direct expe­ri­ences of grow­ing up in South Africa, which I left at the end of high school.

What are you read­ing now?

In fic­tion, it’s a long nov­el called An Act of Ter­ror, by Andre Brink, a South African writer of Afrikan­er back­ground. I’m find­ing this to be an absolute­ly bril­liant nov­el. It’s the sto­ry of a bomb plot in apartheid South Africa in the late 1980s and it is both riv­et­ing and pro­found. Unfair­ly per­haps for the book, it was over­tak­en by his­to­ry since just as it was pub­lished the apartheid state came crash­ing down, and the sto­ry was no longer as rel­e­vant to the read­ing pub­lic, which is a great shame because it real­ly is mas­ter­ful. I’m full of admi­ra­tion for Mr. Brink at the moment.

In non-fic­tion, I’m read­ing The State vs. Nel­son Man­dela, by Joel Joffe. This is an inter­est­ing and well-writ­ten account of the famous 1963 trea­son tri­al, by the man who was one of the defence attor­neys. I became espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in the tri­al when I learned just how many of the prin­ci­pals involved were Jew­ish. Not only among Mandela’s co-defen­dants but also, on the oppo­site side, the rather unsavoury pros­e­cu­tor try­ing to con­vict him.

Top 5 favorite books

  • Great Expec­ta­tions by Charles Dickens
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • Loli­ta by Vladimir Nabokov
  • The Wall by John Hersey
  • Oper­a­tion Shy­lock by Philip Roth

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I can’t think of a spe­cif­ic moment. It’s some­thing I’ve always want­ed to do.

What is the moun­tain­top for you — how do you define success?

Suc­cess for a nov­el is mea­sured four ways, I think. Crit­i­cal suc­cess, com­mer­cial suc­cess, longevi­ty, and influence.

For me, the top of the moun­tain would be to write a nov­el that attains all four.

How­ev­er, the top of a moun­tain” also implies that there is some end point to a long jour­ney. This is not the way I look at what writ­ing is. Rather, it’s a joy­ful art that I would nev­er want to stop prac­tic­ing. I can’t imag­ine ever not writ­ing nov­els. Writ­ing is a way of life, and to live this way is suc­cess for me.

How do you write — what is your pri­vate modus operan­di? What tal­is­mans, rit­u­als, props do you use to assist you?

I write in a room with few dis­trac­tions, just a desk and a com­put­er that is not con­nect­ed to the inter­net. Noth­ing on the walls. The desk is an old one, a gift from my father. I also like to wear the same set of clothes, my work clothes. When I put them on I feel myself get­ting into the right frame of mind for work.

What do you want read­ers to get out of your book?

I would hope that they would expe­ri­ence what I have expe­ri­enced when I come across a book I real­ly love: a sto­ry that sweeps you along, char­ac­ters that come alive. A deep book that you can’t put down, and after­ward you don’t look at the world quite the same way any­more. You want to re-read it again, in order to savour favourite parts.

Ken­neth Bonert’s fic­tion has appeared in McSweeney’s, Grain, and The Fid­dle­head, and his jour­nal­ism has appeared in the Globe and Mail and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Born in South Africa, Bon­ert is the grand­son of Lithuan­ian immi­grants. He now lives in Toronto.

Relat­ed Content:

Orig­i­nal­ly from Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia, Nao­mi is the CEO of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from Emory Uni­ver­si­ty with degrees in Eng­lish and Art His­to­ry and, in addi­tion, stud­ied at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. Pri­or to her role as exec­u­tive direc­tor, Nao­mi served as the found­ing edi­tor of the JBC web­site and blog and man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World. In addi­tion, she has over­seen JBC’s dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives, and also devel­oped the JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series and Unpack­ing the Book: Jew­ish Writ­ers in Conversation.