Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
Over the next several weeks, we’ll be introducing you to the five fiction finalists for this year’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Last week, we introduced you to Stuart Nadler, who shared his love for the shorty story with our readers. Today, we hear from Shani Boianjiu, an Israeli writer who was named the youngest recipient ever of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 and whose debut novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid was excerpted in the New Yorker. In a recent JBC/Jewcy #JLit Twitter Book Club, Shani discussed why she’s NOT the voice of her generation (“My book is weird, and mine, and does not represnt anyone”), the many reviews and articles about her book, and the Israeli army. Below, find out more about the author who, in her first novel, “shows considerable range, creating surreal, absurd dilemmas for her characters:”
What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?
That the stakes are so high — there are so many wonderful books out there, so you must write something that buys you a seat at the table or not do it at all. Also, being alone.
What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?
When I was in the army I used to make up stories during long guarding shifts and keep them in my head for weeks, retelling them to myself and tweeking them a bit in my head until I reached a computer and finally typed the story down. So I would say that waiting had been my inspiration for writing fiction. Also my love of books. Reading makes me feel alive in a way nothing else ever had.
Who is your intended audience?
A twenty-four-year-old Chinese American girl from Marlborough, MA who works at Target. Also a couple of other people I love.
Are you working on anything new right now?
Yes. It is a book!
What are you reading now?
Contemporary memoirs. Basically every memoir that was written in the last five years. All of them. And at the same time. I have no idea why. Also, [the forthcoming novel] We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo and Bruno Schulz’s stories.
Top 5 Favorite Books
That’s impossible for me to answer, and it changes every minute, but if I had to choose five right now I’d say:
- The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
- El Atsmi book series by Galila Ron-Feder Amit (because I am actually a kid)
- Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brody by Muriel Spark
- The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?
I never decided to become a writer; I decided to write. I think the first time I decided to do that I was seventeen, and waiting for a train. I still have to decide to write every time I do it though.
What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?
I wish to write forever stories — stories that only I can write and that will live in people’s heads and have lives of their own inside those heads. It does not matter to me how many heads, only that the story be worthy to live forever in someone’s head. I am still far from that, which is why I have to work hard.
How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?
I usually get an idea for a story or a scene or a character and then I keep it in my head and retell it to myself hundreds of times until I feel like my head will explode if I don’t type the story down immediately. When I do type down what I have in my head, I spend ten percent of my time actually writing and the rest jumping around in my room and listening to music.
What do you want readers to get out of your book?
Originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Naomi is the executive director 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.