Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

The announce­ment of the year’s Sami Rohr Prize final­ists is always one of the absolute high­lights of my year. Each year, the books reflect a wide-range of voic­es explor­ing themes of sig­nif­i­cance to Jew­ish life — past and present. The prize high­lights some of the key authors to keep an eye on and offers a plat­form for them to fur­ther con­tribute to both the lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ty, gen­er­al­ly, and the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, specifically. 

The impor­tance of nam­ing five final­ists, rather than just one win­ner, each year is in its abil­i­ty to reflect a spec­trum of ideas: each voice is impor­tant on its own, but tak­en as a whole, it’s the range of voic­es that pro­voke some of the most enrich­ing con­ver­sa­tions: con­ver­sa­tions that are both thought­ful and nuanced and take into con­sid­er­a­tion Jew­ish per­spec­tives that stretch across time, place, and circumstance. 

And, as we’ve done in years past, in the weeks lead­ing up to the announce­ment of the win­ning author, we high­light here on the JBC blog each of the five final­ists. Today we hear from Ayelet Tsabari, whose col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, The Best Place on Earth, made this year’s list.

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

I find all writ­ing chal­leng­ing. Being a new(ish) mom, my biggest chal­lenge is find­ing the time to do it. 

What or who has been your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing fiction?

Read­ing, trav­el­ing, and my father, a clos­et poet who inspired my love of books and moti­vat­ed me to write as a child. 

Who is your intend­ed audience?

I try not to think about audi­ence when I write. I wor­ry it will ruin the mag­ic. But if I had to choose, I’d say peo­ple who love books as much as I do.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

I’m fin­ish­ing up a mem­oir in essays about grow­ing up Mizrahi in Israel, and about leav­ing, trav­el­ing, and return­ing. I’m also start­ing a nov­el about the Yemeni Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty set dur­ing Israel’s ear­ly days. 

What are you read­ing now?

Like most writ­ers I know, I’m read­ing sev­er­al books at once. I’m fin­ish­ing up Drink­ing Cof­fee Else­where by ZZ Pack­er, and start­ing All My Puny Sor­rows by Miri­am Towes, Between by Ang­ie Abdou, and The Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries 2014. I’ve also been read­ing a lot of Dr. Seuss for my daugh­ter, which I wasn’t famil­iar with from my own child­hood. It’s pret­ty great. 

Top 5 favorite books

I’m going to answer quick­ly so I don’t have a chance to rethink it. You would like­ly get an entire­ly dif­fer­ent answer tomorrow.

  • One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude, Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez
  • The God of Small Things, Arund­hati Roy
  • The Kites, Romain Gary
  • La Sto­ria, Elsa Morante 
  • The Inter­preter of Mal­adies, Jhumpa Lahiri

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

I didn’t. I like to say that it came built in. I start­ed telling sto­ries to neigh­bors and cousins as ear­ly as four, moved on to com­ic strips at five, and once I learned the alpha­bet I start­ed writ­ing poems and sto­ries and sent them out to Israeli children’s mag­a­zines, like Haaretz She­lanu. I pub­lished my first poem at nine. 

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

Hav­ing read­ers emo­tion­al­ly con­nect, engage and respond to my work. When I was grow­ing up and dreamt of becom­ing an author, that’s what I wished for: I want­ed to move and touch peo­ple, to give read­ers that mag­i­cal feel­ing books instilled in me. On a prac­ti­cal note, being able to afford writ­ing full time, and find­ing a way to bal­ance it with the demands of moth­er­hood would be a tri­umph. Oh, and I’d love to have a beau­ti­ful writ­ing shed in my back­yard I will call Tel Aviv (after George Bernard Shaw’s London). 

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

I can write any­where. I’ve writ­ten on my phone while push­ing a stroller, scrib­bled scenes on cof­fee shop nap­kins, and I once wrote an entire sto­ry in the bath on a tiny notepad. But I write best at home, in my office, and I love hav­ing my stuff around. A good chair and an alter­na­tive stand­ing option. A cork board with hip­pie inspi­ra­tional quotes and pic­tures of loved ones. Com­fort­able writ­ing pants (which some fool­ish peo­ple may refer to as yoga pants.) A large wall mir­ror I can use to play out my char­ac­ters’ phys­i­cal ges­tures to ensure they’re real­is­tic. And a win­dow. I know writ­ers who pre­fer to stare a blank wall to min­i­mize dis­trac­tions. That’s not me. I love catch­ing glimpses of life out­side my lit­tle room. It inspires me. 

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

To be moved. To feel deeply. To get to know a side of Israel they don’t see in the news, and a facet of Jew­ish expe­ri­ence they may not have read much about. 

Ayelet Tsabari is an Israeli of Yemeni descent; she grew up in Israel, served in the army and moved to Cana­da in 1998. She is a two-time win­ner of the EVENT Cre­ative Non-Fic­tion Con­test and has been pub­lished in lit­er­ary mag­a­zines such as PRISM, Grain and Room. Her unpub­lished non-fic­tion man­u­script was short­list­ed for the First Book Com­pe­ti­tion spon­sored by Anvil Press and SFU’s Writer’s Stu­dio. She is a grad­u­ate of the MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Guelph and lives in Toron­to, where she is at work on a nov­el. Learn more at www​.ayelettsabari​.com or fol­low her on Twit­ter @AyeletTsabari.

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.