Ayelet Gun­dar-Goshens nov­el One Night, Markovitch won the 2013 Sapir Prize for debut fic­tion; this week she releas­es Wak­ing Lions, which recent­ly received the 2017 Jew­ish Quar­ter­ly-Wingate Prize. Ayelet will be guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Telling a secret to a writer is like giv­ing a hug to a pick­pock­et. I stole this sen­tence from Amos Oz or A. B. Yehoshua, I can’t remem­ber which one. But I do remem­ber, very clear­ly, the first time I became a pick­pock­et — the first sto­ry I stole.

I was vis­it­ing my boyfriend’s fam­i­ly in a vil­lage in the north of Israel, when I noticed a strange house behind their fence. The house wasn’t espe­cial­ly dark or remark­ably mys­te­ri­ous. There was no ivy on the walls, no bats hang­ing from the roof, yet there was some kind of sad­ness com­ing out of that yard, the way oth­er yards had the voic­es of chil­dren com­ing out of them, or the smell of barbecue.

Who lives in this house?” I asked.

Beau­ti­ful Bel­la lives there,” my boyfriend replied. I gave him the look a girl gives to her boyfriend when he calls anoth­er girl beau­ti­ful, and he imme­di­ate­ly added that Beau­ti­ful Bel­la was eighty years old, and the most mis­er­able woman in the village.

Why mis­er­able?”

Appar­ent­ly, Bel­la was not just beau­ti­ful. She was real­ly beau­ti­ful. The kind of woman who makes robins fly back­wards, tur­tles run for­ward, and men freeze in place. But from among all the men who froze in place — and there were many who still did so — she was des­tined to mar­ry the most worth­less man in the village.

Why?”

That was the first time I heard about the hero­ic mis­sion that had gone ter­ri­bly wrong. It hap­pened more than six­ty years ago, but every­one in the vil­lage had been talk­ing about it ever since. They held on to their sto­ry like oth­er vil­lagers hold on to an area’s famous recipes or secret wines. I dis­cov­ered that dur­ing the Sec­ond World War a group of Jew­ish farm­ers left Manda­to­ry Pales­tine in order to get into Europe. Their plan was to fic­tive­ly mar­ry Jew­ish girls who weren’t allowed into Israel because of the British law of the time. These mar­riages of con­ve­nience were to save the girls from Nazi Europe and smug­gle them in under the noses of the British. Once in Israel, the cou­ples would all get divorces and con­tin­ue with their lives. But that was not the case for beau­ti­ful Bel­la, who had been mar­ried by a farmer who was so stunned by her that he refused to let her go even after they reached the Promised Land. He held her against her will, under the pow­er of reli­gious law.

This sto­ry became the core of my first nov­el, One Night, Markovitch. Markovitch was the name of my pro­tag­o­nist, a name I chose to dis­guise the real man from the vil­lage. While I knew noth­ing of the real farmer, in the nov­el he’s depict­ed as the ulti­mate out­sider, the kind nobody ever notices. I decid­ed he must have been the type of per­son that the eye just can­not remem­ber, that your gaze glides over, like the kids whose names no one knows at school. It’s this kind of man, I fig­ured, who wouldn’t be able to let go of a love­ly woman like Bel­la. He knew he’d nev­er have such a chance again.

I changed the names of peo­ple and places, but as the book became suc­cess­ful, I start­ed to fear — what if some­one rec­og­nized him­self in the lines of my nov­el? While I was wait­ing for the peo­ple from the vil­lage to knock at my door, the phone call from my grand­moth­er came com­plete­ly unex­pect­ed­ly: How could you do that to poor Markovitch?!”

While I was busy hid­ing the iden­ti­ty of the man from the vil­lage, I had giv­en no thought to the name Markovitch.” It had just popped out, and it seemed right. I com­plete­ly for­got that my grand­moth­er had a friend called Markovitch. Out of all of her friends, he was the most unmem­o­rable; you for­got him a moment after you met him. And so had I.

Ayelet Gun­dar-Goshen holds an MA in clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy from Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty. A recip­i­ent of Israel’s pres­ti­gious Sapir Prize, she has worked for the Israeli civ­il rights move­ment and writ­ten award-win­ning fic­tion and screenplays.

Relat­ed Content:

Ayelet Gun­dar-Goshen is the win­ner of the 2017 JQ-Wingate Prize for Wak­ing Lions. She was born in Israel in 1982 and holds an MA in clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy from Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty. She has worked for the Israeli civ­il rights move­ment and is an award-win­ning screen­writer. She won Israel’s pres­ti­gious Sapir Prize for best debut. Wak­ing Lions, her first nov­el pub­lished in the U.S., has been trans­lat­ed into nine languages.