Ear­li­er this week, Haim Watz­man wrote about read­ing Tal­mud as lit­er­a­ture and pro­duc­ing new sto­ries on a month­ly dead­line. With the release of his new book, Nec­es­sary Sto­ries, Haim is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Illus­tra­tions used to be stan­dard in fic­tion. Can we con­ceive of Through the Look­ing Glass with­out John Tenniel’s illus­tra­tions or Phiz’s illus­tra­tions for Charles Dick­ens’ Pick­wick Papers? That sort of part­ner­ship rarely hap­pens today, but I’m priv­i­leged to be a throwback.

The Jerusalem Report has com­mis­sioned a draw­ing for each of the sto­ries I’ve writ­ten over the last nine years. The lion’s share of them have been done by Avi Katz, one of Israel’s finest illus­tra­tors. Three of them appear in my new­ly-pub­lished col­lec­tion of sto­ries, and anoth­er one (which accom­pa­nied the first post in this Pros­en­Peo­ple series) appears on the cov­er. Here I talk about three draw­ings Avi pro­duced for sto­ries that appear in my new Nec­es­sary Sto­ries vol­ume. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I was not able to include these illus­tra­tions in the book.

Periph­er­al Vision” takes place in an emer­gency clin­ic not far from my home. Hanan, a young man with an infec­tion caused by a bik­ing injury, sits in the wait­ing room, before being called in for treat­ment. He’s got a new girl­friend and is look­ing at a pho­to of her on his phone. The pho­to is, well, a very per­son­al one.

He sud­den­ly notices that he’s sit­ting next to a Hare­di man of about his own age. The man’s young son sits on his lap. The father is try­ing to inter­est his son in a holy book he is read­ing, but the boy’s eyes keep wan­der­ing to the pic­ture on Hanan’s phone. A con­ver­sa­tion ensues, about the book the man is study­ing and the pic­ture on the phone.

What the illus­tra­tor has cap­tured in this pic­ture is some­thing I see as very basic to my work. Per­haps because I began my writ­ing career as a play­wright, I almost always visu­al­ize my sto­ries as if they were tak­ing place on a stage. (In fact, they work very well in per­for­mance.) The place­ment of char­ac­ters in space, in jux­ta­po­si­tion with their sur­round­ings, is key to con­vey­ing mood and theme. Wher­ev­er pos­si­ble, I avoid stat­ing direct­ly what my char­ac­ters are think­ing or feel­ing and instead con­vey that with a ges­ture, a move­ment, a jux­ta­po­si­tion with some oth­er per­son or object.

Avi’s illus­tra­tion for Periph­er­al Vision” cap­tures this per­fect­ly. The scene is a large room, but the three cen­tral char­ac­ters and the two objects that occu­py their atten­tion — the phone and the holy book — form a self-con­tained and tight assem­blage that brings the char­ac­ters close — per­haps too close for com­fort — with­in this large space. Note the two tri­an­gles — that of the fig­ures them­selves, and that of their gazes. Avi shows that the eyes of each char­ac­ter are drawn by some­thing oth­er than what it intends or is expect­ed to see — the boy eyes the phone, the boy’s father con­sid­ers Hanan, and Hanan squints at the book.

Avi’s illus­tra­tion for The Plow­man Meets the Reaper” aug­ments my sto­ry. Just before the Six Day War of 1967, on the Jerusalem – Tel Aviv train, a young boy whose indi­gent fam­i­ly immi­grat­ed from Iraq encoun­ters a woman orig­i­nal­ly from Vien­na. The sto­ry fol­lows how each char­ac­ter depicts the oth­er in his or her mind, and at one point on the train ride they actu­al­ly draw each oth­er. In choos­ing to depict this moment, the illus­tra­tion calls the reader’s atten­tion to an under­ly­ing theme that might oth­er­wise be missed.

Under­stand­ably, Avi gen­er­al­ly choos­es to depict the story’s cen­tral char­ac­ters inter­act­ing at a key moment. Some­times, how­ev­er, I sug­gest to him that he take an indi­rect approach. A pic­ture with­out a human pres­ence can be more sub­tly sug­ges­tive of a story’s deep­er cur­rents. Such is the case with his illus­tra­tion for Fire­flies,” the penul­ti­mate sto­ry in the book. Rather than describe the sto­ry, I’ll let you read it and then con­sid­er whether any oth­er sort of pic­ture would have worked as well.

Haim Watz­man lives in Jerusalem and is the author of three books: Com­pa­ny C: An American’s Life as a Cit­i­zen-Sol­dier in Israel; A Crack in the Earth: A Jour­ney Up Israel’s Rift Val­ley; and a sto­ry col­lec­tion, Nec­es­sary Sto­ries, a selec­tion of the more than 150 he has writ­ten. His play The Chair won the 2021 The­ater Insti­tute Award of the Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Dra­ma Inter­na­tion­al Com­pe­ti­tion spon­sored by the Estera Rachel and Ida Makin­skie Jew­ish The­ater in War­saw. He has trans­lat­ed more than 50 books from Hebrew into Eng­lish, among them works by Shlo­mo Avineri, David Gross­man, Hil­lel Cohen, Amos Oz, and Tom Segev. He edit­ed the Eng­lish-lan­guage ver­sion of Yuval Noah Harari’s world­wide best­seller, Sapi­ens. Sub­scribe to his Sub­stack newslet­ter here.