David Grossman is one of Israel’s most prominent writers and a much-loved literary figure in the world— his books have been translated into over thirty languages and have won countless international awards. He has written a number of works of nonfiction, including Sleeping on a Wire: Conversations with Palestinians in Israel, Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years after Oslo, and the hugely influential report The Yellow Wind. His fictional works include The Smile of the Lamb, See Under: Love, The Book of Intimate Grammar, The Zigzag Kid, and To the End of the Land, which was nominated for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award and made President Obama’s 2011 summer reading list.
Grossman is also a political activist and an outspoken critic of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. His twenty year-old son, Uri, a staff sergeant, was killed in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, shortly before the ceasefire. A few months later, Grossman addressed a crowd of 100,000 Israelis in Tel Aviv on the anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, denouncing Ehud Olmert’s government and reasserting his belief that, despite his personal tragedy, hostility toward the Palestinians was a misguided tactic in the region. In an in-depth profile of Grossman in the September 27, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, George Packer writes, “Grossman is no longer allowed to be simply a novelist. The left-wing writer whose son fell in combat has become a secular prophet.”
Grossman is warm and thoughtful; a man who remembers the importance of listening even though he has been blessed with the gift of words. This conversation took place during a phone call between Stockholm and Jerusalem on an afternoon in September.
Your father was a librarian. Did you spend a lot of time in libraries as a child?
Well, my father was a bus driver in the local transportation company in Jerusalem. Then, after a certain age and a couple of health problems, he was transferred to be the librarian of this transportation company, which gave me free access to many books and I loved it. It was really like the dream of a book-loving child because I could have asked my father to order any book that I was interested in.
But, before I got this privatized fortune, I used to go get books in the public library by my home. In the 60s, the libraries in Israel were quite gloomy places. There was one room that was usually in the cellar of a public building. There stood a librarian who was quite a frightening figure in my life. She was tall, her hair was gathered together, she had a very stiff look, and she was regarding us— the readers— as potential enemies who just wanted to destroy her private treasure. You were not allowed to go into the library itself and to look or choose for yourself among the shelves. She used to look at you, scrutinize you with her eyes, and then the verdict came: “You should read this and that.” You know, even if it was absolutely not useful for the child at that age, or even if he didn’t like that writer, or whatever. He was doomed to have this book for the next week.
You were not allowed to get more than one book a week. Now, for me, this was a torment. Because I used to finish the book by the time I got home. I read very fast and I walked while reading— you know, bumping into all kinds of things. And then once, when she was ordering me to take a book— I don’t remember what book it was— I started to tell her frankly how I desperately needed more than one book a week. And something happened. You know, I think I cracked her icy heart, and she allowed me to have three books every week, which was very exciting for me.
She must have realized that you were actually a lover of books, the way she was probably a lover of books, protecting her stash from greasy-fingered kids who didn’t appreciate them enough.
I am really curious— if she is still with us— to look at things from her point of view. [Laughs.]
So, when your father became a librarian, it must have been a major liberation!
Yes. I had my own gold mine.
When you were reading as a child, did you have a sense that there was someone who had written the stories you were reading? Was the idea of a writer alive to you in your mind?
No, I don’t think so. I knew that there was someone who had written the book, but he or she did not interest me at all. I was totally interested in the story. You know, sometimes I think that in a series of books, when I found a little contradiction or something like that, then it roused my attention immediately to the notion that there is a human being behind all this creation. But usually the characters are so much more important than the writer.
Do you remember a point where you shifted and thought: “I don’t want to just be reading, I want to be one someone who creates characters.”
Yes, but I have to distinguish. I do not think that I thought, “I want to be a writer,” I thought, “I want to tell a story.” That was the thing. Telling a story became such an urge, a passion. My mother was a housewife when I was ten or so, and in order to make some money on the side and sustain the family, she would type all kinds of university work for students. So she had a little typing machine, it is just now behind me on a chair here…
Yes. All dusty… Did you ever hear those strange machines? You know they sound…I’ll just make the sound…
[Grossman types on the typewriter and I can hear the smatter of the keys through the phone.]
Do you hear it?
I hear it. But I’ve never used one.
I stopped using it twenty years ago, I work with a computer. But it is still here because, ever since I was a child, and she was not busy typing, I used to take this typing machine for myself to write stories. One of them my mother kept and I have it still. It is about a child who escapes from home and joins the circus. But then he realizes that he can make a circus with the collaboration of his parents and his brothers and sisters.
So he doesn’t have to run away from home after all.
Let’s say home ran away to join him. One of the rarer cases where the whole circus joined the child and not the other way around.
When you describe yourself as being so driven by storytelling, I can’t help but think of Avram, your character in To the End of the Land. Did you have a similarly compulsive storytelling mode?
Yes, I really…I don’t even know how to describe it. You know, this feeling that when you put something in the form of a story, the world becomes more interesting, or more intriguing, richer. And I can very much identify with Avram, until he fell captive. Because when he comes back from captivity he is really totally broken and I needed Ora to bring him back to life.
The kind of storytelling that Avram engaged with— keeping notebooks and writing on scraps of paper all the time— did you do that?
Yes, this is something I did. And, also, like Avram, I was playing in radio plays ever since I was a very young child. From the age of nine or so I took part in radio plays as an actor. And very soon after I understood the idea behind the radio play, I started writing— not as a child, but as an adolescent— radioplays, which, for me, is really such a wonderful form. Nothing can be compared to the intimacy of a radio play and to the fact that you, the listener, have to create a whole world and a whole personality only by the voice of the actor and the thing he says, or the things he does not say.
And, by the way, this is why the first part of To the End of the Land is written almost as a radio play. The three main protagonists in To the End of the Land are isolated from the rest of Israel because it is the evening of the Six Days War in 1967, and all of Israel is united, cast together like either a fist or a herd of sheep, with anxiety regarding what the coming days will bring upon us. And only Ora, Avram and Ilhan, three sixteen year-olds who are sick with Hepatitis B, they are closed in an isolation department in one of the small hospitals in Jerusalem, and they cannot see each other because there was an order of darkening the home, so they were unable to put on the lights. They just hear each other. For a second or two they see each other with a candle, but all the rest is left to their imagination or nightmares or wishful thinking.
I am so glad that you addressed the beginning of the book, because it is so different from how the rest of the book is told on a narrative level. I remember thinking that it is such an intimate beginning, a way to allow us to dive into the adult characters later with much more ease. I hadn’t thought of it as a radio play. Tell me, how did you come to act in radio plays?
That’s a really long story. It all started when I was a child and my father gave me to read the stories of Sholem Aleichem. Sholem Aleichem was a Jewish writer who lived in Russia in the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. He wrote about the lives of the Jews in the shtetls. My father also came from such a little shtetl in Galicia. He never told me about his childhood, but he found the way to tell me through books. I think I was eight when he gave me to read one of the first stories of Sholem Aleichem, who wrote, by the way, the story on which Fiddler on the Roof was based. My father told me, “Take it, David. This is how it used to be over there.” And I think I felt, through his smile— which I will never forget, it was almost a child-like smile, which was very untypical to my father— I felt that he gave me something very precious. And I started to read it.
It was written in a very strange and archaic Hebrew and I was unable to understand most of it, because I lived in such a different reality. For example, I read about the Jews and the gentiles, but I didn’t really understand, who were these gentiles? I think that at the age of eight, I thought that most of the world are Jews, I was not aware of the other way around. I did not know what was a matchmaker, what was a priest, what was a pogrom. All these things were totally mysterious but very attractive to me, I think like the way the children of today would read the Harry Potter books— another reality with its own codes, and institutions, and language, because the language was also extremely archaic. Even the figures of the numbers on the pages were written in letters, not in numbers, like sacred books.
I think because the allowance that it gave me to my father’s childhood, I started to read all the book of Sholem Aleichem. Most of his books are for grownups. He is a humorist, he is a wonderful humorist, but he also wrote sad, heartbreaking stories.
And when I was nine or ten there was a kind of public quiz on the radio, which was the most popular radio program in Israel. The topic of it changed every month and suddenly they announced that there would be a competition of the writing of Sholem Aleichem. I told my parents, “I know Sholem Aleichem by heart, I want to go!” They looked at me and said, “Are you nuts? It’s a competition for grown-ups, for academicians, how come you want to go, they will make fun of you there.” I went and wrote, without the knowledge of my parents, the first postcard of my life. I sent it to the authorities of the radio asking to be auditioned for this program. A week later, a letter came from the Israeli radio, which was then governmental. It was for my parents, and it was as if Ben Gurion himself ordered them to give him their son, so I had to go.
I went and auditioned, and they asked me questions. I knew the answers and the competitors against me were really professors of Hebrew literature, or Yiddish literature. It started to be a little unpleasant, so the director of the radio made a decision that it is not educational for a child of my age— I was nine at the time— to win such a big prize, it might corrupt me. The big prize was something like 100 dollars, but we are speaking of Israel of the 1960’s. But they allowed me to be in the studio where they were airing the program and whenever one of the competitors did not know the answer, they would address it to me and I would answer.
The rightful winner, really!
You are absolutely right. Because of that, actually, I got to work in the radio. Someone spotted me there and suggested that I should do things for them. I worked there until I was thirty-five. I did everything. I was a correspondent, an editor, a narrator, an anchorman of the news. I really love the radio.
Well, lets backtrack a little bit. You worked in the radio starting when you were nine, but what about after graduating from high school? What did you study in university?
In Israel, you go into the army when you are eighteen. I served four years in the army and when I finished the army I started my studies in the university. Then I was registered to study law. Why law? I guess because my parents wanted it and because it was quite challenging then. I started my studies three days after I was released from the army, after four quite intense years in the army. And then, after a week, I was sitting there in a criminal law course, or something like that, and suddenly it struck me that I don’t want to be there. That I really am the wrong person to become a lawyer. And I remember, like a zombie, I packed all my papers in my bag and I just went through the class, out, like in a dream, a sweet dream. I went to the other campus of the university and there I met a friend who studied philosophy and he took me to listen to a philosophy lesson.
And then gradually, I started to realize that what I wanted to do was totally different. I want to be a writer. I remember very well the moment because I hesitated… I didn’t dare to study literature, because, you know, you can’t really sustain yourself economically if you are a writer. So, I remember I was sweeping the floor with my wife— we used to live in the student dormitories— and suddenly it became very clear to me that I did not want to study anymore, not even comparative literature, I just really wanted to write. And from that moment on I started writing.
So you stopped your university studies to start writing? Because you ended up studying philosophy, didn’t you?
Yes, I studied philosophy and I studied theater. And then this understanding that I want to be a writer became very, very clear.
You said before that you studied law at first because your parents wanted you to. How did they feel about your decision to change tracks and go with what anyone would call a rather impractical career choice?
My parents were devastated, I must tell you. And they really thought I was going crazy, you know, to waste my life on doing something that not only no one will read but, really, you can’t have a normal life when you are a writer. I mean, how can I earn my living in writing?! Well, I must say, that it was not even a question for me. I thought I can always sustain myself with my work in the radio more or less, but the urge of writing was really uncontainable.
It was really a need for you. So, while you were working with the radio, were you writing at the same time?
Yes. I started writing much earlier. I think it was really after my military service. I remember another moment, it was really very significant. My girlfriend then and later my wife, she left me. We had a quarrel about something and she left me. She packed all of her belongings— it all came down to a very small suitcase— and she went to her parents’ home in Haifa. I was left alone at our little apartment and I thought that the world was falling apart. I thought that no one can help me and nothing can help me. And then I remember that I went to a desk that was there and I started to write a story, really as an act of saving myself.
I wrote a story about an American soldier who had deserted the war in Vietnam and escaped to Austria of all places, and the only source of warmth that he gets there is from a bunch of donkeys that he feeds weekly with some white bread that he buys just for them. And nobody else wants him there— not the government, not other people. He has a woman that he loves but her parents forbid her to see him, so he really finds solace and warmth, even human warmth, in this bunch of donkeys. I wrote this story and I just knew that I had found my place, that this is what I really want to do.
A lot of writers that I’ve spoken to say that they find the actual act of writing painful in some way, but it sounds like for you the actual act of writing is also what compels you to do it; that there is pleasure and solace to be found in the process itself.
You are right. It can be excruciating and even tiring to write again, and again, and again the same paragraph until you find the right word, but I think more than that, it is the content of what you write; that is the thing that makes it difficult. Sometimes I feel like someone who tries to solve a riddle, a very complicated riddle, and the solution is very near, but I cannot reach it— not because of the story, but because of myself. Because I am not courageous enough or daring enough to peel the last layer of protection from myself and be totally exposed to the story, to the conclusion of the story, to what it says about me. Sometimes, I write a line and there is a verdict against me there on the page.
The whole act of writing, basically, is the act of dismantling your own self, making you fall apart in so many parts and fragments, and then to reunite yourself in the form of a story, through other characters and other points of view and voices. So the part of breaking down and cracking down your own self, this can be really tough. But the part of recreating, from all these pieces, another character, even an imaginary one… Though they are never only imaginary, they are always real and relevant— and I think the word relevant is the key word, because so much of our lives consist of irrelevant people whom you would never even invite for coffee, and they have the power to destine you to life or to death. Really, practically, they can do it. So many of the occurrences of our lives are arbitrary and without any point to them; they are just random, and yet they are so crucial to our being. And so when I write, I think part of the pleasure in it is that I deal with relevant material. Even the things that at first look seem to be far away from me, in the end I realize that they came to me because, deeply, they are relevant to me. You know, you invite such material; “invite” in the way one invites ones dreams. You do not actively choose them, but in a way they come to you and they suggest themselves to you.
The thing that you want to be when you are writing is all the time on alert. Because every moment the world can send you a clue, a crucial clue. If you are not really awake and alert and sharp, you will miss this clue.
When you are describing this way that writing can reconstruct the self, and how stories we create give us new meaning, it makes me think of To the End of the Land, and the way in which going back to that book after the death of your son may have been, perhaps, a similar way of reaffirming life, of going on?
Yes, it was. Because when something like that happens, such catastrophe happens, the first thing is that you are exiled from everything you knew before; nothing is taken for granted. And somehow the story was there for me. There was some solidity in it. And then, insisting on nuances when everything in the world seemed vague and numb, when all the senses are numb, the insistance on nuances, on all the shades of people, of character, of language, of situations…this thirst, even, that started to wake up after some time, the thirst to create and to invent and to fantasize, which are all very active dimensions of life, and you know, suddenly finding the energy to infuse life into characters and to infuse passion and to allow complexity to pour in, yes? This was really an act of choosing life for me, against the temptation of paralysis and the gravity of grief and of despair.
When you write a book, you live with a character for quite some time. Ora is an extraordinary character and I thought all the time that I was reading To the End of the Land that it was so remarkable that it was a man who had written her and all of her endless complexity as a woman and mother. Can you tell me about choosing to make your main character a mother with a son in the army rather than a father with a son in the army like you yourself were at the time?
First, because it was more challenging. I know how to write from the point of view of a man and of a father. And I felt I wanted to try, really in a deep way, to write from the point of view of a woman, of a mother, also because so much of the book is about the family dimension, the creating of a family. And I always feel— and in that way I am totally biased— I feel in the family that I come from and the family that I am living in now, what an important role my wife has. She is really like the pillar; all of us are relating to her, and needing her. She is, I think, the central reference point of the family. And also, even though I was, and I am, a very involved father in the life of my children— I regard myself as a very motherly father— I really felt that becoming a father changed all of my life and all of the way I look at life, and gave me an opportunity to understand things that I would not have understood otherwise. And yet, I know that the connection between my wife and my children is more primal, yes? Primal for the fact that she bore them in her body for nine months.
I really wanted to document this, this primal relationship between a mother and a child. And also, because I thought that the woman would be more sceptical toward this machinery of the army and of government and of war, and she would not collaborate with them. You know, men will sit and wait. If someone would not collaborate, would not wait for the notifiers to come and, as she says, “dig their notification into her,” it would be a woman. That is what I tried to show. The way she acts.
A reader from Brazil wrote to me, “Maybe Ora is not an artist in her soul, maybe she is not a muse of the arts, but she is definitely a muse of life.” And I think she is. All the men around her respond to that. We don’t know in the end of the book if she is able to save Ofer, her son, it remains open, but definitely she saves Avram, and she brings Avram back to life. And in a way she gives birth to Avram.
Since you mentioned your wife, I wanted to go back a little bit and talk about the nitty gritty of your life together when you were younger.
We met each other in the army. In Israel, the army is the national matchmaker. We met there, and soon after went and rented a room in Jerusalem in quite a poor neighborhood and we loved every moment of it. Then, after the army, we traveled. We had three trips in the world, they were wonderful. Then we got married…we had a very usual life of a young Israeli couple. We worked hard. My wife studied psychology, now she is a clinical psychologist. And I think life was… [Chuckles.] What can I say about such a period of life? It was very intense, that I can say. They were very, very intense years in all ways— emotionally, professionally…this feeling that we are on the edge of life now, that life starts now and that we start to create our life and our future.
Did you have a lot of friends who were writers or artists at the time?
Not at all. I didn’t know even one person who was a writer or a poet. I remember that when I wrote my first story, I just didn’t know what to do…What do you do with it? I had no idea what you do with a story that you write. I showed it to two or three friends and they said, “Yes, it’s good, it looks nice, interesting…” And then my wife knew a woman in the university whose husband was teaching literature at the university. So, I asked if I could give it to him. I gave him this story and another one and he gave it to an editor and a publisher at a publishing house that he knew. They got the stories, read them, and in the morning they called each other and said they thought they had found a new writer. So, I cannot even complain that my stories were rejected by twenty-seven people…
That is a pretty good straight-shot story!
Yes, I am really ashamed of it.
Oh, come on! Do you recall what it was like to see your first writing in print?
Yes! [Laughs.] It was really very strange. I remember that I was quite thrilled… It was a literary magazine and later they took the stories and made a book. Yes, I couldn’t believe it.
I think I really started to believe I am a writer only some years later. I remember that I walked in the street and a woman approached me. She was apparently not very balanced mentally, there was something a little strange about her. Suddenly she spotted me and she recognized me, I guess because my face was on the cover of the weekly magazine a week before. She grabbed me by the hand, in a very strong and desperate way, and she said: “Write a story about me.” And suddenly…I cannot even describe it…the way she approached me and wanted to be written. Suddenly I realized that you can write about people, that in a way you can give them a second chance through writing. It really was shocking, and it filled me with a sense of wonder.
You must take a lot of inspiration from people you know and meet for characters in your fiction.
Yes. But mainly I invent, or I crossbreed all kinds of stories from different people. I never write about one person per se. I will change and combine with other characters…[Chuckles.] And sometimes two people who cannot bear each other in real life will find each other squeezed together in one character.
Do they ever find out, or does it remain your own secret?
Sometimes they do recognize themselves. You know, the most significant thing happened to me when I finished writing The Book of Intimate Grammar. It’s about a boy in a little neighborhood in Jerusalem, a lot like my neighborhood when I was a child. He is a very tormented child, like the child I was— because I was very sociable, friendly, and lively and very tormented…which I think is a quite a usual combination for many children, not as rare as we think. I wrote about this little Aron in The Book of Intimate Grammar. He feels lonely and even excommunicated and not understood by anyone. And then there is his so-called friend who is bigger than him, larger than him, more social, more easy-going with girls, and very popular in his class. Now, I based this character more or less, not 100%, on a childhood friend. When the book was published, I sent it to him. He called me up after some days and said, “Well, David, I found myself in this book.” And I said, “You did.” And he said, “Yes, I was Aron.” You know, he thought he was the other child, the miserable child, the tormented one, not the popular one. And it taught me something.
About how we perceive ourselves.
Yes. And how we are blind to see others.
You talked about writing that first story and not quite knowing what to do with it. Now, do you have a close relationship with editors, or do you have certain readers who you trust to read your work before it is published?
I have now seven or eight people to whom I will show everything I am writing before giving it to my editor. And most of them are not literary people, they are just people whom I trust for their good taste and honesty. And I know that they do not have a millimeter of respect toward me whatsoever and they can tell me what is wrong and what is bad. It is important to have that before publication— not to hear it from critics, but to hear it from good friends. And then to change and to correct.
I have been working with the same editor now for, I think, thirty-three years. And I have had the same publisher for all these years, I never changed. My first reader is my wife, ever since I wrote that story about donkeys. She read it and came back home after she had abandoned me.
Do you have writing habits that you always follow, and have they changed since the time when you were just figuring out how to write?
They have not changed much. I still write every moment that I have. What changed are the pressures of the outer word. But I still manage to write at least eight hours a day and sometimes more than eight hours. And I never know the ending of my books, I never want to know the ending. I want the ending to surprise me, always. And, even more than that, I say I want my books to betray me. You know, to take me beyond my borders. But when I say that, I think that maybe by so doing they are more real to me than I am.
I still write draft after draft after draft— sometimes twenty drafts to understand the story. And I walk a lot. When I write, I must walk for hours, sometimes. I walk in circles, you know, like a prisoner in his cell.
You walk in circles in your house, not outside?
It depends on the weather. Sometimes it is too hot in Israel, or in the winter I am imprisoned indoors. But if I can walk outside, it is wonderful. I have two or three places where no one sees me. It is in nature and I can just walk…I need this fast movement. I love to move fastly! [Laughs.]
Have you ever experienced some major hurdle as a writer that made you want to give up on writing?
Give up on writing in general? No. Many times it has happened that I have felt desperate and unable to break through a story I was writing. But I always know that if I am blocked, it is not because of the story, it is because of me. And I also know that if I try harder, if I really surrender to the story, then it will reward me.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I think just to read a lot. To be exposed to all kinds of ways of telling a story. To allow yourself to be read by a book.
To be read by a book?
Well, I think that is what is so wonderful about books. And you can compare it to a newspaper. If a million people are reading the same newspaper, they think that they are one. There is something in the writing of newspapers that make all of us feel like one, to glue us in a forced feeling that we all belong to something, that we all belong to a certain story, we are one big choir. But when 10,000 people are reading the same book at the same time, the book reads each and every one of them differently, and different contents are surfacing when they read a certain book. So, yes, just be good readers.
Is there anything you would tell your younger self, at twenty-seven, say, that you wish you had known then?
I think that when I was writing then, I felt so lonely, so not understood. And now I know the really sweet reward of being understood, in so many different places in the world. Getting reactions from people who are so removed from my life and yet they will write or say that I wrote their story. I think if the twenty-seven year-old me had known that, he would have been a little bit more happy.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by © Michael Lionstar