We Don’t Live Our Lives in Genre: A Conversation with Etgar Keret
In September, AU’s Center for Israel Studies brought Etgar Keret to campus for a reading and conversation. Before the event, I was delighted to sit in on a casual, roundtable conversation with Melissa Scholes Young and her students in the MFA lit lounge.
When a student asks Etgar how he creates a character, Etgar laughs. “Any character I’ve ever written is in some way me,” he says. “Whenever you see a pimply teenager [in my stories]—know it’s me.”
But not every character is an identifiable echo of Keret; the author has also written a story from the perspective of a clone of Adolf Hitler. In that story, titled “A.: Only Through Death Will You Learn Your True Identity,” the narrative pushes the reader to sympathize with an unwitting clone of a hated man, to evaluate beliefs we take for granted.
“Our instincts are to disassociate, dehumanize our oppressors. It’s a necessary survival mechanism, but when we write fiction, we can take that barrier down. I love Crime and Punishment and Lolita,” he jokes, “But, I wouldn’t want to hang out with those people. That I can empathize and humanize doesn’t mean that I can justify.”
Keret explores moral dilemmas in many of his other stories, including, from the New Yorker, “To The Moon and Back,” in which a father bullies a store clerk in an attempt to gain his son’s affection.
How do you decide to write a speculative fiction story? Keret believes that writing speculative fiction is about leaving the spaces of “what we’re indoctrinated to do. Realism is limited, and natural options for characters often defy the laws of reality.” In a story in Keret’s first book, for example, a chronic, non-stop complainer keeps complaining even after he’s dead and buried.
Professionally, however, Keret is wary of calling himself a genre writer. “The moment you say you write a genre, you trap yourself inside that genre. We don’t live our lives in genre.”
Instead, Keret interrogates his characters and lets them dictate their story’s place on the realism spectrum. “I ask myself about the integrity of the characters and where the plot should naturally go.” After the story is written, he lets the publishing world decide how to label it. The Hitler clone story mentioned above was only labeled science fiction when an editor at WIRED asked to include it in the 2016 fiction issue.
On Journalism and the Third Place
Keret describes his unusual approach to journalism like this: “It’s not an attempt to educate” but an attempt to “disorient my readers and to confuse them.” This disorientation is productive, Keret argues, because “confusion is a moral stance.” His goal is to separate his reader from his initial understanding of a subject, to shatter the reader’s assumptions about Keret’s journalistic or political position on that topic— and to take the reader, instead, to a “third place, from whence the reader will have to find his way back home.”
One student wants to discuss a story from The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, in which a man’s mother’s uterus is put in a museum. As a feminist, she finds the story compelling. She wants to know how Keret thought about the feminist elements of the story as he was writing it.
While he espouses liberal, feminist beliefs, Keret responds that he didn’t write the story with the intention of making a statement about feminism. “When I write stories, I never try to say anything about anything,” he says. “The stories have a life of their own.” He mentions, for example, another of his stories, titled “My Girlfriend’s Naked,” from The Nimrod Flipout and its surprising reception among readers. “It’s beloved by nudists!”
Even so, another student wonders, doesn’t the writer bear some responsibility for anticipating and managing reader response?
“I write to deal with issues that I cannot totally articulate,” Keret says, “A good story always has to be smarter than the person who wrote it.”
On Craft and the Writing Workshop
“What’s the difference between a stage magician and a wizard? The wizard can’t explain how he does what he does,” Keret says. “Some writers are stage magicians but I want to be a wizard, which is riskier.”
A wizard cannot explain how he makes magic, nor can he reliably make magic either, but Keret believes that there is something to be said for writing that isn’t manipulated. Wizardry, as Keret sees it, is about writing a story “for yourself, not for others. I write it because I want to read it. When I write, I’m not in control— not manipulating [the story].”
Keret’s preference for wizardry makes his disinterest in craft unsurprising. “We’re not carpenters,” he says. “I’m against the ‘well-written story.’”
“When I write, I fall back and hope the story will catch me. Most of the time it doesn’t and I wake up with a bump on the back of my head and twenty pages that don’t make any sense.”
“The most moving stories aren’t told by the most articulate people, but by passionate story tellers,” Keret argues. “It shouldn’t be called a ‘workshop.’ It should be called a ‘support group.’” Keret describes the support group as something akin to an addiction support group, or AA.
“When you write, you do something that is totally unjustified in the world. You sit at home making things up instead of doing chores. There’s something almost ridiculous in the act of writing fiction.”
Workshops should start with the writer saying, “I wrote a story,” and his cohort saying in unison: “It’s OK, we still love you.”
Etgar Keret is an Israeli writer whose works include a memoir, The Seven Good Years, and several story collections: The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, The Nimrod Flipout, The Girl on the Fridge, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, and Fly Already. His work has been translated into 45 languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, The Paris Review, and The New York Times, among many other publications, and on This American Life, where he is a regular contributor.
Yohanca Delgado graduated from American University’s Creative Writing program in 2019 and is former editor-in-chief of Café MFA. She is worried she may be a (bumbling) stage magician. You can find her deeply caffeinated and tweeting about craft at @yodelnyc.
Photo of Professor Scholes Young with Etgar Keret courtesy of the Center for Israel Studies. Photos of students in conversation with Etgar Keret courtesy of Professor Scholes Young.