Etgar Keret probably wouldn’t read his new book, but you definitely should. The Israeli writer has his own hesitations when it comes to memoirs—unreliable narrators included—but that’s not slowing the unmistakable charm shown through The Seven Good Years. The book, which details the years between his son’s birth and his father’s death, might not possess the surreal quality of Keret’s fiction, but his funny, humanist charm remains intact through The Seven Good Years. We talked to Keret about his nonfiction debut, trying to transcend material existence and convincing students reading fiction could be good for them.
How do you think your years of writing fiction shaped the way you approached writing about your own life?
Keret: Writing, for me, was always associated with fiction. I always felt kind of sorry for nonfiction writers. Fiction writers had more fun. When I write a story I don’t know what’s going to happen, so it feels like an adventure. When you write nonfiction, it’s more like retelling an adventure because you already know what happened. I never had the urge to write nonfiction. I never wrote a diary as a kid. I felt the role of writing was to go somewhere life hadn’t taken you rather than document something that’s already happened. I think this changed the day I became a father. I can’t even really explain it. One of the things I discovered about writing nonfiction is how it’s a good way of dealing with your emotions when you’re confused. When you retell something, it makes it very clear where you stand towards it. Are you more afraid or bitter? It also helped me accept things. With the birth of my son, I started writing these pieces. In the beginning, I didn’t think about them as something that would become a book. Only when my father became ill did I decide I wanted to turn them into a book.
Was there ever a temptation to take these memories and spin them into fictional stories or were you pretty set on telling them as they were?
Keret: I very rarely take something that’s happened in real life and write a story about it. When I write fiction, I have an emotion or feeling I can’t articulate with something that happened in real life. With my stories, a 7-foot-tall alien can meet a talking rabbit. I don’t really write autobiographically. All my fiction deals with my life and my biography. With nonfiction, you just write about what happened. You don’t take the raw emotion and wrap it in new clothes.
Were there any memoirs you enjoyed reading as you wrote these stories?
Keret: First of all, I mostly read fiction. I hardly read nonfiction. If there’s one thing I never read, it’s a memoir. [Laughs]. I really believe people are fool witnesses when they talk about their lives. They want to justify something or want to reach some closure. When I want to read about a historical incident, I’ll always go with a historian rather than someone who actually took part in the process like a prime minister or president. This kind of book I wrote is a book I wouldn’t read if it was by somebody else. [Laughs].
This book is about your family, particularly your father and son. Do you think there was anything about your parents raising you that created a desire in you to become a short story writer predominantly?
Keret: They were both Holocaust survivors. From a very young age, they had to work very hard just to survive physically, to find food and shelter. When they had us, their three children, they just wanted us to transcend material existence. They couldn’t even tell us what they wanted us to be because they didn’t know what those things were. My father would always say, “If you grow up and you have a nice car, a nice apartment, a nice family and that’s it, then I’d be very disappointed.” He always had a fear one of us would become a dentist. [Laughs]. I think there’s something about writing that attempts to transcend material existence. My two siblings tried to do the same. My sister has her orthodox religious beliefs and my brother has his social activism. There are no dentists in the family and we’re all going to that place my parents didn’t have a chance to go to because they were just trying so hard to survive.
Do you think literature can fulfill the same needs religion does for your sister and political activism does for your brother?
Keret: Yeah, those three routes are routes taken by people who want to affect the world and change it and make it a better place. When my brother goes to demonstrations or writes against threats to freedom of speech or for equality, he’s taking action to make the world better. When my sister prays to God to be nice to us, she’s doing the same. [Laughs]. The same happens when you write a story. Lots of people can find different things in literature but, for me, what I find is a place in which you can write about your experience and life without beautifying it while still advocating for humanity. Sometimes I see an artist who is extremely talented but completely misanthropic like Lars Von Trier. When I see his work, I think it’s amazing but it’s not what I look for in art. If I wanted to reinforce my idea that people are assholes, I can just step out on the street. I live in a part of the world where it’s very easy to lose hope in humanity and human kindness. So as a writer and a reader, I don’t anyone to cheat and say we’re better than what we are but I would want to communicate there’s still some kind of redemption and that we aren’t all bad. I think it’s actually easier to believe things are just terrible. When you’re a kid and want to be cool, it’s easier to do that by making fun of things instead of making something good yourself.
You brought up how it would be easy to lose hope for humanity given where you live. How has living in Israel affected your psyche? What’s it like parenting a child when you know bombs could go off around the corner?
Keret: I think living in Israel isn’t that different than living in America. The spectrum of emotion is exactly the same, but sometimes it feels like those emotions might be at a higher volume. It’s like somebody took the radio in their car and turned it all the way up to the point you can hear it in your own car. It’s the same over here but louder. All those things that have to do with fear, anxiety, anger and pain at times feel like they’re on a louder scale than what you may meet in the more privileged parts of the world.
Are there any books you hope to expose your son to as he grows up to help him understand the world?
Keret: When I was a child, one book that had a huge impact on me was Huckleberry Finn. It taught me how to be sensitive to racism or the possibility that people won’t see everybody as equal long before I encountered in the world before me. There’s something about that story that helped me be prepared to deal with issues of racism and personal responsibility when I grew up. Alice in Wonderland is just amazing because it shows you how imagination can grow in such different ways, how logic and human feelings are similar in an aesthetic sense. There’s so many good books out there. Winnie the Pooh is great at teaching you how to eat well and be a Buddhist at the same time.
We see our entire lives from one point of view so it’s important to jump out and look at things from a different angle. It makes things seem much richer. I sometimes give lectures to youths who come from underprivileged areas who may turn to crime or drop out of school. I had a debate when one of the teens said he had no interest in fiction because you can’t get anything out of fiction. It wouldn’t make him stronger or richer. I said that it exercises empathy. If he read a book about his next door neighbor rather than just living next to him, he may know a little more about how he thinks. And he said, “Why should I give a fuck about how he thinks?” [Laughs]. So I said, “If you read a book about a drug deal and knew about how drug dealers think, you might be able to get those drugs for a little cheaper. If you tried to date a girl and could imagine how she thinks, maybe you could convince her you’re not an asshole. I think this has a pragmatic aspect for you.” [Laughs].
After writing this book, what would your advice be to that guy or anyone about how to he a good parent?
Keret: I’m not sure I have very great advice for that but I must admit that role is something I always saw as very important. During the Holocaust, my mother’s incentive to survive the war was to find somebody who would love her and have children. For her, this was like the World Cup or the NBA Finals. It was a long shot. My parents took such great joy in having a family. It was like their greatest fantasy fulfilled. When you grow up with parents that think having you is such an amazing treat, you’re indoctrinated that the moment you have a child you feel the same. Family was always really, really important for me. My parents lived through governments shifting, money being taken, positions being lost and they always saw family as the one thing you could trust. I guess I feel the same.