Interview with Etgar Keret at Words Without Borders

Words Without Borders has an interesting interview with the short story writer Etgar Keret about his process and what he thinks of creative writing programs and craft. I am a big fan of his stories and he has been one my most interesting finds in the world of short stories over the last year or two along with Amanda Michalopoulou and Hipólito Navarro. Because his works deviate from the more American tradition of epiphany and craft, I find his work quite refreshing. His take on craft, something I was taught in my earliest creative writing classes and still seems to haunt me like some tedious specter, was interesting. 

DH: Do you think there is an essential difference between what people think a good story is in contemporary American literature and in other parts of the world? I mean, do you see a difference between what is considered a good story here and, say, in Israel?

EK: I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but what I can say about the US is that there are many readers and creative writing professors who are into the tradition of the “well written story,” which is something I completely dislike because it focuses on the craft machine. I tell my students that they should focus on writing “the badly written” good story. There is something paralyzing if you are thinking all the time about the form; it can stop you from focusing on the true passion and emotion. Here I can see that some people could characterize my stories as “shaggy dog stories” because they say, “OK, this is about a guy who went to a bar, etc., but this is not literature” because I don’t write the typical New Yorker story. I think this is very American because it goes with the Protestant work ethic: when you read a story you should see that someone worked very hard on it. But when I write something I want to hide my effort. I want people to feel that I am speaking to them. If it took me two months to write it I want it to look as if I didn’t make any effort. This is something that clashes with the American tradition. If you compare Bob Dylan singing a song with someone from American Idol, the latter sings better, he has a better voice. But the guy from American Idol is thinking about “singing well,” while Bob Dylan is thinking about the song. So the American kind of “well written” story is about creating an American Idol kind of story.

DH: I believe in that, and it makes sense, given the fact that your stories are not premeditated, but they start based on sound or rhythm. Now, you are a writer that in this country we read in translation, so there is problem with that.

EK: The problem is that English is 30/% longer than Hebrew. In Hebrew you can really construct very short sentences. In know this because I work with two very, very creative translators. And many times I don’t want them to be loyal to the text, but to the meter. For example, I have a story that begins with a series of compliments about a guy; but when my translator translated the story, it didn’t work because she wanted to translate the word, but the rhythm didn’t work. So, I told her, “Forget about the word! It should be ta-ta-ta.”

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