Emotions Are Like Little Gremlins
Etgar Keret thinks storytelling is like farting: we're all born with it
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There are very few Etgar Kerets in the world. I mean this literally. At the end of our conversation on his new book Fly Already, Etgar Keret explained to me why this is so. Keret, his last name, means “urban,” and was chosen by his father when no one could pronounce his last name. In Hebrew, names are imbued with meaning. His wife is Poetry. His son is Heart. And Etgar? Etgar is Challenge. So his name is Urban Challenge. “Which is a fucked up name to give to a child,” he said. We both laughed.
But also, of course, this makes sense. Etgar Keret’s stories are, in one way, about the challenges of language. His stories, which are often short but never thin, are filled with the robust ways language, that duplicitous partner we go through life with, cheats on us and lies to us and confuses the hell out of us. But we depended on it. And love it, even. In the titular story “Fly Already,” for example, a man and his son are on their way to play catch when the son spots a man, standing on the edge of a tall building. The father immediately knows what the man’s actions communicate. “He wants to fly,” the son says. The father screams up at the man “Don’t do it!” And the son screams back “Fly already!” But the man on the ledge can’t quite hear what either of them are saying. It’s funny and horrifying. Both statements, of course, are ridiculous prayers up into an impossibly complicated situation. Neither statement will properly address the man’s suffering. And yet. Could either push him off the ledge?
Fly Already is a collection that pinpoints that triangulation, again and again, between hope, horror, and humor in our everyday lives. It’s a dynamic collection of stories that will make you laugh, gasp, and cringe. It is a collection filled with all the mystery, devastation, and collective rewards of being human and trying to explain it to one another.
Over the course of a WhatsApp conversation, Etgar Keret and I discussed the “usefulness” of stories, how he writes them, and why his readers in Mexico truly understand what his stories are about.
Erin Bartnett: I wanted to start off by talking about the writers in your stories. Whether it’s a writer held hostage by people who want him to tell a story (which is the case in the title story of your collection Suddenly, a Knock at the Door) or a story about a writer whose friend wants him to write a story that will get him laid (in “Todd” from this collection) there’s definitely a tension between the writer and reader.
So I’m curious: what do you think is the relationship between why you write stories, and why people read them? Are they operating at opposing purposes? Or are both experiences about trying to figure something out?
Etgar Keret: When I sit down to write, I’m trying to figure out what’s going on, how I am feeling, where this story is heading. Many times when I write stories, one of the main questions I raise is “why in the hell am I doing it?” There is something very weird about writing stories. It’s kind of a greed around words, that people can sit down and say “there was a guy” when there was never a guy, and “he went to work” when he never did, and at the end something kind of happens but nothing ever really happened. I could be doing something useful. I could be watering the garden, I could be making myself a scrambled egg. Why am I sitting down and writing stuff that isn’t real? So I think that in many of my stories, at some kind of a deep layer, they are about the function of story in our lives. Stories can do so many things. In a story you can figure out what you’re feeling, you can yearn for something. You can admit something shameful that you’ve had on your mind. You can empathize with somebody who isn’t like you.
I think that both in “Todd” and “Suddenly, a Knock at the Door” there’s an interaction between a writer and a potential reader—or, not even readers—“the market.” They demand that you manufacture something for them. But like everything, this can also be seen as some kind of an internal dialogue; it’s the relationship between writer and reader, but also the relationship between a guy and a part of the guy that demands that he write. When “Todd” was published (in Electric Literature!) I was told then it resonated a lot with people who write. I think that story for me, is about the functionless nature of story. Stories have no angle. When you write them, you don’t get anything out of them. I think that’s the nature of fiction. You cannot harness the energies. You cannot channel them. You cannot make the story go where you think it will be beneficial for it to go.
EB: Another way I saw that question being investigated was in stories that had to do with these “useful” technological innovations in your stories. In “Tabula Rosa,” “Window,” and “GooDeed” especially, there’s a blurring of the line between a person and a commodity. The question of what we are “worth” to one another. What inspired these stories?
EK: Well, I think that there are two contradictory answers. I think that through technology you can actually create analogies for things that already exist in our lives. I wrote stories about clones or androids, but basically those stories are really about how people will always try to feel good about people who are like them, but they feel it’s okay to exploit them, too. So if write a story about people who are mean to clones or mean to androids, it could be very relevant to the region I live in, where there are occupied territories in which so many people have liberties and protections that others don’t. So technology helps you make the story more into a fable and less politically-specific—which is something that tends to put the reader in a certain mode I don’t like.
The other answer is I feel that I come from a very specific generation. When I was in high school there were already very slow and bad personal computers. I played Atari. So many pixels. I would make fun of elderly people who couldn’t use ATM machines properly. (I really lived in a time when ATMS were introduced to my town.) I had been in the “before” and “after” for this kind of technology, but at the same time, I now have an elderly-person mode, because when I was young, when technology was introduced, it was there to stay. ATM machines, microwaves—you learned it, and you knew that for the next 60 years, you’re going to defrost vegetarian schnitzel with it. While, for example, my son already lives in a world where he’s already learned apps and things that he knows in a couple of years will become obsolete.
I really feel like I understand less and less the dynamics of the world. Not just the technical aspects of it, but in general the way that things go. There used to be some kind of level to the amount of bullshit that people could put out in the world. There was a threshold. I admit when I saw my Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying on election day the Arabs are going on buses and Israel is under threat—when 20% of our population in Israel is Arab? I said “Okay, this is not going to slide, this guy is finished. Nobody in the world will shake his hand.” And then you see that nothing really happens and you realize that you don’t totally understand the ropes. The world has changed. And you’re not really on top of things.
So in my stories, to talk about technology is really to talk about characters who live in a world that they don’t totally figure out, not because they don’t know how to press the buttons, but because they can’t understand how the social structure has evolved. How the right and wrongs of what you can do and what you can’t do evolved. I must say that I feel in this position a lot. I feel I am less in touch with the world around me. It’s the elderly writer syndrome.
EB: So do you think this kind of alienation from the present affected your writing? What changed for you while writing this collection?
EK: One change that I see in my book is that my stories take place in different continents and different times in a way that seems very natural to me now. I think that in the past, it would feel strange to write stories that took place in the Midwest. Now, even though I’ve been to the Midwest and I was in Iowa City for 8 months, I think that even the stuff that I don’t know—nothing seems distant, in a sense. And it’s not only geographic, it’s the future that doesn’t feel that distant. You know you just type “www.future.com” and you see the future! And if you pay for the prime subscription, then you’ll even see the distant future!
EB: Children, particularly in the stories “Fly Already,” and “Dad with Mashed Potatoes” present these simultaneous and totally different realities in language. They aren’t any less “real” or “true” than the realities of the adults in the stories. Where do you find this language? What do children’s perspectives lend to a story’s truth that an adult cannot?
EK: Well, I think that for me, in a strange way, it’s not only as natural but more natural to write from a child’s perspective than from an adult’s. In my earlier collection I would write many stories from children’s perspectives, and I have urged myself to do so less because I wanted to write from adults to be closer to my own problems. But still, I get along with children much better than I get along with other adults. When you’re a child, if you go into a kindergarten you’ll see like 30 crazy little guys running around and they’re all kind of extreme, and they’re overly individualistic. And then they’re indoctrinated. You learn that if you take a poop on your table, then it gets you into trouble and you stop doing that. And the kids who aren’t doing that as much look normal now. There is something about that indoctrination that is bubbling up. You are less what you feel like doing and less your imagination and less stuff that doesn’t make any sense and more studying to be a dentist.
I’m almost 52 years old but when I wake up most days I don’t even know what I’m going to do. Which is not a very grownup kind of life. I feel like this five-year-old guy who got away. The one who got under the kindergarten fence and went outside and grew a beard and a mustache and he’s 52 years old and he’s still in kindergarten.
I think that it is even justified biographically by my parents, who are both Holocaust survivors. My mother lost her parents in the war and my father said he never had a normal childhood, so when they raised us, my mother always said that she didn’t know how to raise children because as a child she grew up in an orphanage where all the grownups were trying to steal her food and sell it in the black market, so the grownups were enemies. I think the way that our parents raised us, was also a very child-like way. The idea was “you be a good person, and if the school gives you trouble, I will come and you tell me what to say and I’ll lie to the teacher and everything will be okay.” In my family there was a rule that if it rained, we didn’t go to school. My mother said “with all due respect, they don’t teach you anything important enough to get wet for.” So I would stay home and do all kinds of stuff and then my mother would write me a note. It was really standard procedure.
EB: Yeah, I read in an interview you did with Words Without Borders in which you said that “there is something about the beauty of childhood: you either get stuck in it or get detached from it. Childhood is something that cannot survive.”
EK: You know, my father had a rule that, every seven years max, he changed his profession. And sometimes during my life we’ve been bankrupt and we’ve been pretty rich and we’ve been poor. When we would go out and I would see a pair of shoes I would say “Mother, are we rich now?” And my mother would say “No, actually, this year we’re poor.” But the reason my father did it is because he said he survived the Holocaust. And he was so grateful for that. He said “I don’t want to live one life, I want to live many lives. I want to do stuff that I want to do, I want to fail, I want to do stuff I’m not good at, too. I want a taste of everything.” And when you grow up like this, it’s very difficult for you to accept one career. When I went to university, they asked me what do you want to learn, I said “everything.” And actually, I spent five years in university and I learned math and I learned biology and I would go to history class. When people said “Yeah, but what are you going to do when you grow up?” I said, I don’t know, maybe some rich guy will give me money.” So I moved to plan B.
EB: I am reading these stories in English translation. I wonder, the longer your stories have been circulating around the world (now in 45 languages) are there things you’ve noticed that get lost in particular languages? Or found in others? Concepts, sure, but emotional truths, too? How do you work with your translators?
EK: Well first, I try to communicate with my translator as much as they have the patience to communicate with me. I think it’s very individualistic in that way. Some translators are more into asking questions and others don’t want to communicate too much. I think that translation is really kind of co-writing in a sense because languages don’t function the same way. It’s very strange. I can give you all kinds of examples. You want an example?
EB: Yeah, sure!
EK: So I have a story about a real estate guy this woman comes to and she says I want to buy an apartment because I am asking for a divorce from my husband because I caught him cheating on me. And he goes around and shows her apartments, but as he goes, he realizes that she didn’t randomly reach him, she came to him because apparently he’s the guy who found the apartment that was the love nest of the young woman and her husband. So she comes and sees apartments but at the same time she wants to get some information about this girl. And the real estate agent wants to be polite and nice and discreet, so there is a struggle between them. And now I’ll teach you something about the Hebrew language. In Hebrew, we don’t have an “it” form—everything is either masculine or feminine. So as they go she says to him “Is she beautiful?” And he says “Not only is she beautiful, you’ll have your own parking.” Because an apartment in Hebrew is feminine. So how do you translate that to English? You can’t! You need to reinvent it.
We have this notion that we have language and content and language is like a glass and we can pour content from one glass to another and it’s fine. But it’s not this way. I know that when my stories go to another language, they’re very dependent on translation. My mother, for example, feels really strongly and truly believes that my works in Polish are funnier and more emotional. And I wouldn’t be surprised because my Polish translator, she’s an amazing person. Just the fact that the stories go through her veins makes them better. And I can tell you that of the countries that I’ve been published in, the ones that are most successful are the ones with translators who were the most open to dialogue.
I think for me the interesting thing is the meetings with the audiences that can be very very different. One of the countries I’m most successful in is Mexico. And my Mexican publishers are very good friends, I really like them. When I went to Mexico, I did a book signing. And I think the third person who came was this big guy with a big moustache and I signed his book and he asked me something in Spanish. And I understood the basic kind of “May I do this…” question. And I always say “Si.” Because you don’t think someone’s going to say anything like “May I hit you on the head” or something… So I was standing and said, “Yeah, sure.” And he hugged me! And it was very nice, a very nice hug. And then as people got in line, every few people, they would ask me and hug me. I said sure because I really like to be hugged. And I did readings in other places in Mexico, and the readers hugged me after the reading, too. So I said to my publisher, “You know, it’s a very beautiful cultural thing. In the U.S. they would ask me how much money I made out of the book or did I sell the film rights, and here people really just want to hug me! It’s really beautiful that Mexican readers have these kind of traditions.” He said “No, it’s not a tradition. They only hug you! They don’t hug any of our other writers…” So I said “Why do you think they hug me?” He said, “Maybe because they feel like you need a hug.” And I thought to myself, you know, it makes sense. I think that if there is one thing that my stories have in common, if you put them next to a candle, the words “I need a hug, desperately” would appear. In all of them. But this is something that only happened in Mexico.
It is kind of amazing that I can write a story about something that happened to me when I was ten years old in a town in Israel, and somebody in China will say I read this story, I cried and told my boss I quit my job. Whoa. These emotions and energies that move through channels to all kinds of places in such a unique and weird way, but nevertheless a truthful one. Because when I was ten years old in my hometown, I wanted to quit my job, too. [Laughs.] No. But I really wanted to leave school and this guy who read it in China, he got it. So I think there is something really beautiful and comforting—to go back to the hugs—because I’m afraid to say, I really don’t think it gets any better than getting a hug. It’s not as if we’re going to live forever.
EB: When you write a story, you’ve explained in previous interviews, that you want the labor to be submerged. So, maybe this is an American-y craft question that’s inherently contradictory, but how do you go about doing that?
EK: You know again, I think that for me, writing is better than doing nothing. I mean in the sense that I like doing nothing, but writing is even better. Because I think that for me, when I write those stories, it’s really a feeling of weightlessness. When you talk about “craft,” it sounds like a very responsible word. Everything that I do in life, I do responsibly. There’s always some kind of built-in anxiety in life experiences. It doesn’t matter if you’re crossing the street or you’re scrambling an egg or you’re trying to explain to your child what transgender is. You always know you can fuck up. You know you can do something that will not work well, that will be misinterpreted. But when you write stories, you’re safe. You’re safe. You just write stuff that you feel and that doesn’t seem to make any sense but sometimes you’re lucky and at the end it does make sense. So the act of writing for me, is more like sitting in a jacuzzi. I’ve never sat in a jacuzzi. But it kind of feels like sitting in a jacuzzi, I think.
EB: Okay but so what happens if you end up somewhere in the middle and it doesn’t make any sense? Do you ever get lost in the middle? What do you do when that happens? How do you find your way again?
EK: My emotions are like the little creatures, the gremlins. All the time they hide down in the sofa, but sometimes you see cookie crumbs. Evidence that they’re there, but you’re not even sure that they are really there. And so the beginning of the story is like, you see this creature, and you grab it by its tail. And then it starts running around and you hope it will stay and the shape that you make in your house, the trail of broken furniture—that is basically the story. So you grab it by the tail, but many times it’s too quick or it goes under the piano and you hit your head on the piano and you let go. And I think that this happens more often than the times where you’re really able to hold onto it.
I have a bunch of stories that, when I’m unable to realize or figure out what it’s about, I give up! That’s what I do! I’m a quitter. I say “Fuck it. You don’t want to be written? I won’t write you! Go find another poor bastard who will write you.” And I totally forget about them because in the fit of writing I don’t know how to sweat and struggle. When I edit, it’s a different story. But when I write I say, “Okay! It’s no fun, I’ll go and watch Family Guy instead.”
But some of those stories that you lose somewhere in the middle, they kind of reemerge years later. You try to write something else and you say “Ah! You know I’m actually trying to write that old story.” Some kind of character or a phrase that you had and suddenly it reappears in this setting and now it does make sense and it has this kind of old wine or old cheese quality that it’s really suddenly matured. And it falls into place.
What I’m really saying is that I think the most important thing for me in the writing is to have no feeling of attachment or ownership. I think that there is something about accepting the fact that you are not in control and accepting the fact that there are times when you sit at the computer that will just count as time that you didn’t watch crappy TV or eat things that aren’t good for you, so it’s good anyway. But you will not have anything to show, and you accept that that’s okay.
That’s why I really don’t like terms like “writer’s block.” When people say “writer’s block,” it’s kind of like “Excuse me. This Tuesday I did not write. I want to speak to the people in charge. It’s outrageous. It’s all because Donald Trump is president. If Obama was president I would write every day.” Like, who the fuck ever promised you that you’d be able to write? Say thank you, kiss the keyboard and bow. You didn’t write? Go and do something useful with your life.
Storytelling for me is not a craft, because every person you know, everyone who lied to you has told you a story. And so many people have lied to you. You will never figure out how many. And so, you don’t have the “craft” of telling a story—it’s like the “craft” of farting. We’re born with it. The great storytellers and writers in the world never learned craft. They just had a strong urge to tell a story. And it was so strong that they forced people around them to listen. And this urge was contagious. Many times, this kind of creative writing class process replaces that urge with some kind of professional certificate. Writing is like making love. Who wants to make love to a professional?
EB: Well, I mean knowledge is good in both, for sure. But that idea seems liberating in a lot of ways, too.
EK: Yeah, but for me writing should be liberating! Like the idea of the suffering artist? No, it’s the suffering human being. And the only difference between an artist and a human being is that maybe an artist is a human being who is a little bit more aware. When you realize that all people are suffering, then there is something actually liberating, that makes you suffer less about it. It’s like those people who say “I hate writing, I hate it…” You hate writing? Go sell something useful like most people on this earth. Nobody forces you to write.