Fans of public radio’s This American Life have endured no shortage of the breezy yet fully imagined vignettes of Israeli life written and read by Etgar Keret, but long-suffering readers have had to wait four years for his latest collection, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door. They can be reassured that far more pleasures than perils will reward their patience. In its seemingly random, absurdist pages, a counterfeit shekel ends up having more value than a genuine one, a goldfish possesses the ability to confer magic wishes for good or ill, and stories fold back on themselves so that they present their own sense of déjà vu — a strange, bedeviling, and often (but not always) happy sensation. Readers may be either put off or enchanted by the playfulness, but at their best the stories convey a sense that the world is knowable on some level we can’t verbalize. Nevertheless, we couldn’t help but try, and in a flurry of recent emails, we managed to entice Mr. Keret to say a few words about his process. — Daniel Asa Rose
The Barnes & Noble Review: Your characters are always running into people they know — someone’s grandma or dentist. There’s a sense that people are yoked closely together. How much is this the result of hailing from a small nation, or does it predate Israel and perhaps smack of a shtetl sensibility?
Etgar Keret: It is a very Jewish thing to know everybody. It is impossible to become a serial killer in Israel because everyone you try killing will be in the end the brother or the cousin of someone you went to school with.
BNR: Would you be a very different writer if you’d been raised in America, where we sometimes fancy that we have six degrees of separation, as opposed to Israel, where there seem to be only two or three?
EK: What do you mean “two or three”? If I don’t know the guy personally he must be an Iranian mole.
BNR: In several of your stories, your male characters are always having sex “on the side” almost as a matter of course. Is that how it is in Israel today?
EK: Why? You are considering immigrating? When I write about adultery I mostly use it as a metaphor. Living comfortably with something that is immoral and problematic is, sadly, very human and yes, it is also very Israeli.
BNR: This book arrives with a lot of PR hoopla — even something called an “Etgar Keret Art & Design Contest.” Is that fun for you or a drag?
EK: A few weeks ago my mother called my home while I was giving an interview. My wife told her I couldn’t take her call because I was working, and my mother corrected her, saying that talking to somebody about yourself isn’t exactly work. PR is fun most of the time, and when it isn’t it is something slightly unpleasant you are doing for something you really believe in, which is a much better deal than most people get.
BNR: In the story “A Good One”, you suggest that some airline passengers befriend their neighbors solely so that they can appropriate the armrest. Are you cynical?
EK: I hope I’m not, but I am very ironic. The big difference between irony and cynicism (at least the way I use these terms) is that cynicism is built on alienation, while irony can make fun of things but at the same time can be also empathic and warm. It is the difference between making a joke about a total stranger and making one about your mom.
BNR: Is your intention to move readers, to amuse them, to cast things in a different light for them, or what?
EK: It’s “or what” for certain. Writing never has a pragmatic purpose for me. It doesn’t have any purpose, at least not one which I’m able to grasp or articulate.
BNR: Do you ever know how a story will end before you start?
EK: I never know what is going to happen in my story. The strongest drive I have for writing is curiosity. I write like a reader who…wants to know what will happen next. When the first draft ends I many times change the structure but when I first write it, it is a complete mystery.
BNR: Have you achieved the proper amount of success for your talent? Not too little, not too much?
EK: I don’t think anyone deserves success. It is like a gift and when you get one, you don’t weigh it, you just say “thanks.”
BNR: Some reviewers have detected anger in your work. I get wistful bemusement. Am I missing something?
EK: Oh, I am angry, but not with you. You are nice.
BNR: But maybe I’m just a naturally shallow person.
EK: There is nothing natural about being shallow.
BNR: Was that a dumb thing for me to say?
EK: It wasn’t, and you are not shallow.
BNR: Reviewers sometimes use violent expressions to describe your writing. It “swings around and hits you in the back of the head” (Tikkun); “whaling at the ice with a Wiffle ball bat” (The Forward). If you were reviewing yourself, what imagery would you use?
EK: “Massages you with aromatic oils”? “Embraces you with hairy warmth”? Man, I’m not good at this.
BNR: Your male characters have been described as “trapped in stasis,” but I see them more as floating upside down in midair like in a Chagall painting. Do either of these ring true?
EK: I think both are true. Believe me, one has to be trapped in stasis for a very long time to start floating upside down in midair.
BNR: How much do you polish?
EK: A lot, for much, much longer than I actually write.
BNR: You don’t strike me as a particularly tortured person. Care to comment?
EK: Thanks. I have already learned that I pass as very happy and easygoing in email interviews.
BNR: There’s a sense of effortlessness to your stories, as though they easily flow out of you. Do you ever get the feeling readers or reviewers resent that?
EK: A reader once told me disappointedly, “I could have written those stories,” and I answered, “But you don’t need to, I’ve already written them for you.” When it comes to writing I try not to sweat a lot, and when I do I try my best to hide it.