Interview: Lavie Tidhar

LavieLavie Tidhar won the World Fantasy Award for best novel in 2012, for Osama (beating George R.R. Martin and Stephen King to the title). He won a British Fantasy Award that same year for his novella, Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God. His other awards include a BSFA for non-fiction and a special Kitschies, both for his work on the World SF Blog. He was also nominated variously for a Sturgeon, a Sidewise, a Campbell and many others. He is a prolific short story writer, with regular appearances in the various Year’s Bests anthologies. His other novels include 2013’s The Violent Century from Hodder & Stoughton, and his most recent is A Man Lies Dreaming, from the same publisher, about a grimy PI who bears a striking similarity to Adolf Hitler. He edited the three Apex Book of World SF anthologies of international speculative fiction, authored the 1000-word Bookman Histories trilogy of steampunk novels (comprising The Bookman, Camera Obscura and The Great Game) and is currently working on the graphic novel Adler for Titan Comics. He is also the author of five novellas, the seminal mini-collection HebrewPunk (2007), two novels with Israeli author NirYaniv (one in Hebrew, the other in English) and recent short novel Martian Sands. Lavie grew up on a kibbutz in Israel, and has since lived in South Africa, Vanuatu and Laos, but currently resides back in London.

JD for Amazing Stories Magazine : Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Lavie. I thought it might be interesting do two interviews. First with yourself and then with Pedro, the cover artist for Osama and other works of yours. So, can I begin to asking when you began writing, and what authors most inspired you when you were young. And, in particular at what point did you decide you really wanted to be an author, or did that just happen organically?

Black gods kissLT: I think when you’re young, you read everything, voraciously and quickly, so you also assimilate everything, good and bad, and only begin to puzzle it out years later. I’m influenced by the bad as much as the good, so it would be perhaps unfair to offer you a list… I think as I get older, I’m lucky if I find one author who affects me profoundly – who teaches me a new thing, a new way of writing – maybe once a year. In 2008, I remember, it was finally reading James Ellroy, in 2010 it was discovering the work of the Israeli author Shimon Adaf (with whom I’m currently writing a non-fiction book).

I suppose that, like a lot of people, I vaguely had the idea as a kid that writing would be great! Without quite knowing what was actually involved in it. At some point I decided I needed to have a bit of a life in order to have something to write about, so I set off backpacking at 17 and never entirely stopped. As it turns out, though, life happens whether you plan it or not… and I decided to try and write seriously around 2002, and never really stopped. Now I’m kind of afraid I’m too useless to have a proper job again!

ASM: I’ve just read your novella, Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God. I’ve reviewed it separately but I can say upfront that I loved it. This was the first Gorel story I’ve read, though I know your drug-addled adventurer thief, Gorel, was also featured in the five linked stories in Black Gods Kiss, but I felt I got to know him quickly in the novella. I appreciated the story layers, your use of invented mythology, oral storytelling and stories within stories. It made me think a little about the Arabian Nights or the Canterbury Tales. What can you say about why you chose to write it this way?

GorelLT: The Gorel stories started out when I was living on an island in Vanuatu, in the South Pacific for a year. I didn’t have any electricity and was reading in the evening by candlelight (hurricane lamps don’t really give off enough good light). I asked people to send me books and someone sent me a copy of C.L. Moore’s stories, which I had read before. I got really fired up about the idea of writing this pure sort of pulp fiction, but I had a large internal argument about it – should I really do it? What would I do with it? Then I just decided to relax and do it anyway, and the result were the six Gorel stories, which add up to a novel’s worth. They were so much fun to write, but at some point I lost the spark that animated them and couldn’t keep writing. I would have liked to have done a Gorel trilogy at some point… the closest I came was writing a story for George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’ anthology, Old Venus, a while back, which featured a Gorel-like hero on a fantastical Venus. But who knows? I still have notes for other Gorel stories, so maybe one day…

ASM: You’ve written explicitly with Jewish themes and subject matter. The Jewish writers who spring to my mind upfront are firmly in the mainstream camp (Saul Bellow – one of my favourites – Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, et al). I try to picture them writing something for the Jews Vs. Zombies anthology you edited with Rebecca Levene, for example, but don’t think they could have managed it, somehow. What is in your mind enfolding the Jewish experience so explicitly and so wittily into some of your work, both as a writer and an editor? A huge question, I realise…

LT: Well, it’s just my background. Write what you know, and all that. Very early on I figured I couldn’t compete with American writers in writing American stories – I don’t know America at all – but I could write my own stories and hope they click with someone. It eventually worked, though it took a while. With Jews vs Zombies I had the idea and just thought it would be a shame not to do it – luckily Rebecca agreed! After dealing with the Holocaust quite explicitly in A Man Lies Dreaming  (and to a lesser extent in Martian Sands and The Violent Century), my next novel’s hopefully going to be about Israel and Palestine, though again in a weird sort of alternate history sense.

ASM: I loved “304, Adolf Hitler Strasse” from Clarkesworld, and I know you’ve written a Hitler graphic novel, supposedly penned by the great dictator himself (a version of Spinrad’s pulp fiction-writing Hitler in The Iron Dream, perhaps?) And recently you’ve been riffing on Osama bin Laden. Tricky territory, I imagine. Apart from telling a great story, what do you feel science fiction in particular can contribute to the debate about such devastating matters?

LT: I don’t know if I can characterise these works entirely as science fiction – not that I’m averse to the term! It just seems to me that they use certain tools, certain conventions, in order to deal with history, and in that they fall more in some hinterland that mixes various genres – detective fiction, science fiction, history and alternate history, even romance (or, in the case of A Man Lies Dreaming, also pulp pornography). Incidentally, I’m aware of Spinrad’s work, but I’m afraid I’ve only read a couple of his 1960s collections of short stories. But the works you mention – “304, Adolf Hitler Strasse” is a good example – are really almost like sketches before the main work of the novel. The recent books have taken a long time to develop, and they usually begin with a short story, or even several, where I try out the theme. Osama came out of a lot of my own personal experience, but took me nearly a decade to come to the actual writing. I don’t honestly know what it says about me, but I seem both compelled to explore political themes, and to use the tools of genre fiction to do that with. Sometimes I wish I could only do one or the other, which would probably be a lot easier to sell…

ASM: In your work you draw on many genres as well as secular and non-secular themes. Pulp fiction and noir seem to weave through some of your fiction, though yours is more literary obviously. What is it that attracts you to those genres?

LT: The covers, I think! I never actually read a lot of pulp. I was inspired by the covers of Hebrew pulp novels when I was growing up. They were terrible books! But I love the vibrancy, the urgency, the joy of pulp. I don’t even like noir films that much. I like romantic comedies. But I love that most stories – and you see it a lot in films, these days – are based in formula. I love formulas, because you can use them as a convenient base, a set of expectations, and then play with them and change them. I like the order they offer, but only so I could mess it up!

Violent CenturyASM: Your new book, The Violent Century, was described by io9 as “like Watchmen on crack,” which is a great quote, though I think Watchmen itself was already on crack! Can you tell us about the new novel and are you able to say what you’re currently working on?

LT: I like Watchmen a lot, I have to say, but I’m not sure there is much more than a superficial similarity between it and The Violent Century. If I had to articulate it, I’d say Watchmen is all about the masks – as a symbol, a potent one – whereas my interest was really in exploring the 20th century through the eyes of a symbol – the superhero – which itself evolved out of the shadow of the Nazis, and created by young Jewish men who were themselves the children of refugees from Europe. I do not have much interest in superheroes, as such. But I’m very fond of Alan Moore, and if you pick up the new American edition of the novel, it contains an original short story, “Aftermaths”, where I wrote him in as a little cameo…

My latest novel is A Man Lies Dreaming, which has recently come out in the UK, and it concerns Adolf Hitler as a private eye in a transmogrified 1930s London – who is himself the dream of a Yiddish pulp writer in Auschwitz. I’m very happy with how the book turned out, I have to admit, on a personal level. I’m currently working on a non-fiction book, as well as a new novel, which both deal with pulp and Israeli politics, though sometimes I’m not sure which is more unbelievable…

ASM: Another sweeping question. What are your views about the current state of science fiction and fantasy, whether it’s in literature or the media? I’m thinking about such matters as falling literacy levels, debates about sexism in the industry and whether intimations about the ultimate death of the written word have any resonance with you.

LT: To be honest, I’ve taken a step back from being too involved in the internal politics of science fiction and fantasy in recent years. I can only really speak for myself, and the best way to do that is to just write the best books I can. One thing I’m very happy about is seeing more international writers in SF/F getting recognition and having novels published. I think that’s long overdue, and we all, as readers, end up benefiting from it.

ASM: I know you live in different parts of the world, although London is your main base at the moment. Do you feel your exposure to different cultures and places informs your writing in any great way?

LT: It does, I’m sure – but it also, paradoxically, made me more determined to go deeper into myself, to write what I honestly know, and not “co-opt” someone else’s experience. I like to think I’ve lived a boring life in interesting places!

ASM: Finally, and since I’ll also be interviewing Pedro Marques, what is your experience working with Pedro, or other artists?

LT: I’m glad you asked that. I think artists are often overlooked or under-credited, but you have to understand that for me, cover art – and as I said, pulp art in particular – has always been a large influence. What happened with Pedro, with Osama, was really weird. I could see the cover I wanted – which was a sort of pulp noir cover – and then Pedro came up with something completely different! This sort of 1960s Penguin paperback image, very iconic – I really have no idea how artists work or think, since I have no talent at all in that direction. And it was amazing! As soon as I saw his cover I knew it could only be that cover, for that book. If I remember right, he was nominated for a couple of awards for it – a BSFA Award and a French award, more recently – and it was used on a bunch of the translated editions as well.

Pedro has done all my books with PS Publishing, including the limited editions of the novels I have out with Hodder – and I love that I never know what he will come up with. It is always surprising and unexpected, but brilliant. The cover he did for the limited edition of The Violent Century still creeps me out, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with for A Man Lies Dreaming!

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