Stacy Patton: Everything I've read about you mentions that you were born in Israel, but it also appears that you have lived in a wide variety of places around the world. Which do you think influences your work more: where you've come from, or the places you've seen since leaving home?
Lavie Tidhar: A sense of place is very important to me, for what I write. I've tended to set stories everywhere I've been, so it shifts, depending on where I am! Saying that, though, London's obviously been an inspirational setting for me - it's where The Bookman is largely set, and will be the setting of the novel I'm currently planning. And it's increasingly important for me to write stories set in Israel - at the moment I'm working on a cycle of short stories - a mosaic novel - set in a future Tel Aviv, and I'm planning a novel set in Jaffa, where I lived for a time. But they all feed in, and influence the way I write - having to speak Bislama (the Pidgin English spoken in Vanuatu), for instance, has had a large influence on the pattern of my writing in the last few years.
SP:Why do you feel it's important for you to write stories set in Israel?
LT: Well, I'm becoming increasingly uncomfortable "stealing", or appropriating, other cultures/places, even if I've lived there for a time. And I feel the need to engage - politically, literally - with the place I come from, with the way it shapes stories. And, I suppose, it's something I know - let's be honest, there are plenty of people writing about America, and I'd like to write about something else!
SP: What books or stories or writers have influenced/inspired you?
LT:There's too many to list! For Osama I was inspired by several European crime writers - my feeling is that there is a very different attitude to crime fiction in Europe - that it is more of a vehicle for asking some big questions than just whodunit. Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Arturo Perez Reverte's The Dumas Club - both novels that cross genres and have something to say.
It's also a homage of sort to Israeli pulp fiction - "Mike Longshott", the pulp writer in Osama, was the house name of several lurid pulp paperback writers published in the 60s-70s in Israel, including, if I recall correctly, the infamous "I was Commandant Schultz's Bitch", which is referenced in the novel.
And Philip K. Dick, I think, is another obvious influence!
SP: Speaking of pulp fiction, I’ve been nosing around your blog and I snatched that Nympho Librarian cover for my Pinterest. A friend commented: ‘It fascinates me that artists used to paint pulp covers by hand, before the age of Photoshop. Think of it: Someone standing in front of an easel, wetting a brush, painting this portrait of the nympho librarian at work.’
LT: Here are the Mike Longshott covers:
SP: Wowza. A few things just clicked into place for me. Those covers are fantastic—disturbing—but fascinating. Let’s talk about Mike Longshott, the elusive character in Osama.
LT: I'm actually writing a Mike Longshott novella at the moment! Well the name won't be Longshott but the principle is the same. The first issue of Clarkesworld Magazine had a story by me about nazisploitation fiction. Sorry, it's a subject I'm sort of fascinated by! I think pulp sometimes allows people to address taboo or difficult subjects that you can't necessarily do otherwise. Here are couple of favourites:
SP: It just hit me: this stuff—Nazi porn—is popular in Israel?
LT: It was, in the late 1960s. Behind-the-counter stuff. Very rare now - I think copies go for as much as $300. There's been a bunch of stuff written about that phenomenon, even a documentary film recently, though I've not been able to get hold of a copy!
SP: Tell me about your writing process. How do you begin a novel or a story-- with a line, an image, or an idea? Or something else?
LT: All of the above, really! Sometimes it's a single image, sometimes a line that comes into my head and I like. Sometimes it's a pure idea. I used to - and still like – to launch straight into writing something from just that initial image and work my way through it, but that's been changing. These days it takes me a lot longer to think through stories before I set down to write them. Certainly in the case of Osama, say, the idea was there for a long time before I had the courage to sit down and try to write it. Whereas The Bookman started off with two strong images - this idea of an assassin using books, and whales in the Thames - and kind of grew from there. By the way, no one ever asks me about either poetry or cooking!
SP: Well, I did ask about other writers who’ve influenced you. Are there poets on the list?
LT: I started off as a poet - my first book was a Hebrew poetry collection, in 1998. I published a few poems in literary journals in the UK but I stopped - these days I mostly incorporate poems into the stories/novels - there are a couple in Osama, for instance. I'd like to release a poetry collection at some point in the future, but it's definitely not something I'm going to rush. In a way, I'd rather write one great poem than any number of books - but I don't think I ever have, and may never will. If you look at poems like Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" or Dan Pagis's "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Freight Train Car", or T.S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi", or Larkin's "Aubade", you know - I wish I could write like that.
SP: Do you cook?
LT: My other passion is cooking! At the moment I'm experimenting with different chilli sauces. I'd like to do a cookbook one day - it's surprisingly hard work! I'm more of an improviser, I don't take exact measurements. And my cooking tends to change from country to country - so much of what you make depends on the weather, on local produce. I love markets!
SP: How about we close with a recipe for chilli sauce?
LT: There are really so many ways. I recently experimented with scotch bonnets and mango - which, surprisingly, turned out a bit too sweet for me - I think I prefer green mango, which we used to get a lot of in Laos. Last night I blitzed a bunch of red chillies, made them into flakes - that was nice too.
SP: Blitzed? Is that a cooking term I’m unaware of?
LT: I mean, I just put them into the food processor until they were shredded. I usually prefer doing my own chopping!
SP: Ah. When I read ‘blitzed’ I thought: fire. So I’m glad we cleared that up.
The groundbreaking Osama has beaten stiff competition including Stephen King, George R.R. Martin at this year's World Fantasy awards. The brilliant novel is set in an alternate reality where Osama Bin Laden is the anti-hero of a series of thrillers penned by a reclusive writer. The win is a great example of an underdog - or at least the small dog, triumphing against the big-hitting, more commercial productions.