"I didn’t choose to write in the form of a letter, it chose me": An Interview with Evan Fallenberg

An interview with Evan Fallenberg on his new novel 'The Parting Gift', focusing on issues of language, sexuality, and politics.

The Parting Gift, by Evan Fallenberg (excerpted in the second issue of Tel Aviv Review of Books), is an epistolary novel: the unnamed narrator recounts to Adam, an old college friend, the dramatic events that unfolded following his encounter with Uzi, “The Spice Guy”, in a central Israel coastal community named Kritmonia. I interviewed Evan on a sunny July day at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Cultural Center in Jerusalem, where he was directing a residency for translators from around the world.

Hi Evan – it’s great to be here. Why did you choose to write the novel in the form of a letter and why do you think it’s a relatively rare device? What’s the place of the epistolary novel in contemporary fiction?

I didn’t choose to write in the form of a letter, it chose me. The text itself – or maybe more the character – made certain demands on me and pretty early on I learned that I had better follow them…It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision at the time but I realised that there have been a number of epistolary novels that have influenced me over the years, like Alexis by Marguerite Yourcenar, which I read in my early twenties, and Michael Frayn’s The Trick of It, which I read many years later, and is funny and devastating…those were two excellent examples for me…The narrator is projecting his truth, he is trying to convince one other human being of the truth of his story, and it’s something he can’t sit him down and tell him, he can no longer be there when this guy is learning the truth, and so it seems like the perfect vehicle, really.

We read The Parting Gift in the knowledge that we’re not the person being addressed. There’s definitely a sense that the narrator wants more people than just Adam to read his story, but what’s the reader’s role? Has s/he just stumbled upon this letter? What’s the role of the reader when the novel is addressed to a specific person, like Adam?

So I think that literature is fascinating because it lets us be the fly on the wall. I’ve long said that the reason I started to read and then later write is that I find it’s the only way I can truly get into anyone else’s head. It’s a big pleasure to be able to enter somebody else’s psyche and see the world through that person…But beyond that…while ostensibly a letter is a communication between two people, some people are thinking of posterity when they write letters, and this guy is so wily that he could definitely be thinking about what will happen with this letter later on…I didn’t think of that while I was writing it, that he’s writing for the greater world, but knowing him, that could be the case.

Yeah. There’s a definite sense of a master plan being played out, the pieces falling together. There’s also a lot of sex and a lot of – literally – spice.

And they often go together.

Indeed! There’s a view that writing about sex is somehow different from writing about spice or about the Jerusalem landscape or any other subject. Britain has the Bad Sex in Fiction award, for example. When you write about sex, do you feel that pressure? Do you approach sex in a different way from writing about spice? Or is there no difference?

When I was on the way in the States to talk to a group of writers about writing the sex scene, I sat with my own novel on a plane and went through it to find all the sex scenes. If you asked me beforehand I would’ve said there are seven of them in the book, but in fact there are only two, although the book is infused with sex…To me, there’s almost nothing worse than a gratuitous sex scene. I’m afraid of doing it and I think that’s why a lot of people have trepidation about it. People have been putting body parts together on paper and in bedrooms or wherever they put body parts together for as long as we’ve been around. There’s very little that’s new and refreshing that can be written about that. So first of all there has to be a really good reason for a sex scene to be on the page. And so of the two actual sex scenes in this book, one takes place between the narrator and the man who will become his lover, the seminal moment where a lot of things come together, which is why I felt that this scene had to be there. The other is between the narrator and a Palestinian. There’s so much enfolded in what’s happening between them that isn’t necessarily sexual, that’s political, that’s social – so many other things – that I felt it was a scene that had to be shown.

Particularly on the question of homosexuality, in the #MeToo era, there’s been a backlash against writers like Updike and Roth for alleged misogyny, but do you think novels depicting homosexuality are immune from that? Because I wondered if one of the characters in the sex scenes had been female, it might have been harder to pull off.

I was mining it from a different angle. I was letting these people know each other through their bodies…there’s…a politics of connection between two people as they’re having sex and there are hierarchies. I was using those hierarchies in different ways…certainly between the Palestinian and the Jew, but also even between the two Jewish men because of the hierarchy of penetration. Something a woman said to me as I was writing the book – I think it was because I was telling her about what I was writing about – she said to me, “The body of a woman is a life of interruptions. Our bodies are interrupted all the time. We get our periods, men penetrate us, we have babies, there’s menopause.” There were just so many things going on and men don’t have all that stuff, except in a small way if you’re one of the men that’s being penetrated…and I found this aspect fascinating. I wanted that journey to go on through the narrator’s mind. When we meet him at the start of the novel, he is a very sexual character, and…in an earlier draft he was sort of having sex with everyone, it didn’t really matter to him, male or female, and at some point I reined it back into more men.

Two prominent characters are Ziad, the Spice Guy’s day laborer, and Ibrahim, the son of his business partner, who has come to Kritmonia to learn the spice trade. Continuing from my question about writing about sex, what are your concerns about depicting Palestinian characters in your novel, Palestinians who are exploited and perhaps exploiting in their own way? It strikes me that there might be a fear of becoming too didactic, or alternatively losing all political context.

When you put it that way, it feels like writing is a total minefield. Why even bother? Either they’re going to be stock characters or they’re going to be representing some political reality or politics that I adhere to or politics that I abhor. This is my third novel and this is the first time there are Arabs in my book, and it certainly has a lot to do with the amount of time I’ve spent in the country and how my situation has changed living now half the week in a Muslim city, Akko, and it’s giving me a lot of new insight. I did not set out to write anything political and yet in a sense when you have an Arab and a Jew in the same sentence, it’s already somehow political even before you choose the verb…And at the same time you don’t want to just give the check mark at the end like, “Oh, it’s an Israeli story so I stuck an Arab in there.” Just like the sex, it has to be germane and relevant to the story. As I said, I was working on hierarchies here, which in crasser terms means who fucks whom. First that was just man to man but then also Jew to Muslim, Israeli to Palestinian, all of these things…and fuck is a word that we use both for the sexual act and also to how we relate to people, “He fucked me in that business deal,” or something like that, there’s so much of that in their interactions.

I want to move on now to place in the novel. Akko features but most of the novel takes place on a kind of coastal community. One thing the narrator says about is Akko is “you don’t feel like you’re in Israel anymore.” I’d like you to talk a bit about that. And I wondered how you go about depicting a place like Kritmonia.

The way I work, characters are always first for me. And then they dictate the story and most of the setting, too. So if I start with characters that in any way resemble anybody I’ve ever met or known or been, very quickly, they evolve into something else so that I don’t even see the connection to that origin…and they go off on their own. With setting, I have to see the place very clearly, and I find myself again and again going and seeking out actual settings or wedding characters and situation to a particular place that I know of. So for example, in my second novel, When We Danced on Water, I went shopping for a house in Berlin to house my character for six years of the war. I needed a villa in a particular area, and I found what I was looking for. I even know a writer who takes it to a whole other level and hires real estate agents to find her houses, which to me seems cruel, like putting somebody through all those paces without ever intending to buy.

I didn’t think writers were meant to have the money to do stuff like that.

Well you don’t have to give anything to an estate agent, she’s just leading them on and saying, “Show me some houses” but she’s never intending to buy anything. So I’ve done that sort of thing on my own, and I don’t – that means I can’t necessarily get into a house, but I can make a floor plan in my mind. With this novel, I now live in Akko, so it was easy for me to bring together the places I know and what you asked about, it being almost not like you’re in Israel. For the time that I was working on what became Arabesque [an Arts & Residency Center] and doing the whole renovation I was dashing back and forth between Tel Aviv, Akko, Tel Aviv, Akko, Tel Aviv, Akko. And every time I came to Akko, I thought, I’ve entered the Ottoman Empire. I call it my mini, mini, mini Istanbul with the stones and the population, it’s so different from…Tel Aviv, the look, everything is so different that I often feel like I’ve not only come to a different place, I’ve come to a different century. If we weren’t all walking around with cell phones and in modern dress, you could believe it. So it does feel otherworldly to me, in many ways, especially at night, the lighting, everything, it’s just, it’s a strikingly different place.

The beach community Kritmonia is actually very much based on Beit Yanai. I used to live near Beit Yanai and I would take a walk very regularly, it’s where the novel was cooking in my head. I would walk through the olive and citrus groves and cross a bridge over the coastal road into Beit Yanai and there was a particular house that I focused on there. In the meantime, like you know, every old property in these beach-front places, it’s gone, something fancy and new has been built in its place. But that little house on the corner on the last street before the villas overlooking the sea, that was where I set the novel and I never went in there. And also, the property itself, I sort of built extra buildings on that property in my mind because I needed two houses and the big nursery where the plants and spices are sold. But it started from something very real, proximity to the beach and the groves because I refer to the beach and the groves, where Uzi is growing his plants. I needed to see it all.

Let’s talk about language. You’re a writer and you’re a translator. The Parting Gift is written in English and it’s set in Israel albeit with an American-Jewish lead character coming on a spontaneous aliyah. What are the dilemmas about writing a novel set in Israel and writing in English? And do you bring your experience as a translator to bear to those kinds of dilemmas?

Yeah. Look, it’s a bizarre construct that you’re writing in English, but with characters who aren’t necessarily speaking English, the same problem I confront when I’m presenting an Israeli book in my translation to the English speaking world and trying to get them to believe in these characters and their conversations with each other, while at the same time they have to know that this isn’t the way the conversation actually went. So one trick I have as a translator, and I suppose I use it as a writer as well, is to remind the reader regularly that this is actually not a bunch of Americans speaking English to each other, this is something else. And you do that with little tricks. I mean, obviously the names of the characters, or sometimes my syntax reflects the Hebrew that’s lying beneath it. When my first novel came out, several reviewers said something about my unusual use of language and I kept thinking, what’s so unusual? And then I realised the things they were referring to was where I had let Hebrew come through my English. And I like that as long as it feeds the English, it adds something to it instead of detracts and makes the English reader unable to really comprehend what I’m trying to say. I wouldn’t want to sacrifice comprehension.

One final question. Spice features heavily in The Parting Gift: so when are you going to open the restaurant, or at least share some of the recipes?

What’s really funny is I speak before audiences and they all make the assumption that I’m a great cook but I say that these days I barely cook, I boil eggs and I make pasta, I open a can of tuna. So you see, it’s not the only thing that’s made up in this book, and don’t you think otherwise.

Understood! Thank you very much.

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