Sophie Lewis: Last year I used your story ‘Hat Trick’ to teach a short fiction class. I find it a brilliant example about why we write and how to approach writing short stories. The figure of the children’s magician makes a great analogy for the writer: using simple, everyday, found objects to make magic, mainly through engaging the children’s attention in particular, focused ways. Also the trick itself has something short stories generally need: the element of reveal, the epiphany, if you like. What is your approach to writing? How do you think about it, practically?
Etger Keret: When I write stories it’s a very intuitive thing. It’s not that I have a plan or a method. Usually I have some kind of an image or a thought or a sentence. And when I write a story, it feels very much like I’m with my characters and I’m going out on this adventure and I’m as anxious and as excited as them to see what’s going to happen next. So it’s not that I had any kind of plan when I wrote ‘Hat Trick’ but, when I read it, it felt very much as if I was talking about the creative process in the sense that when I write a story, the magician puts his hand into the hat but he doesn’t know what he’s going to take out. It could be the head of a beheaded rabbit or it could be a dead baby. So for me it’s very much that when I write a story, I am whipping something out of a hat and I don’t know what it will be. Often the more perverse or the stranger things I find inside myself, the more entertained my audience. So, I’m much like this magician who has all these horrible things come out of his hat at children’s birthday parties, and asks himself: ‘Why? What does this say about me?’ while, at the same time, he becomes this snuff magician whom all the children love.
Often I may write a story about vulnerability and fear, or about awkwardness, but then I read it to people and they find it hilarious. So I feel that ‘Hat Trick’ is not only a story about writing but one about the relationship between a writer and his readers.
SL: Is it as if your having dared to write this sad or disturbing or difficult material becomes a licence for people to relax about it or take it on board in some way?
EK: What I feel about fiction is that it’s removed from life, that nothing in it is real, the characters can die or have wings. For me it’s a great release. I’m the kind of person who thinks about the consequences of his actions. Especially as the youngest son of two Holocaust survivors. One of the first things I knew about my mother was that her mother and her brother were murdered in front of her eyes and that a year after that her father was murdered too. She was in the Warsaw ghetto. So from very early on I realized that if my mother were to ask me if I wanted to eat another cucumber, regardless of what I might or might not want, if I said yes, then this woman, whom I loved more than life itself and who had suffered so much, would be happy. And if I said no, then she would not be happy. So the idea was that whatever I felt or did resonated in life, caused people pain or happiness. This gave me a feeling of huge responsibility even as a child – to the extent that sometimes I had to block my own feelings or wishes. When I started writing fiction, suddenly I was allowed to do what I wanted.
SL: Was this a revelation or something you realized more gradually?
EK: I think – again – I’m not a very conscious person. You might ask me why I’m crying and I’ll reply (weepily) ‘I’m not crying’ . . . From the first story I wrote, when I was nineteen, during my compulsory home service, I realized that this was something that could save my life. I loved the story. When I read it, I didn’t know how people would react. That first story was called ‘Pipes’ – it was the first time I wrote a fiction text. I was a soldier at the time. I looked at it and I was sweating. I felt that this is something I have to hold on to: writing. At the same time I couldn’t articulate why. It took me a long time to work out why.