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“Following a Story, Like in a Dream”

Savyon Liebrecht, the acclaimed Israeli fiction writer, recently visited Boston, where she was the quiet star of a reception given by the Israeli Consulate and, the next day, a speaker at Harvard. Although Liebrecht, 56, has been widely read in Hebrew since the publication of her first short story collection in 1986, English-language readers had to wait until 1989, when LILITH published Barbara Harshav’s original translation of the short story “Apples from the Desert” in a special section devoted to “Fresh Fiction from Israel.” This story gave its title to a Liebrecht collection published in 1998 by The Feminist Press, Apples from the Desert: Selected Stories. Persea Books brought out the novel A Man and a W)man and a Man in 2001 and will publish A Good Place for the Night next year. In Boston, Karen Propp spoke to Liebrecht about her work and her life.

KP: Your stories are dense with the good stuff of fiction—plot, character, conflict—and rich with meaning about Israeli society, the human heart, family, love. In “Hayuta’s Engagement Party,” two generations are deeply ashamed of a grandfather who feels compelled to recount his most horrific concentration camp memories at every festive occasion. In “Apples from the Desert,” an Orthodox mother confronts her daughter who has run off to a kibbutz where she finds both autonomy and love. In “The Homesick Scientist,” an elderly man is awkwardly reunited with his beloved nephew, who has long since left for an American career. Too multi-layered and complex to be reduced to a single sentence, your stories stay with the reader; they live off the page.

Even your first stories are so masterful it makes me wonder about their gestation. Could you talk about your apprenticeship years?

SL: I wrote my first novel when I was 18, when I was a soldier girl on a kibbutz. I decided to take advantage of the fact that I was given a room of my own. I stayed there one year, working with children. After the army I went to England, where I wrote another novel. My first story was published when I was 38. “Apples from the Desert.”

KP: What were you doing in between?

SL: I studied at University of Tel Aviv. I wrote articles for a women’s magazine. I had no time for [creative] writing, with marrying and raising a family. When things settled down, I said to myself ‘now it’s time.'”

In the beginning I shared a room with my husband, actually my ex-husband, who is a psychologist. I used his room. I had from eight until 12, when my kids were in school. At first I thought I had to clean up [the house], and then I found I had only an hour left for writing. So then I decided to only clear the table and put on a tablecloth, and a vase with flowers. That was how I staked my claim. Then I had three hours or so for writing. And I cleaned up when my children came home.

KP: How did Grace Paley come to write the introduction to Apples?

SL: In 1991, I spent two months in the International Program for Writers at the University of Iowa. When I was there, I asked one of the people in the English Department, “Who is the best American short story writer?” And he said, “Grace Paley, without a doubt,”

When I read her I was fascinated, loved her. Years later, when I was sent a cover of my book, I saw there on the cover: Introduction by Grace Paley! And then we shared a reading in the Jewish Museum, which was the summit of my professional life, I decided to say ‘Thank you’ by translating [Paley’s short story collection] Later the Same Day into Hebrew. Her language is so dense, it makes her difficult to translate. I tried to catch something of the voice. I could hear the Yiddish in her voice, and I tried to capture some of her spirit.

KP: What are you working on now?

SL: A novel or a novella, half of which happens in the States. A boy with an American mother and an Israeli father; they live in Tel Aviv. The mother goes to America to visit her father. She is pregnant and while in the States must go on bed rest, so cannot return to Israel. The father, who is kind of a poet, and relies on his wife for income, begins taking his son to cafes, where he meets his lovers. Then, something tragic happens, and the boy is sought by the police.

Eventually he is found and sent to the States at age seven, where he grows up as an American. Thirty years later his father comes to visit.

When I was in New York, two months ago, I went to look for a house where the boy in the story comes to live when he is seven years old; the house where he grows up. I found a house for him to live on the corner of 23rd Street and Second Avenue. And I spent about two hours, having a kind of romance with the house. I went inside and found out something of the history of the place. I went to a cafe across the street and just drank coffee, looking at the house, and I decided what window was the boy’s. I walked around, trying to figure out what he could actually see from that window.

KP: Your characters seem at once so representative of Israeli life and yet so multi-dimensional. How do you do it?

SL: I really don’t know. Something comes to me and I’m not so much making up a story as following it like in a dream.

KP: Are any of your stories autobiographical?

SL: Only one, “A Room on the Roof.” [A story that narrates a nuanced set of relations in the day-to-day contact between a middle-class Israeli woman, whose husband is away, and the three Arab construction workers she has hired.] This actually happened to me in ’82. At the time I had two young children at home. My husband was in the army and I employed three Palestinians. For the first time I understood how really difficult it is to communicate—how different our codes are. When I went to fetch my daughter from kindergarten, I left my one year- old son in their care. You could never do that now! The situation is so much worse. It will take half a century to get back to where we already were then.

KP: Did you really bring them tea in your best china to the roof?

SL: Yes.

KP: And the Arab worker from Gaza? In this story, the man who had medical training, who, in the story’s turning point, soothes the baby fallen from his crib with more tenderness than the baby’s own father?

SL: No, that event I invented.

Karen Propp is the author of two memoirs, In Sickness & In Health: A Love Story and The Pregnancy Project: Encounters with Reproductive Therapy.  She lives in Cambridge, MA.