INTERIVEW: Lavie Tidhar on Asking the Right Questions
J. Florence Martin: Where did The Escapement come from? What were the sparks that drew you to this particular novel?
Lavie Tidhar: Well, this is the problem, I have no idea. I have no recollection of any of it. It started off years and years ago—I wrote a story called “High Noon in Clown Town” that introduced the concept of a clown western and actually introduced the relationship between the three main characters: The Stranger, the Conjurer, and the Kid. I was getting really fed up with writing the sort of stuff I was writing—the political alternate history noir type stuff like Osama, A Man Lies Dreaming, The Violent Century, and Unholy Land. A Man Lies Dreaming really messed me up. It was my big book and it was very dark—very funny, but very dark. So, I was really struggling with what book to write and I kept trying things that didn’t work. I decided what I needed was to write something really simple. A simple story, a simple adventure. And obviously that didn’t work out at all. But I like stories that have a simple goal and everything else is just complications along the way. I needed that, I needed to do something that was completely different to what I’d done before. The Escapement was it.
JFM: Can you tell us a little about the process of how it developed from short story to novel?
LT: I was sort of trying to do what I did with Central Station, which was to initially write a series of short stories or episodes that could join up. The first three I think were published in magazines, but then it became a novel and I had to abandon that idea and just write the rest of the book. By the time you get to the middle and all the strands have come together, it would make no sense if you just read it without reading the lead-up. But I don’t really remember writing it, which is frustrating. It must have been a weird time. Which explains the book.
JFM: Catherynne M Valante described The Escapement as being part of the “new new weird”. Do you consider it to be a work of weird fiction?
LT: I don’t consider it anything in particular. It’s like some of my other books in that sense, like Osama or A Man Lies Dreaming—you could argue that the only ‘real’ things are what happens in the real world and the fantasy elements are just a fantasy. A few people have said ‘Tidharian Fiction,’ which I’m happy with. I don’t know what it is. It doesn’t obey any particular rules. I think that would be very boring. My main influence was surrealism, it was picture books, it was Spaghetti Westerns. Picture books in particular I think are a really undervalued form of art, because people think of them as something you read to kids and that’s it—but if you look at the great picture books, that combination of art and text creates something bigger. I think they’re amazing.
JFM: In the afterward, you acknowledged the book’s many influences. What do you hope the reader will gain by having that as part of their reading experience?
Oh, nothing whatsoever. The first time I did that it was because I was short a few thousand words and it would give me a few extra pages. And it’s fun to do. So I’ve started doing them for every book, pointing out some of the real historical elements or influences and so on and so forth. I did this one because I figured most people wouldn’t know or recognize things, like the obscure Hebrew fairy tale I was adapting for my own purposes. But I don’t know if you’ll get anything out of it. I could probably have written it with a dozen other influences. Somebody pointed out to me that there was a “Wizard of Oz” reference, which I completely forgot about. But it’s obviously there.
JFM: You’ve put an incredible variety of books and stories out in the world—Central Station, Osama, Unholy Land, The Escapement, and many others across a wide range of genres and topics. These days, it’s common for newbie writers to receive advice about developing their brand as an author. Has that ever been something you worried about?
LT: No. I mean, I just do what I want to do. Occasionally I will have people in publishing saying I should do this or that. I think A Man Lies Dreaming came out as a literary novel originally, and I was told ‘you have to write literary fiction now.’ And I said ‘well, my next book is a spaceship book.’ It didn’t make any sense to me. I think now I’m in kind of a lucky position. I can write my own thing, and that kind of becomes its own brand. One thing I’ve found that’s been building for a long time was that I couldn’t take it any further with genre fiction. I still feel that way. And in my next book, which is a huge historical epic that’s coming out next year in the UK called ‘Maror’, I wanted, again, to challenge myself. You almost become reliant on the fantastic elements, but I found that taking them out didn’t particularly hurt, which was nice to know. But I also took out all the games I usually play, all the literary allusions and the post-modern aspect of it. Doing that stripped away a lot of the humor, because part of the fun is spotting all those little references. So I wrote a book that isn’t actually very funny, which I think all the other books are to a large extent. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with that.
It’s very hard in this industry to carve out a niche for yourself. This industry is ruthless. It’s easy to sell a debut novel, but it’s very hard to sell a fourth novel. So the fact that I’ve been able to do this, despite it seeming like nobody actually reads my books as far as I can tell, is amazing to me. I think I’ve been a full-time self-employed author since 2012, and I think every year is going to be the last. But somehow it’s still working!
JFM: If you could visit the Escapement, would you? Who would you be in that world?
LT: Well, I’m clearly one of the clowns. I don’t know—nobody wants to actually live in these horrible places, do they? You know, I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve had adventures, the sort of stuff that makes a good story—but it’s always awful when you actually do it. It rains and you slip in the mud and there’s no food and there’s no hot shower when you get back. Adventures are never much fun. They just sound good when you’re telling them, when you take out all the boring miserable bits. So I don’t particularly want to visit the Escapement, no. I wouldn’t want to be in any of the worlds I write.
The interesting thing about the literary stuff I’m doing is that I am actually writing about things I know intimately—things that happened in Israel in the 80’s and 90’s, for example. That’s kind of uncomfortable in and of itself, to revisit different periods that you’ve lived through. Just looking at how weird some of the decades you’ve lived through are, which you don’t necessarily recognize at the time. I’ve been trying to watch a bit of Seinfeld at the moment, just to get a sense of how it evolved, but mostly I’m watching it for the crazy nineties. How weird were the nineties! People smoking in the elevator! Answering machines! It was like a whole different era; it was another century.
JFM: Better to visit adventure than actually have one.
LT: Better to read about. You know, one of the reasons I went traveling and living in different countries and all that sort of stuff was because I feared I was essentially a very boring person and, and if I didn’t travel, I wouldn’t have anything to write about. So you go out and try to be more interesting, but it’s not going to change who you are.
JFM: Yeah, I’ve gone traveling myself for the same reason—because I wanted to be interesting.
LT: Yeah. It doesn’t work, does it?
JFM: It does not. You have to figure it out from the inside, not from going places.
LT: And also nobody wants to hear your stories when you get back! They’re terrible stories. I realized that very quickly. People just kind of go yeah yeah yeah that’s great. But some of it was fun, at least.
JFM: When you were working on The Escapement, did you ever find the concept challenging to talk about? Was it ever hard to pin down what this book was about?
LT: Well, who am I going to talk to? Nobody cares what I’m doing. I mean, firstly, I trust myself when I write—if something doesn’t work, I know, and if something is working for me thenI’m happy—I don’t need validation from someone else. No one really sees what I write until it’s finished, and then my agent sees it. Very occasionally I’ll run a book past a writer friend if I’m trying to pin something specific that isn’t working, but even then I’ve found that other writers are basically useless. They won’t give you the answer, you still have to figure it out on your own. These days I know where my books are going, because I learned the hard way what happens if you don’t, which is when you have to lose the entire second half of a book and write it from scratch because it wasn’t working. That’s a very painful thing, when you have to do it, so these days I know where I’m going and it’s just a matter of getting there. The only time I didn’t was writing ‘Neon,’ which is a short science fiction book coming out next year. I wrote it over the last lockdown we had, and I honestly had no idea where it was going. I wrote a tiny short story about a robot who picks up a flower and takes it to the desert and puts it down somewhere. I didn’t know who this robot was or what it’s doing or why, but I was intrigued. So I wrote another story to find out, and then the robot was digging a hole in the desert, and I was like okay this isn’t actually helping me—I’m even more confused now. So I wrote another story, and by that time I wasn’t writing stories, I was writing chapters in a book, and I had to follow it to the end to see what happens. That was really good, partially because during the last lockdown I was really at my wits’ end, so having a fun short novel to write was a life saver.
JFM: How do you find that fun when you’ve been writing a long time and are deep in a project?
LT: I mean, if you’re not having fun, what’s the point? I think for me, writing dark stuff on its own has no purpose. Because the darkness just becomes monotonous. And the humor—I think that’s a Jewish thing in a way, the humor is there to undercut and to illuminate the darkness. So if I just read misery misery misery, I don’t care. But the humor humanizes it. I do write very dark stuff, but there has to be something more than that. Recently I’ve been researching a lot of holocaust humor and there were people making jokes in the death camps—very dark jokes, gallows jokes, but they were still telling jokes. The core of survival is to be able to find the funny side. So I’m very committed to my jokes!
JFM: You often write books with Jewish stories and Jewish themes—as a Jewish writer who also wants to work in that space, I worry about non-Jewish readers not understanding. Is that something you ever worry about?
LT: Well, the story always has to work on the level of story. If you come to something without getting any of the references or influences or the history, you should still enjoy it on the basis that it’s a story about someone doing something. So long as the story itself works, everything else is a bonus. I don’t expect people to know half the stuff I put into the books, but it shouldn’t matter.
The only time I felt I had failed at that is that for years I had this idea of writing a Jewish space opera. And I thought that was the funniest thing possible. I finally sat down and wrote it and the thing is, it’s not a great story on its own. It’s about some galactic agent who goes off to some planet and finds something, you know, but every single line of that story is packed with jokes—even the martial arts moves that they make are named after Hebrew poets, which cracks me up. But if you read it on the surface, it’s just an okay space opera story. What I didn’t expect to happen is that no one would get the joke at all—if you look at the discussion in the comments, people are basically going into a discussion of how the future it describes is more Christian than Jewish and how it’s clearly a commentary on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The first line of the story is about a starship called the Oy Vey Iz Mir! Just the opening line has jokes packed into it—did nobody think it was funny? That was really depressing to me. Maybe I should do more stories in that universe, but there’s no point extending a joke no one laughed at. But I enjoyed it, and I still think it’s funny.
JFM: What did you learn as a writer from The Escapement?
LT: Nothing. It was certainly an attempt to write something different, going back to simpler storytelling—the cowboy rides to town, the cowboy lives and leaves town. I like things that are simple structurally, I never really cared for structure, so it was nice to come back to a different mode of storytelling. But what did I learn? Nothing. In fiction, characters are always supposed to grow and learn and evolve but in real life we just repeat ourselves over and over again.
JFM: There’s something of the themes of The Escapement of that—it’s a projection of the collective art subconscious, so if we’re not learning anything in the real world, what do we learn there?
LT: I kind of shot myself in the foot there, because it follows from the previous books that are all about whether you can escape into fantasy. All those books I’ve done—Osama, A Man Lies Dreaming, The Violent Century, Unholy Land—they all deal with that question. And I think by the time you get to A Man Lies Dreaming, the conclusion of that book is that you can’t escape death. It’s an argument that goes back to Tolkien. Tolkien said that escape is essential—if you’re in a cell, you need to escape. He and C.S. Lewis had this weird Christian ‘this world is a prison’ thing, which I think was kind of an argument I was dealing with, and in The Escapement it’s again about escaping through fantasy. That’s the theme of the book. I’m still not entirely convinced—I don’t know what the answer is at the end of the book. It’s open to interpretation, but to me it’s quite clear that it isn’t a happy ending. But there’s only so much I can sit around and ask about whether you can escape through fantasy, is escape good or bad. That’s partially again why I moved on to writing a book that doesn’t give you the option of escape into fantasy, but even then you’re escaping into fiction—people who are not real, even if it’s set in times and places that were real. What do you think? Can you escape? Is escape into fantasy a good thing?
JFM: It’s an interesting question. There’s so much conversation today on Twitter and such that conflates moral purity with what kind of fiction with what kinds of themes we consume—people are always arguing about whether it’s okay to consume problematic content or whatever it is, and whether it’s okay to consume fiction in one way or another. I think at the end of the day it’s not good or bad to escape. It’s something that humans do, it’s something that humans need, and that we have always needed. We’ve always been telling each other stories. We have to get away a little bit. It can be bad for us and it can be good for us in the individual ways we interact with it.
LT: Maybe for me it was because I fit a bit uneasily in the genre. Maybe it’s a question of whether this is really what I should be doing. I don’t know. But I like The Escapement on its own terms. I like it as a piece of art, which is not necessarily a word people use very much with books or with fiction. But that’s what was fresh about it for me, that I could take a step away from dealing with political and historical questions and tell a story that’s more intimate. And also a lot of fun! The worst thing you can do as a writer is start preaching, which is a trap that a lot of writers—especially science fiction and fantasy writers—fall into. I never want to lecture anyone.
I don’t know! Maybe it’s a terrible book. I’m not even sure I wrote it. It’s possible somebody else wrote it, but I’ll take the credit. I don’t remember. Hopefully someone will find it who likes it, but you can never tell. I always think about writing for some kid in a library who’s going to find it in ten years’ time as a moldy paperback and go ‘oh wow, this is amazing’. That’s how I discovered writers. Most of the time writers never know they’ve had any effect on anyone. It’s just this hypothetical person, a nonexistent person in a mythical place called the library.
JFM: I think it’s something I have to do because I have to be part of the conversation, because it’s part of how I interact with the world. But I don’t think there’s necessarily a point to any of it. It’s just how I’m living my life.
LT: That’s bleak!
JFM: I don’t mean it to be bleak! I actually mean it quite optimistically. You get one set of however many years on this planet, and you get to do something with it. You have to interact with the world in some way, make sense of it in some way. Writing is a pretty good way to do that, even if you don’t end on an answer at any particular moment.
LT: That’s true. Again, it’s kind of a Jewish thing. It’s about asking the questions. Writing is never about providing answers, it’s about raising questions. The other thing you mentioned, this whole thing about the limited time you have—I’ve seen people who wrote and then died and never produced the great work they dreamed of. That’s why I won’t write anything other than what I desperately want to write. You don’t want to get hit by a bus tomorrow and go, ‘well, I was going to write that great novel, but somebody paid me money and I wrote this trilogy instead.’ I don’t want to do that. So I make sure that every book I write I’m happy with, that it has a meaning, and I can at least look back and know I gave it a good shot. I just want to write the books I want to write. Ideally someone will publish them. I’m amazed that anyone’s publishing them, to be honest, and it never seems to get any easier.
JFM: Any last comments?
LT: No. It’s all pointless!
JFM: It’s all pointless, and that’s the point.
LT: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. I’m afraid I never make any sense, but that explains the books maybe. I’ll tell you what, though—download The Escapement game! It’s free and there’s no ads! Check it out!
Buy THE ESCAPEMENT by Lavie Tidhar
Lavie Tidhar is the internationally renowned World Fantasy Award–winning author of Osama; the Seiun-nominated The Violent Century; the Jerwood Fiction Uncov- ered Prize–winning A Man Lies Dreaming; and the Campbell Award– and Neukom Prize–winning Central Station. His latest work includes the novel By Force Alone; his debut children’s novel, Candy; the comics miniseries Adler; and the anthology The Best of World SF. Tidhar was born in Israel; grew up on a kibbutz; has lived in South Africa, Laos, and Vanuatu; and currently resides in London.