'Seven Good Years' Between The Birth Of A Son, Death Of A Father

'Seven Good Years' Between The Birth Of A Son, Death Of A Father

6:21pm Jun 13, 2015
The Seven Good Years promo image
Lydia Thompson / NPR
  • The Seven Good Years promo image

    Lydia Thompson / NPR

  • Etgar Keret's other work includes the story collection Suddenly, a Knock on the Door.

    Etgar Keret's other work includes the story collection Suddenly, a Knock on the Door.

    Yanai Yechiel / Courtesy of Riverhead Books

Israeli writer Etgar Keret is beloved around the world for his funny, haunting and frequently fantastical short stories. But he's hardly one to stick to a single medium: on top of his stories, he's written graphic novels, TV shows, movie scripts and a children's book. And public radio fans may know his work from its numerous appearances on This American Life.

But for 25 years — whether in print, on air, on screen or in comic-book form — he only wrote fiction.

Now Keret is turning a new page, publishing a collection of tiny autobiographical essays called The Seven Good Years — named for the years between the birth of his son and the death of his father.

He says he wrote his very first piece of nonfiction the day his son was born.

"I think that suddenly I had this kind of sense of future," he tells NPR's Arun Rath, "this idea that I'm not only living in this kind of never-ending present, but that maybe one day my son would want to read it or, you know, that there is something out there that I have some kind of commitment and responsibility to."

As he kept writing short essays, he never thought they'd turn into a book.

"Only when my father became terminally ill, I suddenly had this urge to ... kind of create some kind of a living tombstone for my father and for the family," he says.

To hear the full conversation, click the audio link above.


Interview Highlights

On his infant son as the "first enlightened person" he's met

I'm a very stressed person and I'm always living both in the past and future in the sense that I'm kind of feeling guilty for many things that I've done and I feel great anxiety for all the stuff that's gonna come. And suddenly when you have a baby or a child and you see how they can be 100 percent in the present. You know, they don't really care about what happened before. They could have cried for an hour but in one second you give them ice cream and they're there, they're enjoying the ice cream. Whatever happened is behind them.

So this ability to be in the present was something that I kind of discovered through my son. And I actively try to imitate it but I'm afraid I'm not very good at it.

On teaching his son about how to hide during rocket attacks in Israel

The moment that you hear the alarm, if you're in the middle of the street then you have 30 seconds, you know, to find a hiding or if you don't have a hiding to lie on the ground. And I was with my wife and son when the alarm went off and it was like the first time in his life that he was in a missile attack and we asked him to lie on the ground.

And he said, "If it's too dirty to eat from it when something falls on it, then it's too dirty to lie on it." And you find yourself that you have kind of 25 seconds to convince your son to lie down. And you don't want to be stressful, you don't want to shout at him.

So I suggested to him a game called "Pastrami Sandwich," in which my wife lies on the ground and he lies on her and I lie on him and together we form this pastrami sandwich and he kind of liked it because it was warm and cozy. And after the missile attack, he asked me if I can promise him that there would be more missile attacks so we can play the game again.

On how his father, a Holocaust survivor, responded to his terminal cancer diagnosis

He really, really wanted to continue living, but at the same time, he felt that life had given him a fair deal. He died when he was 84. He survived the Holocaust, losing his sister and losing many people who were close to him. So I think my father, in many ways, he was kind of like a Yoda for me — giving me all kinds of lessons that were not always clear, but I always kept with me.

On the publication of the book and why it's not out in Israel or in Hebrew

When you publish a work of fiction, people can tell you that your book is boring or you books suck, but when you write about your family people can tell you that your family is boring or your family sucks. And for me, never publishing nonfiction before, this is something that is very, very stressful. And I feel that there are many intimate details in the book that it's easier for me to share overseas.

It's kind of like those stories that you feel comfortable to tell somebody in a bar or on a train, but you wouldn't tell your next door neighbor. So, I don't know, maybe one day I'll publish it in Israel, but right now it feels a little bit too scary and too personal.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Etgar Keret is a master of short fiction - super-short fiction, really. He has a magical ability to spin profound meaning from the smallest things. And, as I found out from the moment I sat down to talk with him, he does the same thing in conversation.

Great - and say your name for me. I want to say it as close to your pronunciation as possible.

ETGAR KERET: Oh wow, you know, even I can't pronounce it properly. It's Etgar Keret. You know, it's funny because it means - in Hebrew, etgar means challenge and keret means big city, so my name is urban challenge, which is...

RATH: (Laughter).

KERET: ...A pretty good name for sneakers and a pretty strange name for a human being.

RATH: After 25 years of writing only fiction, Keret is publishing a memoir, composed of vignettes as short as his stories. It's called "The Seven Good Years." Those would be the years between the birth of his son and the death of his father.

KERET: I wrote my first nonfiction piece the day my son was born. I think that suddenly, I had this kind of sense of future, this idea that I'm not only living in this kind of never-ending present, but maybe one day, my son would want to read it or, you know, that there is something out there that I have some kind of commitment and responsibility to. And I just kept writing those nonfiction pieces never thinking that they would come out in a book. And only when my father became terminally ill, I suddenly had this urge to turn it into a book, you know, and in a way kind of create maybe some kind of a living tombstone for my father and for the family that he was able to have, you know, after passing the Holocaust.

RATH: Over the course of this period, you learn - you learn lessons from both your son and your father. You call your infant son the first enlightened person you've met. Can you explain that?

KERET: Well, I think that I'm a very stressed person. And I'm always living both in the past and in the future, in that sense that I'm kind of feeling guilty of all - for the many things that I've done, and I feel great anxiety for all the stuff that's going to come, you know? And suddenly, when you have a baby or a child and you see how they can be 100 percent in the present - you know, they don't really care about what happened before. You know, they could've cried for an hour, but in one second, you know, you give them ice cream and they're there, you know? They're enjoying the ice cream. Whatever happened is behind him. So this ability to be in the present was something that I kind of discovered through my son. And I actively tried to imitate him, but I'm afraid I'm not very good at it.

RATH: In Israel, teaching your children well means teaching them, for instance, what to do during a rocket attack. And there's this kind of beautiful but terrifying moment in the book where you have to apply some creativity to that with your son.

KERET: Yes, the thing is that the moment that you hear the alarm, if you're in the middle of a street, then you have 30 seconds, you know, to find a hiding - or if you don't have a hiding, lying on the ground. And I was with my wife and son when the alarm went off. And it was like the first time in his life that he was in the missile attack. And we asked him to lie on the ground. And he said, you know, if it's too dirty to deep to eat from it - you know, when something falls on it - then it's too dirty to lie on it. And you find yourself that you have kind of - I don't know - 25 seconds to convince your son to lie down. And you don't want to be stressful; you don't want to shout at him.

So I've suggested to him a game called Pastrami Sandwich, in which my wife lies on the ground and he lies on her and I lie on him, and together we form this pastrami sandwich. And he kind of liked it because it was warm and cozy. And after the missile attack, he asked me if I can promise him there would be more missile attacks so we can play the game again.

RATH: Getting back to your dad and the lessons learned from him. You mentioned, of course, that he was a Holocaust survivor, and he had this amazing reaction when he learns that he has terminal cancer.

KERET: Yes. Well, I think that the thing about him is that he really, really wanted to continue living and - but at the same time, he felt that - you know, that life had given him a fair deal. You know, he died when he was 84. He survived the Holocaust, you know, losing his sister and losing many people who were close to him. So I think my father in many ways - he was kind of like a Yoda for me, you know, giving me all kinds of lessons that were not always clear. But I always kept with me.

I remember that when I was 10 years old, I asked him what was the things that he was most proud of in his life. And he thought for a moment, and he said to me the thing I am most proud of was - is the fact that I fought in six wars, all of them in the front line, all of them in the infantry, and yet I haven't hurt anybody. And I remember as a kid, I said OK, I want to be like this man, but I didn't really know what it means, you know? How can you fight in the front line and not hurt anybody? And I guess my father had this talent, you know, not to run away from fights and still be super compassionate and maybe not be a very good shot, you know?

RATH: This book was published in Europe last year. It's out here in America this week, but it's not publishing in Israel. It's not going to be published in Hebrew. Why not?

KERET: Well, I think that, you know, when you publish a work of fiction, people can tell you that your book is boring or your book sucks. But when you write about your family, people can tell you that your family is boring or that your family sucks. And I feel that there are many intimate details in the book that - it's easier for me to share overseas, you know? It's kind of like those stories that you feel comfortable to tell somebody in a bar or on a train, but you won't tell your next-door neighbors. So - so I don't know, like maybe one day I'll publish it in Israel. But right now, it feels a little bit too scary and too personal.

RATH: That's Etgar Keret. His new memoir is called "The Seven Good Years." It's out on Tuesday. Etgar, thank you very much.

KERET: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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