Friday, January 6, 2023

Q&A with Omer Friedlander


Photo by Yam Traiber



Omer Friedlander is the author of the story collection The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land. He grew up in Israel and now lives in New York City.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your collection?


A: I started writing more regularly during my year doing an MFA in Boston. But it was difficult. I felt like my writing was going nowhere. I was trying to write different things, none of which were working, but I felt as if I had no choice but to keep writing, hoping it will work out eventually. 


After that year in Boston, I moved to New York City. I lived in Flatbush with four other housemates and wrote almost every day at the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn. I wrote the first draft of many of the stories over there. It was a short period of time, maybe six months. Then the revision process was longer, trickier, and uncertain in some ways. That took another year and a half or so.


Overall, I think the book was written very quickly. Maybe the reason for that is that it’s my first book, and therefore I had less expectations surrounding it, at least before I knew it would be published. Now, for better or worse, I’m a slower writer.


Q: In an interview with the Times of Israel, you were asked about writing this collection in English, and you said, “I think it’s a way of being both familiar with a place but also having a bit of an outsider’s point of view when I write in English I think it creates a little bit of distance, which allows me maybe to write about it in a way that’s more clear or at a different angle.” Can you say more about that?


A: The poet Yehuda Amichai says that a writer should never take anything for granted, not formulations or words or reality. For me writing in English about Israel is a way of not taking reality for granted, keeping my familiar world new and strange.


Q: You write from the perspective of a wide variety of characters. How do they come to you, and do you have any preferences in terms of the type of character you like to write about?


A: I am interested in characters that are outsiders, characters have lost something crucial to them, characters that struggle with the burden and weight of memory. I’m also interested in the inanimate, in the way objects can be containers for history. One way to reveal character is through their possessions, and in particular the things they have lost.


Charlie Baxter has a beautiful essay called “Things About to Disappear: The Writer as Curator.” In the essay he refers to the Book of Job. which opens with an inventory of Job’s possessions: 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 donkeys, and so on.


Baxter writes that the nature of inventories suggests not only what’s been gained, but what’s about to be lost: “every inventory implies a plot involving loss…by adding up what seems to be an account of fullness, they seem to create exactly the opposite effect, which is that of an emptying out…the shadow is more visible than the body that casts it.”


Q: Given that these stories mostly take place in Israel, do you have a sense of what you hope readers take away from the stories about Israel itself?


A: Writing about a surreal place such as Israel is a balancing act. Sometimes, true stories feel like total fantasy. 


In Israel, as you may know, any forgotten backpack is a potential bomb. As a kid, I had been known to daydream from time to time, and so it came as no surprise to anyone that one day I left my schoolbag on a bench in the bus station. It was apparently reported as being suspicious, and the bomb squad unit sent a robot to blow it up.


When I finally remembered my backpack and where I had left it, I returned to the bus stop, and it was gone. I complained to my teacher the next day: I lost my homework because my schoolbag was blown up. The Israeli version of “the dog ate my homework.”


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a novel called The Glass Golem, forthcoming from Random House. I don’t like to talk too much about a work in progress, but I think it will be quite different to the stories. Not only in terms of form, but also in the sense that with every new writing project you’re teaching yourself to write all over again.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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