Monday, March 20, 2023

Q&A with Sarit Yishai-Levi



Sarit Yishai-Levi is the author of the new novel The Woman Beyond the Sea. It was translated into English from Hebrew by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann. Yishai-Levi also has written the novel The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. She lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.


Q: What inspired you to write The Woman Beyond the Sea, and how did you create your characters Eliya and Lily?


A: I can't exactly pinpoint my inspiration for writing A Woman Beyond the Sea. I guess life is my source of inspiration. Life itself, with its good and bad, its joys and sadness, its happiness and tragedy, is my inspiration.


My story begins in Paris, when Ari abandons Eliya, stranding her in a strange city. Who would've thought that a life journey would begin from here and include the story of a baby abandoned at the gates of a Jerusalem monastery on a frozen snowy night; who would've known that the journey would lead to the death of a child, a life-altering event, unlike other deaths, a death with which one never reconciles.


Of course, I didn't know that the boy's death and his mother's subsequent madness would lead to a search for the woman who abandoned the mother on that freezing snowy night. I had no idea that the story of the abandoned mother would connect with the story of the abandoned lover in my previous book, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.


As for the characters of Eliya and Lily, they were also created while I wrote. I didn't decide beforehand that they would have a troubled relationship, I didn't know in advance that Lily would be an odd woman and that the death of her first child would drive her mad, and of course I didn't know that the difficult separation Eliya experiences in Paris would actually help her grow and find a new love.


What I do know is that there is a common thread that runs between us and our ancestral matriarchs. I believe with all my heart that what happened to my great-grandmother affected my grandmother, which affected my mother, which affected me and in turn, affects my daughter, thus affecting my granddaughter.


We are bonded to our ancestral matriarchs, whom we never knew, their lives entwined with our lives, and we carry this innermost part of life in our DNA, and the chain never breaks.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between the two women? 


A: Lily was born alone. She doesn't know how to accept or give love. It's only when her first child is born that she learns what love is, but that too is snatched away from her. After the baby's death, she believes she'll find her dead baby in Eliya, the baby she gives birth to later on.


But Eliya is nothing like the dead baby and Lily's disappointed that she's unable to bond with her. Moreover, she believes that everything she loves is snatched away from her, so she's afraid to love her daughter, because then, she too will be taken away from her.


Eliya doesn't understand Lily's oddness; she doesn't understand why Lily isn't like all the other mothers, why she keeps her distance. As Eliya matures, first into a girl and then into a woman, they grow further and further apart, until the rift between them is irreparable.


It's only when Eliya discovers the secret of her mother's tragedy that she's able to forgive Lily, embarking with her on a journey that eventually fuses together and connects all the unraveled threads between them.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I never know how my book is going to end. The book leads me down twisting paths until I reach its end. When I write, I'm on a journey, a journey in which I discover new worlds, men and women I've never known before.


The journey fascinates me. I feel like I'm living a life that isn't my own, a life of other people, which is why it takes me so long to write; I simultaneously savor and suffer, and I don't want the journey to end. The ending always surprises me, as I hope it surprises the reader.


Q: What do you think the novel says about family--and about absences?


A: Leo Tolstoy said it before me: "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I can humbly say that "All unhappy families resemble each other, yet each happy family is happy in its own way."


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on my third book, which like my first book, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, and my second book, A Woman Beyond the Sea, is about family. And if, in my previous books, I wrote extensively about mother-and-daughter relationships, this time the book focuses on mother-and-son relationships. As always, I write slowly, but I'm hoping the book will be published in 2023.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I published my first book, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem at an age when most people shut their dreams in a drawer, pack their bags, and retire. At the age of 65, I changed professions from journalist to author.


Furthermore, I became an author who broke the glass ceiling of the Israeli publishing world and sold hundreds of thousands of copies of her book. The book has won awards, has been translated into 17 languages, and has become a successful television series on Netflix.


My second book, A Woman Beyond the Sea, became an immediate bestseller, was translated into different languages, and will soon be adapted into a television series.


So, what can I say? That when it comes to dreams, there's no such thing as glass ceilings! I've dreamt of becoming a writer for as long as I can remember, and I've managed to fulfill my dream at an age when most people give up their dreams. So, if you have a dream, don't give up on it. Dreams are meant to come true.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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