The Hilltop, Assaf Gavron’s fifth novel, opens with the language of Genesis: “In the beginning were the fields.” We soon meet Othniel Assis, who, “so it came to pass,” hiked until his beard grew long and he found the land that would become the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Hermesh C. As the novel unfolds, Gavron’s confident, often playful narrator portrays interpersonal drama with humor and heartbreak as we follow the wide cast of characters who call the settlement home.
I was not surprised when Gavron told me in an email that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom had an impact on the scope and structure of his book (“At least I hope it did,” Gavron wrote). But The Hilltop is also a heavily researched novel. At least as much as any writerly influence, the book feels influenced by life. As he did with his novel Moving, Gavron puts himself in his characters’ shoes. For two years, he traveled weekly to Tekoa Dalet, a real West Bank settlement community, in order to “feel what the characters feel.” Grounded in this intention, even Gavron’s subtle satire adds to the nuanced realism and deeply empathetic account.
Rebekah Bergman: Your novels reveal the layers of complexity in intensely polarizing issues like terrorism in Almost Dead and now the West Bank settlement in The Hilltop. What fears and doubts do you battle as you show the shades of gray that exist in these situations?
Assaf Gavron: The main fear is that the black/white viewers will not bother to read my books and that they will form their opinions on their preconceived notions and ideas—about me or about these subjects. Another fear is being misjudged, failing to tread the fine line, and being viewed as a mouthpiece for a side or accused of taking part in a political game. That is not what I intend to do with my fiction.
RB: How do you avoid letting your own stance and opinions interfere?
AG: I write about people and not about politics, even if the people I write about are part of a tense political situation. I present the story as I know it and let the readers make their own decision and form their own opinions. There is enough writing that is opinionated. I totally respect that and read it, and sometimes write it. But not in fiction. Fiction for me is about showing a deeper, more complex and nuanced picture of human behaviors.
RB: Much of your work shares the goal of promoting empathy. I’m thinking here not only of your novels but also the videogame you wrote and your work with the story-telling organization Narrative 4. How does fiction relate to these pursuits?
AG: In both Peacemaker and N4, by assuming another character, by stepping into the shoes of someone else, you learn to view life and its obstacles and challenges through their eyes, and ultimately empathize with them. This is also what being a fiction writer, and reader, is about. “Being” in the head of someone else.
AG: To think, I hope. To realize things are not simple. To realize that people, and situations, are multifaceted and that some of these facets can be conflicting to the point of absurdity.
RB: On that note, a lot of the absurdity in The Hilltop begins with bureaucracy. As your character Othniel states, “The right hand has no clue as to what the left one is doing.” While absurd, these moments also resonate with truth. To what extent does bureaucracy present a barrier to progress and change?
AG: Bureaucracy can be frustrating. I’ve experienced it first hand in England, Germany, Israel, and the US–countries I’ve lived in for at least a year. The bureaucracy’s role in The Hilltop is to prevent anarchy, which is a good thing. The problem is, it doesn’t know how to enforce order. Or perhaps the settlers are too smart to get enforced by it. So anarchy prevails. It is a fascinating process, and absurd, and I try to capture that in the novel.
RB: Much of The Hilltop is satirical and funny, yet the novel’s ultimate power rests in its realistic account of life. How do satire, humor, and realism relate?
AG: Humor is inherent in life. It must be. Otherwise we’re doomed. I see humor in every situation, and I find a lot of humor even in the tense, decidedly non-jolly West Bank. Satire is something else. I am not saying there are no satirical parts in The Hilltop, but it is not only satirical. The satire is gentle, I think, and no side is immune to it.
RB: What context would an Israeli reader of The Hilltop have that an American reader might lack? Can the translation ever compensate?
AG: The Israeli reader will be familiar with the characters, the places, the language(s), and the tastes. It would be a different reading experience. But a book should work regardless; the story should work, it should entertain, it should excite and move. If you can’t do those things, the book isn’t worth writing. Plus, what an American reader loses in familiarity, she gains in education. Of course when you translate you may adjust accordingly—give up what would be only understood as an internal joke, pull out some of the wordplay, and perhaps enhance by elaborating on matters that need no explaining in the original. But all in all, these are minor changes.
RB: The Hilltop is your fifth novel. What progression can you trace in your novels to date?
AG: It’s hard for me to say. The Hilltop is the most ambitious and wide-scoped, but that does not mean I’m on a trajectory of ever more ambitious novels. The next one will be shorter and simpler in a way. Also, I think that some of my most courageous and daring writing I wrote in my first novel. Perhaps I will never be able to repeat that freshness. Having said that, I am learning all the time and definitely improving in many ways. I think my novels are pretty wide-ranging in genre and subject matter. The last three turned to the Israeli “situation”, but I’m not sure this will always be the case. It’s intense; I will need a relief from it soon.
RB: In researching for The Hilltop you lived in Tekoa Dalet, a settlement community. Did the real people and experience of that community influence the novel or change the direction you anticipated?
AG: Influence, yes. Their stories, physical features, language, and clothes sometimes made their way into the pages of the book. Never one to one, but a word here, a sandal there, and so on. Also the place—the landscape, the architecture, the weather, the atmosphere. Being there contributed immensely to the research. But in terms of direction, no. I’m not sure what I anticipated. When I set out to work on a novel I know what it is about and maybe see an early scene in my mind, but I don’t anticipate too much.
RB: You’ve taken this anthropological approach before. While researching for Moving, you worked as a mover in the US. How important is it for you to know and experience your setting first hand?
AG: I guess I have a problem in that I often want to write about worlds I don’t yet know. The learning experience is part of the fun. When I write a novel about something, I can’t fool around. I need to know it. As much as books, documentaries, and websites are great resources, I must be there and feel what the characters feel. So I worked as a mover for three months. And I traveled to the settlements weekly for two years. I need to convince myself that I know what I’m talking about before I dare try to convince my readers of that.
RB: Once you’ve completed your research, do you continue consulting with these people and places?
AG: The research is never complete. There is endless information out there. You have to force yourself to stop, otherwise you go mad. Or you just publish and then you know it’s over (but still find fascinating stuff you could have added later…) But distance is good. Almost Dead, which was about the second Intifada, I wrote in London. The Hilltop I wrote largely in Berlin. The distance from the heart of it all made it easier for me to concentrate on the writing.
RB: What changed from the first draft of The Hilltop to the published final version?
AG: I cut out characters. There was an obnoxious Australian archaeologist in the first draft that didn’t find his place in the later ones, for example. But with this novel, the end result is pretty much the way I wrote it to begin with. With Almost Dead, though, I put one of the two protagonists in a coma between draft one and two.
RB: You recently co-edited Tel Aviv Noir with Etgar Keret, an anthology featuring short stories by Israeli writers. What led you to this project?
AG: We liked the Noir series and the people behind it (Akashic Books) and the writers involved in the other volumes. We loved the idea of presenting our city through a prism that was not the usual political/conflict prism. And we wanted to showcase some of the great literary talents we have, who might not previously have had the chance to publish their fiction in English. The book includes 12 Israelis, a Colombian, and a Norwegian.
RB: You’ve worked on Hebrew translations of several notable American works, including Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. In general, what is the role of international literature in Israel?
AG: It is worth noting that both of these translations are new translations. These books were first translated closer to their original publication dates, in the 1960s and 1970s. But, because Modern Hebrew is—despite its ancient roots—a relatively young and constantly evolving language, fresh translation of classics are common.
Although we have a rich and proud tradition of writing, we’re still a tiny country, so translations are a big part of the market. Personally, I was always more interested in foreign fiction than Israeli fiction growing up. I think foreign work is very important for us Israelis as a way to learn that we are not the center of the world.
RB: How closely did you work with Steven Cohen on the English translation of The Hilltop? What is the ideal relationship between writers and their translators?
AG: Since I can read and understand English well, I could and did go over the translation several times. My editor at Scribner and I worked closely, and I think the three of us together managed to maneuver the translation to a good place. When I’m translated into other languages, I don’t have this privilege, of course. There, I have no choice but to trust my translators and publishers, which I do.
RB: What projects are you currently working on?
AG: I’m working on a shorter, more linear and also less politically charged novel. Although it does go back in time and does deal somehow with the “Israeli situation.” It is about an Uber cab driver investigating a series of deaths of several 80-somethings in current Israel, all relating back to a specific event in 1946 when they were teenagers and Palestine was under the British Mandate rule.
RB: You’re currently a professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Nebraska. Do you plan to stay in the US or return to Israel or travel elsewhere next?
AG: I always return to Israel. It is my home and my home base. This current US gig will last a year or two. But I will very likely find a new destination to rest from that complicated home base again later on.
Assaf Gavron is an Israeli writer and translator. He is the author of five novels and a short story collection. His fiction has been translated into many languages and adapted to the stage and cinema. He is the winner of several awards including the Israeli Prime Minister’s Creative Award for Authors, Buch für die Stadt in Germany, and Prix Courrier International in France.
Rebekah Bergman is an associate editor at NOON. Her stories have been published in Necessary Fiction and Everyday Genius, among others.