Sunburnt Faces is one of those books that stays with you long after you’ve read it. In this interview, Shimon Adaf talks about inspiration, process and language among other things.
Would you like to speak first about the inspiration behind Sunburnt Faces and the process you went through in writing it?
It took me a while to get to writing fiction. I was thirty when I wrote my first novel. Before this I wrote and published poetry. In my first novels I was constantly looking for structural devices to maintain the interest of the novel. My first novel took the detective form; I say the “detective form’, because I was interested more in the way the existence of a murder mystery drives the protagonist towards a certain metaphysical knowledge than finding the culprit. After finishing it, I had this image of a young girl in my head, wandering around her house at the dead of night, when all her family is fast asleep. And then, sitting in front of a mute TV screen, she hears what she thinks to be the voice of God speaks to her through the screen. I didn’t know what to do with the image and I thought that since the detective form worked nicely for me, I might turn her into a detective bumping into all kind of unearthly riddles, aided by the ability she acquires after hearing this voice. Shortly afterwards I dismiss the idea as being banal, but the image wouldn’t leave me.
I live in Tel Aviv, and I’m used to taking long strolls along the promenade on the seashore, while listening to music on my iPod. One evening I played an album by Songs: Ohia (one of pseudonyms of Jason Molina, may his soul rest in peace), “Didn’t It Rain”, and the third track, “Ringing the Bell” struck me. I don’t know why. I put it on repeat, and kept getting tense when he sung the lines: “Cause I stood before the altar / and everything turned white. / All I heard was the sound / of the world coming down around me”. When I got home the words connected with the image I had of the girl. I was wondering what it means for her to stand in front of an altar. And that led to the question: what does it mean for a female to have a revelation that doesn’t end in conception?
You see, in Jewish tradition, there are only few woman-prophets: Miriam, Deborah, Hulda. And you never get to read their story of origin, in contrast to male prophets, starting with Moshe. If a woman has a revelation, it’s always via an angel and she doesn’t become a prophet out of the experience. And I asked myself also – if God were to speak to mortals nowadays would any of them understand? And if not, then would they experience this miscommunication in religious terms or, say, in fantastical terms? I think the latter option is more logical. So I concluded writing about the birth of fantasy in the life of woman, that’s been hearing a call and has to map of the reality that lies beyond the mundane one.
One of the things that struck me was Ori’s decision to change her name. That was such a powerful moment for me and rather than saying it’s a coming of age point, I would call it a coming into her own.
Aside from this coming into her own, there are also the themes of loss and heartbreak and the generation gap between the young and the old.
This also made me think of how society devalues maturity and how older people are often treated as being of lesser worth in comparison to the young. Was this your intent? Or is it just me the reader deriving those thoughts from reading the work?
You’re right. These are important themes for me. First, coming into your own. More than I have answers on the matter, I have questions. When do you become yourself? Of course, the issue is part of a larger one, what does it mean to grow up? It seems that we have two conflicting tendencies in current western culture – adoring childhood and adolescence and on the other hand condemning them as transient states that have to fade before we turn to be a man or a woman of our own. The conflict creates a stalemate. My generation, and the next generation, is stuck midway, between childhood and adulthood. We don’t have any initiation rites, initiation models. It would look as if we lost the synchronization between the biological development and the psychological-social one. Childhood and adult are not perceived as existing on the same continuum, but rather as opposites, rival states.
Ori is trapped in this trap as well. Changing a name is deciding a fate. And she’s able or forced to do it in an early age. But it’s not the right moment. She’s thrown by this out of a childhood that didn’t run its course. And because of that, her act of bravery will become a fixed moment in her biography, to which she’ll yearn to back all her adult life. For her this is the moment at which she went through the gate of Wonderland, but wonderland doesn’t have any mature equivalence in our time, just substitutes.
I found myself intrigued by how the inclusion of Biblical texts served to heighten the tension in the novel. Was this a conscious choice you made or was this something that came organically into the text? Would you like to talk a little bit more about that?
The biblical verses came naturally into the novel. During my childhood my father sent me to a lot of quizzes about the bible and Jewish subjects in the whole. So I spent many hours learning by heart passages from the bible (the Jewish version, of course, which the Jews define as the only holy scripture that contain the word of God, and the Christians call the “Old Testament”) and other Jewish scriptures. As a result, I’m well versed in all the myriad layers of Hebrew. Sometimes I weave them into my writing on purpose and sometimes involuntarily. Sunburnt Faces was one of the occasions that ancient Hebrew just broke into my writing. I think the reason is that Ori is suddenly very aware to the deep mystery of the world and of her being. For me, ancient Hebrew, is full of this mystery (and you can’t attend to the world or your experience without accounting for the language you use for describing them), because, on one hand, a modern Hebrew speaker can understand most of biblical Hebrew without much difficulty, and on the other hand it’s full of words and expressions whose initial meaning is lost, they have only sound and context. As a user, you bump into the brinks of language and the space of wonder the encounter lays before you.
Sunburnt Faces is your first work translated into English. How does it feel to know that this work will soon be read by people around the world? What do you hope the reader will take away from the reading of this book?
What really excites me about Sunburnt Faces being published in English and coming out in England is that from all of my work this novel is the most influenced by English literature. As a child Ori turns to books to find meaning, and she comes across a series of YA fantasy books that supposedly have been translated from English, the books of Ariella, the fairy detective. The books are filled with wonder and adventure for her, as were the YA books I read as a kid, many of them were classical English YA: The Hobbit, Narnia books, Peter Pan, books by Edith Nesbit, Enid Blyton and so on. I think there were two reasons for the strong affiliation I felt with these books: My parents came from Morocco, and I was brought up in a small town in the south of Israel, in a religious Moroccan Jewish family. The Israeli literature of the time lacked representation of my community, my family way of life. I couldn’t identify with it. I detested Israeli fiction. The second reason is that my beloved older sister, Aviva, who guided me in my first steps as reader, and later on as a writer, adored English literature. Her favorite writer was the unavoidable Jane Austen, but she read authors like Forester and Scott, among many others. She introduced me to the Sherlock Holmes stories and gave me a copy of Charles and Mary Lamb adaptations of Shakespeare. I fell in love with the story of the Tempest, which influenced the writing of Sunburnt Faces and is prevalent in the books of Ariella, the detective Fairy.
BTW, Chris Roberts, who made a wonderful cover art for the book, also designed the back cover as the cover of the debut Ariella novel, according to the description in Sunburnt Faces. It was like the Ariella books gained at last physicality and reality in their origin language.
As for the book coming out in a widely read language as English, I’m happy that my Moroccan Jewish background, which to my best knowledge hasn’t much representation in world literature, is accessible. Save for that, I believe in freedom of interpretation and I believe in serendipity and I believe that sometimes a trivial statement for one person can registered deeply in another person’s inner emotional flux. It happened to me with books. It might be pretentious, but if my novel will be meaningful for one reader, I’m rewarded.
Of the scenes you’ve written in your novel, which one was the one you struggled with the most and why?
One of the last scenes in the second part, in which Ori needs to come to some conclusion about her marriage, was the hardest one. I knew what’s going to happen, and I knew that Ori, being an independent woman, is willing to drop her defenses and put to test her ability to trust someone else, and I knew she is going to be disappointed. How could I let her go this ordeal of waiting for signs in her most desperate moments? How could I follow, when in my own life I’m praying to get there? I had to be rough on her, and at the same time write a very delicate scene, full of subtext, that doesn’t fall into sentimentality or kitsch. I don’t know if I got it right.
Have you ever considered writing in English? And what made you decide to keep on writing in Hebrew?
I can never write literature in a language other than Hebrew. In Hebrew I attain the most proximity between the self and the words I use to express it, the most intimacy with language as a living, breathing entity. Do you know the feeling when you utter a word and at same time you’re certain that, though the word conveys the meaning intended, it’s not the accurate word? Something in its texture, in its sound, in the manner it’s shaped within your mouth, isn’t exact and that there’s a better word? Do you recall the little burst of glee when you get the right word? I never have this experience in any language except in Hebrew.
Say someone wanted to turn this novel into a film and wanted you to be in it, which character would you choose to be and why?
I’ll probably be best suited to play Avner, though I hate to be filmed. As a person he is enigmatic and elusive. I don’t have any clue why, but every now and my friends would blame me for being such sort of a person myself (they’re wrong, I find myself to be a transparent guy, almost to the point of being boring).
What are you working on now and would you like to tell us something about it?
I’m coming out from an intensive period of writing. In the last four years I published one collection of poetry and three novels (which are the volumes of a multi-genre trilogy, merging detective fiction, SF/F, techno-thriller, poetry and philosophical treatise, dealing with Jewish identity in the post-national era). I have two other manuscripts: one is about a young and inexperienced agent of a project named “acus sapientiae” (Latin for “The Needle of Reason”) – an endeavor to reconstruct parts of human history after a series of global disasters. Shadrach, the protagonist, is sent to find out what happened in a specific point of time in Jewish life in Israel. The second one is more experimental, and I can only describe its structural principal – it begins with a poem that gives birth to a realistic novella, that gives birth to a non-fiction piece discussing several themes, that give birth to an alternative universe police novella, that gives birth to a cycle of poems, that gives birth to a space opera kind of novella, that gives birth to religious hymns. Sounds complex, but I enjoy reworking it…
Do you have any authors or works you’d like to recommend?
I would recommend the novel “The World of the End” by Ofir Touché Gafla, that came out earlier this year in Tor, and Nir Baram’s “Good People”, forthcoming in English translation.
There are writers who do not need my introduction and whose work I find extraordinary – Lavie Tidhar’s work, both in novels and in short fiction, Kelly Link’s short stories, Jonathan Lethem’s novels, especially “Girl in Landscape” and “Motherless Brooklyn”. And there are many more.
Every couple of years there comes along a writer whose writing makes me reexamine my preconceptions of what literature does or can do. In recent years W. G. Sebald’s and Roberto Bolaño’s writing has affected me in this way. As to the latter, did you know he constantly makes reference to Alice Sheldon (James Tipree Jr) in his novels?
Also, where can we find you on the internet?
When I was editing and rewriting Sunburnt Faces, I used to run two blogs – my own, and Ori’s (no one knew she didn’t exist in real life). She became quite a popular person in the blogosphere. When the book came out many of her followers felt deceived. And complained to me in mails. I stopped blogging, and never came back to it. In consequence I don’t have a facebook account, neither do I have a website. Strange for fiction to have become this real.
Update: Sunburnt Faces is now available for pre-order from PS Publishing.
**Acknowledgment goes to Eldad Rafaeli for this photo of Shimon Adaf.