From Kibbutz to Career: A Conversation with Lavie Tidhar
Raised on a kibbutz in Israel, Lavie Tidhar began his world travels at fifteen, living in South Africa, the UK, Laos, and Vanuatu. At twenty-two he published a collection of poetry, and he had his first fiction stories published at twenty-seven. In 2009, the first volume of The Apex Book of World SF came out, edited by Tidhar, as well as dark fantasy novel The Tel Aviv Dossier, cowritten with Nir Yaniv.
Tidhar’s debut solo novel came out in 2010: The Bookman, first in the literary steampunk Bookman series (including 2011’s Camera Obscura and 2012’s The Great Game). In 2011, Osama, a “film noir, non-fiction, alternative history, and international thriller,” won him his first major genre award for a novel: a 2012 World Fantasy Award. In 2013 he moved to London, the same year his The Violent Century was published (alternative history cold war espionage and superheroes), followed by 2014’s A Man Lies Dreaming (dark, literary noir thriller with a twist). In 2015 he released the Jews vs Aliens and Jews vs Zombies anthologies coedited with Rebecca Levene, under Jared Shurin’s Jurassic London label (later printed editions by Ben Yehuda press).
In 2018, Unholy Land (time travel, noir mystery, and cultural conflict in an alternative East Africa) was released while Scholastic UK published Tidhar’s children’s debut Candy. In Xanadu followed in 2019 and due in 2020 are his upcoming works, By Force Alone, a savage tale of King Arthur and his cronies as gangster-like thugs in early Britain, and his Victorian inspired adventure comic book Adler, with the tagline, “For Sherlock Holmes, she was always the woman . . . ”
Tidhar is one of those rare authors who can play with form and genre, who can draw from recognizable tropes, blend styles, and come out with something completely different, defiant, and yet wonderful. His work has drawn comparisons to Philip K. Dick, Michael Chabon, China Mieville, and Kurt Vonnegut, winning acclaim from an array of notable authors such as Ian McDonald, who said Tidhar is “In a genre entirely of his own . . . There is no one like him writing in genre today.” With well over a hundred short stories, more than a dozen novellas, and several stand-alone novels out, as well as work in other mediums, anthologies, columns—including The Washington Post—and much more, he seems to be both restless and boundless.
An array of award recognitions speak to the broad appreciation of his work—he has appeared on short lists and ballots for the Sturgeon, Geffen, Sidewise, Kitschies, and Dragon awards. He won a 2012 British Fantasy Award for Best Novella for Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize for A Man Lies Dreaming, a Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award and 2017 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel for Central Station, and most recently, his novella “New Atlantis” from the May/June issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction was on the 2019 Locus Recommended Reading List.
He writes what he wants, he does it well, and in doing so, challenges our understanding of genre and its place in literature.
Your first publication was a poetry collection in 1998 in Hebrew. Do you still write poetry? Does poetry have any impact on your fiction writing?
I think failed poets often become novelists instead, which is how I ended up here! For a time, I did publish English-language poetry in small UK poetry magazines (in Carilon, Cadenza, Brittle Star, places like that), but I was never that interested in formal submissions—or didn’t have much success!—and eventually fiction mostly took over. It’s obviously a huge part of anything I do, though. All of By Force Alone is written in a sort of very specific rhythm, like some sort of epic poem. And for a while I snuck poems directly into the books—“Wires and Charge” pops up in Osama scribbled on a wall, for instance. I make fun of the whole thing in Unholy Land.
In the universe of Central Station, I have a peripheral character called Basho (named after the Japanese poet) who writes sort of not-really-haikus in Bislama, which is my third language. So that’s kind of a fun thing to work in, having this pidgin/creole poetry as part of the history and mythology of that universe.
I’ve been reading James Legge’s translation of the Chinese Shi Jing most recently. And I just looked it up—the last poem I wrote was in 2015. It’s the sort of impulse that comes and goes. From time to time I think of putting together a collection, or at least a chapbook, but I’ve never progressed enough with it. Maybe in a few more years!
Do you still write in Hebrew?
Mostly e-mails! Funnily enough, one of the first stories I ever wrote, back when I was seventeen or so, is being published in a Hebrew anthology this year, I think. Which is something that made me very happy! It only took twenty-six years to find a home . . .
I wrote a fair amount of fiction in Hebrew a few years ago, and then translated some of it into English. I cowrote a novel, a murder mystery set at an Israeli SF convention, which was fun. But then there was not much to do with any of it and the rewards in English were greater, so it sort of petered off.
More recently, I had this idea one day that I should write sort of literary slice-of-life fiction in Bislama. I wrote the first one as a challenge. Because Bislama is mostly a spoken language, there isn’t much written fiction done in it. Then I talked to my friend in Vanuatu who happens to edit the local newspaper, and he said he’d give me a monthly column! So for a year I wrote one short story a month in Bislama, and it was published in the Vanuatu Daily Post in a column we ended up calling “Storian Smol,” which translates something like “chat for a bit”. Then I tried to translate some of the stories into English. I had a vague idea of doing a collection and having the Bislama original and the translation side by side. Maybe one day . . .
Then I went and got this gig cowriting a book column for The Washington Post! So my “book columnist” CV literally just goes from the Vanuatu Daily Post to that.
Translation is kind of interesting. A Man Lies Dreaming came out in Israel a couple of years ago, and it was fascinating. It was so much more shocking in Hebrew for some reason—and also funnier! I found myself both cringing and literally laughing in surprise. It kind of punches you more in Hebrew. But most of my work is not available in Israel and I’m not well-known over there. I’m published more in Japan! Which is ironic, I suppose, but it’s ok.
What was the transition to genre fiction like for you? How did you start writing genre fiction and when did you start taking it seriously, sending work off, and trying to make it as a writer?
I made a friend who was a “proper” short story writer and I found out about the whole submission process. I never knew you could just send stories out and then someone would read them! And then send you a rejection! I got very excited about the idea. I was looking forward to rejections! Because it just made the whole thing easy, that you write, submit, get rejected—it was kind of low stakes and not personal, which made it easier. Then, ADSED I got an opportunity one summer to just sit in a computer lab at university with nothing much to do, so I started writing. I remember the day I started—sometimes I curse the day I started! I aimed to do 500 words a day, and then pretty much . . . never stopped. I never sold that first story, but I sold the second one, and to this day this is what I’d rather be doing. Just writing short stories and sending them out and getting rejections.
Winning the Clarke-Bradbury was surreal. It was sponsored by the European Space Agency and I forgot all about it, to be honest. Then at work one day I came back and someone said, “You had a call from the European Space Agency,” and I was sure it was a prank. But it turned out it really was someone from the ESA! They flew me to Utopiales in France and it was a lot of fun. There’s an e-mail from Arthur C. Clarke somewhere about my story.
The thing that kind of changed everything for me was selling a story to Ellen Datlow in 2005, for Sci Fiction. The Sci Fi Channel paid me so much money that I think they suddenly thought, What are we doing! and closed Sci Fiction. And changed their name to Syfy. So mine was the last story they ever published and I always felt really bad about that. Like I personally killed it! And then, ten years later, I got an e-mail from someone at the University of Notre Dame and they asked, could I come talk to the students about my story, since they’re studying it in the course. So that was completely surreal, that something I wrote one summer years ago as a student is now . . . curriculum! And then I had to reread it! And I was incredibly relieved to see I still liked it quite a lot. It wasn’t a bad story!
Glancing at your ISFDB page, you must have well over a hundred short stories out. Which short stories stand among your favorites, and why?
It’s probably closer to, I don’t know . . . I tried to count at some point. Over 150 professional sales? I just like writing short stories. It’s a very personal sort of reward—I never get any award nominations for them or anything, but I get paid pretty well, though of course it’s a tiny fraction of what you make on novels. So I mostly just write them for myself.
I really like “The Projected Girl,” which I wrote for Ellen Datlow. It’s set in 80s Israel, about a mystery in 40s Israel, and it’s ambiguous whether it’s fantasy or not. It’s liminal fantasy. And I wrote it in my last month in Vanuatu when I was renting a room from a guy who is now the Minister of Foreign Affairs. I just wrote it like in a dream in about two weeks. I kinda hoped it would get like a World Fantasy Award or something but they ended up giving it to me for Osama instead so I couldn’t even complain!
And I like a story called “Tutim,” which no one would publish so it ended up in my book with Shimon Adaf, Art And War (which then no one ever read!). It’s about a poet on the run who wrote a book called “The Death of Hebrew Poetry” and the story’s title is an homage to the poem (“Tutim,” or “Strawberries”) by Yonah Wallach. I think it’s very funny, in a savage sort of way.
And the Central Station stories have obviously been very good to me. I have a particular soft spot for all my novellas. The Vanishing Kind, which is alternate history noir, Jesus and the Eightfold Path, which is a very tongue-in-cheek retelling of the Jesus story with kung fu. My most recent one is SF, “New Atlantis” in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and my next one, The Big Blind, which will be out from PS Publishing, is about a poker-playing nun. Not genre at all! I just wanted to write this story so I did.
I’ve been writing more crime fiction recently because some anthologies popped up to allow me to do that. I got nominated for the CWA Dagger last year for one of them and that was very cool. I had to dress up and everything! I had to buy black trousers! I had a crime novelette out last year, “The Bell,” which I like a lot. And I like the new SF stories I’ve been writing recently, like “Venus in Bloom” which is right here in Clarkesworld. I don’t know. Ask me another day and I’ll probably pick different stories!
You have written a massive amount of words between 2003 and today, and it doesn’t look like your career ever had a lull; you seem to have been putting out work consistently for nearly two decades. Were you ever in a place where you struggled to write, to produce, or to sell work? Or where doubt crept in? Or do you tend to be a writer who just pumps out material without worrying too much about it?
Two decades! You make me sound old! I have to admit it’s weird ’cause you start off as going against the establishment and then one day you realize you are the establishment . . . Sooner or later they co-opt you!
But it’s always a struggle. Always. My agent describes it as trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. No one knows what to do with me. So it’s always a fight. And it can be pretty demoralizing, sure. But I like what I do, so I always think, I’m just going to write what I want and then see if someone will publish it. When I told my agent about A Man Lies Dreaming I just said “Adolf Hitler: Private Eye” and he burst out laughing. And then, to his credit, he said I should write it. He said there was no way in hell he could sell it, but I should write it! And the funny thing is, all these weird books that no one knows what to do with kind of work out for me.
I struggled a lot after A Man Lies Dreaming because I didn’t know how to follow a book like that. So I kind of went sideways and wrote a children’s book that is called Candy in the UK, which is coming out this year in the US as The Candy Mafia. And no one knew what to do with it either. Then I got lucky on it just before the Frankfurt Book Fair one autumn and it paid for a couple of years. But it turned out no one knows what to do with me in children’s publishing either! I’m hoping to stick around, though. I enjoy writing them. And in a way, I think Candy and A Man Lies Dreaming are very similar books, even if one’s about Hitler and the Holocaust and the other’s about a girl detective and chocolate smugglers. As long as the kids don’t pick up the Hitler book, I should be fine. My other new book, it was supposed to be out this year but might be next year now, is called The Escapement. It’s a book I really love, but I keep describing it as a “clown Western,” and as it turns out, everyone hates clowns. Which is part of the point, of course! But I think currently Tachyon, the publisher, are going with something like “The Gunslinger meets The Phantom Tollbooth.” Don’t ask me—I just write ’em! It’s a surrealist fantasy inspired by Michael Ende, Dr. Seuss, and spaghetti Westerns. With a bit of the Epic of Gilgamesh and Buster Keaton. That sort of thing.
Central Station was the one book I put five or six years into but I wasn’t sure how to make it work and really didn’t have any faith in it at all. I was just going to self-publish. But Gardner Dozois really believed in it and told me not to play it down. He thought it was an important book. And then my agent really saw something in it. And Tachyon bought it and basically sent me an editorial letter that just said, “do this, do that, cut this, rearrange that” and the whole thing fell into place. But I didn’t think anyone would read it! Nothing happens in that book! I’m still bemused about the whole thing, to be honest. And it’s been really successful for me. I even got to launch it in China last year, and that was a trip! That was so much fun. I’ve been in talks about a television adaptation at some point but there’s been nothing concrete. The funny thing is, it’s my only science fiction book! I mostly write SF in short form. I’d love to do more.
Do you feel like your writing has changed in important ways since your first few stories came out? Do you feel like your work transformed in 2010, or are there other reasons why the SF community took greater notice of your work?
Does anyone really take notice of my work? It would be nice to think so, but . . . Although I recently found out Sting was a big fan of A Man Lies Dreaming. He raved about it in some interview. That was pretty surreal. I don’t know. My first novel was only published in 2010 so maybe that’s it—people generally pay more attention to novels than short stories. Osama, which came out in 2011, that was another book no one would touch. It got rejected by every publisher out there. And it ended up winning the World Fantasy Award. So that was a really nice thing to happen. Especially after being roundly kicked, as it were! It just came out in Russia in January this year, so it’s still going strong! I don’t know, I just plod along and do my thing. I guess you sort of hope when a new book comes out there’d be a parade outside, and a marching band, and balloons, but it’s just . . . OK so there’s another book out, go do the dishes.
I would hope my writing has improved, though! I’m generally pretty happy with how stuff turns out these days, though it’s hard work. I can only really write what I write, I can’t control what people want to read. I’ve been incredibly lucky that publishers still, improbably, buy my books. And short fiction editors, bless every one of them. I seem to straddle several worlds, but genre, on the whole, has been very welcoming.
In your 2013 Locus interview you talked about Philip K. Dick’s kibbutz on Mars, saying “That’s the only time I ever saw myself in American science fiction books (‘That’s me!’).” Do you feel like this has changed significantly? Especially with the rise in variety of voices and settings in genre fiction? Or do you feel like your background and cultural experiences are still largely overlooked?
Well, I do have a pretty unusual background, to be fair . . . Have you seen any other kibbutzim in science fiction recently? When I went to China last year I did a whole bunch of interviews about Central Station, and as kind of a joke, I said, you know, it’s the best science fiction novel ever written to be set in Tel Aviv but, as it’s also the only SF novel to be set in Tel Aviv it must by default also be the worst.
But yeah, things have changed tremendously since 2013—since 2009, actually, when I was putting together the first World SF anthology. And one of the things that made me really happy is that you can see all the international writers I was picking up for the anthologies early on now have major careers, big novels out, awards won, which would have been unimaginable ten years ago. There was so obviously this pool of talent that, I hate to say it, went unacknowledged for too long. And it’s wonderful to see it slowly turning around. But it’s still difficult! All of us have heard the “We don’t publish books set in X” rejection at some point or another. We don’t do Mexican books! We don’t do books set in Nigeria! Or when I was writing Unholy Land and pretty much being told, you know, no one in the UK wants to read a book about a bunch of Jews in Africa. You know, “Why can’t it be set in New York, or at least London?”
So there’s this massive disconnect, there’s this weird American perception that New York writing is somehow the pinnacle of Western literature (and by default, all literature), while in England you kind of celebrate this sort of very anemic writing—it was Raymond Chandler who said the English may not make the best writers in the world but they do make the best boring writers.
And I don’t get it. I think, actually, genre fiction—science fiction and fantasy—lead the pack in terms of featuring new, international voices. Of at least engaging with the question of diversity in literature while everyone else is lagging behind. But it’s still . . . easier to write a novel set in England. Even if I’m parodying or making fun of the British, like in A Man Lies Dreaming or By Force Alone. It’s much scarier to write a novel set in Israel, for example. And what I sort of want to do is to turn to the “Matter of Israel” in a way at some point. But then Unholy Land sort of did that a little bit, and after that I did want to change tack a bit. I think it’s why I really like The Escapement—it’s my only non political novel, it’s a fantasy in a sort of surrealist secondary world, it’s like a fable or a fairy tale if those had bounty hunters and clowns anyway. And yet it doesn’t feel any less significant.
In your Clarkesworld interview in 2013 you talked briefly about travel and its impact on your writing, saying, “I have set stories widely across the world, and I’ve lived in many of those places, I am increasingly uncomfortable with doing that—I am feeling more and more that I need to concentrate on my personal background, heritage, geography. I’m conflicted, in a way.” How does your recent work stand in relationship to this statement; have your feelings changed or developed since then?
Well . . . I’ve recently been writing more stories set quite widely, though I hope my . . . approach to them has been more nuanced. It’s hard to say. I feel more comfortable with them—stories like “Neom” in Asimov’s last year, which is set in Saudi Arabia, or “Yiwu” at Tor.com, which is set in China. I just finished a new one set in Mongolia, where I got to draw again on, you know, having been there and just being able to pull on some small details but the sort you wouldn’t get otherwise. But I’m writing about outsiders. I think that’s my concession, which I think is the new global condition, really. Chinese in Poland, Sudanese in Israel, you know, the world’s become Peruvian Japanese cuisine! I went to a Peruvian Japanese restaurant in Spain 2-3 years ago with a couple of much more successful writers and I was really hoping someone else would pick up the bill! Luckily one of their publishers did. It was not the cheapest place . . .
But it’s still tricky! I guess I feel better about it, too, because since that interview I did write Central Station and Unholy Land, which are exactly the sort of difficult, personal background books I meant. So I feel better about it. I’d be disappointed with myself if I hadn’t done that. And that was very much the thinking behind it.
Can you talk a bit about your experiences with different forms, specifically what you have enjoyed or disliked about any that stand out, but especially about the ways in which writing Adler (a creator-owned five-issue comic with art by Paul McCaffrey) is different or similar to other forms?
I’m fascinated by form, it’s true. Sometimes you can actually look at the same story and try to write it in different mediums—it is a screenplay? A comics script? Is it prose? I actually have projects that exist in different forms. There’s an issue #1 comics script of The Violent Century somewhere on my hard drive, and a screenplay of Adler. And an Osama stage play.
I got involved in writing an opera for the Royal Opera House a while back and that fell through. That was a shame. I would have loved to have done that. One of my dreams is to bring Osama: The Musical to the stage at some point. People look at me funny when I say that, but I’m entirely serious! Came close to doing theater once or twice and that didn’t work out so far. But I’m realizing that whatever I do will be weird, so . . .
“Svalbard” was so much fun to do, because I’ve always been interested in the idea of interactive fiction. And it was combined with Jake doing these fiendishly difficult puzzles you have to unlock to read the story! And the story itself is a part of the final puzzle. It was very cool.
I love working with artists, too. There’s a real magic in writing something and having it come to life through art. Adler was a real labor of love for Paul and me. It took like seven years! His art gets so transcendent by issue #5, I kind of told him if I’d known I would have written him something better to draw! It’s a fun comic, though, it will be a great graphic novel come August.
I’m not sure anyone is ever going to let me write comics again so I’m just riding it and having fun. We signed issue #1 in London when it came out and we were supposed to be at Dublin Comic Con for issue #2, but now . . . Anyway it will give Paul more time—the poor man is still coloring! I’m just taking the glory.
Right now, I’m working on animation with my friend Nir Yaniv—it’s a very DIY sort of project, but we have these voice actors involved and it’s kind of evolving quickly, and it was only supposed to be a little side project to keep me from getting bored! I have no idea where it’s going. And now people are asking to get in on it! And I’m like, but why! I just love doing these ridiculous things that make no sense. That pretty much describes my entire career, probably.
Your next book, By Force Alone, is out soon from Head of Zeus and Tor. It’s a retelling of Arthurian myth from a completely different angle. What is it, do you think, about Arthurian tales that typically draw people to them? And what made you want to take them on—to tear them down and rebuild them with a very different lens?
I never had any interest in Arthurian mythology—something something Merlin, something something sword in the stone, something Camelot, etc. Then I kind of had to study it because I rashly agreed to replace someone teaching on an undergrad course at my old university, and he’s a Medievalist (and I’m not a lecturer! I just got roped into it! If only I knew what I was letting myself in for!). So I was reading up on it and realized, firstly, that the whole thing wasn’t just made up but it’s sort of like a shared world fan fiction project, where one guy came up with the basic story and then everyone else kept adding bits to it. So someone comes up with Lancelot, someone comes up with the Green Knight, someone else goes, hey, sword in a stone! Someone else adds the round table. And so on to the grail. So without these guys in the twelfth century who came up with the whole grail mythology there’d be no Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there’d be no Da Vinci Code! I thought well, that’s interesting.
And the other thing I realized was, I’m reading the story, and it’s supposed to be about chivalry and honor, and it’s . . . it’s not! It’s an awful story. And I suddenly realized it’s basically a gangster story. It’s the rise and fall. It’s The Godfather, it’s Scarface. And then I thought, well, that I can work with.
So I looked around but everyone else was doing the story the way we’re told it goes, not the way it actually goes. I was really surprised. So I went for it. I thought it offered some really interesting opportunities to talk about nationalism right now. And also, I thought it would be fun to have Lancelot as a Jewish Nubian kung fu master. Even if I had to write 70,000 words before I even got to the Jewish Nubian kung fu part. I wrote it over about a year and a half, just for myself. I think only my agent vaguely knew I was writing some sort of Arthurian book. And then of course one early rejection was that people don’t want this version of Arthur! They want the “comfort and nostalgia of the original tales”! Which cracked me up! So much so that I worked that line into the book. I think it’s a very funny book. About nationalism. With a bit of kung fu. It’s a big book, that was a departure for me. I’ve been writing these short novels and this one felt massive in comparison.
What are you working on now? What do you have coming up that you can tell us about? And—back to the “forms” idea—are there forms/formats/projects you haven’t tried yet that you are thinking about taking on?
Publishing-wise, I have By Force Alone in June (it’s just come out in the UK), and then my children’s book, The Candy Mafia, which is gorgeously illustrated, I think, is out in September. And the graphic novel omnibus of Adler comes out in August! Plus my novella The Big Blind should be out from PS Publishing in September. And I’m currently working on an anthology.
Next year will probably see The Escapement out from Tachyon, which means the next book after that will be The Circumference of the World—it’s sort of my . . . “what if L. Ron Hubbard was right” book. What if this sci fi writer in the 50s came up with some crazy idea about the real nature of the world and it turned out he was right. It’s sort of several stories woven into one, including a biblio-mystery, a coming-of-age story in the South Pacific, a gangster story, and a 50s sci fi pastiche. I’m still working on it! There are so many drafts of it at this point it’s hard to know how it will end up. Then there will be my next book following By Force Alone, which is already contracted to Head of Zeus in the UK, and should be out in 2021. It’s another “Matter of Britain” novel. I stupidly pitched it as a quartet so I do have notes for the next two books, but in the meantime I’ll probably go and write a crime novel or something.
At the moment, as I mentioned earlier, I’m working on a couple of animation projects—a weird short film and a miniature web series. These are a lot of fun. I’m hoping we can debut them soon, though it will probably be a while yet. And I promised Paul McCaffrey I’d write him a big space SF graphic novel to draw. So I need to do that . . . And I have the usual short stories coming out. There are always the short stories!