About The Author
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen was born in Israel in 1982 and holds an MA in Clinical Psychology from Tel Aviv University. Her film scripts have won prizes at international festivals, including the Berlin Today Award and the New York City Short Film Festival Award. Her debut novel One Night, Markovitch won the Sapir Prize for best debut and is being translated into five languages. Her latest novel, Waking Lions, now available in paperback, is a suspenseful and morally devastating drama of guilt and survival, shame and desire. It looks at the darkness inside all of us to ask: what would we do? What are any of us capable of? The novel centres around one moment in Dr Eitan Green's life, when he fails to stop having hit an Ethiopian migrant while speeding after an exhausting hospital night shift. It is a decision that changes everything, especially when the man's wife knocks at his door and tells him the strange price of her silence...
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Ayelet about why writing is the only playground open to adults, her encounter with the real-life counterpart of her protagonist and the desire to waken as many lions as possible.
Author photo © Nir Kafri
Questions & Answers
This is very different from your debut, which was set in the past and was lighter in tone. Did you consciously set out to move in a darker direction?
No. I had no conscious thought of 'what's the next move'. I finished the first novel, and I missed the characters. After spending so much time together, it was like losing a close friend. And then suddenly I met this new story within me, and I followed it. When the second novel was finished I gave it to some friends, and they warned me that readers who expected a light tone – as in the first novel – would be shocked by the second one. But the reason I love writing is because it’s the only playground open to adults. The only place where you don't have to remain coherent, clear, predictable. You can do what you want, be who you want, either a 60-year-ago tale like Markovitch or something much more rigid and realistic like Waking Lions. I'm working on my third novel now, and once again I'm using my right to do exactly what I want to do, regardless of what happened before.
Can you say something about the real event that inspired this story?
I was twenty years old when I met the protagonist of this novel. I was travelling in India and met a young Israeli who just sat in the guesthouse and stared for nights. He had a dreamy face and long, light coloured hair. He was just out of the military service and out on the adventure of his life. But there was something wrong with him. The guy looked frozen. He didn’t speak, he didn't smoke, he didn't do anything. He just lay on the hammock in the guesthouse and stared at the sky. Something was eating him up inside, that was clear.
Eventually I went to him and asked if he alright. He told me that several days ago he had hit an Indian man with his motorcycle, and fled.
I was haunted by this story for ten years before I sat down to write it, and one of the reasons was that I couldn't find the right trail for the protagonist. I didn't want to write a 300 page-novel about a white guy feeling guilty and contemplating it in his decorated living room. Only after I realized that this person is blackmailed by the widow of the refugee he killed did I sit down to write.
During the course of writing, did you ever feel your own moral stance change as you examined the ‘evidence’ of the characters’ back stories and the unfolding of events?
I wanted the readers to finish the book with this question: had it happened to you – driving home to your family late at night, hitting an un-named refugee, one that looks like 1000 other people, like the cleaner in the supermarket, and no one would ever know – are you absolutely sure you wouldn't flee? In order to make the readers ask this question, I had to ask myself the same question. It would be easy to say that I'm sure I know the answer, and right now, when I'm sitting in a café at Tel-Aviv and writing to you, I feel as if I do. But you don't really know anything until you're actually there.
As in life, but less so in fiction, there isn’t a clear-cut moral centre in the novel and our sympathies shift as the story develops and we learn more about the characters. How readily do you think fiction should or does genuinely engage with moral ambiguity at the expense of easy answers?
A novel is not a political statement. It’s a novel. It has, of course, political aspects. It wishes to touch people not only in the personal sense, but also in the social and political one. I believe the two can't be separated. What we're talking about here is what it means to be a human being. What moral responsibility – if any – do we carry with us? There are no easy answers, but the fact that it's ambiguous doesn't mean we can avoid diving into this ambiguity, and coming back with answers.
I believe it's the writer's job to force the reader to look where he usually avoids looking. Literature is an act of seeing, different from the everyday gaze. When I was working as a news editor the main question was how much reality people can take while drinking their coffee in the morning. As long as you can swallow your muesli the paper is doing its job. I hope literature is more than that. I hope it makes people spill their coffee on the table
In the novel there is a motif of looking and also of not-seeing, especially as far as the Eritrean refugees are concerned. If a country like Israel, built on people fleeing places where they were unwelcome, can’t see its refugees, how can they and the rest of the world be made to step away from their complacency and really look?
One can either choose to look at something – or be forced to do so. In my novel, Eitan would never bother to really look at the Eritrean cleaning-woman, unless she had the power to force him to do so. If you look at what's going on in the world today, the invisible people are no longer hoping for the world to choose to look at them – they force us to look.
The refugees and the Bedouins themselves are steeped in ambiguity and can’t easily be pigeonholed. Was it important to you to portray them as much as people as by an easy label?
It was very important for me that Sirkit wasn’t this 'black angel', a saint, an African Maria. I wanted her to be a real human being, with dreams and desires and aspirations for power. I think to portray her as a saint is just as dehumanising as portraying her as an ultimate evil. A 'refugee' is no more of a saint than a 'middle-class man'. Both are labels, and behind those labels there are real people – who love, cheat, hate and trust.
One reviewer said you had invented a new genre with this novel, Israeli noir. How does this strike you?
There's a lot of 'noir' in the Israeli reality, so it's only reasonable for a Hebrew writers to turn to this genre. In the noir, the protagonist is always in the quest for knowledge, and self-knowledge can be very defeating. However, my protagonist doesn't seek knowledge; he wishes to return to his safe, ignorant existence.
Did you hope to wake some lions yourself with this novel, or does the telling of a good story have to take precedence?
The title is taken from a poem by Yona Wallach 'we were as crazy / lions roared in us all night long'. It appears in a very specific moment in the novel, in which, I think, the lions are indeed awakened. I liked the idea of the hidden lion, the hidden predator among all of us, even the bourgeois doctor in his white robe. And yes, I did want to wake as many lions as possible – when you write something, you want the whole jungle to hear it roar!
With two very different but equally successful novels under your belt, can you say what we can expect to say for your third fictional outing?
That it's different.