When a Writer Draws a Blank

By Ephron, Dan | Newsweek International, April 18, 2012 | Go to article overview

When a Writer Draws a Blank


Ephron, Dan, Newsweek International


Byline: Dan Ephron

Israeli author Etgar Keret turns a dry spell into gold.

Etgar Keret, the celebrated short-story writer, received an insightful bit of feedback recently. His brother--a devoted reader of Keret's work--had noticed that Keret's early narratives often took place on buses. Later, the venue shifted to taxis. In his latest collection, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, just published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, characters are frequently on planes.

For Keret, the observation captured the paradox of success: it has made life more comfortable but writing more difficult. The 44-year-old had been accustomed to writing about people in rundown apartments and dysfunctional relationships--essentially people like himself. But in the past decade, he got married, had a son, and bought an apartment in the heart of Tel Aviv. "With all the changes, I found that I could write a story about what I used to be but not about what I am now. It's as if I lacked the vocabulary," he says. "It took me a lot of time and a leap of faith to accept that I'm living a different kind of life."

Ensconced in this new life, Keret spent eight years on the new book (it was published in Hebrew in 2010), his sixth collection since 1992. He did plenty else during that time, including codirecting a movie. But the stories that are his trademark--that start out conventionally ("Robbie was seven when he told his first lie") then veer toward the absurd (a gumball machine transports Robbie to a place where his lies actually transpire)--trickled out more slowly than at any time since he began writing.

That struggle to find inspiration is mirrored in the book's title piece. A writer is forced at gunpoint to tell a story, but the words don't come. The gunman is soon joined by a pollster and a pizza deliveryman--all sitting in the writer's living room and demanding a story. "I bet things like this never happen to Amos Oz or David Grossman," the writer quips,

referencing the two towering figures of Israeli literature. Finally, the story within a story unspools. "A man is sitting in a room. He's lonely. He's a writer. He wants to write a story. It's been a long time since he wrote his last story, and he misses it?.?.?.?But he draws a blank. No story presents itself. …

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