26 April 2009 0 Comments

The Writing Life: Evan Fallenberg


The most stirring, dramatic novel I’ve read in many years is Light Fell by Evan Fallenberg. It’s the story of Joseph Licht, an Israeli family man who falls in love with his rabbi. At first it looks like it might be the tale of their forbidden romance, but the book takes a startling turn and Licht is forced to face the religious beliefs, prejudices, and resentments of his sons. Light Fell has won or been shortlisted for: the Barbara Gittings Stonewall Award; a National Jewish Book Award; the Edmund White Award; and a Lambda Literary Award. Fallenberg’s also one of the leading translators of Hebrew literature, including Batya Gur’s Murder in Jerusalem, Alon Hilu’s Death of a Monk, and Meir Shalev’s A Pigeon and a Boy, winner of the 2007 National Jewish Book Award for fiction and a finalist for the PEN Translation Prize. A proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, Evan lives in a rural community near Netanya, Israel, where he runs a writing school in his back yard. I wish you could hear him read from his work, because he’s a compelling, engaging presence—go and hear him if you get a chance. Meanwhile, here are his fascinating thoughts on writing.

How long did it take you to get published?

That was a long, protracted process that would look like a mountain range if it were mapped out. Several years, really.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

For teaching I mostly rely on Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway; Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway; Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others; and What If? by Pam Painter and Anne Bernays. As a writer I’ve been enriched by writing books penned by Jane Smiley, Francine Prose, and especially Ben Yagoda (The Sound on the Page) and, the best of them all, EM Forster’s Aspects of a Novel.

What’s a typical writing day?

I only learned what my typical writing day was a few years ago, when I was a guest artist at the MacDowell Colony and my days were entirely my own. Until then it had simply been a matter of finding an hour when no spouse, boss, child or chore needed me. But when able to choose, I like to rise early, write a scene or two, eat a hearty breakfast, take a mid-morning nap, and settle down to work again for a long stretch from noon until dinner.


Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

Light Fell is the story of Joseph Licht, an Israeli who in 1976 leaves a life of certainties (wife, children, religion, a position in society and academia) for a great and forbidden love with a dynamic young Orthodox rabbi. Since it’s impossible to offer credible, objective (!) feedback on one’s own book, I’ll quote the judges of the American Library Association’s Barbara Giddings Stonewall Award, who awarded their fiction prize to Light Fell this year: “With rich characterization and eloquent writing Fallenberg explores the inner lives of a family and the universal applicability of the social and religious issues they face.” For me as a reader, books need to have engaging characters of depth taking part in a gripping story that I can relate to no matter how different my life is to theirs, and written in language that is at the same time rich, precise and unselfconscious. The judges’ comment makes me feel as though I have succeeded in writing book that even I would like to read!

How much of what you do is dictated by a genre?

I certainly don’t fit into any genre that I know of. Writing, for me, feels like reinventing the wheel every time. But I wouldn’t want it any other way. After all, if you are just writing an altered version of what someone else has already done, why bother?

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

The closing lines of a poem by the Mexican poet Amado Nervo:
Amé, fuí amado, el sol acarició mi faz.
¡Vida, nada me debes! ¡Vida, estamos en paz!
(I loved, I was loved, the sun stroked my face.
Life, you owe me nothing! Life, we are at peace!)
I learned this poem by heart when I was twelve or so. Back then it was just a jumble of pretty words in Spanish. But it has come to feel like a motto for life, one I believe in every day and hope to do so to my very last.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?

There is certainly no one best descriptive image, but the one that jumps to mind (and does so quite often) is from Carson McCullers’ short story The Sojourner, which made a huge impression on me many many years ago: “Fair Elizabeth, rosy and naked before her bath. Half-dressed before the mirror of her dressing table, brushing her fine, chestnut hair. Sweet, casual intimacy, the soft-fleshed loveliness indisputably possessed.” It’s that ‘soft-fleshed loveliness indisputably possessed’ that gets me every time.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

Probably Lionel Shriver, an American-born writer living for many years in London. Her book The Post-Birthday World is a masterpiece. Every time she took me to a new plateau I thought I’d reached the summit, but there was always more.

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

I’ll go with British writer Michael Frayn, since he is capable of brilliance in every genre he tries: theater, nonfiction, novels.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

The research is great fun, and I could get carried away with it. The book I’m working on now ‘required’ me to travel to Warsaw, Copenhagen and Berlin AND take ballet lessons. Maybe my next book should involve a Tahitian beach, somehow.

What’s your experience with being translated?

In my case, the question should read “What’s your experience with translating?” since that is my vocation. I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of translating some very fine Israeli writers, including Meir Shalev, Ron Leshem, Batya Gur, Alon Hilu… Every book is an act of ventriloquism, trying to find a voice that isn’t your own but isn’t exactly the writer’s either, since you’re rendering this voice in a new language (and culture). My goal is to provoke the same reactions in the English reader that the Hebrew reader would have experienced when reading the original. But the art of translation is imperfect from the outset. The biggest compliment for me came from a reader of my translation of Meir Shalev’s A Pigeon and a Boy, who told me she felt as though Meir Shalev had actually written this book in English.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?

At this point I could only live off my writing by building a tent out of book covers and eating all the pages. But I do actually make my living from a mix of writing, translating and teaching creative writing. So I live off words, that’s for sure.

How many books did you write before you were published?

I’m one for one. Nothing in my drawers!

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

Between two speaking engagements in my native Ohio I was to be interviewed by the local affiliate of National Public Radio. They needed me to be on a landline just when I had planned to visit my sister at the restaurant she owns, but the only quiet place was her office, which doubles as a storeroom. I stood there among huge cans of tomato sauce trying to sound cool and intelligent while the fax machine kept ringing and employees banged at the door looking for waffle batter.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

I have a dream of collaborating with a composer-friend on a novella set to music, a sort of mini-opera in four voices. I’m hoping it’s just crazy enough to happen.

Leave a Reply