Interview with best-selling author Lavie Tidhar

Images above: Maror; Lavie Tidhar

Author of Maror, chosen as a Book of the Year for 2022, teaches writing in Chiswick

I have just read Maror by Lavie Tidhar, a book which was chosen by both the Economist and the Guardian as Book of the Year for 2022. It was the most original, interesting and refreshing book I have read for a long time, and to my delight I found Lavie is teaching in Chiswick at the Richmond American University, based in Chiswick Business Park, so I went to meet him.

He seems slightly surprised by all the fuss. “I have no idea how that came about” he says, with a look of genuine amazement. For sure there must have been some sharp elbow work by the publicists for publisher Head of Zeus, but they had pretty good material to work with, and he is delighted with the resulting sales.

Lavie is Israeli, a Sabra, Israeli born and not only that, but kibbutz born. “They call us ‘kibbutz survivors now’,” he says wryly.

Image above: ‘Entre les gouttes… walking in the middle of a field during watering’;
Photograph: Israel Nature Photography by Ary

Maror – A modern history of Israel told through the eyes of a corrupt detective on a criminal investigation

When I went to Israel in my gap year in 1977, kibbutzim were all the rage. I had just read Leon Uris’s book Exodus and was fired by the idealism of the Israeli settlers etablishing a Jewish state after the holocaust and the socialist ideals of the kibbutz, where members ate all their meals together in a communal dining room and children were raised sleeping together in the children’s house rather than with their own parents.

Individualism was frowned on and what you did in life depended largely on the commercial, security and farming requirements of the kibbutz. Unless you were an artist or writer, in which case you could pursue your creativity in your time off from the orchards or the chicken houses.

Lavie comes from northern Israel, where I spent most of my time, so I recognise both the topography and the zeitgeist he captures in Maror.

It is a beast of a book, 554 pages, spanning four decades, which manages to encompass both the modern history of Israel and a true crime story, told from the perspective of detectives who are themselves criminals. The chief character is a corrupt policeman who is also an enforcer for criminal gangs whose leaders he grew up with.

Their drug dealing empires are dependent on supply lines from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon; their ease and familiarity with violence enmeshed in their experiences in the Israeli military and occupation of Lebanon.

Genre-bending author of science fiction and fantasy

Lavie delights in the genre-bending nature of it.

“I didn’t want to write a detective novel” he tells me. “I wanted to write a book about crime but not a crime novel.

“It’s boring to pick a genre and stick to it.”

He would know, because his career until this book has been mostly writing science fiction and fantasy, for which he has won a string of awards over the years, including winner and several nominations for the British Fantasy Awards, most recently for By Force Alone in 2021. He won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2012 for Osama.

He is teaching a ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy – Storytelling’ course as part of the MA in Film: Science Fiction and Fantasy at the university and has also made a short animation film, which he has submitted to festivals.

By writing Maror he says: “I’ve suddenly become respectable.”

All the events in the book are true – a car bombing, a series of murders of young women, a tragedy at a music festival – seen from the perspective of the investigators. The pace is that of a crime novel, but the subject matter is far broader and literary conventions quite different. He says he found it “exhilarating” to write.

‘Maror’ means ‘bitter herbs’ and the book is shot through with biblical references, matched equally by the number of references to Israeli pop music.

“I thought writing a literary novel would be harder” he says. “I thought, how do you write a novel without elves and aliens? But it turns out it’s the same, but just without the elves and the aliens.”

Israel has quite a small population – only 9.3 million – and when he started writing the book he was amazed at how close were the links to the material he was writing about.

A man was falsely imprisoned for the series of murders of young women carried out in the 1970s, after the police beat a confession out of him.

“It was crazy researching it. I phoned my dad. It turned out my dad was a friend of the guy who was imprisoned.”

The characters who are doing drug deals in Columbia and representing the Israeli Mob in court are based on people he knew himself.

Image above: ‘Lone tree in the nature before cloudy mountains’;
Photograph: Israel Nature Photography by Ary

Getting perspective on the land he thought he knew

“This book has been brewing for years” he tells me.

When the book was published in August last year he wrote:

‘James Joyce once said he couldn’t write of Ireland until he was away from her, and perhaps this is true of anyone’s home – that to be seen clearly it must be viewed from afar, with a love no longer blinded to the flaws.

‘My publisher Nicolas Cheetham told me to write the book I always wanted to write, and the result is Maror: a huge, painstaking fictional exploration of very real events. It led me like a historical detective from one hard-to-believe event to the next.

‘Guided by a retired crime beat reporter, extensive newspaper archives and my father’s colourful stories, as well as my own recollections of growing up in Israel in the 80s and 90s, I began to piece together the true and secret story of a country I thought I knew but didn’t’.

Maror may also become a TV series, as he has had interest from more than one TV company. He is now settled in London, having lived in the South Pacific, South Africa and America for a while, as his wife is British and her career is here.

His next book ‘Adama‘ (Hebrew for ‘land’ – “I like five letter titles”) is due out in October and will be a story based on a kibbutz.

“It’s about the darker side of kibbutz life… I don’t think it’s an idyllic childhood…

“I admire the idealism of my grandparents’ generation, but if you look at the history of where I grew up, the Arab villages are just no longer there.”

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Interview with Sandy Johnson, Chiswick based director of ‘Beyond Paradise’

See also: Street art comes indoors, at Acton’s Poet’s Corner

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