Transcript for Etgar Keret on "Suddenly, a Knock on the Door"

Jim Fleming: But first Etgar Keret. Keret was born in Tel Aviv in 1967. His short stories have often been described as Kafkaesque. Though as a fellow writers pointed out that probably best described as Keretesque. Kerets new short story collection is called "Suddenly, a Knock on the Door.". He tells Steve Paulson that he started writing after a traumatic event that occurred while he was serving in the Israeli army.

Etgar Keret: My best friend who served with me in the same base became heavily depressed and he shot himself and killed himself. I found him after he shot himself.

Steve Paulson: Wow. Do you know why? I mean depression, obviously. But was there something about serving in the military. Do you think?

Etgar Keret: I think that whenever somebody kills himself we look for this kind of excusive reason because it makes people feel safe. Because let's say if I would say yeah it was because he was in the military and so you can say ok I'm not in the military. I'm safe. You know. If I would say it was because his girlfriend left him you say oh my girlfriend didn't leave me. I'm safe. You know. But I think it there something very existential in that suicide and that was what was so threatening about it. Because you know it's just somebody you really love and you're really close to and they kill them self. Then you say so actually why I don't do the same thing. And I think that when I started writing it was basically a way of putting it on paper saying this is why I want to live. This is what life means to me.

Steve Paulson: Now the story that I've heard about your friend's suicide is even more complicated for you apparently shortly before he did this he asked you to give him reasons for why he shouldn't kill himself and if you couldn't come up with a reason he said he was going to do it.

Etgar Keret: Yeah it didn't happen like the same day but we had few talks about the fact that he wanted to kill himself and whenever he would mention it I say don't do it and I would say know we are all going to miss you, you're going to break my heart. You're going to break your entire family's heart. You know. And he said you know I'm sorry but this isn't a good enough reason to keep on living. And he said give me good reason. And these are the kind of things that are tough to articulate. You know. It's something personal and it's these kinds of things you can't put in words. But sometimes you can put them in the shape of a story. You know because I think a story many times is a way kind of saying those things that you can't put out in one sentence. Because it can carry all those ambiguity and complexity of a statement like "Why am I living?" You know.

Steve Paulson:  So did that incident actually cause you to become a writer?

Etgar Keret:  I wrote my first story a couple of weeks after he committed his suicide. I don't know maybe I would have started writing anyway. But my life was going in two entirely different directions. I was serving in a computer unit. I was a math major. I was supposed to learn math and computers. And you know I never wrote anything in my life before that so I don't know maybe if he wouldn't have done it, today I would become computer engineer or do something else. I'm not sure.

Steve Paulson:  It's worth pointing out that the subject of suicide is a recurring theme in your fiction. You wrote a novella dealing with the subject which was the basis of the film, "Wrist Cutters: A Love Story."  And the subject of suicide comes up in your new collection of short stories, "Suddenly, a Knock on the Door."   Does this all go back to your friend's suicide or is there something else draws you to this subject?

Etgar Keret: Well I think that suicide is always a very strong metaphor for many things but mostly for talking about life as a choice. I think many times when you live your life you know and you think that I don't know that things are not working, everything sucks, and you say why? Why is it happening to me? You know. And they read the sentence you know, "Never born, never asked."  I think many people can live their life in a very grumpy and unhappy kind of way. But the moment you internalize that your life is a choice you could take your own life in every given minute. Then it means that if you leave them and if you chose to leave them then you should take responsibility of them and kind of live a life worth living.

Steve Paulson:  Well and one story in particular deals with suicide in your new book. It's called "Not Completely Alone."  Can you tell me about that story?

Etgar Keret: Well it's a story told by a person who's in love with a woman who's not sexually attracted to him. And he keeps saying he seeing the relationship as a tragedy because she would have liked it to be a romantic one but basically she's very very close to him yet has sex with other men.  In the story, she apparently had known other people who killed themselves because of her. At some point, the narrator keeps telling the story but he killed himself because of her but and keeps telling that story even after his death.

Narrator:  Four of the guys she dated tried committed suicide. Two even succeeded. They were the ones she cared about most. They were close to her very close like real brothers. Sometimes when she's home alone she can actually feel us, Kuti and me in the living room with her, looking at her and when that happens it's scary but it makes her happy to because she knows she's not completely alone.

Steve Paulson:  Now your stories are rooted in reality but you have all these kinds of fantastical elements in them. There is one story with a talking goldfish. In another one, there is a small zipper under a man's tongue that his girlfriend unzips to discover that there is an entirely different man underneath. There's a kind of dreamlike logic in a lot of these stories which I suppose we would call surrealism and you have often been called a surrealist writer. Do you think that label fits you?

Etgar Keret: It fits me to some extent. But I think that you can use surrealism in many different ways. Many people talk about magic reality, when you kind of break realism to get this feeling of uplift and optimism and that feeling of beauty that comes from the fantastic. But I don't think that's the case in my stories. I think that there is something very mundane about the unrealistic things in my stories. But many times, it's just kind of a way or past to talk about something that is actually very simple and very every day like. But I kind of take a detour and do it through some sort of a fantastical situation. But you know, I'm saying sometimes my character needs somebody to tell him he is wrong. Sometimes it will be a goldfish that will tell him that and not his mother. But that's purely circumstantial.

Steve Paulson:  Is it a way to get at something that's more real, do you think by bringing in these fantastical elements?

Etgar Keret: Oh yeah, for sure. I think that there is something about realistic art that is kind of overrated. I think it's a perfectly legitimate choice and I love a lot of literature that is realistic. But I think that when you write, you write something that is completely subjective. You know. It doesn't matter even if you write it in a third person narrative you write what you feel and sometimes the stuff that you feel is not realistic. My commitment is to the truth, it's not to the laws of physics, you know. So if I want to follow some sort of inner truth and it would take me on a route that is fantastical then I will happily take that route. It's not a goal, you know. It's a means to get somewhere.

Jim Fleming: Etgar Keret is the author of "Suddenly, a Knock on the Door."  He spoke with Steve Paulson.

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