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I am pleased by this exchange (Nov. 2012) with Diana Bletter on her website, The Best Chapter concerning my works.
Diana is a prolific, prize-winning author whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Tablet and North American Review. Her memoir, The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle, will be published by Kent & Cordell on October 5, 2012.
And now, for the interview.
* * *
I’m happy to welcome Yosef Gotlieb, a writer, geographer and lecturer in Israel. He writes about everything from astronomy to the environment and politics in The New York Times,The Los Angeles Times and other publications. His book, Rise, has just been published.Rise is a moving story set in Israel, a political who-done-it that raises important questions about extremism around the world and Israeli society in particular. Rise is available at amazon.com here as well as Barnes & Noble and other major vendors, and as an eBook atKindle and Smashwords.
Diana: My blog talks about making this the best chapter of our lives. What are the things you do on a daily basis to make this part of your life your best chapter?
Yosef Gotlieb: In 1987, I had an accident which left me with long-term disability and severe pain. Additionally, after my marriage and the completion of my doctorate, I had to contend with a chronic illness that increasingly curtailed my functioning. In 2005 I was diagnosed with End-Stage Liver Disease and pulmonary hypertension secondary to it. I had very little chance of surviving a liver transplant in late 2006. Contrary to expectations, I made it.
I was, of course, very grateful to be alive. But I returned to find both my professional and literary careers in shambles and, by then in my early fifties (I’m now 57), any hope I might have had about making my mark on the world and improving it seemed faint. With the help of my wife and children, great doctors and my own determination I gradually rehabilitated myself physically, and with this, spiritually. I learned a great deal from my illness – about what is important in life and how it should be lived – and I employ these lessons in my daily life.
I look for every opportunity to enjoy nature and beauty. I favor the spiritual over the material. I try to live simply. I practice chi koen twice daily and while I am not an orthodox Jew, I do engage in traditional spiritual practices each day. I take the time to look at the nocturnal sky and to watch the sea when I can. I try to control the stresses in my life. I regularly engage in power walks and am physically active. I spend a considerable amount of time volunteering, primarily relating to health-related issues but also social and environmental ones. I try to visit new places and people as often as I can. I read as much as my obligations permit and listen to music at every opportunity.
All of this has made me much more productive and satisfied than I ever have been and I look forward to many years of living, working, loving, writing and teaching and doing my part to help others and improve the world.
Diana: I love the imperative title of your book, Rise. It is almost a command. Could you tell us how you thought of it?
Yosef Gotlieb: I began writing the work that would become Rise in 1984 shortly after making my home in Israel and realizing that my idealized expectations of the society were marred by increasing extremism. I come from an activist tradition, the belief in the Jewish credo of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. Writing the book and presenting it to readers in the hope of inspiring change was a fundamental motivation of mine.
In earlier drafts the title of the book was The Rains, referring to a cycle of prolonged drought that accompanies the unfolding plot and concludes with torrential rains at the end of the work. I had intended this as a metaphor for the long period of societal inaction, languishment, and uncertainty that characterizes Israel today.
But in reworking the book I realized that it was an affirmation of faith in Israeli society, particularly its roots in the prophetic tradition of social justice and its proactive character. “Rise” is a call for awakening and action…It is a summons to mobilize for a better future.
Diana: I am curious about your life. You were born in Costa Rica, raised in America and now live in Israel. How many languages do you speak? How has the variety of spoken and written languages influenced your writing?
Yosef Gotlieb: My parents were born in Poland and brought to Costa Rica as children by their parents in the 1930s, when it was clear that there was not future for Jews in Europe. They were raised in Yiddish-speaking families and in a community where Spanish was increasingly spoken but Yiddish remained a vernacular. I was born in that community but my nuclear family moved to Chicago when I was an infant. At home, my parents were linguistically rooted in Spanish and Yiddish and I, and later my brother who was born in the US, brought English into our family. I learned English primarily by learning to read and consuming written matter voraciously from an early age.
Growing up there was always a sense of struggle in verbal communication and I increasingly relied on written communication for self-expression. Eventually, though, my verbal skills improved and I have been a teacher and lecturer for many years. I began writing at a very young age and it is through that medium that I find greatest satisfaction in self-expression.
I had a speech community but no mother tongue. I do have what I call a father tongue, Hebrew, which is central to my historical identity. As one translator of my work recently noted, though I was educated in the US the English language of my writing has an Israeli lilt to it. Also, since my personal life has been influenced by Yiddish, Spanish, American and Israeli cultures, this is reflected in my writing, in which I often use non-English colloquialisms. Today, I speak mainly Hebrew in my family and social life, I teach and write in English, and I often use Spanish. Sometimes, I find myself using all three languages in one conversation.
Diana: I admire the way you infuse your novel, Rise, with political vision. What are some do’s and don’ts for fiction writers to avoid turning their work into polemics? And do you have one or two tips you can share about writing well?
Yosef Gotlieb: Yaakov Bok, the imprisoned Jew in Bernard Malamud’s great work, The Fixer, says that there is no such thing as a non-political man, especially if he’s a Jew. Whether things will be different in Utopia, I can’t say, but negotiating the forces of power, domination and exploitation, is a mainstay of contemporary life. I believe that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
That said, politics in literary endeavors is a tricky thing; they don’t mix easily. Good fiction is about people, their challenges and triumphs, big and small. If one looks at the work of great authors like John Steinbeck, or a book like To Kill A Mockingbird these achievements with social and political implications have far greater impact by their subtlety than any work that hammers or whines, no matter how just the cause.
I am constantly struggling to improve my craft as a writer and I expect to continue doing so as long as I write, that is, hopefully until my last day on earth. Writing is chiefly about rewriting, striving for the greatest fidelity between what appears on paper and is presented to the reader and the message that the writer finds himself or herself commanded to express. This involves a process of constant self-discovery and self-improvement. All of this involves unceasing discipline and commitment, often with little reward.
Diana: Finally, I am inspired by your range of interests and activities. When can you possibly find time to write?
Yosef Gotlieb: Finding time to write is a necessity for me. I block off a dedicated period during which whatever I am working on becomes the focus of my productive energies. For example, I planned to write the first full draft of my new novel, Dance of the Uroboros last July 1st and to conclude it by the end of September. I kept to that schedule, including time to review the draft and “study” what I had come up with, that is, to see where the characters, plot and writing needed to be improved and the work rendered more cohesive. I then decided that I would let the draft percolate through mid-December, allowing me to consider several issues that I have to resolve in the story while at the same time enabling me to put my academic commitments on track for the new year. I am already itching to get back to work on the manuscript, but I think that this time away from it will prove important to its development.
Diana: I love the title of your next novel, Dance of the Uroboros. What is it about?
Yosef Gotlieb: Dance of the Uroboros is a fictionalized account of my experience with two life-threatening illnesses that challenged both my body and my spirit over two years before I underwent a liver transplant. It is not a memoir nor is it an autobiography; the characters are fictional, though the protagonist’s life and challenges bears certain parallels to my own. It is a story about self-reckoning and trying to come to peace with the past in order to continue into the future.
Thank you, Yosef!