Lavie Tidhar is an author who treats genre boundaries like smoke. His work, which has been compared to that of Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, combines detective and thriller conventions with poetry, science fiction, historical and even autobiographical material. He is the author of the Bookman steampunk series (comprised of 2010's The Bookman, 2011's Camera Obscura, and 2012's The Great Game – all of which are getting reprinted later this year), Osama (2011, winner of the World Fantasy Award), Martian Sands (2013), The Violent Century (2013), and the collection Black Gods Kiss (2015). He's also the Series Editor of The Apex Book of World SF anthology series.
His writing continues to expand the minds of readers lucky enough to discover his work. He has several new stories and books available: A Man Lies Dreaming (winner of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize), Central Station (which collects the related short fiction about a culturally diverse Earth left behind after much of mankind has travelled to the stars), Art & War: Poetry, Pulp and Politics in Israeli Fiction (part fiction, part non-fiction dialogue with co-author Shimon Adaf), and the short fiction eBook "Terminal".
I had a chance to chat with Lavie about his recent work…
Q: Which experiences, inspirations and people influenced you to become a writer?
Lavie Tidhar: Gosh, you start with the big one right off, I see! I try to write from my own experience, which is a somewhat odd one – I grew up on a kibbutz in Israel, I lived on an island in the South Pacific, I speak Hebrew and Bislama... Though I’ve mostly been based in London, on and off, for a long while now. So I’d say, you know, everything I’ve ever read, and everywhere I’ve been, but more and more I try to stay faithful to my own background, and I think we see that with the new novels, A Man Lies Dreaming really owes its existence to my own family background, to the Holocaust, which was a tremendous shaping force on me, and Central Station, on the other hand, which is rooted very firmly in the landscape and history of Israel today, but at the same time is sort of a love letter to the kind of American science fiction I grew up on, too.
Q: Why do your stories tend to blur the lines between genres?
Lavie Tidhar: I’m fascinated by genres, by the very idea of them. These shapes that people give to stories. The stories I love are ones that take an unexpected turn. You know, it was books like Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard or Michael Marshall Smith’s Only Forward, those kind of showed me you could do that sort of thing. And then I discovered all these weird European crime novels that just completely disregarded the idea of genre, and that had a big influence on me too. You know, I’m always attracted to the weird, to that ability to put a sort of funhouse mirror to reality, and I am interested in history, I love crime fiction, and poetry, and cookbooks! And I experiment a lot with different forms, I’ve written comics, screenplays, I currently even have a column in the Vanuatu Daily Post where I write literary short fiction in Bislama, which is this form of pidgin English. So, to me, these are just, a sort of set of tools, and I love that I can reach in and pick whichever one I think is useful at that particular moment.
Q: In A Man Lies Dreaming, you maintain dual narratives. One, which takes place in our own real world history, is about an Auschwitz prisoner named Shomer who writes pulp fiction. The other takes place in an alternate history and follows a detective named Wolf (who, readers learn early on, is Adolf Hitler using an assumed name) who's hired by a Jewish femme fatale to find her missing sister. Can you tell us about how this novel idea originated and how you approached the dark topic of the Holocaust?
Lavie Tidhar: The idea, to be honest, I think it’s a throwaway remark in one of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, sort of a joke. I mean, I spent most of my time trying not to write the book! It’s just when I thought about it, it occurred to me if anyone might get away with something so, well, offensive, it might be me, and that’s because of being, you know, third generation to the Holocaust – my mother was born in a refugee camp in Germany after the war, her parents survived Auschwitz. So I spent a lot of time trying not to write it, but nothing else was working and I eventually gave in and sat down and wrote it.
I think it’s a very dark comedy. To me, a lot of the book’s very funny (though admittedly, your mileage may vary!). The sex scenes are very funny I think. They’re terrible! But I think humour is really a key part of dealing with the darkness, and that’s also a very Jewish thing, I think. It’s the sort of very dark humour I grew up with, to an extent, and if you look it up, even during the worst atrocities, people were telling jokes about it to each other, awful jokes – it’s a way of coping, really. It’s all we have. Ideally what I wanted was, you know, if I could make someone laugh, and then make them cry. That’s really what I was hoping for!
Q: At the same time that you were exploring humanity's dark past in A Man Lies Dreaming, you were envisioning a culturally diverse future in a multitude of short fiction stories about life revolving around a space port on Earth after the diaspora. Central Station, which collects those stories, is due out in May. How would you characterize that future?
Lavie Tidhar: Yes, that’s true! Though I have to say, my intention was always that Central Station would be a novel, just that it’s a more of a mosaic novel. But the individual pieces were always meant to add up to a larger whole. But you’re right, that I think of it as a pretty hopeful sort of future. It’s a livable future. I wanted to write about ordinary people, with the trappings of this futuristic world kind of just serving as a background. Much like our own present is so different to the past, but we, ourselves, haven’t really changed much at all. So it was very interesting to explore that world, which is rooted very much in our own world – I started writing it when I was living in Tel Aviv, around 2010, so it’s very firmly rooted in real geography and people.
Q: What themes do you explore in the Central Station stories?
Lavie Tidhar: I think, one thing that interested me, is the idea of the family, the extended family in particular. I think most science fiction, most Western science fiction, you know, it’s about the individual. And if you do have families, they’re very nuclear families, you know, or they’re entirely absent. And I wanted to talk about that sense of being a part of this really large, really involved family, and the obligations and expectations that go with that – whether you particularly want them or not! But that’s really, I think, at the core of the novel, it’s the question of family, of relationships.
Q: In Art & War: Poetry, Pulp and Politics in Israeli Fiction, you talk with co-author Shimon Adaf about how to write about Israel, Palestine, Judaism, and the Holocaust in fiction. How do your respective approaches coincide? How do they differ?
Lavie Tidhar: I think Shimon, you know, we come sort of at the same thing but I’d say I do it from a “low” art place, and Shimon does it from “high” art, if that makes sense. But we’re both, I think, shaped by a lot of the same books and the same approach. It’s funny, because he’s considered this highly-regarded literary author, but I can look at one of his books, say Kfor, which is just brilliant (sadly, it’s not been translated), and I can point to what is to me a very obvious reference to, say, the science fiction writer Samuel Delany. But it’s something that would fly right over the Israeli reviewer’s head. It can be quite farcical – for example, his novel Mox Nox, which won the Israeli equivalent of the Booker Prize – it’s mostly a contemporary coming of age story, but within that, you’d notice these little flashes of alternate history, you’d suddenly see there’s a ghost story there – but I’ve not seen a single reviewer talk about that! It’s as though everyone just politely agreed to pretend it’s not there. It’s really strange.
But I’d say, Shimon’s work had a big influence on my own. And I always try to run a new manuscript past him, to get his take on it. I think we’d quite like to do a book on crime fiction together at some point...
Q: Tell us about "Terminal", your new short fiction eBook out this month.
Lavie Tidhar: Well, “Terminal” came about from all those stories about people signing up for a hypothetical one-way trip to Mars. I kind of wondered about that, so that’s what the story’s exploring, that sort of tapestry of voices. It’s coming out from tor.com so it will be both an e-book and you could read it free online. My editor said every time she reads it, it makes her cry, which is kind of a nice thing to hear if you’re a writer!
Q: What can readers expect next from you?
Lavie Tidhar: You mean apart from A Man Lies Dreaming, Central Station, Art & War and the three reissues of The Bookman Histories novels? In fairness, that is quite a lot of books in one year!
Well, you know, I keep busy on the short fiction front – I have a novella, “The Vanishing Kind”, coming out in F&SF in July/August, that’s something I’m very excited about. I love writing novellas. And I have a couple of new novels in the works, so hopefully there’ll be some news on that front soon. I also have a comics mini-series, Adler, coming out sometime in the future (from Titan Comics). And I’m working on a computer game, because it sounded like a fun thing to try!