Exclusive Interview with Ofir Touché Gafla

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Photo by Yanai Yechiel

We’d like to thank our friends at Tor and author Ofir Touché Gafla for allowing to feature his incredible book, The World of the End, on LitStack. Be sure to check out my review and pick up your copy of this great novel today.

GAFLA was born in Israel. His first novel, The World of the End, was published in 2004 and became a bestseller and a cult book, winning the 2005 Geffen Award for the best fantasy/science fiction novel of the year and the 2006 Kugel Award for Hebrew literature. His later novels include The Cataract in the Mind’s Eye, Behind the Fog, and The Day the Music Died. He teaches creative writing at the Sam Spiegel School of TV and Cinema in Jerusalem.

LS: The World of the End won the 2005 Geffen Award for the best fantasy/science fiction novel of the year and the 2006 Kugel Award for Hebrew literature. After gaining so much acclaim in your home country, what is the experience like to have your book release to English reading audiences?

OTG: It is very exciting to have my book released to English speaking audiences (or any other non-Hebrew readers). It feels fresh and different, almost like a new book. One forgets about the awards and focuses on present experiences, and so far I can say the experience has been extremely rewarding. Distance plays an important part in the equation: The fact that people from other corners of the globe rather than just people from your close surroundings read your book is a big thrill. Obviously technology has rendered the world smaller, but still I can’t help getting excited over the fact that English has gained me new readers, and more than anything I’m ecstatic with the knowledge that my words are knocking on far away doors and entering far-away minds.

LS: Do you have a central philosophy for writing, or even for life?

OTG: As far as writing goes, I believe one should delve deep into one’s heart and mind and look for the most interesting queries one could come up with. I write about subjects that I find fascinating, and I don’t mind going as far as possible to explore those queries. Just like philosophy, I’m more interested in the question or rather the asking of it than in the answer. I wish to provoke my reader’s thoughts and my books are the best means of engaging in a private dialogue with each reader. I’m also a devout believer in the importance of writing discipline. I do my best to write every day and I know that work generates ideas and not just the other way around, as many mistakenly think. As for a philosophy of life, well, it’s an incredibly broad topic, but in a nutshell, I think that we should all be more loving and understanding of our fellow humans (and animals, which are usually more human than us). Yes, it sounds rather hackneyed, but unfortunately we need a constant reminder of our humanity. It is human to err, it is superhuman to care.

LS: In the Acknowledgements for The World of the End, you give a “big thanks to my extraordinary translator, Mitch Ginsburg.” Obviously, you were happy with the final product! But please walk us through the experience of working with a translator. What were some of the biggest challenges that the two of you faced?

OTG: Well, Mitch, my translator is really a gifted translator and we had so much fun working together. I do believe our biggest challenges had to do with the transition from Hebrew to English (duh). Some languages are siblings, but those two are not even distant cousins. Things that sound really high-brow or genuinely poetic in Hebrew may sound simple-minded or even silly in English and vice versa, so one has to find the right levellers. And then there are so many plays on words in the Hebrew version of the book, which we did our best to translate without losing the fun element of it in the process.

LS: Your book has a central story, but also many intersecting stories that branch off from and then intertwine back into it. Which came first, the central story of Ben Mendelssohn, or one of the offshoots that then grew into the larger work that we know as The World of the End, and how did you keep track of them all?

OTG: Naturally the main storyline was the first one, that is to say Ben’s story, but since the book is like a jigsaw puzzle, many of the other storylines (or offshoots) had been there from the very beginning. I don’t like knowing everything when I start writing a novel, and I enjoy leaving myself room to roam, so some details evolved along the way, ’cause I believe that when a writer surprises oneself, he can surprise his readers as well. When writing a novel, I’m totally swallowed by it, so although I make notes to self, I usually don’t really need them. My keeping track of events has to do with simple common sense. One thing leads to another, and I’m hovering from above, like an anxious satellite, and taking stock of everything that is happening.

LS: There are so many wonderful and varied characters in The World of the End! Could you speak a little on where all these different personalities come from, and how you develop them?

OTG: Thank you. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than developing characters. Whenever I think of a character, I think of it as a human being rather than as a character in a novel so as not to distance myself from him/her. I am fully aware of the fact that the reader will get to know the characters under very special circumstances, namely within the parameters of the story. Even an autobiography sheds certain lights and dims others. The characters in The World of The End are all people in varying stages of love, depicting the myriad aspects of it, magical as well as monstrous. My one rule when writing about human beings is to never judge them. Love has so many faces, and I tried to describe as many as possible, given the limitations of a novel. I don’t necessarily approve of everything Ben does or says, but I stay out of it. My job is to tell the story, not to comment on it. Under a different set of circumstances, perhaps he would have acted differently. The same applies to any other character in the novel. Or perhaps, they would have acted in the same way, which makes them, well, them.

LS: The afterlife is such an emotionally charged concept. How did you come up with the idea for your Other World, and how long did it take you to flesh out all its various aspects: the environment, the Aliases, the uprooters and the forest they care for, the traveling through “time,” the living quarters… ? It’s a pretty complex world!

OTG: Well, I came up with the basic rules of the other world pretty fast, thinking of all the things in our world that may pose certain problems, such as health issues, money (or the lack of it), and so on. In a sense, the other world is an upgraded version of our familiar world, where we can have more control of our existential conditions. It is a corrected version, yet by no means a perfect one. Perfection resides only in the mind. When I write I see everything in my mind’s eye (which is the most perceptive eye of the three given to me in birth) very clearly and I just have to find the right words to make the transition from one kind of vision to another. I find it so exciting that after (and during) reading a book, the reader visits new places, and his mental faculties enable him to imagine them and remember them almost as if they were real (As far as I’m concerned, every good book leaves me with a true sense of reality, at times truer than the reality of this one world we all inhabit).

LS:  Did you get any pushback (from either the original release or now with the English language release) for any aspects of your Other World? Yes or no, why do you think that is?

OTG: Actually, reactions were and continue to be great. You can’t please everyone (and you shouldn’t try to). I once read a reader’s opinion who said that I got it all wrong (postmortem existence), which made me laugh out loud. On the other hand, a reader once asked me if the book is autobiographical, which left me rather perplexed. Many readers find consolation in the other world, and over the years I have received some very moving letters from sick people who said that the book had given them hope. I felt humbled and thanked them in return. Roger Scruton, the British philosopher, wrote that the consolation of imagination is not imaginary consolation. I can’t argue with that.

LS:  In the book, the main character, Ben Mendelssohn, is an “Epilogist”: someone who writes endings for others’ works, or, as he is described in the first chapter, “crafting surprise endings for a living.” He is always anonymous and yet eventually is known by reputation due to his signature touches. Often in the narrative he is referred to as a “righter,” which always made me chuckle. How did you ever come up with such an occupation for your central character?

OTG: Ben’s profession is a derivative of the bigger story, or subtext for that matter. I wanted to tell the story of a person looking for an ending to his own story, and it seemed only right to me that this would be that person’s profession. After all, Ben is very good at what he does, but has to confront some serious issues when dealing with the prospects of his individual ending. In a way, Ben is a reflection of each and every one of us, since we’re all righters in our own private tales. Once a woman asked me if such a profession exists, and I nodded and added, after a brief pause, “But only in Europe.”

LS: You have spoken of your love of music (Kate Bush and Dmitry Shostakovich, specifically) and list “every book I have ever read” as influences in your writing. Obviously, from the character of Rafael Kolanski, you know a thing or two about art. Your own writing has encompassed short stories, novels, scripts, a children’s book, and even the story for a rock opera! Plus you teach. Has your life always revolved about the arts, or do you secretly wish you had been a footballer or an accountant?

OTG: Sorry to disappoint, but my life has always revolved around art. Literature, music, cinema, dance and the fine arts are my mental nourishment. Trust me, you don’t want me to be your accountant and much worse than that, a footballer. However, if I hadn’t been a writer, I would have been a classical conductor. How boring of me, eh?

LS: Will you be touring the United States or other countries in support of the English language release of The World of the End? What’s next for you?

OTG: Not that I know of. Next summer I’m in Texas, teaching a semester at the fiction program, so I guess I’ll be doing some touring. Apart from that, I just started working on my sixth novel, which will take forever to write, and since the book has just come out, I’m sure there’s a lot more in the offing.

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