Ayelet Tsabari is the author of the short story collection The Best Place on Earth, which won the 2015 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. In 2013, she was named as one of ten Canadian writers to watch by CBC Books and in 2014 she was awarded a Chalmers Arts Fellowship. A graduate of the MFA program at Guelph University, Ayelet teaches creative writing through the University of Toronto and the University of Guelph.
I first came to Ayelet’s work through her powerful non-fiction, for which she has won a National Magazine Award, a Western Magazine Award, and the EVENT Creative Non-fiction Contest (twice!). In both her fiction and non-fiction, I admire the way she depicts complex characters and relationships with confident, energetic prose. It was a pleasure to speak to her via email during her recent research trip to Israel.
You’ve been writing your whole life, having published your first poem at age ten. What drives you to write?
I can’t explain it. It’s like love. I feel like it chose me, not the other way around.
The Best Place on Earth, your debut collection, was published before you signed with an agent. What was this publishing experience like? When you later signed with an agency, how did you know you’d found the right fit?
It was as crazy as you can imagine! The Best Place on Earth was my MFA thesis at Guelph. After I graduated and defended it, I sent a query to HarperCollins and to my surprise received an email back an hour and a half later requesting to see the manuscript. Two days later I was sitting in their offices. It was wonderfully unexpected. I was shocked, and elated, and freaked out. I considered getting an agent at that point, but it didn’t seem to make much sense since I had already sold the book. So I took How to Be Your Own Literary Agent out from the library and studied it, asked for help from my mentors, and ended up negotiating my own contract and advance.
I’m glad I did it: it was empowering and I learned so much from that experience. But I also knew that for my next book I’d want an agent acting on my behalf. I was lucky enough to have agents approach me once my first book was published and I really struggled to decide which one to go with. At the end, I chose Inkwell, a literary agency based in New York. I can’t say I knew I was making the right decision at the time—I was torn between them and a wonderful Canadian agent—but in retrospect I couldn’t be happier. What they’ve done for me in the short time that they’ve represented me is amazing. And to be honest, the little girl from Israel who dreamt of becoming a writer found their fancy Fifth Avenue office hard to resist.
You’ve lived in many cities, including Tel Aviv, Vancouver, and Toronto, and you’ve graduated from two writing programs—SFU’s Writer’s Studio and the MFA program at the University of Guelph. What role do you think writing communities play in shaping a writer’s work?
I desperately need a writing community and I feel extremely lucky to have two, one in Vancouver and one in Toronto. Writing can be a lonely pursuit so when I first started hanging out with writers it was such a relief. I found my people! And they could talk about semicolons and narrative positioning and the ethics of CNF all day long! It was bliss. But it’s the support of my writing community that I cherish most; my writer friends read and comment on everything I write and they inspire me with their incredible talent and bright minds. I feel like I’m a better writer for it, and I couldn’t have done any of this without them.
In addition to being a writer, you’re also a teacher and professional photographer. How have your other jobs influenced your writing?
I find teaching endlessly inspiring; teaching the craft of writing to others keeps you learning and thinking about it and finding ways to impart it in articulate and effective ways. It is also highly rewarding. That’s why I got into teaching, wanting to do for my students what my writing teachers had done for me. Teaching also satisfies my need for stimulating human interaction to balance all these hours alone staring at a computer screen. As for photography: I see it as a perfect accompanying vocation to writing. It provides a welcome break from words, as well as a way to observe people and the world while being hidden behind a camera, removed, which is a very writerly thing to do.
One thing I love about your writing is its precision. “Casualties,” for example, is both vivid and polished—though the story has a raw quality, not a word feels wasted. What is your revision process like?
Thank you! I love revision. I write long, raw, and messy so a big part of revision for me is cutting mercilessly. Once I finish a raw draft I give it some time to rest and then I print it out and read it and write notes. I find that I look at the work differently when it is on paper. After repeating that a few times, I pass it on to one of my great readers, whom I rely on to give me brutally honest feedback. A few times, when the regular process didn’t work as I had hoped, I shelved the story, gave it a few weeks, or months, or sometimes even years and then started from scratch. “Casualties” is a great example. I originally wrote it in Hebrew as a soldier in the Israeli army. Then, years later, I wrote it in English in third person, revised it numerous times, workshopped it with friends, but something still didn’t work. So I left it for a while, and about a year later started it again—this time in first person—and I knew I had found my story. The voice was so strong in my head. It had to be told in that way.
How did the experience and challenges of writing your first book—a short story collection—differ from those of writing your upcoming book, a memoir?
I find all writing hard. But I have a lot more anxiety about publishing a memoir, understandably. It is extremely revealing. Every now and then I catch myself and wonder what on earth was I thinking. But you write what you have to write. Life is too short to censor yourself.
In 2014, you made the commitment to read only books by writers of colour. What did you take away from this experience? Did the experience affect your own writing?
I wrote about it at length on my blog. Reading always influences my writing, and reading only writers of colour made me more aware of others’ experiences of race and ethnicity, and strengthened my resolve to tell Mizrahi stories and write marginalized characters.
You’ve written about the difficulty you had seeing yourself in literature as you grew up, and how this shaped your decision to write about Mizrahi characters in The Best Place on Earth. How do you think readers and writers can support greater diversity in publishing?
First and foremost, by reading widely and outside our comfort zone. By demanding to see diverse authors in festivals and libraries. If you write reviews, you can make a point of reviewing more books by diverse authors. And talking about it, like we’re doing here now, always helps.
On your blog, you’ve written about fearing how others would react to your work, both on a personal level—when you wrote about your mother in “Yemeni Soup and Other Recipes”—and on a political level, when you began writing about Israel. Do you have any advice for new writers, when it comes to writing about topics that scare them?
I don’t have an easy answer. Writing and putting your work out there are acts of great bravery, and there’s always a level of anxiety attached to it, especially because writing is so solitary, and publishing is so public. The contrast is jarring. But what’s the other option? Writing what’s safe? Who’s going to want to read that? Not writing at all? That’s just going to make us miserable. So you do what you have to do, write what you must, and keep in mind that you can’t please everyone, and that most likely people will not care as much as you think.
In your non-fiction piece “Soldiers,” you write about a friendship in your twenties and how your perspective on that relationship—how and why it ended—has changed since you initially wrote about the events. Can you speak a bit about that change in perspective?
Memoir is not a work of history, but a work of memory, and memory is a shady, unreliable character. Once you write a version of the events down, that version becomes the truth. It becomes the story. That’s what happened with “Soldiers.” I began to believe in what I wrote years ago and it became the memory. Just as retelling stories slightly changes and reshapes them. It’s the nature of storytelling.
The novel you’re currently working on—about the Yemeni community and their immigration to Israel—has a historical aspect, with the story set in the 1950s and 1990s. How do you approach research for your fiction?
I love doing research. I love meeting people from my community and talking to them. In fact, that is what I am currently doing in Israel, interviewing elderly Yemeni women for my Chalmers Arts fellowship. I also spend time digging in archives and in libraries whenever I’m in Israel. However, research is a risky business. It’s endless: I can lose myself in it, and may never start writing. I’ve learned that it’s better for me to write and research at the same time, rather than try to complete the research beforehand.
Is there anything you wish you’d known, when you began looking for your place in the writing world?
That it’s all about working hard. Like anything in life, you just have to sit your ass down and do the work. But I wouldn’t have listened back then anyway. I just wanted to party and for my book to write itself.
Nicole Boyce is a Vancouver-based writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in Echolocation, NoD Magazine, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and has been shortlisted for The New Quarterly’s Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award. Nicole is enrolled in the MFA program at UBC, where she’s studying non-fiction, fiction and comics. She is the former Prose Editor of PRISM international.