Monday, August 17, 2009

Interview: Lavie Tidhar

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Lavie Tidhar is the author of An Occupation of Angels (2005), HebrewPunk (2007), Cloud Permutations (forthcoming 2009), and The Tel Aviv Dossier (with Nir Yaniv) - plus many short stories in places such as Sci Fiction, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld Magazine, Postscripts, Interzone and others. He edited Michael Marshall Smith: The Annotated Bibliography (2004) and the anthology A Dick & Jane Primer for Adults (2008). He is a winner of the first Clarke-Bradbury Prize (2003), awarded by the European Space Agency, was a Writers of the Future finalist and was nominated for an Israeli Geffen Award. He most recently lived in Vanuatu, in the South Pacific. He currently lives in South-East Asia.

Hi Lavie! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, let's talk about yourself. From what I understand, English isn't your first language. How did you end up learning and writing the language?

I grew up in Israel, where you have English lessons from quite an early age. Then, around fifteen, my family moved to South Africa, so I had to begin using English in day-to-day life, and also, by necessity, to read in English (or I wouldn’t be able to read at all). I remember that was quite difficult, initially. I then moved around a bit – Africa, Asia, a long stint in England, so English stayed my default language – though my accent is a strange mix, I’m told, of British, South African and Israeli! I’m not actually very good with languages, to my regret. The only new language I learned is South Pacific Pidgin (specifically, Bislama), and I spoke it almost exclusively in the year I spent in Vanuatu.

Regarding writing in English, however – that was a very conscious decision, and had mainly to do with my wanting to actually sell my work, reach a wider audience, etc. I still write in Hebrew every now and then – short stories, and one novel, a humorous murder mystery with my friend Nir Yaniv. Some of the short stories I then translate into English – “Shira”, in Ellen Datlow’s The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, is a translation from the Hebrew, for example. It’s telling that I got paid nothing for the Hebrew publication, but a nice cheque for the English... which is a good reason to continue writing in English!

How about speculative fiction? When did you first encounter it and what made you decide to write in this mode?

I have an inordinate love of Hebrew pulp novels, particularly the children books – the stuff I grew up on. My favourites were the three Captain Yuno books – incredibly rare now – a couple of children have all sorts of adventures in the solar system, which is populated by Venusians and Martians and so on – great stuff! So I guess I first encountered SF and fantasy in the children’s library (and never left it, a cynic might say!)

Why write it? I’m not sure I can answer that... I just tend to the weird. At the same time, I want to write pretty much everything. One of my dreams is writing a Mills & Boon!

Which probably makes my agent want to tear out his hair...

You seem to be someone who's actively traveling. How has this aided/hindered your career? How does globalization and technology personally play a role in your life?

Travelling obviously seems to influence what I write, in the variety of settings and so on – to put it simply, I find it very hard to write about a place I’ve never been to (like the States!) – I need a sort of “feel” for a place. I’m a very bad traveller, really – I’m more of a settle-in-one-place rather than move-around sort of person. Luckily, I got to live in a variety of interesting places. I suspect it’s because I’d live such a dull life otherwise!

I think not setting stories – specifically novels – in the States is a hindrance – it’s an old maxim that you have to set a book in the US to succeed in the US – but there’s not much I can do about that.

As for technology... sigh. All I really need is electricity and an Internet connection and, of course, those are two things that are quite hard to get hold of, sometimes! I’ve been back on dial-up the last couple of years. Very patchy dial-up, at that. So it’s funny – I kind of keep in touch with what’s happening “out there”, SF-wise, but at the same time I’m so far removed from it all – all those online debates, the conventions, awards, flame-wars... they seem to be in a sort of parallel universe I occasionally get to glimpse. It can be quite isolating, of course, but at the same time very liberating.

What's a day in the life of Lavie Tidhar like?

I’m practicing the old Indian Bead Trick at the moment – you might know it better as the Needle Swallowing Trick that Houdini made popular. It’s when you swallow needles and thread and then bring them back out with the needles all threaded together. Wonderful illusion. I’m too chicken to put needles in my mouth though, so I’ve been using safety pins! Ha! Definitely not as glamorous.

Which is to say, very dull, really. I get excited if I go across the border to Thailand because they actually have supermarkets there! I think heaven is a supermarket, all clean and shiny and bright. And they have a Mister Donut!

I’m easily pleased.

What would you say was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome in order to get published?

I don’t feel there were any hurdles... it was – and is – a matter of writing, submitting, hopefully not sucking too badly, selling, chasing people for payments... ha!

Having to believe you can do it is pretty hard. And to keep aiming higher, setting goals and reaching them and aiming for the next one. To be honest, I think I was very, very lucky so far!

Regarding your fiction, you've written both short stories and longer work (novellas, novels). Which is the format you prefer? Do you have any difficulties shifting between the medium?

To tell you the truth? I love short novels. 60,000-70,000 words? Which would have been just great – in the 60s! No one wants to look at something like that now. I also love novellas. I wish I could write more of them, but they’re so hard to sell. And I love doing short stories – novels are like an uphill slog and you never seem to see the summit, but with short stories there’s this almost immediate satisfaction.

With the Tel Aviv Dossier, what made you decide to collaborate with Nir Yaniv? What were the challenges and rewards in a collaboration? Is it something you look forward to doing again in the future?

Nir and I initially collaborated on a Hebrew book, so the decision to do a second collaboration, in English, seemed quite natural. It’s an interesting process – I inevitably reach the point where I begin to swear and say I’ll never do something like this again! But on the plus side, you only have to write half a book! Ha!

As an Israeli-born writer, do you ever wonder where the other Hebrew speculative fiction writers are? Or is it simply our ignorance that we haven't heard much from them?

No, I know where they are – in Israel! You simply wouldn’t see most/all of them since they’re in Hebrew and not getting translated. There’s a small but active short story scene and some interesting novels being published, particularly, it seems, in the YA fantasy field right now.

Let's talk about your upcoming The Apex Book of World SF. How did it come about: did you pitch it to publishers or was it Apex Books that approached you?

It was something I wanted to do for a long time, but I did it sensibly this time – I approached Jason at Apex first – he took some convincing! – and only then approached the writers.

Were there any difficulties in finding stories? How about finally selecting them?

My criteria was to select stories that have already been published in professional-level English-language markets, so that narrowed down my reading (though I still read a hell of a lot for it). It was a very active sort of reading, sometimes looking up specific writers, at other times coming across stories I knew I wanted to include. I wasn’t going to include any original stories, but thanks to my friend Wu Yan in China (who the anthology is going to be dedicated to) I got two Chinese stories, from Yang Ping and Han Song. The two Israeli stories are originals as well – the Nir Yaniv one was a story I translated a while back – I read it in the original and loved it – but we couldn’t seem to sell it to anyone! So I thought, right – it’s going in!

When I look back, it was quite a fluid affair with some of the stories. Tunku Halim, for instance – I came across his books in Malaysia and knew I wanted to include one of his stories, so I got in touch with him and he sent me this very funny horror story from one of his collections. And with Aleksandar Ċ½iljak (Croatia) – I was actually in touch with him about something different, and I asked if he knew of any short fiction available, and next thing I know he sent me this great weird SF story.

But it wasn’t a quick or easy process. It took me about a year of reading to select the final stories.

The anthology focuses on select regions of the world. What made you settle for those countries?

It’s a good question. First, I was restricted by what’s been published already, so that limited my options a little. Second, I realised very quickly that this can’t be a comprehensive anthology – not in one volume! – and so I let myself focus, including the decision to publish up to two stories from one country – going for depth, not breadth, if you will. It’s a woefully incomplete anthology, but of course the hope is to have more than one volume...

I also more or less restricted myself to stories published in the past few years. I think the oldest story is from 1997, but virtually all of them otherwise are post-2000. So that was another focal point.

So the focus of volume one is Asia and Europe. Small parts of Asia and Europe, when it comes to that... and certain regions I simply had no luck with. I tried hard to find some Arabic SF, for instance, but my contact fell through. So a second volume would need to focus on South American and African writers, Arabic if I can get it – all of Eastern Europe is virtually missing from the first volume (a big SF producing region). The list goes on... it would be nice to depend less on what’s already been published in English, of course. But anyway, Apex will only let me do a second volume if enough people buy the first one!

What made you decide to embrace "World SF?"

I don’t know about “embracing”... you make it sound like a movement! I think SF has more than enough movements already.

I guess I always had an interest in what sort of science fiction and fantasy was published in other countries. I was backpacking through Eastern Europe – oh, back in the day, the war in Yugoslavia was still going on, there were bullet holes from the uprising in the buildings in Brasov, there were virtually no “Western” travellers in places like Bulgaria (makes me sound old! I was only eighteen). And what did I do? I picked up translated science fiction! I’m probably one of the very few people to own copies of both the Nemira ’94 and ’95 anthologies, of Romanian science fiction. And when I went to China in 2000 I was lucky enough to make contact with Wu Yan through the Internet, and before I knew it I was absolutely welcomed by people in the Chinese SF scene – it was incredible! And I wasn’t anybody, I was just interested. So a lot of my interest in writing about world SF is in giving back, you know? I’m just lucky I’m able to do that.

Before The Apex Book of World SF, you edited A Dick And Jane Primer for Adults. What's the editing process like? How does it (or does not) affect your writing? Is this something you'd like to do more of in the future?

Oh man... I really wouldn’t like to recommend anyone to do this. I basically went into it with no idea of what I was doing! It was in limbo for a long time before the British Fantasy Society agreed to publish it, but it did teach me a valuable lesson about doing future anthologies! Saying that, actually compiling the anthology wasn’t that hard. I simply approached the writers I wanted and asked them to write me a story. Some didn’t, some did, but I was very pleased with the final result.

In your opinion, who are some of the writers that you consider are underrated?

Cordwainer Smith, maybe? Such a wonderful writer, and I do wonder how many people today have read him.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

There are people who write, and there are people who write on message boards.


Advice for aspiring editors?

Don’t be in a hurry to do it!

How about advice for aspiring travelers?

Yes. Books are great! You can read them, you can trade them (or sell them, or exchange them for medicine), you can start a fire with them, and they always come in handy at those unplanned rest stops...

Anything else you want to plug?

Me? Plug?

Oh, OK. There’s the World SF News Blog (, of course and the accompanying anthology, The Apex Book of World SF ( (volume one!), which is coming out in September but please do consider pre-ordering!

The Tel Aviv Dossier (, my supernatural apocalyptic novel with Nir Yaniv, is now available.

“Cloud Permutations” is a novella coming out sometime this year from PS Publishing ( And a couple of cool anthologies coming out later in the year – Interfictions II ( from Small Beer Press, and Lovecraft Unbound ( from Dark Horse Comics.

And next year promises to be quite interesting...

And, since the news is just out – next year will see my first novel out from HarperCollins’ new Angry Robot imprint. The Bookman is both a steampunk adventure and a book about books, and should be out in the spring. It will be followed by two more novels set in the same world.

1 comment:

banzai cat said...

Cool. I like Tidhar's "world SF perspective". And if it weren't for the fact that shipping-ordering is hell here, I'd order his books.