[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Apex Book of World SF edited by Lavie Tidhar. It’ll run every Monday to Friday until I run out of interviews. Two of these interviews will be reprinted in Apex Magazine but the rest are exclusive to SF Signal.]
Nir Yaniv is an Israeli writer, musician and editor living in Tel Aviv. His first story collection, “One Hell of a Writer”, was published in Israel by Odyssey Press in 2006. His stories appeared in various Israeli magazines and publications; some of them were translated into English and German, and appeared in such magazines as Weird Tales, Shimmer and the German InterNova. His collaboration with Lavie Tidhar – the novel “The Tel Aviv Dossier” – was published in 2009 by the Canadian-based Chizine Publications.
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you get acquainted with science fiction and fantasy? What’s the appeal of the genre for you?
When I was seven years old, we moved from one suburb city, Kiryat Ata, to another, Kiryat Bialik. One of the first actions my parents took upon moving was getting me a library card. On my first visits there I failed to grasp the wide selection available to me, and returned every time with books belonging to some silly series for kids. Who knows how long I would have continued doing that were it not for my father who, one evening, returned from work just as I was spreading my library loot on the table. He read the titles, gave me a strange look, and the following day took me to the library and gave me a tour. I remember walking between the shelves, shelves which I haven’t bothered noticing before, when I was going like a little automaton to the place when they stored that children series. My father went directly to another shelf, a higher one, marked M, and took out a book. Then he went to the V shelf and took another book. Both of those he read himself, in his childhood. Both changed my life. Loving your parents is one thing, and appreciating the things they did for you, those without which you wouldn’t be the person which you are today, is quite another. That was one of those things. When we went out of the library I was holding in my hands Old Shatterhand by Karl May and The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne.
That was the beginning.
And all of the above, by the way, while being absolutely true, is also a part of a new story of mine, about a young SF writer starting to work for an old SF magazine editor, and discovers that said editor has a weird superpower – he knows how a story ends after reading just the first paragraph.
Anyway, after reading every Verne book in the library, I ran into Robert Heinlein. I didn’t get all the sex stuff, but boy, how cool was the rest of it! That got me hooked.
To this very day, coolness is one of the main appeals of the genre for me. The other appeals are the ideas and the situations. I love it when a writer puts a character in a situation which simply couldn’t exist without the specific background or reality of the story.
But mostly, shamelessly, it’s the giant robots and the ftp spaceships and the virtual reality and the magic – the cool stuff.
What made you decide to become a writer?
This question’s underlying assumption is that I’m actually capable of both making a decision and actually carrying it through. That, as many ex-girlfriends of mine will testify, is quite untrue. Becoming a writer is, at best, something which happened to me. An idea for a story popped in my head once, not long after I finished my army service, and I set to write it down. I liked the result. Then another story presented itself, and another, and after several years of this, I found myself having a story collection. I’ve no idea how that happened.
I should add that I’m not a fulltime writer. In fact, I’m not a fulltime anything. I’m also a musician, a magazine editor, a computer programmer and a sound technician. Never fulltime – I’m easily bored with doing only one thing.
Since you’re used to writing in Hebrew, what made you decide to have your fiction translated and sell it internationally? (Or is it all Lavie’s fault?)
Unfortunately, while I’d like to do so, I can’t blame Lavie for that. Some years ago, the Israeli Society for SF&F initiated a project for translating stories by Israeli authors into English. I was one of the writers they approached, and a story of mine was translated. That gave me some appetite for more, so when I got to know Lavie, I made the poor lad translate some more of my stories. I fear he hasn’t forgiven me yet. But a story of mine that he translated, “The Dream of the Blue Man”, appeared in Weird Tales last year, and then that magazine went on to win the Hugo award, so there’s still hope Lavie will speak to me again, sometime in the future…
What’s the collaboration process like when it comes to translating your fiction into English, especially since you’re familiar enough with language (as opposed to not knowing anything and blindly trusting your translator)? Do you prefer someone else to translate your work or feel more secure doing it yourself (assuming you had all the time in the world)?
I prefer someone else to do it, but I have to go over the translation myself. I tend to use word games and rhymes a lot, and sometimes translators fail to notice them. And there’s also the matter of the meter, which is translator’s hell but which, at times, must be kept. Yeah, I’m a bit sadistic that way.
How would you describe the speculative fiction scene there in Israel?
It’s relatively young, but quite bigger than what you’d expect from a country with a population of seven million. There are two big annual conventions, and quite a bit of smaller ones, and there are some publishing houses dealing with the genre, though there’s always room for more. In the field of magazines, however, we’re still lacking – last year saw the demise of two of them, and the one I’m editing, “Dreams in Aspamia”, is on hold. It’s not surprising, as this is a very small and relatively traditional market. Still, I believe things will improve in the future.
What made you decide to start the webzine for Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy?
I was present when the Israeli Society for SF&F was formed. That was back in 1996, and Brian Aldiss was the guest of honor. They were looking for someone to build a website for the Society, and I volunteered. I built a very simple site which ran for several years, but which I wasn’t really happy with. In 1999, friends of mine created one of Israel’s first online magazines, “Ha’ayal Hakore” (those two words mean “Elk” in ancient Hebrew, but one of them also means “reader”; a word game, yes). The moment I saw the software that they wrote for it, I knew that I could use it to run an SF magazine. I lured the Society into paying for the project, and viola! Israel’s first online SF magazine was born.
I edited it for seven years afterwards.
What were the challenges you ran into as editor for both the webzine and the SF&F magazine Chalomot Be’aspamia?
The main challenge is finding and editing good stories. Getting reviews is quite easy, in an active SF community like we have here, though you have to be very rough with some of the reviewers in order to get what you want.
Stories, however, are an entirely different, well, story. First, the number of good Israeli SF writers is rather small. On the verge, in fact, of being a single-digit one. This isn’t such a big problem when you edit an internet magazine without issues, but editing a printed magazine based on original Hebrew stories is really quite a difficult task. If you want to keep a high threshold – and I insist to do so – then, instead of publishing the better stories submitted to you, you have to cajole good writers to write for the magazine.
In your opinion, what are the characteristics of Israeli speculative fiction that sets it apart from the rest of the world?
As a whole, I don’t think that Israeli SF has any unique characteristic. Nor do I think that SF from any other country has any. Good SF writers are unique, but I don’t think, for example, that the main difference between Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick is the issue of nationality.
On the other hand, you may be interested to know that Israel is the only nation in the world which was described in a science fiction novel before it was actually born. It has, in fact, a national pre-cog. Oh, we don’t call him that – the official version is “The Seer of the State” – but us SF people kn
ow a pre-cog when we encounter one, don’t we? Anyway, his name was Theodor Herzl, and the novel, “Altneuland” (“The Old New Land” in German, which was translated into Hebrew, for some reason, as “Tel Aviv” – sounds familiar?), was published in 1902, describing the state of Israel in the future 1920’s. Ok, so he didn’t get everything right, but we all know that those pre-cogs never do.
How about your own writing, what makes it unique? Or how would you describe your fiction?
I think the best word to describe my stories, or rather, my approach for story-writing, is “rhythm”. Everything has a rhythm: the sentences, the paragraphs, the dialogues, the plot. I like writing fast paced, frantic stories, I like writing funny stories, I like writing serious, heavy stories (though never slow – I’m quite an impatient guy). I love weirdness. I love stories in which the most unbelievable things are treated as common, nothing special, and no one gets excited about them, because they happen all the time. And then, of course, something even more unbelievable has to happen. I love variations, having the same scene or theme repeat itself in a slightly different way in a completely different context. I am, as can be seen, a sucker for style and structure.
I also love word games and rhyming, and take a special care with the sentences meter, so as to make my translators really miserable.
I read in an interview that you prefer short fiction. What were the challenges in writing a novel?
My writing style is quite compressed, so I tend to put a lot of information and plot progress into quite small chunks of text. This, alas, is not a reasonable way to write a novel. For that I need to let go a bit. Also, I was never one of those guys who start writing without knowing much of the story and invent it as they go along. I need to have it all in my head, or at least the basic structure of it. If I don’t know enough about the story, I can’t write it, and knowing it all is much more difficult to do when you’re dealing with a novel.
But those are just difficulties, they’re not the reason I prefer writing (and reading) short fiction. I just love that form of storytelling.
Since you’re also a musician, does your music ever creep into your fiction? Or is there an overlap between the creative sides of each?
I once wrote, for my first album, a song called “My Uncle Gave Me a Time Machine (you can watch a clip here). Some years later, for my story collection, I wrote a story of the same title in which this song plays a part. In which the song itself is, in fact, a sort of a time machine. My first story to get published dealt with a futuristic rock band and a brain-synthesizer interface. So yeah, sometimes the music creeps in.
I tend to think of my stories in terms of music. I use terms such as “rhythm” and “tempo” and “counterpoint” when describing them. Sometimes, when I re-read a paragraph I just wrote, I absent mindedly conduct it with my fingers.
I can’t say that much of my prose has crept into my music, though of course I wrote and recorded a whole science fiction album, in which every song could be considered a short, very short, SF story.
Except for “Daisy, Daisy”, an instrumental version of which I put there for obvious reasons.
You have a science fiction rock album. How cool is that?! Could you tell us more about it?
It’s called “The Universe in a Pita” (a pita is a kind of round bread very common both here and in Arab countries), and it includes songs with names such as “Zero Gravity Shower”, “Black Hole Blues”, “Dark Side of the Sun” and “My Uncle Gave Me a Time Machine”. The band was a rock power-trio – Oded Caspi on electric guitar, Yaron Engler on the drums and me as main vocal and bassman. It’s quite an energetic rock album, slightly influenced from bands such as The Police (in their early days, before they started with the reggae). It was written, recorded and mixed in less than two months, back in 2001, as a part of a bigger plan – I wanted to create a radio play about an Israeli rock band which gets kidnapped by aliens, after the band’s agent lost it to them in a card game. It is later found out that the agent had, in fact, lost the entire earth to those aliens, and in now trying to pay the debt by having the band sent on an infinite tour all around the universe. It was a very cool project, but it never got past the test recordings stage, which is a pity. The album is the only part of the project which came to be.
You can listed to most of it on the net, here:
Yeah, I know it’s in Hebrew. So what? Who cares – it’s rock’n’roll!
Lastly, for international readers, could you tell us more about your own fiction and where we can find/obtain them?
First, Lavie Tidhar and myself wrote a novel called “The Tel Aviv Dossier”, in which Tel Aviv is going through a supernatural apocalypse and then gets isolated from the rest of the world. It’s quite a crazy book. You can find there, side by side, Yeshiva boys with guns, a mad fireman, a sermon on the mountain (oh, so there’s no mountain in Tel Aviv? Shows what you know!) and deranged scientists. It was published recently in Canada by ChiZine Publications. More information, including the first 40 pages downloadable for free, can be found here:
Except for that, my short fiction has appeared in several US magazines, among them Weird Tales and Shimmer. A story of mine also appeared in the German Nova magazine.
A story of mine will appear in the soon to be published anthology, “The Apex Book of World SF”, edited by Lavie Tidhar, who also translated that story into English. Having glanced at the list of participants, it seems to me that this is going to be a very interesting project. More information about that can be found here:
At the moment I’m working, among other things, on translating more of my stories, and whenever there’re published, I’ll post the news in my site/blog: http://www.nyfiction.org
It also includes free music and other goodies – for example, you can see me doing my one-man-vocal-band act – and that alone, believe me, is worth your valuable time.
If you can handle it, of course…