A Man Lies Dreaming, our March Pick of the Month, is released today. The novel follows two protagonists, one in our universe, and one in an alternative history universe, as they navigate the pitfalls of two very different visions of World War II. Below, you’ll find an interview with British-Israeli writer Lavie Tidhar, author of the genre-bending literary scifi novels A Man Lies Dreaming, Osama, The Violent Century and The Bookman Histories, and the first author whose work I’ve felt truly deserves comparisons to Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle.
- Interview by Molly Odintz
Molly Odintz: In A Man Lies Dreaming, you include references to the work of Ka-Tzetnik 135633, a concentration camp survivor and Israeli writer who used pulp fiction as a medium to process the traumas of the Holocaust. You reference, in your footnotes, an article published in Tablet that profiles Ka-Tzetnik’s work as lurid, pornographic, and profound; his novel House of Dolls, although out of print in English, is required reading in Israeli schools, despite its concentration camp bordello setting. Can you tell me a bit about how Ka-Tzetnik’s work influenced you? How has Ka-Tzetnik 135633 and his work fallen into such obscurity in the United States?
Lavie Tidhar: I’ll be honest – I was never really able to read Ka-Tzetnik! (I think it’s Samalandra that’s been on the school curriculum, incidentally, not House of Dolls. But I’m not entirely sure). My interest was more in the argument that he represents, and the effect that he’s had on the way the War was then explored in the Hebrew pulps following the Eichmann Trial. Watching the video of him testifying during the trial is a powerful experience, it’s almost the defining moment of the trial, in many ways (you can find it on Youtube). Weirdly, I don’t even know that much about him.
I realise this is a terrible answer! But I often find myself corresponding with cultural artefacts that I may only really know second or third hand, by a sort of cultural osmosis, really. Or, to put it another way, I just try to make sure I sound smarter than I actually am!
“I grew up on a lot of those weird, experimental, very non-commercial forms of US 60s science fiction, European crime fiction, and so I always had the (possibly quaint!) notion that genre could very powerfully act as a countercultural literature, a radical literature. There’s something very powerful in serving up a sort of crazy funhouse mirror on reality, and there is something very liberating when you can consider humanity – just as a for instance! – not as central to the narrative but as a sort of cosmic speck of dust in a vastly enormous universe… it’s the sort of thing that keeps me awake at night!”
MO: Building off of my previous question, A Man Lies Dreaming includes an eloquent defense of the use of genre fiction to portray and process trauma. It seems to me that genre fiction (especially science fiction and detective novels) can approach an emotional truth better than non-fiction or high literature. Genre fiction implies genre conventions, but also an emotional and physical intensity, and a refusal to shy away from those topics that repel, disgust, shock, titillate, or all these at once.
Science fiction, in particular, may be a more honest way to represent such an alien, barren existence as Auschwitz, referred to in the novel as “Planet Auschwitz.” What do you think is the role of genre fiction in processing trauma? What can we get from genre fiction that we can’t necessarily get from poetry or history?
LT: I saw someone posing this question recently, about politically-charged genre fiction, and expressing the opinion that they found it difficult because they always perceived genre fiction as a form of entertainment.
The thing is, to me, I never saw it that way. I grew up on a lot of those weird, experimental, very non-commercial forms of US 60s science fiction, European crime fiction, and so I always had the (possibly quaint!) notion that genre could very powerfully act as a countercultural literature, a radical literature. There’s something very powerful in serving up a sort of crazy funhouse mirror on reality, and there is something very liberating when you can consider humanity – just as a for instance! – not as central to the narrative but as a sort of cosmic speck of dust in a vastly enormous universe… it’s the sort of thing that keeps me awake at night!
But yes, I realised early on, that I wanted to use the tools of genre, in order to explore, you know, these sort of big questions, but I wanted to do it in a hopefully also entertaining way. I don’t really see why you can’t have both, but of course, that tension between “low” and “high” literature is very much at the heart of my books.
“…I find [alternative history] such a valuable tool for kind of talking about the present. I love history but I’d make a terrible historian, since I always think, you know, that’s cool, but wouldn’t it be really cool if this happened instead… yeah, that doesn’t make for good history.”
MO: Your story is told partially from the perspective of Shomer, a writer of shund, or Yiddish language pulp fiction. What inspired your depiction of this character or interest in Yiddish pulp fiction? What do you think is the legacy of shund?
LT: Again, this was more a sort of… shorthand, for what I wanted to do. The thing that has interested me for a long time were the small detective stories featuring David Tidhar, The “First Hebrew Detective”. He was a real person, and at the same time the hero of these crime chapbooks in the 1930s, and these were in turn translated into Yiddish and published in Hanyt. But really what A Man Lies Dreaming parodies isn’t shund, it’s Chandler.
At the same time, my interest was, again, in these weird little Hebrew pulps that came out in the 60s, this form of “Nazisploitation” novels, that were incredibly popular at the time, in a sort of furtive way, and I became very curious about why that was, how the psyche of my parents’ generation was exposed to sexuality through these works, and just what that says about that sort of collective consciousness. So it was really those – the so-called “Stalag” novels – that interested me.
MO: A few years back, I wrote a piece on Inglourious Bastards, examining how the alternative history timeline at the end, rather than functioning solely as escapism, works instead as dramatic irony. The film draws attention to the horrors of the Holocaust obliquely, by presenting a contrasting version of history that the audience knows did not happen, forcing the audience to think about the real history while consuming the fake history. The dissonance between the film and history serves to reinforce the horrors of history – showing something as it could have been, as the best way to highlight an unimaginable reality.
After reading A Man Lies Dreaming, I felt the same way, except even more so. Your novel contains an alternative history of the 1930s that is plausible, draws readers’ into a comparison with real history, and additionally functions as a powerful social statement on the contemporary refugee crisis. What inspired your version of alternative history in this book? Did you deliberately design it to resonate with both past and present?
LT: I don’t set out to deliberately design that sort of stuff. I don’t hold with this sort of “world building” as such. I tend to develop the alternatives quite organically, focusing on small details that are out of kilter, but are very often real – the tiny differences, which add up, hopefully, into a believable – more or less! – reality. I very much had contemporary issues on my mind, though, yes, and I worked several contemporary elements in on the sly: for example, some of the slogans shouted by the Blackshirts, or a part of the speech at the end of the book. But you wouldn’t necessarily know which parts in the speech! Which is what’s scary about it.
With the timeline, I did work it out at some point, the divergence – there were a couple of really very fractional moments where the German elections could have turned out differently. But once I worked it out I’m afraid I immediately forgot what it was! My take on it is that you do need to play fair, but at the same time, you need to be aware of the artificiality of that world. If that makes sense!
MO: Another of your novels, called Osama, takes place in a parallel universe to ours, where Osama bin Laden is a fictional character, and a PI is hired to track down the creator of the bin Laden thrillers. The books contain sensationalized accounts of terrorist attacks in our universe, and civilian victims of bombings in our world become ghostlike refugees in the parallel universe. What’s with the fascination with alternative histories? What are some alternative histories that inspired you?
LT: I guess a part of it is just, you know, really geeky! But at the same time I find it such a valuable tool for kind of talking about the present. I love history but I’d make a terrible historian, since I always think, you know, that’s cool, but wouldn’t it be really cool if this happened instead… yeah, that doesn’t make for good history.
I love Tim Powers’ “secret histories” novels. And I love Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Otherwise I’m not really a huge reader of alternate histories. But it’s also hard to point at exactly what inspired me because I would have so many things that I kind of absorbed at various times without maybe even being aware of them on a conscious level.
“I don’t hold with this sort of “world building” as such. I tend to develop the alternatives quite organically, focusing on small details that are out of kilter, but are very often real – the tiny differences, which add up, hopefully, into a believable – more or less! – reality.”
MO: Your novels are some of the most genre-bending I’ve ever read. I asked earlier about Ka-Tzetnik – what are some of the other influences or thought processes behind your unique style?
LT: Gosh, thanks! And I don’t know! I think it was coming across the sort of writers who did the weird genre-crossing stuff, on the one hand – Michael Marshall Smith’s Only Forward and Spares, early on, and the Tim Powers stuff – and then coming across all those weird European crime books that did that from a different angle – Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow or The Dumas Club, to name two. And kind of discovering in some European crime fiction how they could take that formula story and use it completely differently, as a way of asking and addressing very political concerns. Particularly the Spanish writers. I thought that was really eye opening for me. The last writer to really influence me was my friend, the Israeli novelist Shimon Adaf. We’re doing a small non-fiction book together, which comes out in April I think, called Art & War. And that came from me just wanting to ask Shimon questions! He has that ability to mix things so effortlessly but from a very literary perspective, and his work – particularly Kfor, which has never been translated into English – just had a very conscious influence on my own work.
MO: Without including any spoilers, how on earth did you come up with the ever-changing character of Wolf?
LT: Actually, there’s a lot of me in him! Wait, is that the wrong thing to say… There’s just something very compelling about that sort of letting go – I think there’s a little bit of Wolf in all of us, but with him it’s a concentrated, never ending howl of rage – which is something that I think can be very funny. But at the same time, I really wanted to look at Hitler before he was Hitler, at the forces that shaped him. No one is born a monster. And that was fascinating to me. The book hews very closely to the real events pre-1923 or so, all the little incidents are real, like the time an older gay man took Adolf and his friend Gustl out for a meal and Adolf stuffed his face full of pastries, and later, when they were going home, Adolf had to explain to Gustl what a ‘homosexual’ was. So, I really try to not make stuff up in the books.
MO: What are you working on next?
LT: I tend to work on various things at once so, it depends on the exact time you catch me… recently I became quite interested in horror fiction, partly because I’m not sure I really understand it, so I’m messing about with my idea of a horror novel (which is, I suspect, not a horror novel at all!). And I’m very excited that I just might be launching a miniature career writing very short literary fiction in Bislama, the pidgin/creole spoken in Vanuatu, where I lived for a while.
Closer to now, though, I have, as I mentioned, a short non-fiction book, Art & War, coming out in April, and a sort of literary science fiction novel, Central Station, coming out in May, plus my early Bookman Histories trilogy is being reissued in the second part of the year. So it’s quite busy! And I’ll hopefully have a couple of new novels to discuss soon…
MO: One last, rather salacious question – how’d you come up with your depiction of Hitler’s sex life?
LT: Research! I mean, weirdly, you’d think I set out to write this sort of stuff but really, the more I read about it, the more fascinated I became, and the more the “real” details fed into the book. I really didn’t make much stuff up. Some of the secondary evidence about Hitler’s sex life is quite compelling. I can probably bore for England right now about Hitler’s sex life – I suspect that’s not a great gift at parties, for some reason!
You can find copies of A Man Lies Dreaming on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.