Last week, we published the winner of our 2019 Fall Fiction Contest, “Salt-Sea” by Zeeva Bukai, which was selected by Anita Felicelli. Today, we are excited to share with you this excellent interview with the author, in which the author discusses the conception of the story, her various influences, and more.
Classic boring author question: What was the inspiration behind “Salt–Sea”? How did this idea come to you?
It began with the narrator, Deni. She emerged out of a novel I’m working on, and though I edited her out long before I completed the first draft, she stayed with me. There was something potent about her, a troubled female soldier, and so I decided to write a story set in and around the Dead Sea where the landscape is evocative, unforgiving, and surreal. Because I’d done research for the novel which takes place between the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur in 1973, “Salt-Sea” is grounded in that time frame too. I wanted to explore the relationship between these two young women that had little in common except that they’d been drafted into the army and had a deep need to be loved. Once I started, I realized that I was writing a story about love and longing.
What is this story’s development timeline like—is it a fresh new story, something you’ve been working on or a while, something you finished a long time ago and finally decided to submit, etc?
Like most of my stories, this one had a long gestation period, about six years. I know that sounds outrageous, but It was one of the stories I’d work on when I’d get stuck in the novel. I’d write a few pages, sometimes work on it for a week or two, and then when I’d feel juiced up again, I’d return to the novel. Most of my short stories in the last few years climbed out of that book in one form or another. I “finished” Salt-Sea at least three times, sent it out and then watched it crawl back. That’s how I knew it wasn’t ready yet, and so I’d revise again. Each revision was another excavation, until finally I had the story I wanted—the one that felt right.
Which of the characters do you relate to most? What’s your authorial stance on whether characters do, don’t, can, or can’t relate to an author?
Honestly, I relate to both Deni and Iris, but the narrative drive belongs to Deni. Each of these young women have characteristics that I understand and sympathize with. I might not like them, but I get them. My background began in theater and so I think for me to write truthfully about a character, I have to not only relate to them, but dive into their skin. Whether they’re sympathetic or not, I have to have compassion for them. My goal as a writer is to make each character believable, especially if they’re troubled.
One thing I love about this piece is the main character’s aloofness—we know there’s this thing between Iris and Deni and yet Deni’s able to let things happen and not happen, let them be, in the story and in the narration. How much of that is situational (from the cultural or occupational realm) and how much is Deni’s character? How do those elements interplay for you, when you’re writing?
That’s a good question. Overall, I think Deni’s aloofness or passivity is part of her personality. She’s shy, awkward, and wary of people, and yet at the same time falls in love with Iris because that young woman pays attention to her. Deni’s an observer that sees things the way she wants them to be, needs them to be. At the same time, she’s a product of her culture. The story takes place in the early 70s in a very different Israel than the one we see today. Even though, women were essential to the development of the state, labored in the fields, were in the armed forces, and held the highest public office, the patriarchy expected them to hang back and know their place.
I also appreciate the way you capture unique voices without dipping too deep into cheesy colloquial language, especially for an international story and especially in using words from another language scattered in. Is this something you focus on or work towards in your writing, or something that comes naturally because of your identity as a writer? Some combination of both?
Dialogue is the hardest thing to write because you want to make sure that you’re capturing the voice of the character, and moving the plot forward. It’s got to flow, otherwise it feels false, stilted. So I work really hard to make sure it sounds as natural as possible, true and organic to the character. I’ll use Hebrew if the word in that language captures the essence of what I’m trying to say. Hebrew is my mother tongue, a primal language. It’s an essential part of my identity, as is English. There’s a tension that exists in this duality and I think it translates to the page, no pun intended.
Who else do you know is writing like you write right now?
I don’t really know, but there are many writers that I admire, people like Ayelet Tzabari, who wrote the memoir “The Art of Leaving,” and the story collection, “The Best Place on Earth,” and poet, and novelist, Hala Alyan, author of “Salt Houses.” Both women live in two cultures, two languages. They write about the Middle East—Israel and Palestine.
When looking for literary influences, do you look for people who have similar tones/topics as you, or stuff that’s totally different? In other words: what sparks you and your writing?
I think I’m most drawn to authors similar in tone and topic. Immigrant stories that deal with identity and displacement, and stories that explore the life of the outsider. It’s a long list, but if I had to narrow it down the writers that have really moved me are Margarite Duras, Nicole Kraus, Anthony Doerr, Jerzy Kosinsky, David Grossman, Amos Oz, Eshkol Nevo, Alexsander Hemon, Barbara Kingslover. Mira Jacob, Zerurya Shalev, Dorit Rabinyan, Tadzio Koelb, Toni Morrison, Julia Phllips, Tiphanie Yanique, A.B. Yehoshua. I’m sure I’ve left many off the list. There are so many wonderful writers.
Is “Salt–Sea” out of the norm for you, voice-wise or subject-wise? What do you typically write about / what’s your range of interest?
This story is a bit out of the norm for me. Not so much in voice, but subject matter—though I often write about relationships. Typically, I write about the immigrant experience and the way identity is shaped and the effect that displacement has on families—husbands and wives, mothers and daughters.
Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw