Haim Watzman is a Jerusalem-based author and translator and a 2008 finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He is the author of three books: Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel; A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley; and a story collection, Necessary Stories. His short fiction appears every four weeks under the rubric “Necessary Stories” in The Times of Israel. An archive of his stories and more information about his books and translations can be found at southjerusalem.com.
Every month, Haim Watzman has a new short in The Times of Israel. His latest story, The Azedarach Tree, can be found here: https://www.timesofisrael.com/the-azedarach-tree/. We recently spoke to him about his writing process and latest work.
SRP: Who or what provides inspiration for your writing?
HW: Inspiration comes unexpectedly and I often can’t pinpoint precisely where the idea for a story comes from. It can come from something I read, a book I’m translating, a piece of music, something in the news. Sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere—I sit down to write a story to meet my deadline but have no idea at all where to start. I let my thoughts wander and put my fingers to the keyboard and write. Some of my best stories have begun that way. But most often I have a vision of a character, maybe a person I just ran into briefly, a stranger seen out of the corner of my eye, and I see that character in a particular space, often not the space I actually saw the person in.
SRP: Do you have a particular reader in mind when you write?
HW: I selfishly think mostly of myself. I want to write the kind of fiction that I like to read. But I’m part of larger communities, embedded in one another—my family, my synagogue community, the larger South Jerusalem community of innovative humanistic observant Judaism, the even larger circles of the Israeli society in which I have lived for the last forty-two years, the American Jewish community I grew up in, and larger publics beyond these. Most of my readers seem to be people who, like myself, are engaged in navigating the conflicts that being part of these different communities involves. That being said, I’m always cognizant of the fact that my stories appear in a newspaper and are read mostly by readers who run across them while catching up on current events, rather than people seeking out literary fiction. That means I can’t be as experimental as I would sometimes like to be, and of course I need to be concise.
SRP: What are you working on now?
HW: I recently completed a play, The Chair, adapted from one of my short stories. I’m very excited about it because it’s my first venture in many years into the genre that I originally wrote in, before I began writing stories in prose. It’s not a good time to have written for the theater, given that the pandemic has shuttered theaters here in Israel and throughout the world, but a local Jerusalem director is trying to get together a staged reading and I’m beginning to send the script out to theaters outside Israel as well, hoping that it will click with a director somewhere. It’s a contemporary story of love and betrayal set in motion by the meeting of Western and Eastern Judaism and what my main character sees from the bedroom window of the apartment she just moved into, but it’s also a retelling of the story of the story of Hosea, the biblical prophet. So it’s both very Israeli and very Jewish.
I’m also working on a novel. I’ve written the first chapter and last chapters and now I need to figure out how to get from one to the other. I’ve gotten to know my characters and have a roadmap in my head, but I know from experience that much will change as I go along. It’s more or less my first attempt at an integrated long-form work of fiction after more than a decade of writing a short story every four weeks, so it’s a challenge, not easy but intriguing.
SRP: What advice would you give to an aspiring fiction writer?
HW: I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that you have to produce what you think is your finest work and keep going even if you don’t get published or win prizes or get the attention you crave. When I was younger I was sure this meant I was a failure as a writer. Now I’m very much aware that there’s a lot of excellent writing that never gets published and never finds readers beyond a small audience, while much that is not good, or at least that I personally find uninteresting and uninspired, gets published and lauded. Another important lesson I’ve learned is patience. Now that I can look back over decades, I can appreciate how much I have learned and how much better a writer I am than I was when I was younger. Some writers are prodigies who produce their best work when they are young. Others need maturity and experience. I’m definitely in the latter group.
SRP: What are you reading right now?
HW: As usual, I’m juggling several things at once. I’m immersed in Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, a novel about the eighteenth century false messiah Jacob Frank, which I’m reading in Miriam Borenstein’s wonderful Hebrew translation (Jennifer Croft’s English translation is in the works). I discovered Tokarczuk from a profile of her by Ruth Franklin, which came out just before Tokarczuk won her Nobel Prize. I feel a strong affinity for the way she tells a story by following a particular character for a while, then turning her attention to another and then another before coming back to the first.
I’ve just begun my book club’s next book, Phillipe Sands’s East West Street, a combination memoir and history about how human rights law emerged from the Nuremberg trials. My book club forces me to read books I would not otherwise have taken up. I have to admit that by now I’ve developed an instinctive avoidance reaction to books on the Holocaust. It’s an important subject, I grant, but one that has to my mind become far too central to current writing by and about Jews, to the extent of crowding out other subjects. But so far it looks interesting.
I’m also reading Helen Vendler’s slim volume on Wallace Stevens, and Historia, the latest book by Yonatan Berg, a young Hebrew poet I admire. (Check out Joanna Chen’s recently-published translation of an earlier collection of his, Frayed Light.) My return to writing for the theater has spurred me to reread classic plays, and in particular to reevaluate my youthful passion for Bernard Shaw, a writer whose art is, I believe, underappreciated. I’m also addicted to Rav Elhanan Samet’s literary analyses of the Torah and Psalms. Samet periodically does a series of these detailed and rigorous close readings (in Hebrew) for the Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion, which sends them out weekly; they later get collected and published in book form. Over the summer he did this with the weekly Torah portions from Bamidbar (Numbers) and Devarim (Deuteronomy), and after the holidays he will begin another year-long series on Psalms. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, his work has not been translated into English. On top of that I’m studying Tractate Pesahim with one longtime havruta (study partner) and medieval commentaries on the Torah with three other partners.