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The Writing Life interview: Alon Hilu
bibliomaniac
Omar Yussef tracks the killer of a member of the ancient sect of Samaritans -- only to uncover deadly secrets from his best friend's past.
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Alon Hilu

The most original voice in Hebrew fiction is that of Alon Hilu. His first novel “Death of a Monk” took a blood libel against the Jews of Damascus in 1840 and offered a startling alternative perspective on how the murder at the heart of the scandal might have taken place. The second of his novels “House of Dajani” will be out in English next year, but it’s already controversial in Israel. Set in 1895 it casts a different light on the early Zionist settlers of what was then Palestine, suggesting that the precursors of today’s Israelis might not have been quite so heroic. “Dajani” is set in Jaffa, where Alon was born in 1972. His parents were born in Damascus.

How long did it take you to get published?

I was first published at the age of 20 (two short stories were published in Israeli literary magazines), and my first novel, “Death of a Monk” was published when I was 32.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

“The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri – written originally for playwrights – gives the basics for writing, and I found it very useful. The most challenging part for me in writing is the structuring of plots, and for this particular purpose I use the book “20 Master Plots (and how to build them)” by Ronald B. Tobias, which I highly recommend.

What’s a typical writing day?

My writing discipline is very poor. I only write when I feel I want to write. It usually happens during the quiet hours of late night.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

“The House of Dajani” is a gothic story about a Palestinian child who lives in Jaffa in 1895, and can see the far future, and in particular the Jewish-Arab conflict and the many wars to come. He meets a 27 year old Zionist immigrant, and their relationship begins with love, but transfers into hate, when the child accuses the Jewish adult of killing his father. The book can be read as a metaphor of the Jewish-Arab relationship in Israel during the last century, became a best seller in Israel and is being translated into five languages.  I love this book because it takes the readers back to late 19th century, and describes the landscape and people of what I call “Palestinian Tel Aviv”.

How much of what you do is dictated by formula – how much is complete originality?

I always work with the same formula of plot structure, which is comprised of a triggering event, a developing conflict, a crisis and a resolution. I write the synopsis in advance and remain pretty close to it. What changes from book to book is the content poured into the structure.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

The first sentence of “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta”. It is poetically written, and absorbs the obsession of the narrator in few words. I also love the novel – it is undoubtedly a masterpiece.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

My first two books were historical novels, and naturally I had to invest time and energy to research the historical period and place (1840 Damascus in “Death of a Monk” and 1895 Jaffa in “The House of Dajani”). It takes me about one to two years to complete the research.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

From the research. I intentionally look for the forgotten characters, which are not praised by historians, and I usually have only one descriptive sentence about the character when choosing him. In my first book, the protagonist was Aslan Farhi, a 19 year old Jew from Damascus, who accused his father of killing a monk for ritual purposes. The descriptive sentence I had in mind was: “the son who falsely accused his father”. In the second novel, the main character is a 12 year old Palestinian child who foresee Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel. The descriptive sentence of him was: “the child who could see the death of his people”.

What’s your experience with being translated?

Each of my books has been translated into five languages. Since I write in anachronistic Hebrew, it is always a challenge for my translators to depict the aroma of the Hebrew to the target language. Of my translated books, I can only read English, and I can tell that my translator, Evan Fallenberg made a terrific work in translating both books. [I interviewed Evan Fallenberg recently in The Writing Life series.--MBR]

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?

No, I work as a general counsel of a hi-tech company called Voltaire Ltd. and I make my living off being a lawyer.

How many books did you write before you were published?

One – the one that was published (“Death of a Monk”).

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

I went to downtown San Francisco to lecture at the LGBT center, and found out that the entrance was blocked by angry women. It was a contest against my lecture, held by an anti-Israeli Lesbian group based in California. They proclaimed that the LGBT should not host events sponsored by the Israeli consulate, because Israel was anti-gay (which is a ridiculous argument anyway).

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

No such thing – everything is worth to print.