When I Lived in Modern Times – Interview by Lisa Gee

This interview first appeared on the Orange Prize website in June 2000. www.orangeprize.co.uk

Firstly, how did you feel when you won the Orange Prize for Fiction?

I was actually on the verge of tears when I heard the announcement. I think that the recognition that Orange bestows on a writer is astonishing. My house is full of flowers and my mantelpiece groaning with cards.

What sparked this novel?

I think it probably was a visit to Tel Aviv in 1998, when I was sent by the Guardian to cover the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel. I simply fell in love with the place. It’s an incredibly dirty, chaotic, run down city on the Mediterranean teeming with life and most people pass straight through to Jerusalem (which I hate). What really hit me was that the most of the central part is original Bauhaus architecture, once gleaming white, now stained and discoloured, and this struck me very forcibly as a metaphor for the birth and death of all idealism.

Is that how your works of fiction usually germinate?

Idealism is one of my fascinations, perhaps because I come from the baby boom generation that was arrogant enough to actually think that we could change the world. My first novel, The Cast Iron Shore was about a young woman who joins the Communist Party in the McCarthy period in 1940s America, and that came about after the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, with my thinking about those people who had invested their lives in this vision of the bright shining future and it had come to nothing.

How does the process of writing fiction compare (for you) with the process of writing non-fiction?

I am driven to distraction by the wall that is erected (usually by reviewers) between fiction and journalism. It is all writing, it is all story-telling, the means are a little different but the impulse is the same.

There’s a great deal of historical detail in your novel. What did your research involve?

Some reading – there’s surprisingly little on Tel Aviv in that period. And mainly tramping the streets of the city and talking to people who around at that period.

To what extent is Evelyn’s career as a hairdresser symbolic of her need/ability to morph her identity?

Very much so. I was brought up in the hairdressing trade – my father made shampoo and perm lotion. Practically speaking by changing the colour of her hair, Evelyn is able to deceive the outside world, pretending not to be Jewish and spying on the British. And symbolically, because this is a novel about people who are all in the process of rebirth.

How did the character of Johnny develop?

Partly from an interview with a man who had been a member of the Irgun Underground, partly from a friend of mine, who absolutely astounded me when he told mine that he doesn’t dream.

What made you choose the particular historical moment/location of Palestine between the Second World War and the founding of the State of Israel?

The years between 1945 and 1950 fascinate me. We usually think of the 1940s as the war years but that was only 50 per cent of it. From 1945, the whole political map was changing, colonialism was coming to an end, people – either refugees or demobbed soldiers – were trying to go home or find homes to go to. It was an extraordinary period both of flux but also a time when people were more interested in the future than the past (how different from now) and none more so than the Jews, for whom the past was a very bad memory indeed.

Was there any sense in which you were using the process of writing this novel to work through your own feelings about the necessity for a Jewish homeland, the way Israel came to be founded, and the subsequent oppression/displacement of the Palestinian people?

I grew up in a very traditional, suburban Jewish home which was strongly pro-Israel but not in any ideological sense, nothing that say Edward Said or Adhaf Soueif would recognise. Essentially it involved me helping my mother put the doilies and napkins on the plates for her Daughters of Zion coffee mornings. I was horrified by Israel’s actions for much of the 1970s and 1980s, but unlike friends of mine who could declare themselves to be pro-Palestinian [and anti-Israeli], I didn’t feel that was an option for me. In the months leading up to the 50th anniversary I began to think about what the establishment of the state must have meant to my parents – I mean personally, psychologically – three years after the end of the war. What writing this book forced me to do was examine the politics of the period and ask myself what I would have done if I had been around at the time without the benefit of hindsight. I came to the conclusion that there simply was no way that I wouldn’t have ecstatically welcomed the establishment of Israel. My position now is that I really passionately want Israel to continue with the peace process, for there to be a Palestinian state, and for organisations such as Hizbollah to recognise the existence of Israel.

In what way (if at all) do you think that the founding of a Jewish state has changed what it means to be Jewish? Does it make it easier, fifty years on, to answer Mrs Linz’s [one of the characters in the novel] questions about her Yemenite boyfriend and herself: ‘We were both Jews but what did we have in common? Only that we were Jews and what, I want to know, does that mean?’

This is a huge question. One massive thing that happened in 1948 was that the Diaspora met itself again for the first time in 2000 years – the Sephardis meeting the Ashkenazis was a big enough shock. All the stereotypes of what defines a Jew went into meltdown. The problem with being Jewish is that you’re Jewish whether or not you practice the religion or even believe in God – it’s an ethnicity. The religious Jews still have a big problem with that one.

You spoke at the British Library readings about how we ‘can’t have depths without surfaces’. Please could you say a bit more about this?

Women are always being told off by men for being trivial and artificial in their interest in their hair and clothes and make-up. I think that these things are part of female culture. There is some idea that by being interested in surfaces you have no depths. My female characters love all the trappings of the feminine, but they are also serious women trying to take their place in history.

How far do you agree with Evelyn that ‘Love affairs belong to the young or to those who don’t have a life?’

I think Evelyn is saying that there are moments of profound romance – with ideas or with another person- but most of life is accommodation and compromise.