Palak Tewary from Write On! interviews author Lavie Tidhar
As a child, do you remember looking through a kaleidoscope? I remember how enthralled I was the first time I looked through that magic lens. That same positivity, lightness and joy came to mind when I spoke to the multi-genre phenomenon that is Lavie Tidhar on Zoom. Best known for his transcendent science fiction (Sci-Fi), Lavie delves into the possibilities of the unknown, his words allowing us to fine-tune our own kaleidoscopic lens to turn what is, into what might be.
In preparation for our chat, I’d read Lavie’s latest novel, The Circumference Of The World. What struck me most was his expert interweaving of Sci-Fi, mystery and meta-narrative to create a story that challenges our perception of reality and so explores the power of storytelling itself. As someone who adores the mystery genre and doesn’t generally read Sci-Fi, I found his approach fascinating.
I start by asking where Lavie thinks Sci-Fi sits in terms of driving leadership for future global challenges. Lavie replies that, to him, Circumference Of The World is a book about science fiction, as well as sitting within the genre. So, the concept that Sci-Fi, per se, has power, is something embedded into his writing:
“Some of this is crazy stuff. For example, I’m seen as an expert in AI, mainly because no one is an expert.”
This highlights Lavie’s inclination to explore the boundaries and structures of different genres, often subverting expectations while staying faithful to the core structures. He shares how his many writing hats (in the UK he’s best known for his literary fiction), allow him to shift expectations and perspectives more easily. Lavie finds joy in playing with these established structures while remaining true to their essence. He cites his book Holy Land as an example of using the detective story structure to delve into historical exploration.
Having been born in India, raised in Kenya and now living in the UK as well as being a travel buff, I use my own experiences in my work. Similarly, Lavie explains how he draws on his international background and experiences to incorporate wider global issues into his stories. By embedding nuances of different cultures, languages and behaviours into his narratives, he drives universal relevance and appeal, as well as uncovering new plot lines. His time spent in Vanuatu in the South Pacific, for instance, sparked his interest in World War II history:
“I used a real-life story about what had been left behind, the memories, debris washing up onto shore, to incorporate into the narrative.”
Lavie’s love of history also seeps into other aspects of his work. From early Sci-Fi greats, such as Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl, to nostalgia for places that now exist only in memory; these influences are embedded in his writing. Circumference Of The World reflects the golden age of Sci-Fi but is also an ode to the London of the past: the landscape of old bookshops. It’s interesting to hear how he cherishes the serendipity and wonder of physically browsing through shelves, discovering random and extraordinary books that are becoming ever harder to find. Though he acknowledges the usefulness of digital platforms, the wonder of physical books, libraries, and the sense of adventure they evoke shines through his work.
With hope in mind, Lavie touches on the importance of positive storytelling in a world often dominated by dystopian narratives. Climate change and many of the catastrophic issues facing us are desperately important, and yet:
“If you say the Great Barrier Reef is dead, people will think it’s too late, that there’s nothing you can do. It’s far more powerful and more fun to focus on stories that offer hope for the future!”
This positive outlook, giving the sense that change is possible and how we can all be part of this, really resonates. Expanding on the point, he tells me about Central Station. Set in Tel Aviv, it’s a novel about a world where we didn’t destroy ourselves. He has imagined a far future with space-faring humanity, a vastly changed earth and the full integration of technology into society.
Having grown up in the Middle East, it’s inevitable Lavie is drawn to politics. He prefers nuance to dogma, though, and explains how his need to shine a light on things became more pressing after he returned to London in 2011, noticing the way national sentiment had taken a turn for the worse:
“When I came back after five years away, things were different. There was an edge, a sense of xenophobia, nationalism. Though I wrote A Man Lies Dreaming before Trump and Brexit, I used words that pre-empted Nigel Farage’s rhetoric.”
This 2014 alternate history novel is a powerful example of how Lavie works within darker themes and narratives, here showcasing Hitler as a detective in 1930s London.
He tells me that, to him, realistic fiction focusses on only a tiny part of the world. By presenting readers with a kaleidoscopic interplay of times, places and ideas, he is able to showcase so much more. A phrase he used to illustrate this has stayed with me since our conversation: “WONDER is such an important word.”
Lavie delves into fundamental questions around existence, transcending the limitations of realistic fiction. Through Sci-Fi, he ponders the vastness of the universe and the mysteries of dark matter, seeking to capture the grandeur and wonders that lie beyond our immediate perceptions. To me as a Hindu, his ideation of the multiverse is particularly pertinent.
Moving from multiverse to multi-genre, Lavie explains how the writers we read become a part of our DNA. He cites Agatha Christie as an example, mentioning that he once wrote a Golden Age-style vampire mystery that garnered interest from an editor who commissioned more novels in the same vein. His love for noir fiction comes from its ability to deconstruct society and explore morally compromised characters with different countries’ noir traditions, so offering a unique perspective on societal decay and human nature. His versatility as a writer also allows him to explore languages and genres, each demanding a distinct mindset, approach and even rhythm.
As we delve further into Lavie’s writing process, his passion for writing in various forms becomes clear. From poetry to non-fiction and fiction, he enjoys the freedom that comes with exploring different modes of expression. He does add a caveat, though:
“Poetry is less my guilty pleasure than my tragedy. I was never good enough. It’s impossible to write something as good as The Emperor Of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens.”
Lockdown fired up his eagerness to experiment and push artistic boundaries and he talks about a recent venture into micro animation and video game creation.
Coming back to guilty pleasures, Lavie admits his fondness for adverbs and adjectives and how he uses them to add flavour to his prose. Inversely, he keeps dialogue minimal. He finds joy in subverting expectations and playing with different genres, such as writing Winnie-The-Pooh as a hard-boiled detective tale. But he tells me that, despite all this pulling from every aspect of his life and experience, it’s important for him to keep a tiny bit of his soul locked away.
There are so many ideas I’d love to pursue, but I’m also keen to hear if he has any advice for aspiring writers. I laugh out loud when he suggests they should reconsider their decision:
“Don’t do it. It’s kind of like a curse. These days I get itchy and irritable if I don’t write. It’s a horrible affliction!”
Despite the challenges, he acknowledges how writing has become an intrinsic part of his identity. I love how he started, sitting in a computer lab one summer in his early 20s:
“I challenged myself to write 500 words a day and complete a short story and then another. Those words add up.”
As we come towards the end of our chat, we touch on upcoming projects and Lavie tells me of his planned releases over the next couple of years: a family drama, a historical epic, a Sci-Fi short story collection and a positive future-oriented children’s book. For someone who’s quick to tell me writing is 99 per cent doing nothing, he seems to be extremely busy. Those 500 words a day really do add up!
It’s inevitable we should come back to the mathematician, the book dealer, the mobster and their quest for a mysterious disappearing book in The Circumference Of The World. Is this a quest Lavie himself embodies: uncovering intriguing concepts to weave them into narratives that lead us to places we vaguely recognise?
Like those bits of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope, Lavie shapes thought leadership by igniting our collective imagination. A simple twist of his lens and the mirror he’s held up to our familiar world shifts into something new; the myriad emerging patterns and ideas refracting into glorious technicolour.
You can listen to the full interview on Write On! Audio here.
Connect with Lavie on Instagram: @lavietidhar
Connect with Palak on Instagram: @palaktewary
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Don’t do it. It’s kind of like a curse. These days I get itchy and irritable if I don’t write. It’s a horrible affliction!