The following interview, conducted by Serbian writer Zoran Zivkovic, took place in January 2005 and first appeared on Fantastic

Q: Why do you write?
A: I can't recall a time when I didn't want to write. Even before I knew how to form letters, I used to fill notebooks with line upon line of scribble in my eagerness to record those first stories I can no longer even remember... I write in order to pursue some vision which is always hovering in my head, whether it is a theme, an emotion, a place or a character I feel compelled to convey. It's the only kind of work which really satisfies me.
Q: Would you tell me more about those early days? They seem very important since your prose is so autobiographical and your pivotal character is a very perceptive, very sensitive and very bright young lady who is usually the narrator. Do you recognise yourself in her?
A: Everything happened before I was eighteen. Love, death and betrayal. To me childhood has been the source of all my creativity. Not only my somewhat death-drenched adolescence, the loss of my parents (they both died when I was in my teens) but the earliest affections and attachments, to people and to places, and the even earlier inchoate impressions, of the garden of my infancy, the house where I grew up. When I was eighteen years old I locked the door on my parents' house and drove away to university, and I never went back. My life was spliced there. Much of what I have written since has been a re-imagining, in one way or another, of what Yehuda Amichai calls "my childhood, of blessed memory."
It's always risky to make assumptions about the autobiographical content of a novelist's work. When I take the material of my own life and turn it into fiction I take whatever liberties with it I please. To me it is like a piece of clay the potter molds: I will change it and shape it, add, alter and subtract. It bears the same relation to reality that a dream does, where you seem to recognise things and yet they are strange. A reader can't fix on any one element in a story of mine and assume it is factual truth. As for the young lady you refer to, perhaps you recognise her more easily than I do. As a writer, I am a non-person. When I write about her she is the same to me as any other character I create: she may or may not have elements of me; she may have characteristics which are not mine at all. The characters in books are not real people; they are fictions. The very act of writing fictionalises everything.
Q: Your first work of fiction to be published in book form is your novel "The Genizah at the House of Shepher." But before becoming a novelist you were (and still are) a very successful story writer. Many of your stories have appeared in a variety of prestigious magazines, identifying you as an excellent stylist and very accomplished author. What is your ideal prose form?
A: I feel most comfortable with the short story. I like to write economically. Not minimalistically; but I like every word, every sentence, to have weight. When I write stories I can be as brief as I like. And yet a short story can embrace an entire life, an entire universe.
Everything that is written, instinctively finds its own form; if it works, there is an inevitability about it. One should not write as a story what can be told as a poem. A novel which could be a story has failed to justify its existence. I sometimes think I can achieve more depth in a short story than I can in a novel, simply because the words have more weight and value. There is nothing wasted... Yet I can't resist the epic pull of the novel. There are themes, scenes, narratives only the novel can convey.
Q: What I find maybe the most fascinating in the ancient and noble art of prose writing is the moment when a new work is, metaphorically speaking, conceived. How does this happen in your case?
A: That's one of the hardest questions of all to answer. It's very difficult to pin down or analyse the moment of literary conception, and, in a sense, one resists doing so. It might break the spell... I will say that there is usually one scene, even one moment in a novel which I am working towards, a moment of consummation almost, towards which everything else in the book is building. It is usually in my mind from the beginning. Getting to that moment, writing that scene, is the greatest pleasure of all and the sweetest reward. It won't necessarily come at the end of the book. It may be at the mid-point or in the second half.
Theme is also very important to me in my conception of a book. A story is not worth telling unless it has some deeper meaning. Yet how can one say which comes first, the theme or the story? They grow together; they are symbiotic. The story, the theme and the characters can grow inside one for years. And for me they are always intimately bound up with a sense of place.
As for short stories—they spring out of nowhere, don't they? I will sometimes start a story on the strength of one sentence. I would never dare do that with a novel. There is too much at stake.
Q: I assume all writers introduce, consciously or not, intertextual references in their works. That's hardly surprising, since we have behind us a 5,000 year tradition of prose writing that can't be neglected or avoided. Are you aware, while you write, of the various influences of other authors on your fiction? Could you identify some of them?
A: I was a very strange young writer: I hardly read at all. Until the age of about fifteen, though I wrote prolifically, it was only with the greatest of effort that I could be induced to read a book. I can't begin to estimate the lasting damage this may have done me as a writer... However, there was one significant exception to the rule: I would read anything by or about the Brontë sisters. So I can honestly say that almost my whole literary education, at that crucial early stage, was conducted by the Brontës and their biographers. Fortunately, they were good teachers. I acquired an extremely wide vocabulary just from reading their books, and a sense of the rhythms and structure of the English language which perhaps can only be acquired from the great Victorian novelists. I absorbed the passion of their writing. I also picked up all sorts of historical and literary knowledge, because when you learn about the Brontës you learn about their entire world, too.
All through my teens I was reading and writing poetry. All the great poets, in particular Shakespeare and Keats, taught me the importance of sound and metre in language, and how imagery gives life to language. I write for sound and I write for image. Where those two coincide there is a sort of inevitability about the sentence.
The other great influence in my youth was the Hebrew Bible. I studied biblical Hebrew intensively from an early age. The beauty, the extreme economy of that language served as a kind of counterbalance to the rather florid and wordy style I was absorbing from the Victorians.
I am a passionate reader now. The writers who inspired me in the past do not necessarily do so any more. I still read the Victorians with pleasure, but I wouldn't want to try and write like them. My mentors now are all foreigners: when I read Kafka, or Primo Levi, or Garcia Marquez, I feel inspired, because of the beauty of the language and the—how shall I put it?—enigmatic clarity of their work. That is a quality I also try to achieve. I love Katherine Mansfield, too, who has a foreign sensibility because she was an exiled New Zealander. At present my absolute love is the German writer W. G. Sebald—he was a great inspiration to me when I was writing "Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes." I had already conceived and begun writing the book, when I discovered Sebald's 'The Emigrants.' It filled me with joy because I saw someone writing passages of continuous prose, without dialogue, without even paragraph breaks—and it was unstoppably readable, utterly compelling. I thought: It works, it's permissible. You can get away with it.
Q: Your prose written so far can be divided in three groups: one novel ("The Genizah at the House of Shepher") and two collections ("Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes" and "Kafka in Brontëland")—with a number of uncollected and unpublished stories. Since it's possible that the chronology of the forthcoming publications of these three volumes isn't going to match the chronology of the origin of your works, would you tell me more about the latter? It's rather interesting, since you are in the constant process of maturing as a writer, if I may say so.
A: I hope I will go on maturing as a writer for as long as I continue to write. Life seems to me to be like a series of veils - you pass through one, you think you see more clearly, then you experience the lifting of another veil. Writing is the same. It is a continual learning process.
In many ways the writing of 'The Genizah at the House of Shepher' has been the story of my whole adult life. I first thought of the book in 1987, when I visited my grandparents' house in Jerusalem for the last time before it was to be torn down. There in the attic we found a family archive so vast that the very dust on the floorboards was composed of disintegrating paper. Amongst the letters and diaries and the back numbers of the newspaper my grandfather edited before the First World War, was a little black bible of tremendous importance, which had been missing, until that point, for over seventy years. It contained vital notes, made by one of my ancestors in the late nineteenth century, on the textual differences between the Aleppo Codex and the standard Hebrew Bible. Large parts of the Aleppo Codex, one of the oldest and most perfect manuscripts of the Bible in existence, had been lost in a pogrom in 1947, and it was with the help of these notes that it would ultimately be reconstructed.
As I sat there in the attic surrounded by my family's history I was possessed by an ambitious vision, to write a novel covering several generations and moving between Lithuania, Jerusalem, England and Azerbaijan. It would somehow comprehend the whole of Jewish history back to the Garden of Eden and down to today, where it would examine complex questions of contemporary Jewish identity. And at the heart of the book would be the mystery of a Codex - an embodiment of all the themes of truth, myth, history I would be exploring...
Nothing too challenging, then. I started off in good spirits, translating my grandfather's published memoirs and handwritten diaries and accumulating a thick file of research notes, and when I hadn't finished the book after six months (most of my juvenile novels had taken no longer than that) I began to feel rather downcast. A couple of years later I took some time out from the novel and wrote a children's book, which I still intend to publish some day. I persevered, writing hundreds of pages by hand (in those days I didn't have a word processor) and literally cutting and pasting with scissors and glue.
After four years I took some more time out and wrote another unpublished novel which I also intend to rework and publish eventually. Eight years into the writing I became so fascinated by the stories of the ten lost tribes that I was researching for the novel that I broke off and wrote a whole book inspired by those - my 'Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes.' The story 'Ephraim' in there, about the young man who obsessively writes and rewrites the slim volume he can never finish, is pretty descriptive of my own tormented obsession with 'Genizah.'
All this time I was writing and publishing short stories. It was a great relief to turn away, for a few months at a time, and work on something less gargantuan and stressful. In this way I gradually built up the collection 'Kafka in Brontëland.' It's true to say, therefore, that in a sense all three books were written simultaneously, and that psychically and emotionally they all came from the same place. Anyone who reads all three will recognise that.
In the spring of 2001 I finished 'Genizah.' I acquired an agent who sent it all round the London publishers without success. Six months of rewrites followed. Then it went all round the London publishers again. It got a lot of praise, but no contract. I then took it upon myself to send it out to various smaller independent publishers, both here and in the States. Meanwhile I got down to work on a new novel.
One morning in September 2003 I went to the hospital for the results of a scan and as I was sitting in the consultant's office it gradually dawned on me that she was telling me I might have cancer. Next thing I knew I had my head between my knees... That afternoon I went home and opened up my email and there was a message from The Toby Press asking if the rights were still available.
Fortunately I didn't have cancer - which meant that I lived to perform a final rewrite on 'The Genizah at the House of Shepher.' It's due to appear in March 2005, exactly fifteen years after I first wrote the opening sentences. I should add that I would never have reached that point without the stalwart support of my friends and of my wonderful, longsuffering husband.