Have you ever met someone virtually and thought, I would love to meet this person in real life?
That's my experience with Miryam Sivan. It might be because she also grew up in North America with Israeli parents and growing up for me that was an extremely small club (me and my brother). In my day Israelis who left the country were looked upon differently than they are today. I'll leave it at that for now.
It might be because she was the first person to write to me that she's thrilled I wrote a book "about her university." Do you know that was the first time I had considered that Haifa University still exists, the overseas program still exists and there might be staff there who read Passport Control differently? I worked on that novel for so many years that in my mind it has become completely detached from any real world. Thanks Miryam for calling me down to earth.
Without further delay, please enjoy this fascinating interview. Welcome Miryam!
Miryam Sivan is a former New Yorker who has lived in Israel for more than twenty years. She teaches literature and writing at the University of Haifa and has published scholarly articles on American and Israeli writers, and a book -length study on Cynthia Ozick's fiction. Much of her fiction is about the experiences of ex-pats in love, in flux, in the liminal space between cultures, languages, and historical epochs. SNAFU and Other Stories was published in 2014 (Cuidono Press) and her novel, Make it Concrete, was published in April 2019 (Cuidono Press).
GILA GREEN (GG): What's the first thing you ever published?
MIRYAM SIVAN (MS): The very first texts I ever published were translations of Hebrew poems by Medieval Jewish Spanish writers, like Shlomo Ibn Gabirol and Yehuda HaLevi. At the same time I was working on translating a full length book by the Israeli poet, Leah Goldberg. The Goldberg book came out the same year that "Besieged," my first short story, was ever published. This was 1992 and the story was inspired by the 1991 Gulf War. In fact it takes place during the war and though I was living in New York at the time, like my characters I felt besieged with fear. For me all three publications were important and kind of came together.
GG: You teach literature, how does that inform your writing?
MS: Teaching literature forces me to read many texts that I might not, given my predilection to focus on contemporary world fiction. Reading from different eras and doing close reading of work I would not pick up naturally., has exposed me to many different kinds of voices and cultural moments that indirectly inform my writing. Meaning, all the information goes into my brain and floats around in the soup of my unconscious which is where I write from. As analytical as I can be when I read to teach, and when I teach, I work from a very intuitive place when I write fiction. In fact, if I spend time writing academically, it affects my fictional voice negatively. It takes me time to return to a looser vernacular.
GG: You grew up in New York then moved to Israel. How do these cross-cultural perspectives inform your writing?
MS: I write a great deal about the experience of cultural hybridity, not least because I was also raised with it. I am a child of Israelis who moved to New York before I was born, and I spent a childhood travelling to Israel and feeling the tension between the American culture I was part of and the Israeli one my parents still very much belonged to. Then when I moved, this tension became more acute as I was the American among Israelis and I lived in the north of the country, in a small town, with very few people from English speaking countries. My work dives in to this material. I guess it's a way of showcasing what happens to people who emigrate, and millions share this experience in our world today, and it's also a way for me to work through the comedy and tragedy of this situation.
GG: Do you have a specific writing process that works for you?
MS: I like to push out a first draft before setting about fixing individual sentences or scenes. I feel the need for raw material before I can mold the language and the story. So in the push and rush to get out the first draft, I end up with sentences that are barely English, meaning they can be utterly ungrammatical and not elegant. This is funny since after that first draft I am a compulsive reviser. I can rewrite a sentence and a scene twenty times, or even more, until it feels right to me.
GG: How do you organize your writing time with your teaching and other responsibilities?
MS: Now that I don't have to care for a child at home, it's much easier. I have plenty of time to write and to prepare for teaching and to teach. I like to write in the morning.... and if it is going well to continue all day. It is harder for me to start later in the day, though I must admit I am far less rigid than I once was about scheduling. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I was raising a small child, building a house, and working on short fiction. It was then that I learned to just work whenever a window of an hour or two opened up. I had little choice. But without a crazy schedule sitting on my head, I prefer mornings that unroll into a large block of time.
GG: What is the best writing advice you've ever received?
MS: For novels, one of the best pieces of advice I received was from my friend, Katia Spiegelman, who told me that before she ends her writing day, she writes the first sentence of the next section. This way it is easier to pick up and continue.
The other great piece of writing advice was from another close writer friend, Jane Lazarre, who always counselled me to write authentically, to write from the emotional truth of my life. From the feedback I have been receiving for Make it Concrete, I think this has paid off. A number of readers have talked about the realness and depth of my characters' lives.
GG: As a writing instructor, what advice do you give aspiring writers?
MS: Write! Write as much as you can. I believe we teach ourselves how to write by writing. A good teacher can point out certain formalities and conventions, but like with music, or any other practice, the more you do it the better you get.
GG: What would you like your legacy as a writer to be?
MS: I have never thought about it. I guess I would like people to appreciate the craft, for this is where I invest so much of my time and heart. The actual crafting of sentences. For me language is rhythm and music in addition to the meanings we assign the words.
GG: What are you currently working on?
MS: I am about to embark on research for a screenplay I want to write. I am taking a break from prose since I just finished revising another novel that is about to start looking for its home. The screenplay is historical and is about a specific woman, who like me, experiences transnationalism and emigration in her life, only she moved from Europe to the US in the late 1920s. These are my themes apparently. I have some, though little, experience with screenplays, and no experience writing about a real person. But I like challenges and need them to keep myself occupied and enthusiastic.
You can follow Miryam at these links:
Thank you so much, Miryam. I am sure readers will find your advice valuable. I wish you much success with your work!