Award-winning fiction… Beautiful, lyric prose… Dramatic, cathartic science fiction stories. That’s the arena that author Lavie Tidhar occupies when he writes. The results of his artistry are short stories like “Terminal” (reviewed here on Recursor.TV) and the inventive sci-fi novel Central Station. His latest novel, The Unholy Land, tells the story of a bombing in the Middle East, with characters traveling through transdimensional rifts, trying to avoid possible futures by eradicating the mistakes of the past. Tidhar shared some insights into his writing process with us.
RECURSOR: How did you become interested in writing?
TIDHAR: I think I always was. Even as a kid, it always seemed like it must be amazing to write books. I think I figured early on that you actually have to do something to have something to write about. So I spent a few years traveling and living in various places, and I got into writing “properly” around 2002 — which does seem forever ago now!
I’ve been very lucky that I’ve always been able to go and live in some pretty remote places and be able to write. I lived in Vanuatu in the South Pacific for a year on a remote island. I wrote Osama (which was my breakout book and won the World Fantasy Award) when I was living in Laos, in South East Asia. I’m very restless, both in terms of living in one place and writing the same sort of book — I can’t do either very well!
What appeals to you about the sci-fi genre?
I always thought of science fiction as a very counter-cultural sort of literature. It can be very subversive, very political. At its best, it’s mind-blowing in the best possible way. And I like how science fiction doesn’t try to pretend that there’s this thing called “real life.” All it has to do is point up, and all you have to do is look up, and 100 kilometers up there, everything we know stops, and the entire rest of the universe begins. It’s huge, and weird, and we don’t know very much about it. It boggles me when literature pretends it’s just not there, and we’re the center of the universe. I don’t think the universe revolves around us.
Who are your sci-fi influences?
I’m a big fan of Philip K. Dick — that sense of reality being out of whack, of it being weirder than we imagine. I kind of accumulated by osmosis a lot of pretty weird sci-fi, the more obscure stuff —Cordwainer Smith, Clifford Simak, C.L. Moore. It’s old sci-fi. Zelazny and Delany in the ’60s. I’m a big fan of Tim Powers, the secret history stuff he does.
Science fiction is changing now, but it was almost exclusively American when I was growing up. And I loved the freedom it had. But I still find new things to get excited about all the time. I’ve been editing a series of international speculative fiction anthologies for the past decade – The Apex Book of World SF. It’s allowed me to discover so many new international voices, and you learn from each one.
What do you think sci-fi has to offer to today’s readers?
In many ways, science fiction is at the forefront of talking about contemporary issues. If you look at the stuff that’s happening now in short fiction, and the whole conversation sci-fi is having (even within itself), it’s about issues of identity, of race, culture… I think it’s harder to do in novels, which are subject to much more commercial pressures, but sci-fi always reinvents itself in response to the times. And, culturally, I think it’s almost a cliché to say we actually live in a science fiction world now, so who else is better at addressing it? So, the genre has a lot going for it right now.
You’ve written in several different genres, like espionage, pulp fiction style stories, fantasy, and sci-fi. What drives you to tackle different genres?
Well, I mix. I treat genres as tools, and I just use what I want. There are things that I find easier, like writing noir, for example, but I have to keep challenging myself and trying different things. I’ve actually got a comics mini-series coming out at some point, Adler from Titan Comics, with artist Paul McCaffrey. I love working with artists. I like to try it all! I’m very rarely motivated by money. I just follow what I think is interesting or important and worth saying, and hope at the end that someone will agree to publish it. The fact that they do is a continual surprise.
Your novel Central Station has received much acclaim. What inspired you to write it?
I was living in Tel Aviv back in 2010, and I became kind of obsessed with the old Central Bus Station area, as well as the new station itself, which is this crazy, enormous place with its own nuclear fallout shelter, if you can believe it. And, you know, most of my novels fall into this weird, political, alternate history, noir sort of thing, and I wanted to do something completely different — just write about these people and this place.
And I always loved mosaic novels, especially in science fiction. That’s where a lot of the classics are. But it always struck me as quite a difficult thing to do, from a technical point of view. So, that was the challenge.
I wrote it now and then over the next five years or so. Some of the stories got into various Year’s Best anthologies. A few got translated into various languages. And then one day it was done. I just didn’t expect anyone would actually read it.
Many of your stories in Central Station have a strong element of character study to them, a sense of lyricism.
I’m happy with “lyrical character studies.” I find that novels are harder for me, partly because there’s so much of them, and a lot of that depends on having some sort of skeleton, a plot, while in short stories I get to explore stuff at more leisure, work things out, focus on particular elements. In that sense, Central Station comes more from my short fiction work than my novelistic side. I still essentially consider myself a short story writer uncomfortable with novels.
Lavie Tidhar is the World Fantasy Award winning author of Osama (2011), The Violent Century (2013), the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winning A Man Lies Dreaming (2014), and the Campbell Award winning Central Station (2016), in addition to many other works and several other awards. His latest novels are Unholy Land and debut children’s novel Candy. He works across genres, combining detective and thriller modes with poetry, science fiction and historical and autobiographical material. His work has been compared to that of Philip K. Dick by the Guardian and the Financial Times, and to Kurt Vonnegut’s by Locus. Learn more about Tidhar by visiting his website, or follow him on Twitter as @lavietidhar.