Ron Leshem: I regard this all as just a backdrop to a totally human story.Ron Leshem bounds into his office with youthful energy and apologizes profusely for being 15 minutes late for our interview. Sporting the urbanite uniform of jeans, tee and trainers – and with a face more mid 20’s than his actual 32 – he looks more like a university student than the vice president of programming at Israel’s leading TV network, or for that matter, the author of a gut-wrenching debut novel about the last days of the Israeli occupation of an ancient Lebanese fortress.
Leshem explains that this is a particularly busy period. He has just returned from a promotional tour to Germany where the novel Im Yesh Gan Eden (If There is a Paradise) has been translated and is about to be released.
If you live in Israel it would be hard not to have noticed the book, which has sat on the country’s bestseller list for the best part of 18 months and also won the author the country’s top literary prize – The Sapir Award.
The attention hasn’t only been limited to the local market. More than 10 countries worldwide including the US, Germany, Italy and Poland have bought publishing rights. And the book – under the title of the film it spawned – Beaufort hits American shelves on December 26, with several European countries to follow in early 2008.
The film itself, for which Leshem wrote the screenplay, also won an award at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year and is Israel’s entry for the 2008 Academy Awards.
This one time the journalist himself, has become the newsmaker.
If There is a Paradise tells the story of the final weeks of the IDF occupation of Beaufort Castle, a hilltop fortress in Lebanon that dates back to the Crusades. It’s written as the diary of Liraz (Erez) Liberti, the 21-year-old head of the commando team stationed at the fortress. His narrative focuses on the group of 13 young men in his charge and their struggle to cope with the realities of war. Leshem doesn’t see his novel as a political statement or a typical tale about war.
“There is some very critical modern Israeli history behind this story, and maybe even a political issue, but I regard this all as just a backdrop to a totally human story,” he told ISRAEL21c.
The author sees his work as more of a coming of age story. “This is what I wanted to write – about being 18 in Israel. I could easily have set it in Tel Aviv – café society, young love and the like. But Lebanon is a far more fascinating backdrop for this because it is such an intense, pressure cooker situation. Everything is magnified – emotions, feelings, weaknesses, reactions. The characters are also isolated from the rest of society – stuck in some kind of cage, a remote adolescent kingdom cut off from a mature adult presence.
“This sort of environment enables an in-depth study of the characters that is just not possible in another kind of setting,” he adds.
So does this story have its root in personal experience? “My military service wasn’t on the frontline” says Leshem. “My experience was totally different to that of the characters in the book. I did my army duty in the middle of Tel Aviv.”
In fact Leshem chanced upon the story during 2000 while reporting a couple of hundred miles away from Beaufort, in the Gaza strip. “It was there that I heard the stories of Lebanon that really opened my ears. They came from a group of soldiers that had come out of Beaufort just a few months earlier. After this encounter I really felt I had to write this story.”
Leshem indicates that the telling of other people’s stories is what he likes to do. “I never found it interesting to write about my life or my experience or the places I live in – whenever you learn to write at university they tell you to write about your experience, your life – but I never had this urge.”
He described his storytelling as processing all the experiences and people that he’s missed out on which provides a “gateway to connect with the sorts of people that I haven’t had the opportunity to connect with and the life experiences that I didn’t have as a result of taking one path in life instead of another.”
It is ironic to hear Leshem talk about experiences that he has “missed out on.” At 32 his resume reads more like that of someone 20 years his senior. Following his army service, he eschewed the popular Israeli trend of taking time off to travel abroad and immediately entered the workforce as a journalist with Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Aharonot.
“I haven’t stopped since,” recounts Leshem. He rose quickly through the ranks, serving as news editor and then head of staff for reporters. Eventually he moved to rival newspaper Ma’ariv, Israel’s second largest circulation paper, where he became its youngest ever deputy editor.
In 2005 Leshem left the paper for the world of TV, more specifically a position with Keshet television where he works today as VP of programming and content. In some senses it’s difficult to imagine the lure of commercial television to someone from a hard news background. But Leshem disagrees.
“First, it all comes from the same motivation. You don’t come to the media unless you want to influence people. Writing a book, editing news, editing entertainment shows mostly comes from wanting to touch people and to touch their feelings.”
At this point Leshem is keen to find out if his book will impact a non-Israeli audience. “It’s a moment before we are published in the US and other countries and I am quite tense to know whether we will have a chance to connect with people in those countries,” he says.
As far as the US is concerned, the reaction has been extraordinary, said Leshem’s literary agent Deborah Harris.
“Not only is it virtually unheard of for a mainstream publisher (Random House) to sign an Israeli author, but I have never worked with a publisher who was so commercially enthusiastic about an Israeli author,” she told ISRAEL21c. “The planned advertising runs the full gamut from the Wall Street Journal through to some high profile military magazines.”
The book also received a starred review in the prestigious Library Journal which virtually guarantees a wide distribution in libraries across America.
So what’s next for Leshem? “Definitely another book – writing is my passion.”
When pressed for details, the writer remains coy. He is done with war for the time being, but is certain about one thing – that it will be something he is passionate about.
“Written stories can be divided into two categories. There are those that are developed by a writer who wants to write and tell stories. The other case is where the story – the specific story itself – is the main motivation. You can tell that the piece has come about because of the author’s burning desire to tell that particular story. It has an analogy with falling in love… when it ends, you question whether it will ever happen to you again. Will you find a connection with another tale that moves you in the same way, or will the next one end up being the result of a more mechanical search for something to write about?”