Assaf Gavron photo by Fana Feng
Assaf Gavron photo by Fana Feng

With a string of international literary awards and bestselling novels to his credit, Assaf Gavron has earned his place alongside his accomplished friends Etgar Keret  and Nir Baram as a foremost Israeli author under 50.

The Hilltop, his seventh book — recently published in English translation by Scribner — took five years to research and write. It paints a rare portrait of fictional personalities populating an unauthorized settlement in the Judean Hills, and has won Gavron a Bernstein Prize, critical acclaim and worldwide speaking engagements.

The 46-year-old writer tells ISRAEL21c that he did not consider himself “a proper writer” until his books started getting translated from Hebrew.

“I was 28 when my first book was published, but didn’t have the confidence to call myself a writer until much later,” he says in a conversation from Omaha, Nebraska, where he is teaching Israeli and Jewish literature and creative writing at the state university this year.

“When my work was first translated into German and I was invited to speak in Germany, I was treated as a writer — and that’s when I decided that’s what I want to be. That was only in 2008,” he says. “I was never an overnight hit. It was always a slow-burning kind of process of getting more recognition and readers.”

Meanwhile, he built a reputation as a translator, rendering into Hebrew 20 works of major authors including J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer, J.K. Rowling and Audrey Niffenegger.

Gavron also dabbled in high-tech.

“I was in a startup called Valis for four years, two in Tel Aviv and two in London,” he relates. “We started in the year 2000, creating a mobile social-media platform for teens, but the phones were not advanced enough at that time. I was brought in to create the language and later headed the creative department. It was a lot of fun and I liked the daily routine, but the company eventually closed.”

The Hilltop won Israel’s Bernstein Prize.
The Hilltop won Israel’s Bernstein Prize.

He has worked as a journalist and as a teacher of creative writing in Israel at Bar-Ilan University, the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School and Sapir Academic College.

In addition, Gavron is in a three-man Israeli pop band, The Mouth and Foot. His absence this year doesn’t matter because the trio agreed from the start, in the late 1980s, to release an album only once every six years.

“We released our latest album at the end of 2013, so that means we’re off for a while,” he explains. “The two others in the band are the musicians. I am the singer and I write most of the lyrics and play a little keyboard.”

Not lost in translation

Gavron was born in the southern city of Arad in 1968, but lived in the Jerusalem suburb of Motza Illit from the time he was three. “It was not a suburb like Omaha. For me, especially as a child, it was like a moshav,” a cooperative village. “Jerusalem was the big city and we went there on buses to watch movies or do our chugim [afterschool clubs].”

His parents were British immigrants, and he earned college degrees in London and Canada. So although he writes in Hebrew, he does not feel his works lose anything in translation.

“I’ve been reading English books all my life, and in a way my writing lends itself to English. I sometimes see the translation as an opportunity for improvement,” he says. “In my writing, the poetry of the Hebrew isn’t as important as it is for other writers. I’m more interested in story and character.”

The Hilltop has been translated into English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Swedish; some of his previous books also appear in Bulgarian, Greek and Russian.

Gavron’s two young daughters are picking up English quickly during the family’s year in Nebraska. “Some of the ways of living here I’m not really used to, like being in a car practically all the time,” he confides. “In Tel Aviv, I like to bike and walk around. But it’s an interesting place to experience.”

When he returns after this year of teaching and traveling to several countries giving author talks, he will work on the next book already taking shape in his mind. Gavron stresses that his books are meant to be entertaining, fun and thought-provoking rather than political.

“I don’t set out to present Israel in a certain way,” he says. “But to be honest, there is a side of me that wants to take advantage of this opportunity to show something about Israel that I believe in. Mostly it will be different than the official hasbara [public diplomacy] of Israel but for me it’s no less supportive of Israel to show contradicting viewpoints.”

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