How would you describe A Man Lies Dreaming to a reading group?
It’s about a Yiddish pulp writer in Auschwitz who dreams up an elaborate escape, in which the Nazis never came to power and a former dictator becomes a disgraced private eye in London in 1939… I think of it as a very dark sort of comedy. Partly it’s a send up of detective stories, partly it’s trying to understand Adolf Hitler, what made him the way he was… partly it’s about very contemporary issues of racism and immigration in the UK. But I don’t want to make it sound too serious! Ideally, I wanted to write a book that would make someone laugh and then make them cry. So it’s very rewarding if and when people tell me that’s how it’s affected them.
What inspired you to write A Man Lies Dreaming?
I just thought if anyone could get away with something as potentially offensive, it might be me! I have an obsession with the Holocaust (many of my family were in Auschwitz, my mother was born in a refugee camp in Germany after the war), and with pulp fiction, and I got very interested, a while ago, in the sort of pulp that addressed the Holocaust, the sexual themes that run through it, the way it addresses taboos in a way other literature seemed unable or unwilling to. To be honest, I spent a very long time trying to not write this book, since it just seemed like a sort of career suicide! But I couldn’t help it, I just needed to write it, and when I finally sat down to do it just poured out. It was a very strange, unsettling experience.
Did you undertake much research to write this alternative history?
Research is just part of what I do when I write – it’s hard to quantify it! I like to say my one failure was finding out which brand of shoes Richard Reid (the “Shoe Bomber”) wore, which I was looking up back when I wrote Osama, and I’d like to think that was due to a worldwide fashion industry conspiracy of silence… though I suspect the reason’s more mundane!
It’s important not to let research overwhelm the writing though. So I tend to do it on the fly, looking up specific references when I need them, rather than working out an elaborate schema in advance. I did work out the exact reason for the Nazis failing to win the election in 1933, but then I promptly forgot it. It really was a very close thing, though.
What were the key themes you were hoping to explore in the novel?
It’s always a risky thing to say! I think what may have surprised me a little is how much it addresses contemporary issues of immigration and racism. How much the past feels to reflect the present in some ways. It’s about being Jewish, certainly, and the Holocaust, and taboos, a lot of things all mixed in. And it’s a sort of warning, I guess. It’s easy to forget, but evil doesn’t come from some terrible individual: when it’s perpetuated, it’s by perfectly common, ordinary people. Hannah Arendt famously talked about the “banality of evil”, and I think that’s what the book might really be about.
What does it mean to you to be a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winning author?
It was incredible – you put so much hard work into a book (especially a book like A Man Lies Dreaming!) and it’s just fantastic to see it recognised. My editor made sure I had no idea if I won or not, so I was a complete bag of nerves at the ceremony. The whole experience has just been fantastic.
Do you think there are any characteristics that define British fiction writing?
I’d like to think at its best British writing encompasses the best that its outsiders brought to it – we live in a multicultural society and some of our best writers were immigrants – from Joseph Conrad to T.S. Eliot to, say, Samuel Selvon, whose book about immigrants, The Lonely Londoners, is as relevant today as it was in 1956. I’m still getting used to being a British writer…
Can you recommend a contemporary British fiction writer?
Where to start! I tend to go more by books than by authors, and of the last few years, one that blew me away was The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman – the sort of book that makes you want to stand up and applaud at the end. I also loved Will Wiles’ The Way Inn, and most recently Sarah Lotz’s Pompidou Posse, which really captures the experience of being down and out in Paris as a teenager. I’m also a big China Mieville fan. I think a couple of really interesting writers straddling the genre/literary line at the moment are E.J. Swift and Nina Allan – they’re the sort of writers I wouldn’t be surprised to see show up on something like the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize.
And finally, do you have any works in progress that we should watch out for?
I think my next novel is going to be called Lode Stars – it combines elements of historical fiction, crime, magical realism and science fiction, and it moves from WW2 in the South Pacific, to the world of pulp writers, occult practitioners and rocket scientists in 1940s California, to the world of gangsters and book collectors in London in 2001, and finally to the far future. It’s been a difficult one, but I’m finally close to finishing and I hope it will be published before too long. My next work is non-fiction, though – Art And War, with my friend, the poet and novelist Shimon Adaf, which is about writing and politics and the fantastic. It comes out in early 2016. I also have a novel called Central Station coming out from a US publisher early next year, which is a sort of sprawling family saga set in a far-future Tel Aviv, but it should hopefully be available in UK bookshops. I try to keep busy!
Lavie Tidhar is the World Fantasy Award winning author of THE VIOLENT CENTURY, Osama, of The Bookman Histories trilogy and many other works. He also won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novella, for Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God, and was nominated variously for BSFA, Campbell, Sturgeon, Kitschie Red Tentacle, and Sidewise awards. He currently resides in London.