Who are you?
I am the author of The Best Place On Earth (HarperCollins 2013) and I’m currently working on a memoir and a novel. I was born and raised in Israel to a family of Yemeni descent. I am fifth of six siblings; they are all awesome and creative people; we are very close and I miss them all the time. Only one of them lives in Canada: my brother Eldad who teaches music at Concordia. I am also a mother, a photographer, a teacher, a foodie, a traveller, and a secret comic artist.
What did you want to be growing up? What jobs did you end up having, and what do you do now besides writing?
It is such a cliché but it’s true: I always wanted to be a writer. That said, throughout my life I had various temporary passions that I considered pursuing, usually alongside writing. In junior high and high school I wanted to be a singer and an actress. I was accepted to a theatre group at the National theatre in Tel Aviv and practiced monologues in front of the mirror. I wore lace and velvet and long flowing skirts, and walked around barefoot, quoting plays. [pullquote]I was also part of the school band and choir, where I wrote and performed some awful songs. [/pullquote]At the end I had to admit that it wasn’t my true passion. I remember an acting teacher telling us once that if we could do anything else, if acting didn’t burn in our veins, than we should do that. And I knew at that moment that it didn’t. And I knew that writing did.
In my early twenties I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. I had just moved to Canada and struggled with the new language. I couldn’t imagine writing in English so I looked for other ways to tell stories. I studied film and made a couple of movies, one of which won an award in a festival. I loved the medium, and I loved working with people, but I lacked the drive at the time to follow through with that career.
In my early thirties I considered becoming a belly dancer. I took some classes and it turned out that despite spending my awkward teen years convinced that I couldn’t dance, I was something of a natural in this particular style. My Middle Eastern body somehow knew the moves. And since I always found writing really hard, the idea of doing something that came easily to me was appealing. For a while I was serious about it and I even performed a couple of times. That’s when I discovered my unfortunate stage fright (which I didn’t have when reading or acting or speaking in public!). I was working at a Lebanese restaurant, and a couple of times, when the belly dancer hadn’t shown up, the owner of the restaurant wanted me to fill in and I was actually hiding in the office covered in cold sweat. I couldn’t do it. But at the end of the night, after a few drinks, I was rocking the stage. Eventually I realized that despite the initial illusion of ease, dancing is very demanding and you have to practice a lot and be in top shape. And drinking every time I had to perform seemed like a bad idea, too.
I held two jobs for long enough to call a career. I started working as a journalist for a teen magazine at the age of fifteen and wrote magazine articles for about a decade in Israel. After that, because I needed quick money to support my travelling habit, I worked for 13 years as a waitress, a bartender and an occasional house cleaner. I was a damn good waitress, and I enjoyed it. I think it’s a great job for a writer – you meet people and hear many stories, and if you’re good you can make a shitload of cash, which I was and did. Except eventually my body got tired and my brain started to crave more stimulation. And I wanted—more than anything— to write.
Today I write, teach writing, and take photos professionally and I love it all! The combination of the three is kind of my dream job. Teaching writing is something I enjoy immensely. I teach at U of T mostly, but I also run workshops wherever I go and mentor students privately. I find it deeply satisfying and rewarding. Photography is a perfect complementary pursuit to writing, both a break from words, and a way to observe people very closely, which is a very writerly thing to do. I mostly take portraits, often of other authors, because I find endless beauty in faces. But I’ve also shot a couple of weddings and events, and enjoyed that too. My work is not reliable, but I’m okay with it. I always knew that 9-5 was not for me and the only time I was forced to do it, in the army, I was absolutely miserable.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would that be?
Write daily. Or at least regularly. I would tell her that working hard is the only way to make it in this business (or any business) and that no one is going to pluck her out of the crowd and give her a large sum of money to publish a novel. You actually have to work your ass off. I fell into a lengthy ‘writing block’ in my twenties that made me very unhappy, but now I don’t actually believe in writing blocks. I think you just need to sit your ass down and write. But honestly, I don’t know if telling myself anything would have made a difference. In my twenties I needed to just be a bum, and travel, and be a waitress. And I’ve got really great stories from my years of not writing.
How has motherhood changed the way you write?
Like with every life-changing experience I have a new perspective, which is valuable for a writer. The vulnerability of parenthood is absolutely terrifying, but I channel that energy into my writing. I begin to understand now what other writers had said to me before I had a baby, about how parenthood made them better artists. I also write with so much more urgency now. If before I just lazed for a few minutes or wasted precious writing time on Facebook, now, when the childcare help comes, I strap myself to the computer and I write like someone is pointing a gun to my head. I learned to write in short bursts. Five minutes here and there, every time the baby naps. No moment is wasted.
What is the best place on earth for you (is it also where you write the best)?
My cheesy answer is home. But it’s not cheesy for me, because I spent years being transient so having a place I call home is a big deal. And by home I mean my family. Not necessarily Toronto, which I love and where I want to stay for now, but still can’t completely commit to, like with any other city I’d lived in. I do write best at home, in my office, even though I can write (and have written) anywhere, including while walking.
The other best place on earth for me is on a beach, near the sea. I know it doesn’t make any sense because I live in Toronto. I don’t really know how that happened. [pullquote]I have a visceral connection to the sea, and I miss it like crazy. I actually ache for it.[/pullquote] I spent years on beaches, worked as a waitress on a Tel Aviv beach for a long time: watching sunsets and sunrises and swimming in the middle of the night. I lived on beaches in India and Thailand, and spent a lot of time as a teenager by the Red Sea. I’m attached to the Mediterranean in particular, because I have so many memories from it. It’s the sea of my childhood. My partner (who is a sailor!) pointed out that every time we are on BC ferries, I write a lot and am happy with what I produced, which he believes is a sign we have to live on a boat and sail the world. He might have a point.
What are some of the things you need to have around your workspace? Do you have a writing ritual? Are you superstitious about writing?
I am superstitious and sentimental. For a while I wore a pair of earrings given to me by one of my teachers, Betsy Warland, to every important event in my writing career, including my first meeting with HarperCollins. I have many items around my office that I’ve carried with me for years through my travels, or that were given to me by people in my life, and I believe in their good energy. For example, I have a hippie mobile hanging over my desk that I created from a piece of wood and some shells. It hung outside my bungalow in Thailand for a while, and it’s been hanging in every writing space I had since.
I have a hamsa by my desk too, which is a hand-shaped amulet against the evil eye that is popular in the Middle East and North Africa. I also need to have a window. I’m not one of those writers who like to stare at a wall when they write and demand absolutely no distractions. I mean, don’t talk to me when I’m writing because I’m likely to be bitchy, but I appreciate having a window with some display of life, a connection to the outside world. I recently gave up my office for the baby’s room, and now I have a little nook on the top floor of our house with a great window overlooking the street and a church and some sunsets and a great breeze. And despite not having a door (which I always thought was essential), I love it. As far as writing rituals, the only ritual I have is writing every year on my birthday and starting the New Year with writing. It makes me feel like I’m setting the tone for the year ahead.
There’s a lot of sex in your book. What’s that about?
I don’t even know if there’s more-than-average sex, or if the sex is just more graphic. I find that some writers just gloss over sex scenes, which I don’t get. It’s a scene, isn’t it? So where’s the details? I treat sex scenes the same as any other scene.
A while ago there was a debate about it on CBC, where Russell Smith and Lynn Coady spoke for and against sex scenes in literature. I was totally Team Russell on that one (which isn’t surprising: Russell was my fiction teacher at Guelph. He was also the first to point out that my female characters tend to be sexually aggressive, which I take as a huge compliment.) I think there might be some cultural element at play too. I come from a Mediterranean country. It’s hot and sexuality seems somehow more overt there. Maybe because people practically wear nothing for like half the year. Israelis are passionate people, for good and for bad. We are in-your-face. We are not polite or timid. So maybe that has something to do with the way I choose to portray sex in my book.
Most of the stories in The Best Place on Earth are set in Israel, while a couple of stories are set in Canada. You also have one story set in India. What inspired that story?
“Sign of Harmony” is one of my favourite stories. In my early twenties I spent a long time in India, over four lengthy trips, and I kept being confused for a local, to the extent that once some local men spat at my feet for ‘walking around with white boys’ (something that happens to Maya in the story). Like me, Maya, the main character, is an Israeli of Yemeni origin who looks Indian. Like Maya, despite the few unpleasant experiences, I found the idea that I could be someone else, that I could choose a new identity for myself, intoxicating. I fell in love with India and for a long time imagined that I would end up living there one day. In addition, like Maya, I had a boyfriend who was of Indian descent. For the sake of contrast, her boyfriend does not find his place in India (my boyfriend loved it as much as I did). I took these few autobiographical details and allowed them to splinter and explode into fiction. [pullquote]Maya is not me. We have different histories, different behavior patterns. [/pullquote]We made different choices in life. I loved writing this story because it allowed me to revisit my memories of India, to capture the Israeli rite of passage that is the after-army trip, and to imagine the route I could have taken if I chose, like Maya, to erase my past and reinvent myself the way she has.
Please share an inspiring sentence. What is it from and why do you love it?
I’m a sucker for inspirational quotes so this is a tough choice. As a recovering cynic I find this one, by Yoko Ono, to be a good reminder: “The cynicism that you have is not your real soul.”
Learn more about Ayelet, her life, and her work at her website and blog.