David Bezmozgis’ latest novel The Betrayers is a powerful study of the nature of principles and loyalty, relating the events of a single momentous day in the life of a disgraced Israeli politician and former Soviet dissident who refuses to back down from a contrary stand over the West Bank. We peek inside his writer’s room…
Where are you now?
Where and when do you do most of your writing?
Home office at the rear of the house. During the day.
If you have one, what is your pre-writing ritual?
Drop child off at school. Read the news.
Full-time or part-time?
I have no other regular job. Sometimes there is some teaching, sometimes filmmaking – writing or directing. (As opportunity and material circumstances demand.)
Pen or keyboard?
Both. Mostly computer, but I keep a notebook at hand to develop thoughts or write synonyms when searching for a word.
How do you relax when you’re writing?
Same as when I’m not writing. Exercise, reading, seeing friends, spending time with my wife and daughters, mild substance abuse.
How would you pitch your latest book in up to 25 words?
Set in Israel and Crimea, it is a relatively short, contemporary, plot-driven novel about why some people are very principled and most others are not.
Who do you write for?
Broadly speaking, people who like the books I like.
Who do you share your work in progress with?
My wife and a few select writer friends.
Which literary character do you wish you created?
I generally don’t think this way. But I very much admired what Nabokov did with Pnin.
Share with us your favourite line/s of dialogue, poetry or prose.
“We sat on the roof like angels, shot through with light, derealized in brilliance.” It is from the extraordinary Leonard Michaels story ‘Murderers’. It might be my favourite short story. I’ve read it dozens of times and continue to marvel at it. That said, I could have quoted many other lines also written by Leonard Michaels.
Which book do you wish you’d written?
My next one.
Which book/s have you most recently read and enjoyed?
I very much liked George Packer’s The Unwinding. I also quite liked Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation.
What’s on your bedside table or e-reader?
What Are People For? – a collection of essays by Wendell Berry.
Which books do you feel you ought to have read but haven’t yet?
Too many to list. But I have on a bookshelf behind me Gibbon’s The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I should also finish Moby-Dick.
Which book/s do you treasure the most?
I would return here to Leonard Michaels. It is not an exaggeration to say that discovering his work changed my life. I’d recommend anything he wrote: the stories, the novels, the essays. As a place to start, I’d suggest his short personal essay about his father, simply titled ‘My Father’.
What is the last work you read in translation?
I am currently reading Joachim Fest’s memoir Not I. Essentially, a book about Fest’s father, a very principled man.
Which story collections would you particularly recommend?
Denis Johnson’s Jesus Son; The Collected Stories of Leonard Michaels; Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, Lamed Shaprio’s The Cross and Other Stories.
What will you read next?
Probably Akhil Sharma’s Family Life.
What are you working on next?
I just finished directing a feature adaptation of my short story ‘Natasha’. Editing will keep me busy through the fall. I don’t yet know what I’ll do after that.
Imagine you’re the host of a literary supper, who would your dinner guests be (living or dead, real or fictional)?
Franz Kafka, King David, King Solomon, George Orwell, Isaac Babel, Vasily Grossman, Lamed Shapiro.
If you weren’t writing you’d be…?
David Bezmozgis is a writer and filmmaker who was born in Riga, Latvia, moved to Canada at the age of six and is based in Toronto. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Zoetrope All-Story and The Walrus, among others, and are collected in Natasha and Other Stories (2004). He is also the author of the novels The Free World (2011) and The Betrayers, published on 28 August 2014 by Viking. Read more.
Author portrait © David Franco