Interview: Sara Shilo

Attention deficit disorder did not stop a writer determined to give a voice to Israel’s ignored northerners

By Simon Round, January 6, 2011
Sara Shilo was inspired to write by leading Israeli novelist David Grossman

Sara Shilo was inspired to write by leading Israeli novelist David Grossman

Sara Shilo came late to novel writing. The author of The Falafel King is Dead, which became a literary sensation when it was published in Israel in 2005, did not start writing until she was 40. But even more surprising is the fact that she did not even manage to read an entire novel from start to finish until she was the same age.

Shilo has long suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Over coffee at a Heathrow cafe, as she waits to board a flight back to Israel, she tells of how reading Be My Knife, by the leading Israeli writer, David Grossman, brought about an epiphany.

Despite constantly apologising for her English, the 52-year-old mother-of-five eloquently describes how and why she started to write. "I managed to read the whole of Grossman's book. Something about it made me realise that I needed to express myself through writing. Until the age of 40 I couldn't read a book from beginning to end. From time to time I started to think about writing a novel but then I thought how could I write a novel when I can't even read one?"

After Be My Knife, her attitude changed. She wrote to Grossman about the effect his book had upon her and he wrote back encouraging her to write. Indeed, he promised that he would read her book when it was written. "He said I should write. I started to search inside me for something to write about. At first I thought that I would write about my childhood in Jerusalem at the time of the Six Day War, but then, in January 2000, there was a warning of Katyusha rocket attacks in my village in the north of Israel. For the first time I didn't go into the shelter with my children because I felt a very strong urge to write. I was reminded of when the Katyushas landed just beside our apartment building in 1982 during the first Lebanon war. Our shelter was blocked and we were trapped inside. There was no electricity and people were screaming for help. I was pregnant with my first child and I thought I would die in there. I remembered this and I started to write about it."

The novel - called No Gnomes Will Come in its Hebrew version - is being published in English for the first time this month. It tells the story of one day in the life of the Dadon family, through the mother, Simona, and four of her six children, all of whom are attempting to come to terms with the death of their husband and father six years previously while at the same time trying to cope with the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks. The book won multiple awards in Israel and was hugely praised for the way it described the marginalised Israelis living near Israel's northern border under constant threat of rocket attack. And it told their story in their own distinctive, ungrammatical speech, another revolutionary development in Hebrew literature.

"The language of Simona is just like the Hebrew they used in the children's day-care centre where I worked when I was in the army. Within 10 days I started to talk like them. If you want to speak authentically as a writer about those people, you must speak in that voice. Now they are studying this way of speaking in linguistics courses in Israel," Shilo says.

David Grossman gave her considerable help in getting her book published

David Grossman gave her considerable help in getting her book published

A huge motivation for her was to focus attention on the neglected and overlooked in Israeli life - a striking example of which she found while researching the novel. "I went to look at newspapers from the past. Many years ago there was a terrorist attack at Kiryat Shemona. A woman invited the journalist to her home to talk about the attack. Throughout the article, the writer referred to his host only as 'the woman with seven children and another in her belly'. At no point did he give her a name. It made me very angry. I said that I would give her both a name and a voice."

Once Shilo had found the subject for her novel, she had to find a way of writing it which was compatible with her ADHD. "What bothers me is going step by step in a plot. My mind cannot do it. But I did find it easy to write around the Katyusha attacks, the shelters and the death of the father through the voices of the family. Through it I was trying to understand the otherness of the others, if that is an expression in English. I was attempting to explain how the same story can seem so different to different people," she says.

Once the book was written - a process which took her four years - she sent it to Grossman who, as promised, not only read the book, but met her and gave her considerable help in getting it published. It may have been a risk to put his reputation on the line in such a way but it paid off.

"There were many good reviews in the papers and it sold out within a few days," says Shilo. "People in Tel Aviv called me up to thank me for explaining to them about life in the north. This story of the Katyushas and the terror attacks had never been told before."

There were also changes to Shilo's life. She had lived and worked quietly in the northern town of Ma'a lot for 15 years before moving to a neighbouring village.

"I was invited everywhere to talk. It was nice to meet so many people, even if it was strange for my family to be so visible."

To emphasise the point she tells of how her 16-year-old daughter came home one day to inform her that she had been assigned The Falafel King is Dead for the Israeli equivalent of her A levels.

"I'm not sure it is a good thing. It must be strange for her that her teachers are talking about her mother's book."

Still, if she ever needs help with her homework, she knows who to ask.

'The Falafel King is Dead' is published on January 20 by Portobello at £12.99

Last updated: 11:04am, January 6 2011