Read It Forward: You grew up in a small town near the Lebanese border. Can you describe the town? Did your experiences there have an impact on your writing?
Shani Boianjiu: My town has just a few thousand people, and only one small shopping center. Everyone knows everyone. It is very beautiful; it is up north, so it is very green and every house looks a little different. Most kids are involved in the local Israeli scouts center, a nonpolitical youth movement that builds tree houses and fire banners and tries to instill values like responsibility and good civilianship. The population is secular. We are far from the center of the country and from movie theaters and malls and clubs, and so as a teenager the major weekend night hang-out spot was the park. The library also functioned as the elementary school’s underground shelter. During the Second Lebanon War, many missiles fell in my town, and sometimes school was canceled because of this.
I think it helped me as a writer to come from a very small and specific place because it made me so interested in the world. My town is located in a part of Israel that is ￼￼￼￼￼kind of new (my town is only a few years older than I am), and it is not widely represented in literature. It was great to write about this region, although the town in my book is a lot bleaker and smaller than my town.
RIF: How did you come to write this book?
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SB: I started writing what ended up being this book a couple of years after I finished my service, though I actually wrote quite a few stories while I was still in the army; none of them made it into this book. I wrote it for myself, never thinking anyone would ever see what I was writing, certainly not so early in my life, and publishing happened by accident. Some of the chapters in the book started out as separate stories; some events and characters were linked from the beginning. I didn’t quite know what I was writing and how the final result would look until I had written many pages.
RIF: Your writing style is unique in that you move back and forth between the present and the past. Was that a conscious choice?
SB: I am not sure if it was a conscious choice, but I don’t think I could tell the stories I wanted to tell without moving back and forth in time in the ways that I did. It was more important for me for events and scenes to be revealed to the reader when I thought it was most beneficial for the story I was telling than it was for me to have events unfold in a chronological manner. I guess time is not a very important shaper of experiences for me. An event that happened a year or even four years ago can be much more on my mind on any given day than something that happened that morning.
RIF: Why was it important for you to write a book about female soldiers’ experiences in the army?
SB: It wasn’t important for me to write a book about female soldiers’ experience in the army. I am glad that I was able to give voice to people who are not often represented in fiction: today’s young Israelis, female soldiers, northern Israelis, and a whole host of other groups. But I never set out to write a book about female Israeli soldiers. This book is about young Israeli women from the time they are in high school through their twenties. I am an Israeli woman in my twenties, so it was natural that these were the type of characters that I was interested in writing about. I don’t think that the book is necessarily only about the army, it is a book whose main characters are young Israeli women.
RIF: All Israeli women are required by law to serve in the army. You were enlisted at eighteen. Were you frightened about being enlisted?
SB: I was not at all scared before I joined the army. In retrospect, I wish I had been more concerned, because the army was quite a shock for me.
RIF: Is there one character in the novel that most closely reflects you or your experience?
SB: Yael, Avishag, and Lea are very unlike one another and very similar at the same time. I wanted to show how little identity an eighteen-year-old girl has when she joins the army, and, at the same time, how crucial the distinguishing bits and pieces that she chooses to hold on to can become in such an environment. Yael’s job in the army is most similar to my own, although her stories are most certainly not my own. She is a curious girl who craves human interactions and beautiful things and interesting experiences, sometimes to a fault. I was a bit like her once, though not while I was in the army. Avishag is the saddest of the girls. I think during my army days I was a mix between her and Lea—sad and in my own world like Avishag, and at other times cynical and superior like Lea. What was important for me was to create a friendship be- tween the girls that I didn’t have when I was in the army. In many ways I was creating each girl for the sake of the other two.
RIF: You had four- or eight-hour guarding shifts in which you were able to imagine stories. Can you elaborate?
SB: One of the worst and best things about the army was that I had so much time to stand or sit around and be with my own thoughts. I don’t think that most people have an opportunity to spend long chunks of time staring into space. It really influenced the way I started to write be- cause I spent very long periods of time with a story in my head. I would see an image or hear a sentence and then I would spend the hours while on guard making up a story in my head and changing it every time I was retelling it to myself. It was awhile before I was able to actually write something down. Even now, I still have to spend a long time holding on to a story in my head before I write it down, although it is harder to find time to just sit and think for hours when you are not forced to do it. Outside of the army there is a lot of pressure to be always reading, watching, or doing something.
RIF Your native language is Hebrew. What was it like writing this book in English?
SB: I love the English language because it has a lot of words. Writing in English was sort of an accident, but I think it helped me. I had to work harder to find the words I needed. Describing a Hebrew-speaking world in the English language and translating Hebrew idioms and phrases helped me tell stories in a new way, or color a scene in an unfamiliar light.
RIF: What has been the greatest influence on your writing?
SB: Music—I listen to music whenever I am in the first stages of writing to get going. I listen to all types of music. Sometimes I could listen to the same song a thousand times over the course of writing a particular story. Every piece of my writing represents the music it could never quite become.
Reading—I mostly get inspired by reading other people’s words, no matter the genre or topic. And learning to sit still and just think for a few hours a day has also influenced me a great deal.
RIF: You portray the novel’s characters in an often unsympathetic light. Why?
SB: I am not interested in writing stories about heroes. I am far more interested in the darkest inner corners of my characters’ minds. I think a lot of people might feel as though they are the only ones who have terrible thoughts or who have done ugly things, because everyone is so busy portraying such a wholesome image of themselves, young women in particular. I also think human beings in general are not sympathetic. They are beautiful, but not sympathetic.
RIF: Is this a surrealistic or a realistic book?
SB: I think the book is both surreal and real. I love stories that are only a tiny bit off—some that could have happened but it’s difficult to imagine that they did, some that could probably never happen in real life, but it is possible to imagine there’s a slight chance they might have happened to someone, somewhere, somehow at some point in time. Readers should choose for themselves how much they have it in them to believe. I think being alive in the real world can sometimes seem more surreal than a surreal scene in a book.
RIF: What are you hoping readers will take away from your book?
SB: Any scene or sentence from the imagined small lives of girls they don’t know.