Jonathan Tel’s published books include a story collection about Israelis and Palestinians, Arafat’s Elephant (2002), which was shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award; a novel, Freud’s Alphabet (2003), dream-variations on Sigmund Freud’s last year in 1939 London; and The Beijing of Possibilities (2009), a story sequence that unfolds in contemporary China, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Award. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope and Yale Review.
Why I write
I enjoy flexing the mind. I enjoy discovering there’s more in my head than I ever knew was there. And because I write fiction set in places and times other than those I’m intimately familiar with, I have to get out into the world too, and empathize with people unlike myself. It keeps me going.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
There are periods when I don’t write, such as when I’m traveling, but I do at least read and take notes. When I’m working hard on a book, I’m at it from waking to sleeping.
Worst source of distraction?
Best source of inspiration?
Strangers who tell me their life stories.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
I always feel there’s something I can write. It may not be profound, may not be interest to many others, may not be what I want to write, but it’s my own.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I check danwei, and follow the links to as many blogs as I can.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I don’t know about favorite, but I much enjoy the Ming Dynasty novellas of Li Yu, which I read in the translations by Patrick Hanan.
Best book about China?
I’m interested in the people who seldom get written about, and Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker is wonderfully revealing and artfully structured. The Great Chinese Novel will never be written, but I’m looking out for it, all the same.
Let’s say Shakespeare’s Collected Works.
I do like Shakespeare – the combination of humor and tragedy, and his eagerness to describe people on every level of society. He knew next to nothing about anybody outside his own place and time, but bravely made stuff up. A moral there?
The book you know you should have read but haven’t?
War and Peace. All the same, it’s a major influence on my writing.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
While in grad school I wrote a handful of voluminous, dashed-out novels, never intended for publication, and finally one got published. I’m impressed by my own energy.
Does writing change anything?
Does living change anything? Art isn’t a commentary on us: art is us.