An interview with Lavie Tidhar by Elizabeth Allen

Lavie Tidhar is an award-winning genre writer of Israeli origin. I asked him about his short fiction, one of his most recent novel-length works, Osama, the World Fantasy Award-nominated World SF blog, and his role with the World SF Travel Fund.

Q: How do you use your short fiction? What does it do for you that a novel or novella can’t?

A: I love short stories. It’s the long and short of it, because there’s really no other point in writing them. You could just as happily only ever write novels. For me, I love novellas, and they’re the worst thing to write in terms of publishing them or getting paid for them. I was lucky to sell all five novellas I wrote, and I’d love to do more, but . . .  it’s not easy. Short stories, I can do one in a single sitting, when it’s fresh and exciting! You can’t do that with a novel.

Q: How much worldcraft do you do for your short fiction? Do you start with images and go from there? Or is there a lot worked out in the background before you begin writing?

A: I write in different ways. Sometimes I have a cool title and the story flows from that. Sometimes the title only comes with the last sentence. Sometimes I just have a cool first line I want to use. Then I explore where it goes. Sometimes I give stories a lot of thought, a lot of planning before I start. It differs. It’s part of what makes short stories so much fun!

Q: What’s the story of this story, the initial inspiration, the germ of the ideas that became Osama?

A: I was in Dar-es-Salaam (recovering from malaria) in 1998, when the attacks on the American embassies (there and in Nairobi) happened. I actually stayed at the same hotel in Nairobi as the Al-Qaeda bombers. So I saw the attacks firsthand, long before 9/11 made it suddenly relevant. It kept happening, too. Then Sinai 2004. London 2005. It was pretty much impossible not to write about it, when it becomes a part of your life, a part of your own story.

It started off with a short story, “My Travels with Al-Qaeda,” in Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling’s Salon Fantastique anthology. The two characters in that story, a man and a woman, are trapped in a time-loop between those different attacks. So Osama has been germinating for a long time before I took the plunge, as it were, before I said, “I have to try and do this.” This was in Laos, where the book starts and ends. And I suspect the same two characters are in Osama, trapped again.

Q: Describe a little of the “alternative history” setting of Osama. In a world without global terrorism, what does the Osama bin Laden character do? What is his function?

A: In the book, “Osama bin Laden” is a fictional character in a series of pulp novels called Osama bin Laden: Vigilante, written by an obscure pulp novelist called Mike Longshott. And Joe, who is also a sort of pulp detective, is tasked with finding him. It’s “the war on terror” as pulp, but the pulp begins to disintegrate as Joe learns about his world and has to face some difficult realisations.

Q:  How does the increasing fragmentation of the protagonist Joe’s psyche relate to or comment on a post-9/11 worldview?

A: I was fascinated by narrative of the invasion of Iraq, for instance. If you looked at the newspapers, it was “Mr. Bush” vs. “Saddam.” I often wonder what would have happened if it was “George” vs. “Mr. Hussein.”

We were sold the war as a pulp novel. “War on terror!”–“weapons of mass destruction!” It struck me that the West has a fundamental blindness as to the why of what was happening. “Axis of Evil! –you know, it was almost Flash Gordon like. So the book tries to address that, to look at both sides of this “war.” There’s a lot of anger there. There has to be, I think. It’s okay to kill and maim and hurt people in pulp novels. It’s less so in real life.

Q: How did the World SF Blog come about? Obviously, it began as a companion to the book you edited, The Apex Book of World SF. What do you think made it take on a life of its own and why?

A: Well, yes, it began as a companion for the anthology, though the idea was there for a while and, of course, it became its own thing almost immediately. I think no one was doing anything like this, so it was something new, something that could put together very different groups, across geographical spaces, across languages. It’s been very fulfilling doing it.

Q: What does the blog’s tagline “ideologically suspect” encompass?

A: Well, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, obviously. Occasionally I’d play with different sub-headings. But I think it has a serious undertone, too: that we’re challenging a lot of the underlying assumptions of “default” sf/f. You know, when James Gunn says, “American science fiction is the base line against which all the other fantastic literatures in languages other than English must be measured”–you know–all other fantastic literature!–then yes, ideologically we’re thousands of miles apart. Physically too, of course! We’re saying, “This isn’t how things are, or should be.” And if it means poking the occasional stick at a bloated and egotistical corpse, then hell, let’s have fun doing it, at least!

Q: What’s the story of the World SF Travel Fund’s genesis?

A: The fund is something I’ve been kicking around for a while, but it was the current list of World Fantasy Awards nominations–particularly, Charles Tan being nominated in the Special Award – Non Professional category – that helped crystallize the idea into a tangible form. I felt–we felt–that Charles deserved to be there for the ceremony, whether he won or lost–and of course he couldn’t go. The stark reality is that he could never afford it.

So we got together–quite a few people–to make this happen. First, to bring Charles over for the World Fantasy Convention and, second, to be able to help other people that way in the future. It’s very exciting being able to do that!

Q: As a board member, what did you do with the fund?

A: I’m essentially the administrator–it basically means doing the grunt work! The board is tasked with deciding on future candidates. There are people ‘behind the scenes’ too–helping with the arrangements and so on. It’s a group effort.

Q: What’s your vision for the ways in which the fund will change the landscape of genre fiction and fandom? Does the fund aim to encourage upcoming authors specifically or fans in general?

A: I don’t think I see it as a ‘fan’ fund, specifically, though who isn’t also a fan? But the idea is that it helps people who might get something out of it, and who also give back to the field a lot–Charles being a prime example of someone who has done so much, and is being recognised for it. If we can help a writer or editor travel, who could never afford it otherwise, then to me we’ve achieved what we set out to do.

Will it “change the landscape of genre fiction and fandom?” I doubt it. But genre needs to become more diverse. It needs to look beyond its borders. And I hope the fund helps that, is part, at least, of that conversation, in however small a way.


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