Etgar Keret on Writing as Anger Management

The author discusses “Mitzvah,” his story from the latest issue of the magazine.

You told me that the idea for your story “Mitzvah” came from a taxi ride. Can you explain?

I took a taxi ride in Tel Aviv with a young driver who seemed to be nice. The driver was telling me about a date he’d had, and the way that he was speaking about the girl he’d dated and about women in general was so disrespectful that I found myself yelling at him. When I got out of the cab, the driver, who seemed genuinely offended, told me that I was aggressive and that, because of people like me, he wanted to leave Israel.

At that moment, I realized that we were seeing the world in radically different ways, and that, in our different versions, we each saw ourselves as the good guy. When I sat down to write this story, I tried to tell it through that taxi driver’s eyes, a story of somebody who is offensive and rude to some of the people around him but is totally unaware of it. I must admit that this is a recurring scenario with me: I fight with people, can be really nasty to them, feel bad afterward, and then later try to write a story from what I imagine to be their point of view. It’s strange, but this always helps me calm down and feel slightly less self-righteous.

How hard was it for you to inhabit the voice of this character and find ways to empathize with him?

Somehow, when it comes to writing, it is easy for me. When I argue with people in real life, I find it very hard to see the world through their eyes. They annoy me, and I feel little empathy toward them.

But, the moment I try to step into their shoes in fiction, the situation is different: the protagonist stops being the other and becomes some meeting point between me and the person I resented; my own vices and hopes mix with the character’s, and, though the character’s arguments still feel “wrong,” once I’ve mixed something of myself into them it becomes impossible for me to feel completely alienated. I guess that this is some kind of improvised anger-management therapy.