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Motti Lerner: I am trying to deal with fear

Motti Lerner is an Israeli playwright whose more recent plays have been rejected in Israel, and staged only in Europe and US for dealing with controversial political issues (including Coming Home, Pangs of the Messiah, The Murder of Isaac, and Benedictus). In SF Motti Lerner’s works have been produced by Golden Thread Productions and I had the honor of taking production photographs and observing the playwright at work. A couple of months ago, Motti held a three-day writer’s workshop at the Playwrights Foundation. I had the pleasure of meeting him again and chatting about literature, his plays, Chekhov’s influence on his work, love and life in general.

G.B.  How would you describe the creative process?

M.L. I never use the word creative process for it, but rather, hard work. Not because there’s no creativity but because it’s mostly hard work.

In writing there’s a lot of research and learning involved. Of course there’s a moment when you start creating the characters and the creative ideas come from associations, but the hard work is to choose among all the associations the right character, and once you’ve chosen the right character, then again you need to work hard to develop it, think about his biography, his reactions, the scenes he’s going to be in.

There’s no magic. You don’t set yourself free and it comes to you miraculously. It’s hard work: planning the plot, planning the relationships, the journey of each character. I would say that one part of the process is the rational, the logical, while the other part is creating the empathy for the character you have created yourself. How do you create this empathy? How do you reach the moment when the characters become independent? The creative process is encompassing the character, feeling what the character feels and allowing the character to develop to the extent that it makes his or her own decisions. Writing is a process when you imagine a lot and feel emotions of other people. For that purpose the best instrument for the writer is empathy. If the writer can develop empathy for the character he’s developing, he can feel what they feel, then it’s a good journey to watch the decision process.

G.B. How do you find inspiration for characters, actions?

M.L. Inspiration comes from observing the world around you and observing the world inside you. It’s a result of these observations, how you digest it, how you feel the world around you, to what extent are you open to your own inner world, because the most threatening things are there. You have to peel yourself again and again every day, discover more emotional territories that you are not aware of, emotions that would connect with the emotional state of the character.

G.B. How long do you plan before you start writing? 

M.L. There’s a lot of planning that every writer does. Chekhov took notes for 11 months and only after that he put a sheet of paper in his typewriter and started typing the first scene. And most writers do that although there are some that say they start from writing but I find it hard to believe that it’s really true. Maybe they didn’t take notes on paper but I am sure they had started thinking about the play and knew a lot about the characters and their relationships when they got to writing. It’s like cutting a statue out of a mountain with a chisel, really, bit by bit.

G.B. How do you keep the two worlds apart?

M.L. There’s a clear split. The real life, family, children, you have to fill out end of the year tax form, go shopping, mundane things. Then there’s the imaginary world of the characters you write about. It is essential to make sure that the borderline between these two worlds is very clear otherwise you’ll have very lousy relationships.

G.B. When did it become clear for you?

M.L. It became clear for me as soon as I started writing. I understood that what I am going through in front of the typewriter is a process that is very difficult to share. You can share the end product, but not during the writing process. Somehow because of the chaos and the hectic process, it’s very difficult to follow the chaos, unless you’re there with all your heart and mind.

It’s always very interesting that despite the separation I am trying to force between the imaginary world and the reality, they, nevertheless, affect each other. That’s really fascinating process. For example one play in particular had to do with father and son relationship. I remember how writing about it affected my relationship with my father. I couldn’t avoid observing the relationship I had with my father from the perspective I created in the play.

My relationship with my wife is always reflected in the relationship of couples in the play. It’s hard to block the dialogue between these two worlds.

G.B. You mentioned Chekhov earlier. I love his stories and they captivated me from the very first time I read them in high school, but it was hard to get the message of the plays at that age. I read the plays a few years ago and couldn’t get them out of my head. Something about each of the plays is magic that you need to discover in your own time, your own way.

M.L. I agree with you. As a matter of fact I wrote a book on Chekhov and was published in Israel 3 years ago. And it is in translation now and hopefully it’ll come out soon in English. In the introduction in the book I told the same story that you just told me.

When I was young I didn’t understand Chekhov at all. Only when I was 40 I suddenly read Chekhov and I connected with it, I understood the characters, I understood their suffering. As a young student I wasn’t able to understand the idea of missed opportunity. I did not allow myself to think that missed opportunity was an option. As a young man I did not allow myself to think that a missed opportunity is an option. Only later, when I was mature I understood that I also missed so many opportunities.

He’s the greatest teacher of playwriting. He writes so accurate with such depth and complexities. There are good writers that I have learned from, Miller, Chekhov, Shakespeare.

Part of the creative process is to look at other playwrights and see how they structured their plays. How they created the characters layer after layer and how they created the narrative that makes sense at the end of the play.

G.B. What about your earlier works?

M.L. The strange thing is that my first major play was a historical drama about the destruction of Hungarian Jewry by Germans. It was a very long and very complicated historical drama, with 17 actors and huge production and it wasn’t a good play. The reason why it made me a playwright was that it touched a subject matter that lot of people were curious to learn about. I learned a lot about choosing a subject matter after that.

And it took me 10 years after that to write a script for a film. But then I was more ready. Also, the language of cinema is flexible and the film was much better than the play. I realized that like a character in a play you have to understand the limitations of the story and limitations of story telling.

On the other hand the need to tell a big story is always fascinating. Even if it takes place in one room with two characters the story has to be so compelling so that you want to watch it.

G.B. How do you pick subjects?

M.L. For me the criteria is always fear. A fear of a catastrophe. I am writing about the thing I am most afraid of. In the sense that I hope that by writing, in some miraculous way, I will be able to confront the danger. I am trying to deal with fear. Sometimes it’s political and sometimes it’s personal.  The plays reflect the inner fears I have. I remember something very peculiar. I have three children. When my daughter was born I suddenly became very afraid about my relationship with her. She was only a few weeks old but in my imaginary world there were huge fears about my relationship with my daughter. I wrote a play, without realizing it, and only when I was done I realized that the play was about a fear of a father about his relationship with his daughter. Part of it was imaginary fear because at that time my daughter was not a real threat, but in my imagination she was already a threat. So that’s why the play was born.

G.B. Has writing complex characters helped you understand people around you?

M.L. I’m married for more than 30 years, I have a 20 years old daughter and I can’t say I know women more now than I knew before. Sometimes I tell my wife that I know Yelena Andreyevna more than I know my wife, because Chekhov is describing the character with such depth that I know her depths much more than I know my wife’s depths. My wife hates the idea that I know the depth of imaginary women but when you think of it, it’s much more comfortable. There’s no threat in exploring imaginary characters. But there are threats in exploring real people. There’s a great fear in knowing the depth of the person you share your life with. Because once you know there’s a lot of responsibility. We are afraid of responsibility. We are afraid that we dig deeply we will hear or see things that we don’t want to see or hear.

To what extent do we really know our children. I think there’s a big fear to know who our children are, as it is a reflection of who we really are. Because they are partly at least the way I brought them up, I’m responsible. And if I recon this responsibility what do I do.

G.B. The conflict between Iran and Israel. How does it affect you as a writer?

M.L. The Israeli-Iran conflict is in the newspapers daily. In most families you do not discuss it, as it is a fruitless discussion. We don’t have access to the right information on the conflict and anything that’s in the papers could be manipulations by various governments. Here and there one government or another would leak information according to their interests. The conflict about Iran is part of my anxieties even though my family is not interested in it. I spend a lot of time reading about it. I try to make connections what makes sense, what doesn’t make sense. I’m comparing sources of news. I’m very alert to the political situation, than most people I know. The last 40 years I have been researching, reading and writing a lot about the failure of the negotiations in the conflict. Major project is a play about the failure of negotiations in Camp David. The more I researched it the more I realized the depth of the tragedy that took place there (Camp David). Learning the facts, the stories and interpreting them is crucial for me as a writer.

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Charles Isen, Raffi Wartanian and Leah Herman in Coming Home at the ReOrient Festival 2009. Photos Gohar Barseghyan

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