Q&A with award-winning author Shani Boianjiu

At 24, Shani Boianjiu was one of the youngest recipients of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. Her debut novel wowed us with its exhilarating, assured voice and its fresh stories about three young women who, on the cusp of adulthood, are thrust into compulsory service in the Israeli military.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu &A with award-winning author Shani Boianjiu

At 24, Shani Boianjiu was one of the youngest recipients of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. Her debut novel wowed us with its exhilarating, assured voice and its fresh stories about three young women who, on the cusp of adulthood, are thrust into compulsory service in the Israeli military.

Q: How long did the book take to write?
A: About two years, but it is hard to say because I started writing some bits of the book much earlier. I would say I wrote most of it during one year, and then spent the next year editing.

Q: Did you know you were going to write it while you were living through military service?
A: I had no idea I was going to write this book until I wrote it. During the army I wrote many stories and non-fiction pieces, and the funny thing is very few of the images or narratives I wrote while I was in the army made their way into this book. But I also had a lot of time to imagine stories while I was guarding or taking the train in the army, and I can say some of my ideas for this book started when I was still in the army—It just took me awhile to bring them from my head to paper.

Q: Who do you most relate to of your characters?

A: That’s a tough question because I think they all represent a different part of me. Although Yael’s experiences are fiction and very different than my own, I would say my job in the army most closely resembles hers. But I would also say I am like Avishag because I have a tendency to live inside my own head, and because I have spent a long time being deeply sad. And I also really relate to Lea because when I was young I (wrongfully) thought I was smarter than my peers and was sort of a mean-spirited know-it-all brat.

Q: What inspired you to write it?

A: It is hard to say. I never set out to write the book that I did. I just set out to write something and this is what happened. I started writing shortly after my service days, and those were so confusing and at times upsetting, I guess it makes sense I wanted to fictionalize them in order to sort everything out.

Q: How much of this draws from personal experience?
A: A lot less than people think. I did draw from my personal experience when I wrote this book, but it was usually something very small—a overheard phrase, an image. And I would also say that the emotions in the book are all inspired by things I actually felt, even when the events are entirely made up.

Q: How life-like are the experiences you write about of the Israeli army?

A: Not very. I did serve in the Israeli army so I know all about different routines and rules and I used the details I gathered in the army in writing certain scenes. But most of the events in the book are on the cusp of the surreal—they stem out of my own imagination and fascinations and do not at all represent a dry version of what life is like in Israel or in the army. I wasn’t hesitant writing this book because when I wrote it I never thought it will get published, but now that the book is coming out I am obviously anxious and worried by how it will be received and read, particularly because the Israeli army is a very loaded issue for people with a variety of opinions.

Q: Who is your favourite character?

A: Avishag. Yael is more fun and Lea is funnier, but Avishag is the one I worry about and love the most, so I guess I’ll say she’s my favorite.

Q: What was the hardest part to write?
A: It was all hard. I guess I would say being in Avishag’s head was hardest, because she is so sad, and I found myself wanting to protect her from the very situations I put her in.

Q: What was it like coming of age, such an overwhelming experience as it is, in a place where you are faced with life and death?
A: It wasn’t very different than coming of age anywhere else—or so I would imagine. I really have nothing to compare it with. Even though there is conflict in Israel, it never felt to me like death or danger was very real or imminent. There is always this feeling that it won’t happen to you or to those who are close to you, even when logically you know it might. I would say that the army makes your teenage years end more abruptly—you learn pretty fast that the world does not revolve around you and that no, not everything is possible in this world.

Q: You touch on so many topics – death, abortion, isolation, persecution – how did you weave them together into the narrative without it feeling overwhelming?
A: I never set out to write about a particular issue. It is not the subject I am interested in but rather very particular situations and characters. I follow the situation I am imagining through and it comes together. The issues that may come out while I am writing are secondary to the narrative, so that the narrative comes out naturally.

Q: The book is poignant, but wit, humour and spirit provide the perfect reprieve. Was that a hard balance to strike?
A: Not really. I wasn’t going for a particular balance. I find this world to be hysterically funny. Even when it is horrifying this world is still pretty funny to me. It doesn’t take alot to get me to laugh. It made sense to me that the girls’ experiences would be funny because I think the whole premise—playing soldier at eighteen, this never-ending conflict, all this death, the humiliation that comes with becoming an adult, I find it all to be very comical.

Q: What do you think you will write about next?
A: I rather not say, just in case I fail. But there is certainly a situation I have been fascinated with my whole life and I will be surprised if that situation doesn’t end up being the main part of my next book.

Q: How do you think your upbringing has informed your writing style?

A: From a very early age I read everything. When I was little I badly needed glasses but was too vain to say anything about it, so because I couldn’t watch much TV I read. I read everything in my small local library—commercial fiction, literary fiction, memoirs—I really didn’t discriminate. And my mom bought me all the books I wanted. So that really made it so I knew everything that was out there.

Q: What’s your writing process? Do you throw it down, or do lots of edits and rewrites?
A: The short and politically incorrect version is that I kinda throw it down. This is a terrible way to write, but the truth is I only write when I am truly inspired. I let a situation or a scene or a character sit in my head for weeks or months or years, and I only write them down when I feel like if I didn’t write them down my head will (metaphorically) explode. I write everything I have in my head from start to finish, no matter how much I want to quit in the middle or if I have a place to be or something to do. That’s the excruciating part. Then I put that piece of writing away. Later I come back to it and do all the necessary edits. Some pieces take a lot of editing and need dramatic changes, and some don’t need much at all. It takes time and experience and patience for me to figure out how to best edit, but I enjoy putting in that time. I also have loyal readers who I send my writing to when it is in raw stages, just to get the perspective of another pair of eyes. But either way for me editing is the calm, non-painful part.

Q: How do you think speaking different languages has helped your work?

A: I think it helped my work a great deal. The material writers work with is language, and there is no better way of understanding how language works and where our language comes from than learning a new language, and translating between different languages. It really makes you think about what words mean, and how they work. A lot of time a small act of conversion from Hebrew into English was the catalyst of an entire plot line or even character.

Read an excerpt from The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, here!