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Interview with Yael Politis

February 24, 2009

By Yael Politis and Holland Park Press

The Lonely Tree is the debut novel of Yael Politis and I am excited to publish it. I would like to introduce Yael to you, our readers, by asking her some questions about the novel and her background. 

B: At what age did you start writing and how did you discover that you had talent and could write?


Y: As a child I must have suffered from severe sleep-deprivation; bedtime meant that the lamp went off and the flashlight went on under the covers. But though I loved to read and never handed in a paper that wasn’t declared ‘Well-written!’, it never occurred to me to attempt fiction until I was in my twenties.


I was living in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip, working two jobs, and had two small children and a husband in the army who wasn’t home much. So looking back, I don’t know how I managed to churn out so many pages – and on a typewriter yet.


I had no idea if what I wrote was any good, but cringed and showed my first manuscript to a few people. One of them suggested that I submit it to an editor she knew from when she used to work at Doubleday.


Imagine my surprise when that editor replied that she had enjoyed it and would pass it on! The rejection letter eventually arrived – the marketing people did not agree with her. But it was an extremely nice rejection letter and I had received “official” feedback from at least one publishing professional who believed I could write.

B: Did you write The Lonely Tree more or less in one go or was it more a case of writing a part, getting interrupted, coming back to it some time later, reviewing it followed by more writing?

Y: I had to laugh when I considered this question. It was a whole lot of goes – that lasted 25 years.

I wrote the first version of The Lonely Tree (then called Tonia) over two decades ago. I spent months thinking about it and doing research before I wrote a word.


Back then I took a bus to my teaching job and when I felt ready to start writing I spent the travel time each day thinking through the next scene. Then that night, after the kids were in bed, I locked myself away to put it to paper.


I completed the first draft in that ‘go’ and managed to get an agent who submitted it to eight or ten publishers in New York. Some of the editors were enthusiastic, but it never made it through the marketing committees, and eventually the agent gave up. The manuscript went into my desk drawer, though I never stopped thinking about it.


I tried a few other projects, but was never happy with any of them and gave up writing at all for a few years.

Eventually I began working on a new novel, but one day I stopped and took Tonia out of the drawer. I didn’t want to keep devoting all my time and energy to the new book until I had given Tonia another chance. I don’t know how many novels I may write, but I tend to believe that Tonia, or The Lonely Tree, will always be my favourite.

By that time I had finally done what I should have way back when – read a few books on how to write publishable fiction. I never did that when I started writing. Why would I? I knew how to write. Didn’t I get A+’s in English? I may have had doubts regarding imagination/ideas, but not about being able to write good sentences. What I didn’t bother to consider was the difference between writing fiction and writing term papers.

When I began rereading The Lonely Tree I was appalled by how many slips I had made – misused dialog tags, sudden changes in POV, etc. So I spent a year editing and rewriting and posted the first 10,000 words on YouWriteOn, where you came across it and offered to publish it!

B: Did you write during set hours or did and do you carry around a notebook to record new ideas immediately?

Y: I try to write a few evenings a week, but am probably the least prolific writer on earth. I do keep a notebook for new ideas or a word that has been escaping me. Mostly what I write in it are interesting speech patterns I hear people use. I’m always worried someone is going to notice the strange lady eavesdropping on them, but no one has called the police yet.


The nightstand is the most important place to keep paper and pen. Most new ideas or solutions to problems I have been struggling with insist on appearing in the middle of the night.


B: What inspired you to write this novel? On your author’s page it tells us that you developed the idea about writing this novel when you lived in a kibbutz where people talked about the past and had books and leaflets about its history in every home.


Can you elaborate on this? Was it a specific person or story that triggered the writing of The Lonely Tree?


Y: While living in kibbutz Ein Tsurim I learned the story of the Etzion Bloc, but it wasn’t until years later, when I was living in Gush Katif on the Gaza Strip, that I began to seek a deeper understanding of the experience of the people who settled Gush Etzion.


Gush Katif, though located near the Mediterranean in an entirely different type of terrain, had many things in common with Gush Etzion – it was a bloc of religious settlements, in an isolated area, surrounded by a large Arab population.


When we first moved to Gush Katif the situation was tranquil and we seemed to have peaceful relations with the Arabs. As hard as it is to believe today, I can remember taking my children to Khan Yunis to buy shoes and walking around the city of Gaza by myself.


Then the first Intifada broke out and I could hear the rioting from my kitchen window and had the pleasure of rocks crashing through my windshield a number of times (though the tip of my nose remained unscathed). But we had the Israeli army protecting us.


I tried to imagine coming to live where I was with no army – only a few young men and women with no training, obsolete weapons, and insufficient ammunition. That was a story that begged telling and I was (and remain) amazed that no one else had done it.

B: The Lonely Tree is full of beautifully observed situations, for example right at the beginning on page 10:

Tonia descended the wide stone steps and strolled through
the shady neighborhood with its elegant dress shops and flower
vendors. As usual, downtown Jerusalem was deserted. Few cars
passed, and the owners of many of the hole-in-the-wall shops
had closed up for their afternoon nap. She window-shopped toward
the Pillar Building on Jaffa Road to wait for the battered
bus that would take her home to kibbutz Kfar Etzion, about
a forty-minute drive south of Jerusalem. The long black bonnet
of the bus soon nosed around the corner. It had high fenders and
pop-eyed headlights on either side of its tall grill, and its side
was covered with deep scratches and dents. Since yesterday, six
of the seven windows on either side of it had been fitted with
squares of plywood.

Did this require a lot of research? If not why not and if yes, how did you go about it?

Y: Most of the places I wrote about in The Lonely Tree are well-known to me. I lived several years in Jerusalem (a few of them near the market, in Amos’s neighborhood) and have always read a lot of history.


I reread the books my friends had about the Etzion Bloc and made a number of trips to the renewed Kfar Etzion, which maintains an extensive archive (books, newspaper articles, photographs, minutes of meetings, diaries) and an audio-visual presentation.


Yad Ben Zvi in Jerusalem was also a good source of information about Jerusalem during the Mandate. I read Tom Segev’s book – One Palestine Complete – and Amos Oz’s memoir about growing up in Jerusalem.


One thing I did not do was interview people who had lived in Gush Etzion. This was because I didn’t want anyone to think that my fictional characters had been based on their father, brother, mother, etc.


For the same reason the minor characters in the kibbutz are not as well-developed as they might have been. I did give the first draft to a friend who had lived in the original Ein Tsurim, as I wanted his assurance that my descriptions felt accurate to him.


B: The passages in which messages from Over There, the Holocaust, reach the family are some of the most impressive in the novel. Did you draw upon on your personal experiences or on those of close relatives? Were you influenced by your studies?

Y: No, no personal experience.


For a long time I resisted bringing any mention of the Holocaust into the book. I tried to focus only on what was happening to the Shulman’s in Palestine.


Though I was knowledgeable enough, having studied two years toward a master’s degree in Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I felt emotionally unprepared to deal with the subject.


But obviously, it was impossible not to bring it in. Leah and Josef had both left all their families in Poland. There was no way this would not have a tremendous impact on their lives, and it had to be dealt with.


B: Can you explain why you decided to call your book The Lonely Tree.
Y: I never really made that decision. I’m hopeless at thinking of titles and began calling it The Lonely Tree as a working title. I thought that if a miracle ever happened and I needed a real title, the publisher would come up with something. But you liked The Lonely Tree so it stuck. It is a well-known symbol of the area and I do like the image of the tree.


Also, all of the characters (especially Tonia, but really all of them) are lonely in their own way, though connected to one another with deep roots.


B: Actually I think I mentioned it at the time, but I consider the title The Lonely Tree also to be a metaphor for Israel, is it stands quite lonely among its mostly hostile neighbours.


Has writing the book made a difference in the way you feel about the people living in the Etzion Bloc?

Y: No, I was and remain in awe of their level of determination and willingness to sacrifice, though I realize they were not alone. Anyone who went to live in an isolated settlement back then was no less heroic.

B: You could summarise your novel as a great love story set against the violent birth of a nation. The book grabs hold of your attention and you want to know what happens to Tonia, Amos, Josef and Leah.


It is obviously about the struggle to gain a country but what is the more profound theme? Is it more about the connection between people or about the connection between people and their country?

Y: I think this is a story in which you can’t separate those two connections. I can’t imagine any of those characters living happily anywhere else.

B: Related to this, when I read the book, it struck me as being about: Who am I and am I allowed to be who I am, as an individual and as a nation. What’s your opinion about this?

Y: As far as the individual, I definitely believe most people have the power to change their lives – are ‘allowed to be’ whatever they choose, even adopt a new identity. I only have to look to my own life.


I was born a non-Jew in Michigan and here I am, still in Israel after 35 years, with Jewish children and grandchildren. There are, however, times and places that sweep the individual up in them and make their identity difficult, if not impossible, to shed, even if they think they want to. I believe Israel is one of those places for most of its citizens.


B: The main character, Tonia, fights her own battle: stay in Israel or go to America. Interestingly, this is also related to a very modern theme, trying to reconcile the needs of an independent woman, as Tonia starts her own business twice, with those of a traditional through lovely man.


Was this intentional?

Y: I think any book I write will focus on a strong female character. The problems she faces will depend on the time and place.

In the 1940s and 50s it wouldn’t have been realistic for Amos to be less chauvinistic or for Tonia to even think in those terms.

B: After reading your novel another contrast became apparent: it appears that Josef, her father, and Amos, Tonia’s great love, have chosen to fight whereas her mother Leah and Tonia herself seem to distance themselves from violence.


You could look at this as a dilemma between your female side (protect yourself) and you male side (fight). Putting it differently: is Israel the fatherland or the motherland, or is it really both?

Y: Actually Amos is the only one of the main characters who is a real ‘fighter’. Though determined about achieving his objectives in life Josef, while certainly not lacking in courage, is very passive in the battle, as is Tonia’s brother, Natan.

I think the need to fight one war after another has taken an unfortunate toll on men in Israel, emotionally even more than physically. I hinted at this through Natan’s different experiences in the two wars, but that is a story for a different book.

As for motherland or fatherland – definitely motherland.

But your question sent me to the dictionary. Both are defined simply as the country where one was born. In my mind, however, the word fatherland has somehow come to be almost exclusively associated with Nazi Germany – the vaterland – and aggression.

Though Israel is constantly fighting wars, they have all been defensive (even if sometimes resulting in Israeli forces pushing their attackers back into their own territory and thus coming into, usually temporary, possession of that territory). This plot of land is definitely where the Jewish people were born and the womb they have longed to return to, so yes, definitely motherland.

B: Did the writing of The Lonely Tree made you think differently about certain issues? Or were you surprised yourself by some of the twist and turns in the story?

Y: There were no great discoveries, though in some areas my awareness certainly was heightened.

B: Finally: why did you decide to move from Michigan to Israel?

Y: I can’t honestly say that I know. My suspicions tend to linger on reincarnation. All I know is that from the minute I stepped off the plane here, I knew I was home and have never regretted the choice. Why? I can’t tell you.


But I don’t think I’m so different from most people, who don’t know the real motivation for much of their behaviour. We do what we do and then make up excuses.

My standard ‘excuse’ is that Exodus, by Leon Uris, was one of the books I read (several times) by flashlight. It certainly had a profound effect on me — but enough to cause me to take such a drastic step? I can’t say.

But if I’ve already mentioned Exodus, I have to tell you about one day during the Intifada. My neighbour across the street had been stabbed the day before by an Arab who got through the fence and I was more worried than usual, waiting for my kids to get home from school.


I picked up a magazine to distract myself from the sounds of shooting coming from the other side of the sand dune. On the page I happened to open to was an interview with Leon Uris. It had a picture of him by his swimming pool in Baltimore, or wherever he lives.


I had to laugh. Great. This guy wrote a book and, maybe just because of it, now here I am in the Gaza Strip frantic that my kids’ bus is going to be attacked, and there he is – sun-bathing.

By the way I reread Exodus lately, curious to see if I would have a different opinion as an adult. Still think it’s a great book.

B: And so is The Lonely Tree, you can order it now from this page.


If you feel strongly about any of the points that have been raised in this interview and would like to comment, we invite you to do this on our forum.