Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Matti Friedman on his favourite font and taking criticism

The RBC Taylor Prize finalist answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Matti Friedman is the author of Pumpkinflowers. (Sebastian Sheiner)

Matti Friedman's latest book, Pumpkinflowers, chronicles the history of a hilltop during a nameless war in the 1990s. The hill was known as the Pumpkin and it was manned by Israeli soldiers fresh out of high school. They guarded the northern border of Israel against determined Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Friedman served at the Pumpkin for three years.

Pumpkinflowers was a finalist for the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize.

Below, Matti Friedman answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Greg Hollingshead asks, "Do you ever imagine yourself one day writing a book that will make it impossible to write another? Is this thought hopeful or fearful?"

I can't really see it happening. My approach to writing is formed by years of reporting as a journalist, which is less like sculpture than carpentry — the product should be as beautiful as possible, but first it must be useful and ready on time. A carpenter might make one particularly good or bad chair, but they probably wouldn't stop making chairs afterwards.

2. Susan Juby asks, "What's your approach to reviews and reader feedback? Do you read criticism? Ignore it? Take it into consideration?"

Some smart statesman once said a leader needs a compass, not a weathervane. That's true of writing as well. But I certainly listen to knowledgeable criticism. You can always get better.

3. Nazneen Sheikh asks, "Have you ever been frightened by what you write? How and why?"

This happened to me when I was writing Pumpkinflowers, to my surprise, and I mention it close to the end of the book. As a young soldier when these events were happening, I wasn't particularly concerned about my fate. But as a civilian and a father looking back years later with an understanding of how fragile things really are, I found myself scared for my younger self as I wrote — even though I knew I would be OK. It was a strange feeling, a kind of retroactive fear.

4. George Elliott Clarke asks, "What is your favourite font — or typeface? Why?"

For some reason I'm stuck on Georgia. I like the classic look and it feels like everyone uses Times New Roman. Georgia deserves a few adherents.

5. Gail Bowen asks, "If you could live in the world created by another writer, what fictional world would you choose and why?"

At the end of the 1800s, a Viennese journalist and playwright pictured a state for the oppressed Jews of Europe, describing his fantasy in books called The Jewish State and Old-New Land. It was detailed down to the costumes the Jews would wear as they departed European ports aboard ships taking them to their new home. The state of Israel is quite different than what Theodor Herzl described, of course. But in a way, I do live in a place imagined by a writer.

6. David McGimpsey asks, "Are the retail prices for literary products set at the right mark? Should books cost more or less than they do?"

There was an interesting debate here in Israel on this point a few years back, when book prices had been slashed to such an extent that you could get four new books for 100 shekels (about $35 Cdn). Among other negative effects, this ended up meaning that books were no longer considered good presents, because they didn't cost enough. Parliament actually intervened with legislation meant to protect local writers and publishers. Creating books costs money and the cause of reading won't really be helped by giving books away. People don't respect things that are cheap or free.

7. Saleema Nawaz asks, "What do you do when writing is going badly... or not going at all?"

I clean my office. If you can't work, at least you can improve the place where you work for when the vibe comes back.

8. Rajiv Surendra asks, "If you had complete control over the cover design for your book, what would it look like?"

It would look worse. Writing is a profession and so is design — I generally defer to the pros.