In his pre­vi­ous posts on the Writ­ers’ Fes­ti­val at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Bob Gold­farb wrote about the pan­el Ash­es and Ink: Con­tem­po­rary Holo­caust Writ­ing,” about Amos Oz and Simon Sebag Mon­te­fiore in con­ver­sa­tion, and Zeruya Shalev and Siri Hustvedt.

Paul Auster, the pro­lif­ic Amer­i­can nov­el­ist and screen­writer, and David Gross­man, one of Israel’s pre­miere writ­ers, have been close friends for more than a dozen years. Auster told an over­flow­ing crowd at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim, how­ev­er, that their friend­ship isn’t based on their shared pro­fes­sion. We don’t talk about writ­ing when we’re togeth­er,” he said.

David Gross­man (pho­to from Flickr (Whistling in the Dark))

Mod­er­a­tor Kobi Mei­dan gave them an oppor­tu­ni­ty to do just that. When he asked what it’s like to fin­ish a book, Auster reflect­ed, You’ve been liv­ing with the char­ac­ters, as real and as vital as flesh-and-blood human beings. So there’s a great sad­ness because you have to say good-bye to them. They’re leav­ing your life and it takes some time to recov­er.” Gross­man echoed the sen­ti­ment. If a char­ac­ter was a sig­nif­i­cant, mean­ing­ful part of my life for a few years,” he affirmed, of course I will be with it, and I hope it will be with me for the rest of my life.”

Gross­man spoke specif­i­cal­ly about the pro­tag­o­nist of his nov­el Isha Bora­hat Mibeso­ra, known awk­ward­ly in Eng­lish as To the End of the Land, more lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ed as A Woman Flee­ing a Mes­sage.” (It will be pub­lished in Amer­i­ca in Sep­tem­ber.) Ora’s son, a sol­dier, has been assigned to a dan­ger­ous mil­i­tary oper­a­tion. She leaves her home and walks across the land with a friend, talk­ing about her son as her way of some­how keep­ing him alive. In writ­ing the char­ac­ter, said Gross­man, You have to sur­ren­der to her com­plete­ly. While writ­ing Ora I lived her, being her.”

He con­tin­ued, Being a writer allows you to melt and dif­fuse into oth­er options of per­son­al­i­ty. I don’t think it’s so dif­fer­ent from the expe­ri­ence of writ­ing about any oth­er Oth­er. It’s just allow­ing your­self to go there. When I write I want to be invad­ed by the peo­ple I write about. I want to explore this mag­ic of what it means to be anoth­er human being. I can reach it only by writing.”

Auster remarked that he had writ­ten from the points of view of peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races and reli­gions, des­ti­tute peo­ple, rich peo­ple, fat peo­ple, a boy who can lev­i­tate, and a dog. They’re all part of me or I wouldn’t be able to think of them. But I also feel they’ve found me, or I’ve found them.” And he sees a sim­i­lar­i­ty with what actors do: embody anoth­er human being, become some­body else. If you can do it suc­cess­ful­ly,” he believes, there’s a con­vic­tion the read­er will auto­mat­i­cal­ly feel.”

Paul Auster (pho­to by David Shankbone)

David Gross­man is more pub­licly engaged with pol­i­tics than Paul Auster, but they voiced sim­i­lar con­cerns. Auster sens­es that peo­ple seem tired, worn out by con­flict” in Israel. I can under­stand why peo­ple would become apa­thet­ic. It’s almost too much to live this way all the time. But something’s got to give.”

Gross­man picked up that line of thought. I live here, I expe­ri­ence it. I look at Israel – it’s my place, it’s the most sig­nif­i­cant place for a Jew to live. There are still so many things in Israel that are mirac­u­lous to me. But the place we are head­ing will make life unbear­able for us and our neigh­bors, and I see our self-destruc­tion, our self-paralysis.”

Kobi Mei­dan won­dered if these writ­ers saw them­selves as resem­bling nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry nov­el­ists who want­ed their work to trans­form soci­ety. I don’t know,” mused Auster. I used to think that when I was young. I thought poet­ry could change the world. And maybe poet­ry can change the way some­body thinks about some­thing, some­times. But what’s beau­ti­ful about art is its utter use­less­ness. It doesn’t serve any pur­pose. It’s not a polit­i­cal agenda.”

Although he didn’t quite agree that lit­er­a­ture is use­less, Gross­man acknowl­edged I think every moment of the char­ac­ter, not the future of Israel.” At the same time, if you give your­self away to your char­ac­ters you inevitably write a polit­i­cal doc­u­ment, a social doc­u­ment. We are prod­ucts of our era.”

Bob Gold­farb is pres­i­dent of the Cen­ter for Jew­ish Cul­ture and Cre­ativ­i­ty in Jerusalem and Los Ange­les. He also blogs for the Los Ange­les Jew­ish Jour­nal.