Ever since its beginnings in the early 1960s, Jerusalem's biennial international book fair has been a magnet in the early days thanks to exotic surroundings, Holy Land sights and symbols, later for its unusual editorial mix of heads of houses from every major publishing group with some of the best and the brightest among the young, thanks to the fair's pioneer Editorial Fellowship Program.
For this year's event scheduled for May 7 11 a large contingent of alumni editorial fellows from earlier Jerusalem fairs has promised to come back for more. The fellows program was launched in 1985, and over the years has brought nearly 200 budding and middle-level editors to the fair from the United States, Britain, Europe east and west, and Asia. Many of the young editors have since become editors-in-chief, publishing directors, even heads of publishing groups. As part of this year's fellowship program, an editorial alumni seminar will be keynoted by Victoria Barnsley, new CEO of HarperCollins UK.
It goes without saying that no international fair worthy of the name lacks a literary agents center. But Jerusalem's is a bit special. In addition to the usual mix of agents and scouts, the new Jerusalem Rights Center (JRC) sponsored by Publishers Weekly includes tables for each of the 31 new editorial fellows, who can use the space to scout projects, or to show their own. Among this year's crop of fellows are 10 from the U.S., representing large groups and medium to small-sized quality imprints, five from the U.K., along with their counterparts from Canada, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and mainland China. New this year: the HarperCollins Management Fellows, a program to augment participation from the business side of books, notably from the ranks of agents and scouts; the names of the new fellows were not available at press time.
Note that the floor show gets underway on a Monday afternoon, with an evening reception for all participants. The now traditional Aspen Forum attached to the fair begins on the previous evening (May 6), with a second and final session on Monday morning. The subject, "From Gutenberg to Gates: Transforming the Culture of Books," will certainly include some of the world's makers and shakers (PW could only shake loose a copy of the list of invitees at press time). The biennial symposium on encouraging reading will feature talks by Peter Mayer of New York's Overlook Press, Richard Seaver of Arcade, and Olivier Nora, new president and publisher of France's Editions Grasset.
The Friends of Jerusalem Award, bestowed by the city's mayor, will be given this year to two of the fair's leading supporters: Jane Friedman, president and CEO of global HarperCollins, who is also head of the U.S. Advisory Committee of the Jerusalem Fair; and peripatetic Lothar Menne, a pioneer of Germany's entry into the international literary marketplace, and now publisher of Ullstein in the Axel Springer trade group.
One of the fair's major events is the bestowing of the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society, whose previous winners include J.M. Coetzee, Ernesto Sabato, and Mario Vargas Llosa; the 1999 laureate was America's own Don DeLillo. The ceremony, on May 9 this year, will honor another American, Susan Sontag, 67, novelist and essayist, all of whose books are published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the U.S., and who has been translated into 26 languages. A human rights activist for nearly three decades, Sontag has led a number of campaigns on behalf of persecuted and imprisoned writers. Her prize was announced in Jerusalem on March 13 in the presence of Israel's new Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who chaired the panel of judges for the prize.
The Fair's Business
Glitter aside, it does seem as though this year's fair will resemble recent ones. The exhibition floor boasts stands of the best of Israeli publishers and packagers, alongside booths and collective exhibits of the best from abroad because Israelis still make enough use of the world's major languages to support the import-export industry. The fair will also represent a coming-out party of sorts for global Random House, the new corporate name of the international Bertelsmann book group, which publishes in English, German and Spanish a group headed for the first time by an American, Peter Olson (until now in charge of America's Random). And Olson will be appearing in his new role for the first time at an international book fair.
The large Random House stand will be located in the area managed by the Steimatzky Group, Israel's number one book importer and exporter, and owner of the country's leading bookstore chains. At this year's Jerusalem fair, Steimatzky will also play host to the booths of Abbeville, Abrams, Berlitz, Dover, HarperCollins, Hugh Levin, Penguin Putnam, Simon & Schuster, St. Martin's Press, Time Warner/Little, Brown and Tuttleplus a similarly impressive group from the U.K., and some of the European continent's leading exporters of books on art and travel. Group chairman Eri Steimatzky lets PW know that sales were deeply affected by the recent tensions, but shares the optimism of fellow business leaders that the new national unity government should stabilize the political situation and permit renewed economic growth.
A typical packager at the fair actually an atypical one because of its nearly perfect batting average is Jerusalem Publishing House, which will probably be the only exhibitor producing exclusively for export markets. It comes to the fair with advance copies of A History of Israel and the Holy Land, with a foreword by Shimon Peres (already sold to Continuum for the English language). JPH's publisher, Shlomo (Yosh) Gafni, will also be unveiling a work he considers the apotheosis of his career in books: a three-volume Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, introduced by Elie Wiesel (and already placed with New York University Press for English). Still up for grabs: a single-volume illustrated History of Islam written by an Iranian scholar.
But Is It Safe?
Television news tends to be scary. Obviously, fairgoers want to know what to expect during their visit. In fact, the installation of a new government under prime minister Ariel Sharon has made it likely that turbulence in the Palestinian territories will subside, as antagonists on both sides pursue the wait-and-see attitude that was apparent during a recent tour by PW's correspondent.
"The only thing you have to worry about," says Jerusalem Publishing House president Yosh Gafni, "is our crazy drivers. Don't use an automobile in Jerusalem, and watch out when crossing streets." PW followed his advice, and got home safely. A Jerusalemite whose great-great grandparents were also born in Jerusalem, Gafni is obviously not happy with the present situation, but insists that it has never interfered with living and working in his home town.
So PW's envoy walked the walk from the book fair's exhibition hall and the contiguous Crowne Plaza Hotel (at the Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport side of the city), all the way down to the monumental King David and Hilton hotels facing the Old City walls; all was quiet, with not a worried cop or soldier in view. Not even at night, when one might be walking or taxiing back to one's hotel after a dinner appointment. On another day, a stroll to the Old City, to visit Christ's tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, crossing the bazaar en route to the Western Wall again, an exhausting but extraordinary bit of touring, and a peaceful one.
In good times and bad, West Jerusalem has always seemed safer than many parts of cities chosen for American Bookseller Association and BookExpo events (Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, New York...). Indeed, the nervous visitor to Jerusalem can always do what he or she already does in a BEA city: stay near the center of things, visit the fabulous monuments and museums in broad daylight, shop where tourists shop. Meeting the Suspense WritersSomething about Israeli life inspires mystery writers; in any case, there are a good many of them, and some of the country's best authors have tried their hand at suspense, crime or espionage. To give visitors to the upcoming Jerusalem International Book Fair an opportunity to scout the market, PW's envoy did an exploratory trip through the virtual underworlds of crime and suspense fiction, and found that some very good properties are still up for grabs.
First stop, the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, a unique institution in its scope, for at any one time this agency represents the work of more than 200 writers ranging from the supremely literary (like Yehoshua Kenaz) to producers of entertainment in all genres. The Institute does its own screening of candidates before taking on their foreign representation; most of these authors already have Israeli publishers which represents an additional guarantee. But even when an author makes it to the agency's client list, explains the Institute's director, Nilli Cohen, he or she must maintain high standards in order to stay on the list. Cohen receives PW in the company of projects coordinator Ayala Carmeli and Haya Hoffman, editor for Hebrew authors. They describe a vetting process involving the scanning of publishers' catalogues and book reviews, the reading of manuscripts, galleys, finished books. Israeli publishers, even the best of them, are seldom equipped to handle authors' rights, and prefer to see the Institute take on their authors. The Institute itself publishes catalogues (notably one called "Thrillers") and bibliographies, edits and helps to finance anthologies, and does a twice-yearly journal, Modern Hebrew Literature, in English.
One after the other, as if interrogating suspects, PW talks to Nilli Cohen's finest.
Uri Adelman, for instance, is a professor of musicology, a computer expert, and most recently an editor at Keter which, as will be seen, is the country's top publisher of thrillers. For Adelman, it all began when he was teaching music at Tel Aviv University, and a colleague researching old Russian music mentioned that the Russian churches of Israel in which she was working were hotbeds of espionage. He had soon concocted his first thriller, Concerto for Spy and Orchestra; it got so-so reviews for the most part, but one influential critic compared it to The Name of the Rose, and he was launched. He worked very hard on book number two, Lost and Found, about hanky-panky in the Mossad (the Israeli secret service). It sold more than 40,000 copies a blockbuster on the Israeli scale. (Both books will be done in Germany by Eichborn.) His latest, Tropic of Venus, mixes crime and romance "a salute to Raymond Chandler" it was called and was another bestseller, confirming Adelman's decision to carry on.
Ruth Almog is a veteran author of 16 books for adults and children, some of them translated abroad. Esther Ettingeris a poet. Somehow, they got together to concoct a story of crime and passion: the result, A Perfect Lover, was published successfully by Keter, and by Bertelsmann's Goldmann Verlag. Without giving away the story, we can say that the mystery involving both theft and murder is solved by a 62-year-old Holocaust survivor who is also a university librarian. The same heroine, Rosa, will solve the crime in the partners' second novel, Estellina, My Darling. Will the pair do a third book? For the moment, each has her own to write. And they have jobs, and husbands, and grandchildren.
Gal Amir is a lawyer and we all know that some of them can write very successful fiction. His Afula, 3 Opera Street contains both suspense and humor. It's a courtroom thriller whose heroine is both lawyer and loser, and who, with a friend who is also a female lawyer (and a disbarred one to boot), succeeds in proving the innocence of a third loser (he's a homosexual). "Just the right amount of anarchism," the Ha'aretz critic reported, recommending it as a summertime read. Gal Amir tells PW that Afula is the product of both his and his wife's experience (he is a civil lawyer; she's a criminal one.)
Only one of Orit Harel's four novels (the last still in progress) is a mystery; for one thing, she rejects categories, and for another, she found the plotting of A French Affair tough going. Described as a fast-paced thriller, the book contains suspense and spies: Unknown to the young heroine, her father had been a Mossad agent, but she learns this only after he is found dead; another Mossad agent, Dan, keeps saving the heroine from danger, and together, they complete the mission her father had been unable to carry out. "Israelis expect the heroes and heroines of thrillers to be very human, even in solving crime," Harel explains. "Forensic medicine à la Patricia Cornwell doesn't work here."
Amnon Jackont is a professor of literature, a writing teacher and an editor at Keter (for history). He is also a stock market analyst and partner in a company that represents Israeli businesses abroad and foreigners in Israel. He didn't find it difficult to begin still another career as a writer, and what started out as a novel of political intrigue finished as a thriller. That was Borrowed Time, translated into English by Hamish Hamilton in London. When PW talked to him, he was putting the finishing touches on Introduction to Love,which he assumes will get him thrown out of his teaching job. The hero is the victim of jealous colleagues; there isn't any killing, except with words. The victim solves the conspiracy not with a gun, but with philosophy. Yet Jackont denies that he writes for intellectuals just for real readers, and he has lots of them. His books sell in the 30,000-copy range, which we calculate as the equivalent of 2.2 million in the U.S.
Haim Lapid is not your workaday thriller writer. A social psychologist and teacher of behavioral psychology, he doubles as film critic and scriptwriter. Sure, his novel Breznitz is a detective story, but there's more to it than that: it's about consciousness falling apart, about the detective hero Breznitz's late love and obsession for justice. Lapid insists that that the book has all the elements of the classic crime story; the solution is found only in the last paragraph. The book has been snapped up by Berlin Verlag and Ullstein for hard and softcover editions, Noir sur Blanc for French, Marsilio for Italian, with an English-language Internet edition via Toby Press. Success led to book number two, The Crime of Writing, only "half a thriller," says the author, since the reader isn't sure that a crime has been committed. And a third book is now going through the publishing process, with Lapid again keeping the reader puzzled until the final sentence.
Shulamit Lapid (no relation to Haim) is one of Israel's pioneer crime writers, beginning in the 1980s. The heroine of her early books was reporter Lizzy Badihi, working on the local paper in Beersheba. From the start, Lizzy hit the big time (translated for the Fayard crime series in Paris, and by Goldmann Verlag). Still, the prolific author continued to turn out short stories, plays and children's tales as well as novels, making sure to alternate the "serious" fiction with Lizzy Badihi's adventures. Her latest crime novel, Concubine on the Hill, is a biblical tale brought up to date for Lizzy in Beersheba. "Writing thrillers was a way for me to avoid pretentiousness," Lapid explains, "and to keep critics from attempting to interpret or to deconstruct my writing." She admits that it also gave her a chance to let her hair down. She has yet to be translated into English.
Israel's most successful playwright, and a stage director of renown, Edna Mazya tried her hand at a thriller and got that right, too. She'd never written about crime before; her plays usually deal with family life at the edge. Still, she'd had the theme of An X-Ray Burst in her head for years. She lives in two places, Tel Aviv and the Galilee, so she has lots of time to think while driving. In her novel, she portrays a professor of astrophysics who does indeed have his head in the clouds, with his shrewd Arab friend, a police detective. The professor is insanely jealous, much in love with his young wife; when he discovers that she is having an affair, he tracks down the lover and unintentionally kills him. Despite the odd ending the moral irresolution the book became a bestseller in Israel. No English translation yet, but the author is collaborating on a screenplay.
Ram Oren seems to have found a way to meet success half way. He hadn't appreciated the lukewarm attitude of publishers to his genre the popular thriller so he set up his own publishing house to do them (it's called Keshet, Hebrew for rainbow). When he couldn't get an American publisher for what he thinks of as his best try, The Mark of Cain, he produced his own translation into English, and got an American designer to lay out a smart paperback edition. (He got the book into a bookstore in Brookline, Mass., and sold 44 copies "a remarkable performance for a book whose author is virtually unknown in our area," the report came back.) In all, he has done nine books in all, including one called Eirom (Nudity) released online. The first chapters were downloaded free by 300,000 Hebrew readers, and the following chapters were available for about $3.75 each. He began with 15,000 for-pay readers, plus another 1,000 or so who preferred to click onto an American site that was pirating the book. Thanks to the support of the Steimatzky bookstores, The Mark of Cain became the country's leading paperback for five weeks, and spent a total of 19 weeks on the list. Indeed, Oren gets big numbers in Israel; his first crime story, whose title translates as Seduction, sold more than 100,000 copies.
Galila Ron-Feder-Amit owes her odd signature to two consecutive marriages and a publisher's unwillingness to allow her to drop a by-then-recognizable name. And indeed it ought to be recognized, with her 100-plus published titles for children and young adults, and translations round the world. Her most recent work is an adult novel, Murder in the Upper Ranks of the Police, based in part on what her husband an officer in the upper ranks of the police told her. The murdered officer, a woman, had been investigating corruption, and all those she had investigated are of course suspects, together with those who were in the headquarters building at the time of the murder. No translation yet.
The Agent's Role
While most of Israel's literary agencies specialize in bringing foreign authors to Israeli publishers, the Harris/Elon Agency has established itself as the country's leading author's agency in the private sector; it brought David Grossman to world notice, and contemporary historian Tom Segev (whose new One Palestine, Completehas been commanding much review space outside of Israel).
Another of the agency's finds was Batya Gur, now honored as the dean of Israel's mystery writers, a HarperCollins author starting with her first thriller (all of her books have appeared on the New York Times Book Review's list of "Ten Best Mysteries of the Year").
PW meets Gur a professor of Hebrew literature, author of a weekly literary column for Ha'aretz and lecturer on scriptwriting at the Israeli Film School in the company of Harris/Elon's Deborah Harris, an American-born Israeli, who learned her trade in New York publishing. The lunch would be short and sweet, for the author let it be known that the meeting represented an interruption while she was on the final pages of her next novel.
It soon becomes apparent that Gur is not only the dean of mystery writers, but she was probably the first. She had wanted to write, she explains, but everything she might have said had already been written; it was up to her to find her niche. "It was such a new country, such a new use of the biblical tongue," she explains. "Our early writers felt that they had to serve the language with serious literature. Introducing new genres was revolutionary. I'm proud to have been part of that revolution."
In the course of the conversation, PW hears about Gur's young adult mystery, published by Germany's Carl Hanser but not signed up by HarperCollins. What Happened to Benji takes place in an integrated Jerusalem junior high school, and tells of the relationship between a Moroccan Jewish adolescent and a seven-year-old American from an upper-class neighborhood; the children invent a "murder game," and there is an attempt to extort money from the rich American kid. Too Israeli a subject? "Michael Krüger [of Hanser] is asking me to do another young adult book," comes the reply.
Later, back in her office, Harris introduces the visitor to a fellow American, Barbara Sofer, a veteran of 25 years of life in Israel. A journalist first of all, she has written for the New York Times, also for Woman's Day and Reader's Digest. She realized one day that she couldn't package her life in Israel in newspaper or magazine format. Her first novel was a thriller, The Thirteenth Hour, set in the Israel of Arab-Israeli conflict; it won raves in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post and elsewhere; it was snapped up by Dutton and Signet. But the U.S. publisher wanted an American setting for book number two, so The Ninth Flame is sited in northern Idaho among neo-Nazis (and some older ones). Not surprisingly, a sequel is planned to The Ninth Flame set in Israel. Sofer insists that what all her books have in common is a moral decision. She began writing fiction when she took a self-defense course during a wave of terrorist attacks on women.
PW didn't fail to meet some of the people who count at Keter, market leader in Israeli thrillers, but which had undergone a top-to-bottom reorganization since the last time PW visited. CEO Yiphtach Dekel describes a somewhat reduced, more cautious program, notably in children's and illustrated books. PW also met Shimon Adaf, editor for literature, Ornit Barak, editor for translations, and PR chief Ruth Be'eri. They described a program featuring a dozen new thrillers this year, 11 of them Israeli originals.
So PW meets a couple more of the originals. Ehud Asheri is a journalist, editor of the Ha'aretz weekly supplement. That doesn't give him much time to do his own books, and yet he is up to number four. He makes it easy for himself; the setting is a newspaper office not a serious paper like Ha'aretz but a sensational daily; the editor by necessity is transformed into a detective. His first, It Will End in Tears, published in 1996, describes the transformation of an editor of the paper into an investigator of the supposed terrorist murder of a friend. The book was a bestseller and a movie. Two years later came Billy Bloom, centering on a blackmail scheme targeting celebrities.
David Greenblatt was born in Brooklyn and migrated to Israel, where he is now a chiropractor. After dabbling, notably with a humor column in the Jerusalem Post, Greenblatt settled down to more serious matters. He wrote his thriller, Jihad New York, in English; the subject is the plan of an Iraqi-based Islamic fundamentalist group to cut off New York City's food supplies by bombing bridges and tunnels, thereby creating panic. The hero, an American physician, uncovers the plot in time (of course). No American publisher yet, but Keter translated it into Hebrew, and an Israeli filmmaker is working on a possible American production.
Finally, the visitor meets an old friend, Michelle Mazel, who can't remember a time when she wasn't writing. After contributing to newspapers, magazines and several major encyclopedia projects, she turned to thrillers set in the Middle East she knows so well. Her first book, Stone Moon, centers on a young American woman who enters Israel clandestinely with her Lebanese lover, to find herself fleeing for her life with both Israelis and Palestinians in hot pursuit. The book was published in Israel and also in Rumania, where Mazel was stationed with her husband for a time. Sirens over Jerusalem tells of a killer for hire stalking his prey while Operation Desert Storm rages and Saddam Hussein's missiles target Israel. The book was published in Israel and France. No English translations to date, but they'll come, perhaps with Betrayal Games, a story of the Arab-Israeli conflict seen at terribly close range.