Edeet Ravel’s first novel was published when she was in her early 40s. But years before, as a girl growing up on a newly established kibbutz in northern Israel, she knew she would be a writer one day.
“I felt instinctively, when I was six or seven, that I would spend my life trying to write stories,” said Ravel, a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Giller Prize and the recipient of the Hugh MacLennan Prize and the Canadian Jewish Book Award.
”I knew that the main requirement was an acquaintance with what lies beneath the surface of things. That need to delve into our hidden lives was tied to my understanding of what a writer needs to be able to write.”
In retrospect, she mused without the slightest pretension, she is amazed she grasped this fundamental principle at such a young age, before she had even read a single book of adult fiction or had been encouraged to follow her writerly dreams.
Ravel, whose books range from Ten Thousand Lovers and Look for Me to A Wall of Light and The Last Rain, was clearly something of a late bloomer.
But she has no regrets.
“My own reasons for waiting to publish had to do with my perfectionist streak,” said Ravel, who took her first creative writing course at Montreal’s Concordia University when she was 27. “I’m very glad I waited, though I’m never entirely satisfied with what I write. There’s always a gap between what I envision and what I create.”
Now a resident of Guelph, Ont., she dips into her well of experiences when she is ready to compose a novel, the latest of which, The Cat (Penguin Canada), was published on Sept. 25.
“Many of the characters in The Cat – a novel turning on grief and hope amid a devastating tragedy – were inspired by people I know. I asked some of them to read the manuscript, since there were close parallels between their lives and those of my fictional characters.”
Some novelists possess the ability to distill the essence of a foreign place and a culture almost instantly. But she does not place herself in that category.
“I have to confine myself to what is familiar to me,” she said. “Margaret Lawrence believed that the emotional world is the same everywhere, and that’s the world she was interested in. That is what I try to write about as well. Everything for me begins and ends with the way we think and feel.”
Apart from The Cat, at least two of her previous novels, The Last Rain and Your Sad Eyes and Unforgettable Mouth, are broadly biographical. Ravel was born in 1955 in Sasa, a kibbutz near the Lebanese border founded by new immigrants from Canada and the United States. Her parents, Nahum and Aviva, who hailed from Montreal, were among the founders. “That story,” she noted, “is part of The Last Rain, a fictionalized memoir about my first seven years in Sasa, a Shomer Hatzair kibbutz.”
Nahum and Aviva Ravel were utopian idealists whose blueprint for a just society was inspired by Marxism. “They wanted to create a better world.”
At first, Aviva was not too interested in Zionism, much less Marxism. But as Ravel recalled, “she fell in love with Israel and with Hebrew once she was in the country.”
Aviva was 14 when she went out with Nahum on their first date. Their courtship unfolded through countless letters after he joined the Canadian army during World War II. “As soon as the war ended, my father took an unauthorized leave to marry my mother, who was 17.”
In Sasa, Aviva was a teacher, while Nahum held various jobs. “In The Last Rain, I write about some of the factors that influenced their decision to leave the kibbutz. My mother, like many married women on kibbutzim, was ready to leave long before my father.”
Sasa left an indelible mark on Ravel.
“I kept my memories of Sasa alive in a very deliberate way. They were extremely precious to me, and I knew I would write about them. Those first seven years shaped me, mostly for the better. There were some drawbacks, which had to do with the sleeping arrangements, but many profound benefits. I’m very grateful that I have that background.”
To her regret, she has not maintained contact with Sasa. “My parents renewed their ties with Sasa through an ex-members group, but there was no easy way for me to stay in touch. I don’t know what Sasa is like today, though it’s one of the wealthiest kibbutzim in Israel.”
After leaving Sasa in 1962, the Ravels returned to Montreal, living in Cote des Neiges and then Notre Dame de Grace. This period, she observed, forms the background of Your Sad Eyes and Unforgettable Mouth.
At the age of 18, she went back to Israel.
“As far as I was concerned, I was in Canada temporarily. I continued to see myself as an Israeli. I had no idea what I was doing in Canada. Even after losing my Hebrew accent and fluency in Hebrew, I daydreamed about Israel continually and longed to be there. I was in the west, but my heart was in the east, and still is.”
From the moment she landed in Israel, on the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, she was convinced it would always be her home. “I was there to stay.”
It was a busy time for Ravel. She completed a BA and an MA in English literature at the Hebrew University, and met her first husband, an Israeli pianist, in Israel.
None too eager to live in Israel, he convinced Ravel to leave. They settled in Montreal. “He promised it would be only be for a year, but life unfolded in its own way.” Their marriage finally broke up due to his refusal to have children.
Being financially strapped, Ravel was unable to return to Israel. “Feminists used to say, ‘Biology is destiny.’ More often, bank accounts are destiny.”
After an unsuccessful attempt to live in Britain, she returned to Montreal, where she took a creative writing course under the direction of Terry Byrnes, the first person to take her seriously as a writer. She also finished a Ph.D in Jewish studies at McGill University, specializing in biblical exegesis.
For the next two decades, she taught creative writing and Jewish studies at McGill, Concordia University and John Abbot College. She enjoyed her teaching positions, but left academia to devote herself to writing. “It was a risky move, but I’m glad I made that decision.”
In the meantime, she met a man, a translator who became the father of her only child, Larissa. They divorced when Larissa was a toddler, but shared custody of her and remained on cordial terms. “Until Larissa, finished high school, he lived a few minutes’ walk from us, and Larissa strolled over whenever she felt like it.”
She and Larissa moved to Guelph because big-city living was no longer appealing. “It exhausted me,” she said. “Guelph was a town I wanted to live in, and Guelph had a university Larissa wanted to study at. We relocated as a family of two.”
Ravel would be pleased if she could find a position as an instructor in creative writing, but there are currently few openings. “As a result, I’m constantly struggling,” she said, adding she would not be able to survive without her former partner’s assistance.
Although Israel is very far from Guelph, Ravel is peripherally involved in Israel’s peace movement. “I always say hope is a political obligation. We have no choice, though it’s not easy to maintain hope.”
Clearly not a supporter of the current Israeli government, Ravel said, “We are waiting for a visionary leader who demonstrates integrity and courage. Idealistic people are often not the ones who are drawn to politics. This, of course, is a problem everywhere.”