Kenneth Bonert is a South African-born writer who lives in Toronto, Canada. His debut novel, The Lion Seeker, was published in the U.S. in October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Bonert’s stories have appeared in McSweeney’s 25, Grain, and The Fiddlehead, and his “Packers and Movers” was shortlisted for Canada’s Journey Prize. Bonert is a former journalist who has written for the Globe and Mail and the National Post, among other publications.
Your grandparents emigrated from Lithuania to South Africa. How did your family’s history enrich The Lion Seeker?
Kenneth Bonert: By the time I was born, in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs in the early ’70s, my bohbee (grandmother) was already living with us. Following the death of my zaydee — my bohbee’s husband and my namesake — my father had built a small bedroom onto the side of our house and Bohbee had moved in there from her place in inner-city Doornfontein, and from then on she lived with us as a member of the family.
Growing up with Bohbee was a privilege I didn’t realize I had until I was much older. She was a warm, loving presence who sat beside me at dinner every night and helped me get ready for school in the mornings, who told me stories about ah-haym (back home) while sitting with me in the garden under our plum trees. She spoke mostly Yiddish and some broken English, and I learned to understand her Yiddish because I had a good ear for languages and because I wanted to know what she was saying to my father.
Bohbee had lots of stories about the place she came from, a shtetl (village) called Dusat, which I then believed was in far-off Russia. There were tales of der oyzer (the lake), and the forests, the snow, the bitter cold, the types of bread they would bake in the oven (pripachik). She talked about her brother Benzil, who rode a magnificent stallion and had once been fired on, the bullets knocking the fur hat from his head. She talked about saving the life of a sick neighbor by bringing her milk fresh from a beloved cow three times a day. I was a solitary and sensitive child, and I think I was the closest to Bohbee. I would read to her from the newspaper and try to translate and explain the articles the best I could. From her, I absorbed the feeling of that shtetl, the warmth embodied in the language and the memories, the sense of abiding nostalgia. The village had a mythical air to me — things like snow and descriptions of a lake frozen hard enough to walk on were impossibilities that I could only imagine taking place on a screen. Where we sat in the garden in Johannesburg in the afternoon the sun was usually hot, the lawn parched.
As an adult, I began to understand how lucky I had been to have been so close to someone who was a living link to a lost world, the annihilated world of the shtetl. I also began to wonder about what the reality of life in the village had been compared to Bohbee’s stories. That was part of what inspired me to want to write The Lion Seeker. Another part had to do with my uncles.
Because Bohbee lived with us, our home was a center for extended family. My aunt and uncles would visit at least once a week, to pay their respects to the woman who had raised them in difficult circumstances. Both of my uncles were deeply involved in Johannesburg’s auto business. My uncle Shlaymeh, or Sam, the eldest, was a figure of particular fascination to me. He had dropped out of school to become a panel beater as a youngster, and later ran away to fight in the Second World War, where he was captured and held in a POW camp. I used to listen raptly to the stories my uncles would tell. I can still see them both now, in our dining room on a Sunday morning: Sam with his calloused knobble-knuckled hands wrapped around a mug of hot tea, and his younger brother, Yunkel, feeding treats to one of our dogs under the table. They were the ones who inspired me with the idea of using the auto trade as a setting for my main character, Isaac Helger.
All of this is to say that my family background did not merely enrich The Lion Seeker — it was the fecund soil in which my imagination took root. I had their voices and stories in mind as I wrote; without the family background there would have been no inspiration to make the historical background come alive, no impetus to allow my characters to breathe and move on the page.
What do you hope readers take away from your debut title?
KB: My first aim — the storyteller’s duty — is to unfold a story that absorbs the reader. There are few better things to me than the feeling of losing yourself in a narrative, where pages turn by themselves and hours go by before you look up in a kind of dazed wonder at your real surroundings. To achieve that is my prime consideration as a writer.
But this desire to transmit the undiluted pleasure of an unfolding story also has to be balanced against other aims that are just as important. I want the book to also do the serious work of digging down deeply into the characters, to the hard bedrock of uncovered truths. There needs to be an honest view of how the characters see their world and what that world is. There must be no attempt to twist a character to fit some scheme for the sake of the story. The characters have to be more than merely believable, they have to become real. And then there needs to be some poetic effort to express all of this in language that is fresh and profound, some attempt to find a particular sound — a special music or style that is unique to me as a writer. Without these and other considerations, the work would not be worth rereading, would lack the depth of serious fiction, which is what I aspire to create.
So, in the end, what I’m hoping readers will experience with The Lion Seeker is that they become lost in a world that absorbs them — and that afterwards they will want to return to it again. When they do, they should be able to uncover greater depths, exposing more and more layered meaning with each rereading.
Why did you choose to use more authentic dialogue? In what way do you think language adds to the setting?
KB: Dialogue, in my view, is the most important color in the writer’s palette. With this novel, I was trying to do something new — to capture the slang and cadences of those voices that I grew up with (and that still surround me in my family connections and my friendships). It has been part of my literary mission for some time, going back to early short stories, to get what I perceive to be the authentic Jewish-South African way of talking onto the page for the first time.
Were books an important facet of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you as a child?
KB: Books were immensely important to me. We had limited television in South Africa, a couple of state channels that were only on at night, and with the main one shared between English and Afrikaans programming. So there were long hours that would have been filled with nothing but boredom or mischief if not for books.
In our household we had only one bookshelf, mostly full of Time Life volumes on geography and biology, with a small hardbound set of classic novels in matching red, and five or six others. But I found a real source of escape in the bags of hardcovers that used to appear every few weeks in my parents’ room. These were my mother’s book-club books — big, new hardcover editions that absolutely fascinated me. There were all kinds of popular writers of the Danielle Steel and Ken Follett variety, but there were also more serious works that would baffle me with their odd sentences and strange references.
Yet, if I had to put my finger on one particular book as most influential, it was one that didn’t come from my mother’s books. It was White Fang by Jack London, a little yellow hardcover on the bookshelf in the lounge, sandwiched between the wall and Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Compared to anything else I had ever read or tried to read, White Fang was so much more viscerally gripping, so real, but at the same time written with great delicacy in the language, in a way that struck me as truly beautiful. I must have read it 20 times or more. Each time I found it just as brutal, powerful, and wrenching — but also so poetic. Something about that combination appealed to me. I don’t think I’d ever understood what fiction could achieve before I read that book.
When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career as a writer?
KB: When I was very little, I daydreamed about becoming a great scientist, but I soon learned that nature has given me a score of approximately zero on the innate-aptitude-for-mathematics scale. Perhaps it was then that I formed more literary ambitions.
Are you working on anything now?
KB: Polishing a collection of short fiction; finishing a draft of another novel.
What book is on the top of your nightstand “stack?”
KB: The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Vintage Books, 1995.
If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand? (Besides your own, of course!)
KB: I don’t think there is a book that could fit in every reader’s hand. Tastes are so varied — that’s one of the glories of the human being. I’d try to recommend something based on what the person told me about their reading habits and tastes.
I think that is the beauty of independent bookstores, and why I love to frequent them, the chance of being handed something new that you’ve never heard of, but that you’re grateful for encountering after you’ve read it. In the independent stores, you often receive the knowledge and passion of a committed fellow reader, so that it’s not just about shopping for a product, it’s also an opportunity for a conversation, for learning and community — a camaraderie of the intellect.
If you could meet any author, past or present, who would it be?
KB: Shakespeare, without a doubt, Mr. William Shakespeare. I’d bring a camera.
The Lion Seeker: A Novel, by Kenneth Bonert (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hardcover, 9780547898049) Publication date: October 15, 2013.
Learn more about Kenneth Bonert at hmhbooks.com/thelionseeker/author.html.
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