Green Bean Books

Q&A with Alex Paz Goldman for The Lost Spy and the Green Dress

1. Can you share with us how this book relates to your own life? How much of it is fictional and how much of it is autobiographical?

All of the historical events described in the book are based on real events. For example, the German scientist that escaped to Egypt and tried to help the Egyptians build a bomb – that really happened! I myself was born in Israel and came of age in the 1960s, which is the period in which this story is set. As for the characters, Motti (the protagonist) is based on me and Reuben is based on my childhood friend, Uri. The plot is based on a real event in which Uri and I (Reuben and Motti) actually began following a spy that we saw in our neighbourhood. It was a period in which the newspapers were full of stories about spies (either German or Russian) who were living in Israel – even the secretary of then prime minister, David Ben Gurion, was uncovered as a traitor! In many ways, it was a lot like the Cambridge Five (Philby, Burgess, etc). No one was above suspicion, not even your closest friends and family.

My parents were Holocaust survivors who never spoke about what had happened to them in Europe. Kids of my generation didn’t want to listen anyway and, even worse, we despised them because in school we were taught that the Jews of Europe had gone to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter. My brother and I didn’t even let our parents speak Yiddish (their mother tongue) at home, because for us it was the language of exile and we youngsters saw ourselves as ‘new Jews’ – first generation Israelis.

2. What lessons do you hope this story inspires in readers?

As you read the book you realize that things are never quite as they seem. Even though all the facts appear to fit together for Motti and Reuben, by the end they understand that there is a big – and surprising – gap between their assumptions and reality. Even though the book is about a very painful subject, I’d like my readers to enjoy its humour and feel the tension as the story unfolds. By the final pages, I hope they will be touched by what they have read and understand that it’s important not to jump to conclusions in life. Above all, however, this is a story and I hope they will enjoy it and consider it a good read.

3. What sort of children would you recommend read this story?

I think this is a book that would appeal to any child that is curious, adventurous and has an overactive imagination. I also think that this is a book parents might quite like, too!

4. Is the main character in this story based on yourself or someone else in your life?

The main character, Motti, is very much based on me and my upbringing in Israel. In a way, Motti is the child I would like to have been. Why? Because Motti managed to come to understand what his parents had gone through younger than I did – I only came to that acceptance in my late twenties.

5. Do you think there are any differences in how Hebrew- and English-speaking children may interpret this story? Does the translation lose any of the meaning and/or gain new meaning?

The Hebrew version of the story is somewhat ambivalent – that is, it is actually a story for adults although it’s positioned for a ‘young adult’ market. In the Hebrew version, the older you are, the better you will understand the characters and sympathize with them. The English version of the book was adapted for younger children and it is more ‘politically correct’. For instance, in the Hebrew version, when the children are near the cemetery they see a sign stating ‘The Righteous Will Save You’, which Motti’s father – a survivor of the camps – bitterly equates to the sign ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’. This is not the case in the English version. The English version is more ‘sanitized’ because the norms of the 1960s are outdated in today’s English society.

6. Can you offer tips or words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

The most important thing is to be yourself in your writing. Don’t try to be didactic or to ‘teach a lesson’ with your words. The story should speak for itself.

7. Do you have any writing inspirations? What were your favourite books as a child?

As a child, I loved adventure books: Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven books as well as Mark Twain and Jules Verne. I loved detective stories too – I guess I saw myself as a kind of Sherlock Holmes. I was also mad about funny books like Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.

Today, I take my writing inspiration from all kinds of classic literature: Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov. And Israeli writers too: David Grossman, Shai Agnon, Amos Oz, Ephraim Kishon – all the heavy hitters.

8. Where do you stand on the ‘Own Voices’ debate? For a Jewish story, do you think it’s important to have a Jewish author? Could this story have been written as well by a non-Jewish author?

In this case, because the story is based on my own experience as a child of Holocaust survivors, it is hard for me to imagine that someone who didn’t grow up in this kind of atmosphere could pen such a book. I think there are many Jews in Israel who would struggle to have written something like this because it would be beyond the realm of what they could imagine. However, in general, I don’t think you need to be a Jew to write a book about Jews, just as I don’t think you need to be a woman to write a book from a woman’s perspective. Actually, I also wrote another book entitled Amit, Dalit, Shavit and the Ripped Flyers Mystery and the narrator is a 12-year-old girl.