S.F. novelist crawls under skin of suicide bomber, victims

When drafting his new novel, “The Wanting,” San Francisco writer Michael Lavigne made a challenging matrix for himself. His tale spans decades, takes place in Russia, Israel and the West Bank, and boasts three narrators, each with a different ethnic and linguistic background. And one of those narrators is a Palestinian suicide bomber.

It’s no surprise Lavigne would up the ante like that. His debut novel, “Not Me,” won a prestigious Jewish book prize, the 2007 Sami Rohr Choice Award for emerging Jewish writers, launching his writing career in spectacular fashion. That novel also featured multiple narrators, including a Nazi. With both books, Lavigne had to get inside the head of someone he would despise in real life.

Michael Lavigne

Lavigne will give a talk on Thursday, March 21 at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

“The Wanting” explores the life of a Russian-born Israeli man who is traumatized after being injured in a suicide attack. Lavigne not only examines that character’s backstory as a Soviet refusenik, but also the impact of the bombing on the man’s sharp-witted daughter and on the bomber himself, a ghostly figure stuck in an all-seeing purgatory.

“The hardest part was Amir, the Palestinian boy who becomes a suicide bomber,” Lavigne says. “I really got his voice after I went to Israel and talked to Palestinians and Arab Israelis. I had to separate out the terrorist attack from the person himself. The character I drew was a sensitive person, with an artistic side.”

This wasn’t easy for the lifelong Zionist, but he chalked it up to doing the job of a novelist.

Though the backdrop for his story includes the Soviet Jewry movement and the first intifada, Lavigne was more concerned with telling a simple, human tale. “It is a big canvas I was working on,” he says. “But all big stories are really small stories, and for me the only important thing is the people. That’s what I concentrate on.”

His Russian chapters proved easier to craft. In the 1980s, Lavigne lived in the former Soviet Union for three years, getting close to several refuseniks.

As hard as life was for those refuseniks, Lavigne says, “Once they made that decision to stand outside the system, they acted like free people. They understood that what they did in their lives had consequences. It was incredibly inspiring for me.”

Lavigne later saw parallels between the sufferings of the Russian Jews he knew and the general Palestinian population in the West Bank.

“This is not a political book, even though readers may feel that way. It’s much more a personal story about suffering and conflict in general, and how ideology can crush the human spirit. It’s personal relationships that matter,” he says.

The New Jersey native grew up in a Conservative home, benefiting from a good Jewish education and spending time in Israel as a member of Young Judea. He later launched a successful career in advertising, with clients as varied as the San Francisco Giants and Bernstein Salad Dressing.

But Lavigne longed to write fiction, finally breaking through with “Not Me.” The Rohr Prize not only provided welcome validation for the rookie novelist, but introduced him to fellow writers, with whom he has exchanged early drafts and mutual support.

The prize included a monetary gift that allowed Lavigne to spend several months in Israel for research. He met with scores of Israelis and Palestinians in an effort to fully flesh out his characters. In the process, he changed.

“I’ve always been for a two-state solution,” he says. “I became much more sensitive to Palestinian ambitions. You have to be able to hear the other side of the story. They can’t hear our [the Jewish] story, but we should at least be able to hear theirs.”

Lavigne is an active member of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El and a co-founder of the Tauber Jewish Studies Program there.

His early success with “Not Me” means he no longer needs his day job in advertising. Being a full-time novelist includes some surprises, however, such as reader feedback.

“When you write a book, you are in total control, you are god,” he says. “Once it’s out there, you have no control whatsoever.”

Michael Lavigne
will speak at 7 p.m. March 21 at the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. www.jewishlearningworks.org

“The Wanting” by Michael Lavigne (336 pages, Schocken Books, $25.95)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.