Q & A with Sarit Yishai-Levi, author of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem

Blog_Sarit_picWhat is your inspiration behind The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem? How did you come up with the novel’s title?
This may sound strange, but the inspiration for The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem came from within me. I did not set out to write an epic novel, but having started, it felt like someone was sitting at my shoulder, whispering in my ear and leading me through the story, through its twists and turns. That experience had been my life for the 6.5 years it took me to write this book.

I don’t remember exactly when I picked the title The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, but when the character Rosa mockingly calls her daughter Luna “the beauty queen of Jerusalem,” I knew instantly that this should be the book’s title. My Israeli editor wasn’t very happy with the title, but I insisted.

You’re a well-known Israeli journalist. How is writing a novel different from the work you do on a day-to-day basis? 
There is a world of difference between writing a column or other journalistic story and writing a novel. In journalism it is necessary to be matter-of-fact, even lean, and to narrow down the story handed to you by the subject. The person who is interviewed is the center, and the journalist is merely a vessel to channel their message to readers. The words are theirs, as well as the drama and the story. When writing a novel you have all the time in the world to tell your story. It is you who put words in the characters’ mouths and thus create the drama, the highs and the lows. You build a whole world, and it is a very exciting and rewarding experience.

How has the success of the novel changed your life, personally and professionally? Blog_BeautyQueen_pic2What is it like to have your novel published in multiple languages and countries?
The publication of the book changed my life completely. Its phenomenal success in Israel made me instantly famous. I did many interviews, TV spots, and talks. Before the book came out I was Sarit Yishai-Levi, the journalist. Now, I am author and journalist, and for me it is an absolute dream come true.

The moment I held the Italian edition of the book (Italy is where the novel was first published outside of Israel) was very emotional. The fact that people in another country had read my story moved me to tears. When I went to Italy for the book launch, I visited the famous Rizzoli bookstore in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. Seeing my book featured on the main table there was overwhelming. Since then the book has been translated to other languages, and I am very excited each time I hold a new edition of it. I am especially looking forward to the book’s upcoming release in English. I truly hope it will move American readers as it did Israeli readers.

Who are your favorite novelists? Were there any writers or books that inspired you?
My favorite authors are Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ayn Rand, Paul Auster, Paullina Simons, Victoria Hislop, Maria Duenas, and the Israeli authors Amos Oz, Meir Shalev, David Grossman, and Zeruya Shalev. Books that have inspired me: A Pigeon and A Boy by Meir Shalev, The Island by Maria Hislop, and The Time In Between by Maria Duenas. My all-time favorite novels are Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
One should be able to forgive others before one is able to forgive oneself. In order to love another, one should love oneself. Love conquers all. In addition, I hope readers will embrace the story of the Ladino-speaking community that has resided in Israel for generations as the story of Israel and an important part of its culture and history.

What’s up next for you?
I am now finishing a new book, scheduled for release in early 2017 in Hebrew by Modan Publishing House. Filming for the movie adaptation of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is scheduled to begin at the end of 2016 in Israel.

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