A writer's life

The invisible refugee finds a home in Liad Shoham’s thrillers

The country’s #1 thriller writer talks about his first two books — both about brutal events in the city of Tel Aviv — being translated into English

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Liad Shoham, attorney and thriller writer, hanging around Tel Aviv's Shuchnat HaTivka (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Liad Shoham, attorney and thriller writer, hanging around Tel Aviv's Shuchnat HaTivka (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

In his rumpled button-down shirt and trousers, the expected pair of retro-framed eyeglasses perched on his intelligent face, Liad Shoham sticks out like the white Tel Aviv lawyer he is. Surrounded by mostly male African refugees hanging around the curbs and benches of South Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park in the late afternoon, the two of us get a few glances, but Shoham’s not paying much attention.

For Shoham, the country’s number one thriller writer, Levinsky Park and the surrounding blocks have become familiar territory, having served as his literary toolbox in “Asylum City,” his most recent thriller in which the ongoing social issues of the transient refugee population are the backdrop to the drama that unfolds in the novel.

Telling the complex story of Tel Aviv’s African refugee community through the narrative of Gabriel — a young refugee whose sister is sold to Bedouin in Sudan and who is himself implicated in a rape — “Asylum City” is currently #1 on the bestseller charts, and is also Shoham’s second book that’s being translated into English by American publisher Harper Collins. The first was “Line Up,” his previous thriller about the investigation of a brutal rape in north Tel Aviv, which will be coming out in September; the English translation of “Asylum City” should follow about 12 months later.

“It’s the dream of any Israeli writer to be translated into English, and I wanted that as well,” admitted Shoham, who said he received a handsome advance on each of the English translations, a figure he prefers to keep private. “My publishers told me to first succeed in Israel, to become the crime writer, and that’s what I did.”

It’s a smarmy-sounding comment, but Shoham is the farthest thing from insincere, a 41-year-old commercial attorney who is one of the country’s most prolific thriller writers, having written one book a year for the last six years, including “Retrial,” “A Week in the Life,” “Unlisted Number “ and “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree.”

After some conversation, it becomes fairly clear that Shoham is just one of those productive types, a person who needed a hobby and started out writing short stories until a wise editor at publishing house Kinneret Zmora Bitan pushed him into the thriller business, correctly assuming that Shoham would tackle each book neatly and precisely, handling the research and writing with his usual aplomb.

Shoham said he was doubtful at first, thinking, “How can a nerd like me write thrillers?”

Efficiently, as it turned out. He insisted on having an editor who worked with him on a regular basis, reading through his pages, solving the problematic twist that occasionally cropped up. Now, however, he’s figured out the rhythm of his work, commenting that the busier he is, the more efficient he becomes, and the more successful, it seems. “Asylum City” was recently optioned by satellite channel YES for development as a television series; Shoham is hoping the end result will be something like “The Wire,” a favorite show, he said.

With two small children — one of whom, his 4.5-year-old daughter, Rona, is the protagonist of Shoham’s recently published children’s book, “Daddy is Building a Cake” — as well as his full-time job, Shoham delineates the evening hours for writing. He thanks his wife Osnat, a member of pharmaceutical maker Teva’s financial team, for allowing him the space to do so. She’s also one of his main readers.

“I write every day,” he said. “It’s like work. There’s no muse at all.”

Or if there is a muse, it’s the local color and people of his native Tel Aviv, which has figured as the background for all his books so far.

“I always start with an investigation, but the images I see are the most important,” said Shoham. “Each story generally has a beginning, middle, and end when I start working on it, but these scenes fill out the detail.”

He didn’t have to venture very far for “Line Up,” which takes place in his own neighborhood of north Tel Aviv, but with “Asylum City,” that meant heading to the rundown blocks of Shchunat HaTikva, one of the few poverty-stricken sections of the city that has always been home to the lower echelons of Tel Aviv society, and is now refugee central. Thousands of Africans have made their way here over the last few years, escaping civil unrest in a handful of countries and becoming part of Israel’s larger social welfare issue. With reports of rising crime initiated by African refugees seeking all sorts of answers to their troubles, this transient population is affecting the tenor of Tel Aviv, and the novel picks up on that tension.

“The topic of ‘Asylum City’ is tension,” said Shoham. “The story is about an outsider, someone with no family, no ties, no work, no place to live.”

Shoham spent a chunk of time roaming around the Tikvah neighborhood, meeting with refugees similar to the fictional Gabriel, men who carve out living spaces in the slides and tunnels of Levinsky Park. He talked with police officers from the local precinct, “guys who love to talk about their work,” and have found themselves fully occupied with the refugee population.

He was intrigued by minute details of the refugees’ eked-out existence, from apartment doors painted with numbers that represent the cost of a bed for potential tenants to the logistics of sending money back to the family in Africa, given that refugees aren’t allowed to open bank accounts in Israel and their families back home often “live in a hole in a wall.”

“This area isn’t all that far from where I work, but it couldn’t feel more distant, and that’s what I wanted to draw upon,” said Shoham.

A stroll with Shoham around the streets demonstrates that indelible African influence, walls scrawled with graffiti in less-than-familiar script, makeshift spaces filled with rows of plastic chairs presided over by a flat-screen TV broadcasting shows from African countries, houses of worship, and the occasional grocery store, its shelves filled with the spices and grains common to the Eritrean and Sudanese palate.

But despite the concrete examples of how the refugee population has insinuated itself into local society, there’s an invisibility built into the refugee community, a concept Shoham explores at length in “Asylum City.”

“The invisibility is what both sides want,” said Shoham, commenting that it’s a theme that has repeated itself with many of the non-Jewish populations existing in Israel. “We have the Palestinian issue, now it’s this,” he said, gesturing to Africans loitering on a nearby curb. “They clean our state, we need them, we don’t need them.”

“I wanted to understand what the engine is behind the pressure they exert on themselves,” continued Shoham. “Israelis exert social pressure by telling you your mother will be embarrassed [if you’re not successful.]” With the refugees, it’s that there won’t be any money.”

As the publication dates for Shoham’s first English translations near, Shoham is curious about how both will be received, and “Asylum City” in particular, given the faintly critical theme running through the novel, as it explores the inherent racial tensions in Tel Aviv and Israeli society, particularly with regard to the African refugees. But he’s also cognizant of Israel’s relatively small refugee population, particularly when compared with what exists in European countries, where “Asylum City” has already been released in seven other languages.

“It’s so Israeli, to get all worked up and dramatic,” he said. “We’re sure we’re about to be decimated by the refugee population.”

As for Shoham, he admires the refugees’ “guts,” pointing at their decision to leave everything that was familiar to them and to make an active choice, “deciding to do something,” he said. “They’re diligent, industrious.”

“The people who came here are those who elected to leave,” he added. “Like my grandparents decided to leave Europe.”

Read an English translation of an exclusive excerpt from Liad Shoham’s bestselling thriller “Line Up.

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