It took Johnny Wallman 25 years to finish his book, which is a love letter to Israel. JLife’s Laura Sefton spoke to the self-published writer about his creation.
When he was a young man, Manchester-born Johnny Wallman decided to make the journey to Israel to serve in the army and so profound was his time there that he decided to start writing about his experiences. That was two-and-a-half decades ago. Now, he has finally finished and self-published his story that he wants to share with the world.
You have recently self-published a novel, ‘Zahal, A Love Story’. What is it about?
While the majority of the novel deals with the Israeli army, much is also directed towards general life in the Holy Land. I made Aliya in April 1984, filled with Zionist ideology. I knew nothing of the day-to-day life and procedures, like obtaining a driving licence or passport. Through a network of friends I learned the system. One of the aims of the book is to help inform new olim of basic life in Israel and, although living there and serving in the army is serious a business, I have tried to inject a tone of humour into my work – all these years on, I can laugh at my failures.
Did you find writing a good way to express your thoughts?
Yes, this was a cathartic experience. I joined a group of olim to the army. The first year of my service was incredibly traumatic. We had to deal with the rigours and complexities of serving in occupied territories and a foreign country. Add to that one of our group committing suicide and another going AWOL back to America, it was not easy. Perversely, the second year I served with native Israelis was a lot more fulfilling.
I began writing the novel after I left Israel in 1989 but kept stop-starting. I am not overly keen on the expression ‘closure’, but in this case, I think I achieved that when I finally completed the book last summer, 25 years later.
You say you’d like to inform and entertain both a Jewish and non-Jewish audience. Has your novel done this?
Overall, I have had really good feedback from Jews and non-Jewish readers. Israel has not had the best coverage over the past couple of years. A few of my non-Jewish friends have read the book and say they hadn’t really understood how complex the issues are in the Middle East. I was surprised at how much I didn’t know about the history of Israel before researching the book. Quite a few Jewish readers have said the same thing.
Trying to explain the complexities of Israeli society and politics can be fraught with danger, inconsistencies and contradictions. If Israeli politicians struggle, what chance do we have? I have tried to outline the basic history of Israel and the conflicts between Jews and Palestinians, religious and secular. I have tried not to be over-judgmental and perhaps some of my views appear contradictory, but then I think that is the nature of the beast.
Can you tell us a little more about your background?
I was born in Manchester in 1962. I attended King David Junior School and lived in a Jewish and Zionist home, joining FZY in my mid-teens and spending a year in Israel aged 18. Two years later I was back in Israel as a new immigrant. I always believed it a duty to serve and protect the country. Every Israeli has to do it, why should some middle class immigrant from England be any different? While in Israel, and on my return, I was heavily involved in the peace movement, although I admit, with age, some of my political views have hardened a little. I was actually at the peace rally when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
The 1980s were a tough time in Israel: inflation, poor wages, the Intefada. I found myself in a low paid job, struggling with rent, and doing reserve duty every few months. I was struggling with the political direction of the country, had England as an option and jumped. In truth, now I wish I had stuck it out.
Proceeds from the book are going to The Lone Soldier Centre. Can you tell us a little about the charity?
I have seen The Lone Soldier Centre’s fantastic work. It can be difficult as a lone soldier with no family in the country. It is not only financial help on offer; sometimes it can be Shabbat meals with friends, a friendly chat when maybe you feel a little low. They also offer help and advice for Israelis from broken homes.
The Lone Soldier Centre wasn’t there when I was a soldier. We had some very low points in the army, especially as our family was halfway across the world. An organisation like this would have helped us. Israel gave me so many good memories and if I can give anything back, I will be very happy. Many charities need our help and for the price of my book, readers can enjoy a riveting account of life in Israel and help a very worthwhile charity helping soldiers defend our homeland.
What’s next for you?
I am writing short stories and poetry. I am also planning a novel about my adoption as a baby and my search for my birth mother, which ended successfully about six years ago. I have had no formal writing training, and I’m sorry I didn’t go into journalism or a career in writing when I was younger, but you never know. Perhaps Zahal will become a bestseller. My novel and short stories all have a large element of truth. I don’t think I could write a fiction novel. In the meantime I will continue putting toasters on a supermarket shelf in the middle of the night and enjoy writing. Most importantly, I hope others enjoy reading my work.
‘Zahal, A Love Story’ is available through Amazon UK for £7.99 and JLife has a copy up for grabs. Email email@example.com by 15th February. If anyone has any questions or would like a personalised signed copy from Johnny, email Johnny at firstname.lastname@example.org.