Boulevard Craft Interview: Nathan Englander
Nathan Englander and I talked by phone one morning early in the new year. Recently arrived at home in New York City, he was traveling to Paris the next morning to teach. I’d interviewed Nathan once before, and both times his élan and enthusiasm stayed with me as much as the content of our conversations. He answers questions as well as gives a running meta-commentary on the back-and-forth itself, sustaining both adroitly while endearing anyone within earshot. As an interviewer, you simply have to trust your recorder to catch it all. He told me when he goes on public radio his people plead with him to speak one idea at a time slowly and softly. He’d prefer, he said, to open thirty threads all at the same time. About half an hour into this interview he said, “I’m just glad in our second conversation we’ve gotten off the first question. I’m really in shape here. I’m succinct.”
Boulevard: Writing fiction is a way of engaging with the world, but in order to write well, you need to disengage, too. How do you handle these competing necessities?
NE: This sounds touchy-feely, but I’m such a believer that you never read a word I consciously wrote. When you read a writer who is serious about process, I believe what you’re reading is from where they fall away, and they’re accessing this other space. You can’t be conscious of the unconscious; that’s the whole point, and the writer has trained his or her self to type or to write to add language to that other world. It’s that bridge where the work gets done. If you’re being constantly interrupted, there’s no way you can get to that place.
This is one thing I scream at students, that I can’t say enough: maybe brains will change in an evolutionary manner, but right now as the brain is, in order to write fiction, one needs to be able to focus. I say to my classrooms that everyone in there might be a genius, but if it takes you twenty-seven minutes to have a brilliant idea, then you may never know you’re a genius because you’ll never work for twenty-seven minutes straight. Someone tells me, My story isn’t going well. I worked on it for ten hours yesterday. I ask them, Did you work on it for ten hours or did you work on it for three hundred two-minute increments? Did you write for two minutes then check Instagram then Twitter after a minute then—I don’t even know what the hell it is anymore—Spotify after a minute? Did you swipe for a while? Basically, if every sixty seconds you’re getting an alert then you only worked for sixty seconds. I’m so obsessed with the bifurcated brain and dissociative states. You don’t know your inner clock, but you have to make time for your brain to get there to make creative work.
Boulevard: Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of your stories, the initial spark?
NE: Different stories have different origins, and there’s always the point of torture, too. There’s always a clear point of genesis, and then there’s always the great challenge, which is what makes it interesting, at least to me sitting alone in a room all day.
With some stories I write toward an ending. With “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” I heard a couple talking in a kitchen. That story and the Argentina novel and the last novel, I saw these endings that were literally impossible to get to. I always call it “executing the un-executable.”
Whatever I grab onto, it has to seem at the moment impossible, like someone tinkering in their basement. I have to think to myself, There is no way to build this Israel novel with five different genres and seven timelines all crisscrossing—for them all to build to this moment.
I wrote a story called “Reb Kringle” about a long-gray-bearded, big-bellied rabbi who is out of cash for his synagogue, and he has to work as a Santa Claus. It’s just a punch line; the idea itself is a punch line. It’s a cheesy, bad joke a dad would tell at break from prayers in synagogue. But back to executing the un-executable: I said I want to build this as a sympathetic story. I want this to be real, and I want us to truly care about his conundrum. It can be funny, but it’s not a joke.
That was the challenge to building that story when I was starting out, like there is no way to build this so that it’s not just a punch line. That’s enough to build on for me where I’m like, I’m going to find a way to build this so this is an empathic person who is truly stuck. There is a rabbi who has to work as a Santa Claus and that pains him.
Then there is “The Tumblers” in that first book where I’m going to have Hasidim, in their underwear, from a fabled town, get on the wrong train and be mistaken as acrobats. I almost literally lost my mind building that story. It was so impossible to build this weird Holocaust fable that’s both a reality and not. To get them on that train in their underwear, I can’t even tell you how long and how many years and really how much hair pulling it was to build that story.
Boulevard: Knowing I’d talk to you this morning, last night I reread “The Tumblers” and was thinking that the story’s first few pages, its initial conceit, seemed so effortless.
NE: I have a seven-page version of that story from when I first drafted it, seven or nine pages that covers three generations and takes them to Brooklyn. Then I have a 150- or 160-page draft, 160 pages that takes them walking from the house to the square. I didn’t even get them onto a train in 160 pages.
To crack that story, I ended up writing it backward. I took the final scene, and from there . . . I wrote the moment before. To get fresh eyes, instead of writing from beginning to end, I drafted it from end to the beginning to find my way in.
I had been working it through for years, and it was going to go to press in this wonderful Austin quarterly, but there was something wrong. I was at my friend Melissa’s, leaning against her refrigerator, on the phone with the journal’s editor, and we all agreed there was something wrong. It just wasn’t the right ending. There are things you need to learn about yourself, and then I learned that when I used to draft stories, I would write the ending one page before the ending. I learned to find a sentence, cross out a page and be like, there. I spend so much time trying to teach my students, If you’re the person who makes the joke then adds the second joke, learn that about yourself. Cut off the second joke.
Boulevard: What else did you learn in the process of all those years of revising and rewriting “The Tumblers,” right up until publication?
NE: The other thing that I learned had to do with urgency. My buddy Glen Weldon teased me mercilessly when we were in grad school. I was trying to finish “The Tumblers” and fix it, and I was so worried. I was worried someone else was going to get their version of the short story out before me.
And I remember Glen from West Chester, Pennsylvania. You know, Glen, the least Jewish person I know, he’s like, Wait you’re worried someone is gonna scoop your story about mythical Jews from Chełm during the Holocaust getting on a train in their underwear and being confused as acrobats? And I was like, yes. He’s like: Take your time. Take your time. But I was in a panic, Oh, this is my story. What if someone scoops me? As if I had some breaking White House news.
Boulevard: You never know; there might have been some other writer who read “The Tumblers” and got furious. . . . You mentioned “The Gilgul of Park Avenue”—a story about a man who one evening, in the back of a cab, realizes he’s Jewish—which is one of my favorites. What was the thing in that story that was impossible to execute until you executed it?
NE: I was in some used bookstore in Chicago, and I saw a book in half- light, and I was like, Does that book have a clear layer of swastikas on it? You know, when the light would catch it, I was like, Does that have a fourth color, a laminate—are there matte swastikas on that book? And I looked at the back and it was all people who were saying, Dude, I was off the big island surfing, and I caught this wave, then I was like, wow, I was in Auschwitz. The whole book was a collection of people—with great respect for them—who thought they had the souls of people murdered in the Holocaust. I never read this book. I never cracked this book, but I put it on my shelf. It’s got to be here somewhere.
I started to think about gilgulim and the Jewish concept, which seems so not-Jewish but is, of souls taking on new life. Gilgulim literally means a circle, the circularity of the soul, how it comes back. Then I just saw this couple in a kitchen and I thought, What about if this guy comes in, he’s the Waspiest guy in the world, and he says, I’m Jewish.
What should look like the easiest thing in that story might have been the hardest; it was that moment [in the story’s first scene] of the knocking on the taxi window, making him a Jew. That’s it. That’s a huge ask. But that’s it. What should look to a reader like the easiest moment in the story because he has an epiphany, and he knows he’s Jewish, and he tells the taxi driver, Jewish right here in the back.
Boulevard: Can you talk about the genesis of your story “The Twenty-Seventh Man”?
NE: In Jerusalem, in college, I heard from a professor this story of Stalin having murdered the last of these Yiddishists. It’s safe to say pretty much no one was aware, and I just couldn’t handle the idea that Stalin had intended on silencing these writers and then, in a way, succeeded. I couldn’t handle that this was not a popularly known story around the world. These writers died with the greatest stories of their life to tell. Somebody owed them a story. They shouldn’t be erased that way.
So that obsessed me for years. I really did walk around for years saying that a real writer should write these people a story. I waited and waited, thinking somebody has to give these writers a story; they deserve this final story. And then when no one did I felt, with great respect or hopefully humility, I will try to write them a story.
And that’s that. So I was writing with that purpose. I wanted them to have a story, and that became the story I used for grad school and one of my first published stories and the first story of my first book. And it also ended up being my first play, which was a specifically weird and moving experience for me, to actually see actors every night walk across the stage as these people who were murdered and erased. These writers got to live again, in a way.
But really that story for me was also my dreaming of being a writer, and that story is about dreaming of being a writer and what makes a person a writer. That was my exploration of, what if I write my whole life? I wrote that story with no connections and no access to the writing world, nothing. My assumption, and who could assume otherwise, was that no one would ever read a word.
Boulevard: Joseph Stalin appears on the first page of that story, which is also the first page of your first book. Stalin, a real person in an otherwise invented world. Your first novel also deals heavily in the very real Dirty War in Argentina in the ’70s. How do you balance those nonfictional elements alongside the purely imagined elements of these worlds you create?
NE: Oh, that’s an awesome question. Though you didn’t ask me to rate your questions. The line between fiction and nonfiction is very clear to me, but a fictional reality better be a reality, not a less-reality, not an alternate reality. If it’s either of those then you’ve failed. It’s a fictional reality that becomes a complete and real universe to me, if I as a writer have done it right. One also has to recognize that it’s different from the world in which I’m walking around right now. That’s clear. You have to not lose your mind.
I spent almost a decade writing my Argentina novel, The Ministry of Special Cases. My Buenos Aires had to be real. I can picture the apartment from that novel right now because I spent more time in it than in a lot of apartments I’ve lived in. I can separate the two Buenos Aires, but mine’s got to be a real Buenos Aires.
This maybe goes back to Frank Conroy, who I studied with when I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. One of his concepts was that anything a story needs to be true is true by virtue of its necessity and anything else better be right. So I’m saying on my wall in my office in the New york Public Library when I was there, I had street maps of Buenos Aires. You cannot change a single turn or move a stop sign. If a story needs it you can, otherwise it better be right. And I like that. Frank would say, If you’re going to have a story where everybody flies, people can fly in your story, but if you hold their heads under water they got to drown.
My newest novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, is a political thriller that becomes a magic-realist-coma-history of Israel that becomes a love story that becomes an allegory. In that book I have a million characters from history who walked this earth. Abu Omar, Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres; I have whomever I need in there. But there’s a reason that my general was a general and not Ariel Sharon because Sharon isn’t welcome. He’s not in my book; that’s not him. you know what I’m saying?
Boulevard: That’s where the necessity part of the Frank Conroy advice enters in.
NE: Yeah. He is not my general. People who think of him as a hero think of him as a hero for all his warring and killing and the times he saved Israel. The people who hate him and loathe him hate him for his warring and killing and the Qibya massacre, looking away from the Sabra and Shatila massacre. That’s the point; he’s too explosive even for my mind. Back to me having to disassociate, I don’t want to touch him or use him.
Boulevard: I’ve always been curious about the title story of your third book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, specifically where it began for you creatively. Did it begin with the idea to write a story in the style of Raymond Carver, or did you begin with the story of this reunion between two old friends from middle school—one who’s secular living in south Florida and the other orthodox in Israel? Which came first here: substance or style? Or was it a third thing?
NE: No. So that’s literally neither, but I love what you’re saying. It did become what I call this homage to Raymond Carver. It absolutely is that in the end, but that is a reverse engineered thing.
A lot of writers, it seems, start really close, and then they get to write distant as their career goes on. To write a story about my true dream of being a writer, I didn’t set it in my life or at a mall on Long Island, I moved it to Stalinist Russia 1952. With the next book, for me to write about my despair over how much I want peace with Israel and Palestine and how much I was watching it fall away, I moved it from 1996 in Jerusalem to 1976 in Buenos Aires. Always I would go distant. I’d have to go far to get close.
Boulevard: What were you trying to get close to by going to south Florida in the early 2000s, when What We Talk About is set?
NE: My sister and I are fifth-generation Americans; we’re so Yankee, there are no words. But because of how our heads work or because of our yeshiva education, because of our lives, my sister and I, we have these heads that almost match survivors’ kids in a weird, bizarre manner. So my sister and I always made order of new people. We made sense of them by saying: Oh yeah, he would hide us. She’d drop a dime in a minute. We literally categorized new people we met; our brother/sister shorthand was who would hide us in the second Holocaust.
Years later I thought, Oh, that is actually not normal, that’s pathological, and that interests me. So I started building the story, and I have my two couples. I’m building my draft of the story, and then I had a memory, and that memory was of two couples at a table, a bottle of gin between them in the changing light of day.
I had that memory. I didn’t think of the story, and I didn’t think of words or of plot. I saw that image in my head and I was like, Wait a second. That’s not my memory. That’s Raymond Carver. You know what I’m saying?
Boulevard: Oh, wow.
NE: That was epiphanic for me on what story does. There’s no other art form through which you are all of a sudden like, Wait did that happen to me? No one ever says: Oh, wait that was actually Al Pacino in the bank in Dog Day Afternoon. You don’t suddenly remember like, Oh, no, that . . . oh, that’s in the painting Guernica. There’s no other art form I think than writing where it actually forms memory.
Boulevard: And then you decided to adopt the Carver style?
NE: I had an icky feeling; it almost made me tingle in an icky manner. I’d always thought we don’t write homage; we don’t link to other people’s work in that way. But I always think of Colum McCann saying he has one single rule for fiction, which is obligation to the story. Everything else can change over time. A rule is a rule until it’s not. I was really against the homage thing, but then I had this moment where I was like, Oh my God, that image is my image. That’s my memory. I knew it was from a Carver story, but I couldn’t have told you at the time which story it was.
That’s the moment where I married my story to the Carver story. And that’s when I wrote the two together, when I thought, Oh, this is an homage. It’s scary to touch an iconic classic American story like that.
Boulevard: To not only touch it but to make the homage your book’s title.
NE: I remember Colum, who’s such a wonderful support, saying to me: you cannot title your collection that. You cannot use this title.
I’m very thankful for the way it turned out. It could have gone the other way, like you do not touch the Carver title. You don’t alter the Carver title. And we really discussed this notion, where it’s going whole hog, like I’m going to do it. It’s not only that this is the anchor story of the collection, but you have to pick one story that represents the book. Yes, this is the first story, I decided. This is the title. We’re going for broke. Colum, as a friend, said to me, you can do this, but you need to know how badly it can go. And you know there’s a great Carver story about the death of Chekhov? Do you know the story?
Boulevard: No, I don’t. But tell me about it.
NE: I can picture the bedside and the room in the story, but I can’t tell you the title. [The title is “Errand,” published in The New Yorker in 1987.] But anyway, some smart professor who was in the audience somewhere told me that the Carver story my story was an homage to was itself an homage to Chekhov. It was so moving to me to have touched this Carver story in that way to weave our stories, to marry the two, and that Carver’s story was actually an homage to a Chekhov story. And that killed me.
Boulevard: And no doubt someone in an MFA program somewhere is reading your story, and who knows what they’re going to do with it, and they’ll be a link to Chekhov in their own way.
NE: And then if I see it I’d be like, now you’ve gone too far.
Boulevard: How do you know when a story is finally done? There is a sense that with any piece of art you could keep refining it and restructuring it, you know, forever.
NE: I used to say a manuscript’s ready when you can pry it from my cold dead hands.
Then there’s the Jenga metaphor that I use, which is you can’t set up Jenga and pull out one block and be like, I win. You didn’t win. And you can’t pull out all the blocks and have them fall down and say, I win. I feel like there’s a spot where you touch that last block that will have everything fall, like you have to pull out everything that can come out; you have to find this ideal form. You have to put your fingers on that last one that’ll topple it and be like, Ah, I’m done here.
A hundred years ago, when I was starting out, Gary Fisketjon, the very legendary editor at Knopf, said to me, I don’t want to see you at every party. Don’t be the guy with a lampshade on your head. If you just want writing parties, there’s not enough parties to keep you busy. If you choose a writing life, you better like the writing because that’s all there is to it. You know?
Boulevard’s interviews editor, Ryan Krull, talked to Nathan Englander not long after he wrapped up a book tour in support of his most recent novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Nathan published his first story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, in 1999, which was followed eight years later by his first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases. His 2012 collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and flow.