Anyway, there was something about interacting with work in that direct way that was really upsetting to me. And I started to think about people who were comfortable with that, thinking about ownership, and owning material.
The idea of the story first comes from my sister's game—I've been carrying that story in my head for 20 years. And then I suddenly this pictured this pantry, and these couples. As it took form, I started to think: what about laying it over [Carver's] story?
How directly did you work with Carver's original as you wrote?
I didn't reread it for a long time, so I was working with my memory of the story. This is another big theme of the book—the way memories form into stories.
This is something that's particular to fiction. You watch a movie and it becomes a movie in your head, but you don't remember it and mistake it for a memory. Only with writing do people say—when did that happen to me?—and then realize they read it in a book. It's because you construct what you read in your mind, and if a written reality is successful, it becomes a memory. Not remembered, a memory. That's how story functions.
So I was echoing "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," but not the story that you'd find in a bookstore. It was the story as it existed in my memory. I probably hadn't read the original since I was [a fiction student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop] in the middle-90s—it had been 15 years! But I took the basics, as I remembered them—the daylight changing, two couples drinking and arguing around a table.
I love this idea—the way any story is an amalgam between the written version and your own experience. We could have a contest where people draw the kitchen table in my story, or in Carver's, and everyone would depict it differently. The round table you had growing up, or plates on the wall in your grandmother's kitchen—these details work themselves into the way you imagine the story. And that was what I was working with: not Carver's story specifically, but my memory of his story. The story as I own it. My version.
Once it took form, I decided I was really going to own it—I'm going to give it this echo, I'm going to give it an allusive title, I'm going to make this clear. Then I went back to the original, to marry the two to each other and totally weave them.
The characters in the title story debate to what degree the Holocaust acts as a kind of cultural glue—a horrific, but necessary reminder that fosters solidarity and helps Jewish identity persevere. Do you take a position on this?
It's not a book exploring the Holocaust—but for me it's interest in the idea of the Holocaust, how it's harnessed, how it's used, and how it's abused. When people tell you, "that's what our memory means, and you're betraying this idea"—that's the moment I want to explore.
So arguments based upon a rhetoric of ownership especially interest you? I see this in the title story—the two couples argue about how to be Jewish in "the right way."
Oh, absolutely! And you see this everywhere. Look at what's happening in America now. I'm sort of obsessed with it as I watch all the Republican debates—the idea of people making claims about what it means to inhabit an identity. So little of the stuff that's happening here in America doesn't surprise me because I've been there in Israel. [Englander spent many years living in Jerusalem.] I'm really familiar with this kind of politics.
I think, almost to a person, anyone who calls themselves a "patriot" seems to be trying to dismantle the America that the founding fathers were dreaming of. This claim of patriotism seems to be saying that government is a problem, and we should do our best to dismantle government and the services that government provides. Everyone's screaming "I'm an American, I'm an American," but the people screaming it loudest seem to have the weakest grasp of what America is and was intended to be. The claim seems to be: this country's turning socialist, so let's revert to feudalism.
In Israel, I've had this fight a million times. The best part of living in Israel, which has many downsides, is that when you come back to America and you're in some giant argument with a bunch of other Jews, you get to say: I live there. Which loosely translates to "shut the fuck up."
Though Jewish identity is clearly of central importance to your work, you reject the "Jewish writer" designation. Why is that?
I've always felt this way, but I've finally formed a clear answer in my head after 15 years. People always say "you're a Jewish writer," but for me there is no divide. I'm Jewish. And I'm a writer. I talk about this with my writer friends who get different versions of the same thing—"Let's hear the black writer question. Let's hear the gay writer question." Nora [Ephron] says she's been fighting being called a "woman director" her whole career—why not call her what she really is, a badass director?
People always ask me "How did Judiasm work its way into this or that story," that kind of thing. But no one's asking Denis Johnson how being a Christian affected Jesus' Son. "How has Christianity affected the crushing of the little bunnies?" [He's referencing a plot point in Denis Johnson's short story "Emergency."]The real question should be—how does being alive in the world, as a human being, spark your creativity? We talk about the constructs that divide people, but experience is universal.
The point is, these characters aren't "Jewish people" to me. If it's okay with everyone, if we could all just see them as people—that would be great. I understand that some amount of categorization is unavoidable, everyone has to do it. It's how we make order. But don't expect me to represent my work as genre fiction.
Last question. Do you have a favorite bookshelf, and what's on it?
My one beloved shelf that I love to look at has Chris Adrian, Alexander Hemon, [Thomas Mann's] The Magic Mountain, [Isaac Bashevis] Singer, [Bernard Malamud's] The Magic Barrel, Black Boy by Richard Wright, John Cheever, The Brothers Karamazov, the love stories of Yehuda Amachi in Hebrew, Marilynne Robinson's Home in Hebrew. And Marilynne Robinson's copy of the New Testament that she gave me when I left Iowa. It's a crazy shelf!
That's one of the shelves, when you come to the house—don't read the books from that shelf. Those aren't touching books. Go in the bedroom—they're triple-packed in there. Take what you want, you don't need to bring them back.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity and length.