Why We Keep Talking About the Holocaust

It was 20 years ago, half my life ago, but I remember my sister saying about someone—"he would hide us, and she would turn us in." And it stuck with me for two decades. Because she was right, and I knew it in my heart. This feeling comes through in the ending of the story: the acknowledgment that, if the world changed in a moment, I know someone who would really risk his life to save me. And I know someone who would really turn us in.

The title story overtly references Raymond Carver's classic short work, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." There are clear structural and thematic links between his story and yours, and several implanted allusions. What was your process of using Carver's work as a template?

It's funny, because I couldn't wrap my head around this kind of influence for a large hunk of my life—the gesture of layering one story over another story. How can you write West Side Story when it's Romeo and Juliet? That's not your story to write—that's Romeo and Juliet! And I love West Side Story, but I deeply believe that story is infinite. I'm terrified by people who think otherwise. If you believe everything under the sun has already been written, well—I rarely recommend that you kill yourself [laughs], but if that is truly the world that a person lives in, honestly, life is not worth living.

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.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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