A conversation with Nathan Englander, the author of The Atlantic's March short story
March 3, 1999
Englander, twenty-nine, has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa, and has recently moved from the United States to Jerusalem, where, thanks to his book advance, he has installed himself in a bright, tidy apartment perched on a hill overlooking the Israel Supreme Court and the Knesset. He recently spoke to The Atlantic's Lucie Prinz, who was the first reader at the magazine to come across his work.
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Previously in Facts & Fiction:
Beth Lordan ("The Man with the Lapdog," February, 1999)
Carol Shields ("A Likely Story," January, 1999)
Peter Ho Davies ("Today is Sunday," December, 1998)
Richard Bausch ("Par," August, 1998)
Colum McCann ("Everything in This Country Must," July, 1998)
Elizabeth Stuckey-French ("Electric Wizard," June, 1998)
Chitra Divakaruni ("Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," April, 1998)
Francine Prose ("The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet," March, 1998)
Lee K. Abbott ("Everything, All at Once," February, 1998)
E. Annie Proulx ("The Half-Skinned Steer," November, 1997)
Garrison Keillor ("Talk Radio," October, 1997)
Tess Gallagher ("The Poetry Baron," July, 1997)
Larry Heinemann ("The Fragging," June, 1997)
Cynthia Ozick ("Puttermesser in Paradise," May, 1997)
More Facts & Fiction interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
No. I don't want to be judged that way. I am a writer, not a Jewish writer. People are always defining you by other writers -- they say you're the next Bellow or the next Roth. I reject that. What I write about is my world, the world I grew up in.
Do you admit to an affinity to some Jewish writers?
Yes, but it's as if I skipped a generation. I feel more connected to the experience of Isaac Bashevis Singer or Isaac Babel than to today's so-called "Jewish writers." But Leslie Epstein, who lives in Boston, wrote one of my favorite books, The King of the Jews.
Most of your stories come out of your own past, the Orthodox Jewish milieu in which you grew up. Why did you leave that world?
I grew up on Long Island, in a Jewish ghetto. Of course I went to the mall and had TV, but I lived in a kind of isolation: I had an old-country experience when it comes to thought. I went to the same school, a Yeshiva, for thirteen years, and I got a right-wing, xenophobic, anti-intellectual education. I was a very naïve, sincere child. I didn't know anything but my own small world, so I asked questions. At a school like mine, when you asked too many questions the rabbi gave you a box on the ear. I started looking elsewhere for answers.
In a nutshell, I'm no longer religious because of my religious education. It was a gradual process. I had questions for about a dozen years before I touched a single light switch on the Sabbath. It wasn't until I got to Israel for my junior-year abroad -- when for the first time I saw cultural Jews -- that I got nonreligious. I had the standard shtetl viewpoint: either you're religious or you're a bum. I had no idea that you could be a functioning cultural Jew. I didn't even know that was a choice.
Where did you go after high school?
Initially, I accepted a five-year business scholarship to Baruch College, at City College. Everyone in my high school class went somewhere like that -- to Yeshiva University or to Queens College. Our school's proudest moments occurred, every twenty years or so, when some kid would get a scholarship to Harvard but turn it down in favor of a Max Stern scholarship to Yeshiva University.
What made you choose a business school?
I'd been working every summer since I was fifteen, for my cousin, who was an arbitrageur. That gave me the idea of going to college on a scholarship and becoming a broker. I had no discipline and no education, and I thought money might be a way out of life in the ghetto.
So what started you writing?
I was discovered and rescued by that one teacher that fate inevitably puts in these parochial schools. She was the kind of teacher who finds the kid who is drowning and says, "Why don't you try reading a book?" or "Why don't you write something?"
As I said, I was a sincere child with theological questions attending a school where dissent was not tolerated, where these threatening men, the rabbis, couldn't deal with free thought. It was disruptive to the party line. So when my English teacher got me started reading books, she opened the world to me. Writing became my lifeline. I started writing really bad angst poetry, and other terrible things, but there were no other outlets. I used the tools at hand. If I had had a blow torch at home I might have become a welder, but I had pencil and paper. I started to write and that was enough of a lifeline -- I no longer needed the business-school option.
I was reading a little John Gardner at the time, and I knew he had started the program at the State University of New York at Binghamton. When I was ready to graduate from high school I begged my parents for permission to go to there. After that I was in the Iowa writing program from 1994-1996.
Iowa was a great place. Everyone was very generous, and I began to read a lot of very different kinds of writers, many of whom I hadn't come across before. There was John Gardner, of course, but I also discovered Raymond Carver, William Faulkner, Frank Conroy, the brilliant and wonderful James Alan McPherson, and also Thom Jones. I wrote most of the stories in my book while I was in Iowa.
How did you first get published?
Lois Rosenthal, of Story magazine, came to speak to the students while I was in the writing program at Iowa, and I was asked to pick her up at the airport. I just happened to have some stories -- "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges," "Reb Kringle," and "The Twenty-seventh Man" -- in an envelope on the driver's seat. She bought two of them right away for Story, but ended up holding on to "The Twenty-seventh Man" for three years before she published it.
"The Twenty-seventh Man" tells about twenty-six famous Russian Jewish writers, about to be executed by Stalin, who are joined by a twenty-seventh, a young unknown man who writes all the time but has published nothing. By some bureaucratic accident he has been chosen to die with the writers he admires most. In prison, awaiting death, he writes a story that the other writers praise. And then he is killed. How did you come to write this?
I had wanted to write that story for years. It's true that twenty-seven writers were executed by Stalin -- not all at once but over a period of years -- and I thought, My God, these people need a story. I felt like somebody should write it, but it took me a long time until I understood that writing it didn't require permission or ordination or something. I sat down and wrote that story, in very clunky drafts, when I was about nineteen. It's about a young writer who manages to make the decision to become a writer, which as the decision I was struggling with. I found that writing made me happy.
Another story set in the past is "The Tumblers," in which the people of the Polish village of Chelm, an invention of Jewish folklore, are being sent to the concentration camps by the Nazis. What drew you to this topic?
"The Tumblers" was a way of acknowledging the historical thread in my writing, perhaps as a bow to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who retold the stories of the people of Chelm. I consider these two stories my writing school in a way: "The Twenty-seventh Man" was my permission story, about making the decision to write, and "The Tumblers" is about my link to the past.
Do you rework your stories?
I do endless rewrites. The stories in this book have been worked over for years. In my mom's basement in New York there are boxes filled with drafts of my stories. For example, "The Tumblers" had been written so many times that finally I had to write it backward. I couldn't write it any other way. I wrote the last scene and then the scene before. I'd write a page or a paragraph or a scene, and would then just work backwards to the front of the story.
Usually your stories are set in places that are far away from your experience, but there is a story in your book -- "In This Way We Are Wise," about a bombing in Jerusalem -- in which the character has your name.
That was a departure for me. I'm basically a private person, and I don't usually write autobiographical stories. I write about distant places, because they make me feel much safer. It's much easier for me to write a story set in Stalinist Russia, or during the Nazi occupation of Poland, because writing is such a personal thing. I feel better if I can set my stories as far away as I can, or if I can make my characters very different from me -- that way I find it safer to really explore my ideas. Take my man in "The Gilgul of Park Avenue." Nothing could be farther from my existence than Charles Luger, a non-Jewish Wall Street broker who lives on Park Avenue.
Where did you get this idea, that a man like Charles Luger could suddenly feel that he has become Jewish?
I grew up as a little zealot always trying to out-religious the next guy. I noticed that it was the people who came from the least-religious homes who often got the most religious the quickest. The suddenness of that kind of change always interests me, especially since I turned nonreligious very slowly. I wanted to explore a spiritual change -- sudden and absolute -- in a measured, thinking, and formerly very sedate individual.
It's clear that you love the people you write about. Still, won't you be seen by some as a critic of the Orthodox way of life?
That's the easy way to look at my stories. People ask me, Are you going to have trouble because of this book? Are people going to attack you? But there's nothing to attack in here. These are just my characters, in the worlds I've created for them; they're human and flawed, and they're Jewish, too. If human and Jewish is a problem, I'm sure people will have problems with this book.
Now that you live in Israel do you see yourself writing more stories that are set there?
Well, my title story was written before I came here, and it's my Jerusalem story. I've only been in Israel for two years, and on the scale of things that's about ten minutes. Some people who come here are so happy to be living in Israel that they say "Oh, I was a plastic surgeon in America but here I love pumping gas." That's great, but I knew that I wouldn't be happy here if I wasn't able to do what I do: write fiction. The writing is important to me. Maybe one day I'll be an Israeli writer, but my stories have been with me forever. They're American products. It will be some time before Israel gets absorbed in me.
I live a very simple life here. I walk to the coffee shop and try not to get blown up on the way. The past two years have not been a quiet time; there have been several bombs in my neighborhood. It's really too close for comfort, but I've learned a lot. These are brave people, both the Arabs and the Jews. It's dangerous and messy and fascinating.
What are you working on now?
I'm writing a novel that has had fifteen different incarnations and has been with me for years. It's set in Argentina, where I went in 1991, right after college, for a friend's wedding. That trip to Argentina had a huge effect on me. The Jewish community there fascinated me. I was interested in how the decisions were made that got those Jews from Poland to Buenos Aires, and in what they've lived through. The people I met there had grown up under a dictator, and that's a very different world from growing up on Long Island.
Your book has gotten great prepublication reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and there's a lot of talk about the big commitment Knopf has made to it. Do you feel happy anticipation about all of this, or are you apprehensive?
If Knopf had said, "We'll let you choose twenty books from the backlist if you'll give us this book," I would have happily handed it over. So all of this is well beyond a dream come true. I'm beyond thrilled. It's overwhelming.
I do worry about this book. I want the best for it, and I don't know what all this attention brings with it. I've got a novel on the way, and then there'll be a third book, and a fourth. I just want to write better fiction, so I try to separate myself from the hullabaloo as much as possible. Maybe I'll start wearing sunglasses all night. Am I apprehensive? Yes. I've gotten lots of warnings, so success must be powerful stuff. But I'm happy with what's happened so far, and we'll see what happens next.
Do you think you might enjoy the attention this book will get, the questions that people like me are going to ask you?
It's already beginning. When people ask me things like "Why did you decide to write Chasidic short fiction?" I say, "Because I thought it'd be very lucrative." In London last month a Scottish guy was making this lovely speech, telling me what a story of mine meant to him, and I thought, Of course, I wrote it for you. I thought, Scotland's my demographic. I write so that the people of Scotland will embrace me. And it's actually true, in a way. If you ask me if I write universal fiction, I'll say yes. I don't think art is functioning unless it's universal. We live on a much smaller planet now, and have more access to one another. I'm going to respond to a work of art if it works, even if I've never seen anything like it before. So, yes, I want to write universal fiction. But, my God, who would have thought....
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