This article is adapted from a conversation that took place on October 26, 2008 at the Yiddish Book Center.
ILAN STAVANS: Nathan, the first time I came across your short stories, I was struck by your commitment as an author to shock your audience. There are stories that deal with Stalinism, stories that deal with a bomb explosion in Jerusalem, the Orthodox community, and sexuality – all situations that define and connect us as Jews today. Could you begin by talking a bit about your relationship with your readers – and about whether that sense of shock, of shaking the person who’s on the other side of the page, is part of your mission?
NATHAN ENGLANDER: It’s always nice to talk to a good reader because it forces me to process the work in a new way. I’ve been talking about that book for a decade, and I guess the subject of shock never comes up like that. I write distant worlds. I’m a deeply private person, and the distant settings allow me to be extremely intimate and get to the real core of the issues that concern me. So, in answer to your question, I walk around shocked. But the idea that I would manipulate the reader would be actually troubling to me.
IS: Do you have any particular reader in mind when you are writing your story, or is it you, not only as an author but also as a reader, to whom you are targeting the story?
NE: There’s me the writer, then the narrator of the story, the story itself, and then the reader on the other end. The goal is to have that middle space, the distance between, disappear. That’s the magic, when everything drops away. Writing, for me, is about the obligation to story; my obligation to tell the biggest story there is, in the most pressurized form.
IS: Do you envision yourself writing for a particularly Jewish audience?
NE: I’m supremely thankful for the support of the Jewish audience, but on my end, I write stories about people. Simple as that. I just flew to Italy for a Jewish festival, and I accidentally, or not accidentally, said, “There’s no such thing as Jewish writing. And I’m not a Jewish writer.” The woman who had organized the festival said, “You know, it’s kind of the theme of the festival, so if you could not say that while you’re here, I’d appreciate it.”
IS: Does it make you uncomfortable to be described as a Jewish writer?
NE: No. It comes from a point of strength in me. I write about Jewish stuff. For me, that’s a complete universe. I was raised in a specific generation; I was raised at a time when people felt safe stressing their Jewishness in America. I was raised like a shtetl Jew in suburbia, so my brain was formatted in a certain way: everyone in my world was an Orthodox Jew. And so this idea, that I’m supposed to see a character come into the room, and say, “A Jewish man walks into a room” – it’s insulting. This idea that I’m supposed to see a man that is like me as “other” in some way. That’s somebody else’s eyeballs. It’s madness.
IS: Talk to me, Nathan, about that shtetl in which you grew up, your current relationship with the Orthodox. In your collection of stories the critics, and readers, were caught by this fabulous world of Orthodoxy. It appeared that you were pushing it far away from you, but in interviews you reacted in a different way. So the Orthodox in you – your childhood and your present. …
NE: When you leave a closed world, it’s like a slingshot. You don’t just step away. So I was out there trying to break every law, you know…like, eat a limb off a living animal, any ancient law I could break. When you leave, it’s so extreme. But then everything calms down. We’re all supportive of each other in my family. We don’t just “tolerate.” Tolerance is the most insulting concept. I don’t tolerate my religious family, and they don’t tolerate me. We respect each other.
IS: Does your family read what you write?
NE: Yeah, they’re great. My mom believes in art, she was always raised with respect for art. I push her to the limits, but oddly, she doesn’t break. She’ll kill me on almost any front if I’m not a good Jewish boy, except the art thing. If it’s for a story, they can read anything.
IS: How and when did you become a reader?
NE: I think it was that we read on Shabbat. You’d get a big fat novel and read it. That’s what you did. That’s when I started reading. And in high school again, when I wasn’t getting the answers I wanted, I turned to fiction. I was so deeply religious, sincerely and deeply religious. The rabbis don’t want to answer your questions, and you look elsewhere. I had the basic theological questions, you know, about the assumption of the existence of God. It’s always the good English teacher, she got me reading Kafka, Camus, Conrad…all these people who don’t have the answers but are not afraid to look at the questions.
IS: By running away from the Orthodox, as you put it, did you also run away from God?
NE: God ran away from me. No, my answers to that question always sound like a Woody Allen joke – I’m a failed atheist. All my friends from high school who left, they’re so much better at being atheists than I am.
IS: So a failed atheist is a believer?
NE: I wouldn’t go that far. I’m just not wrestling with certain questions. The only time I’m ever decisive is with fiction. That’s why I love it. You must choose a word. You must make a decision.
IS: Is there something religious in writing?
NE: For me – wholly.
IS: Wholly, with a “w”?
NE: Both, actually. I meant “utterly.”
IS: And by being raised Orthodox, you were also raised with rituals. What relationship with rituals in general, not only with religious rituals, do you have today? Rituals in writing or rituals in your life?
NE: I like routine. I’m an obsessive personality, as opposed to addictive. So my writing routine is very ritualistic. For me that involves, say, stopping by the same coffee shop every day. Or using one kind of pad, one kind of pen. As for the coffee shop: writing is isolating, but I’m a hyper-social being. I have friends who are true misanthropes – you could drop them to the bottom of the sea in a box and they’d be fine. But I love people, which is bad for a writer.
IS: Tell me how a story comes up or how an idea comes to you as a novel.
NE: The forms are so different. I explain it this way: Going from stories to a novel is like having been a painter and switching to industrial sculpture. They’re just utterly different forms. As for novel ideas: something better demand to be a novel. The things I wanted to explore in Ministry just needed all that extra space, all those extra layers.
IS: Do you prefer one form against the other?
NE: No, I love them both. I get obsessed with whatever I’m working on at the moment. With the novel, it was the idea of realities. Living in Israel, I started to understand that there were multiple realities. And I wanted to explore that in a book. This idea of conflicting realities – not positions, not viewpoints, but distinct realities – functioning under one roof. In thinking about it for a decade, I’ve come to believe that there is more than one reality, but, I like to think, still a singular truth.
IS: Let’s connect the truth with authenticity. You wrote a piece shortly before or as the novel was about to be published in which you said that you wrote the book without having been in Argentina recently.
NE: Before I was a writer, after college, in 1991, I went down to Buenos Aires for six weeks or so.
IS: Does the writer need to experience a place in order to explain that place to others?
NE: You must own a world. That’s what fascinates me, the idea of dreaming a reality and dreaming it true. You want someone who has lived through a time you’ve dreamed about, written about, to have that person say, “How did you know?” That’s what you need to be striving for when writing.
IS: How did that Buenos Aires emerge in your mind?
NE: You can pattern your brain. If you dream something enough, think about it enough, write it enough, I think you should be able to imagine what was. I should be able to pick someone in the audience and say, “You – I’m going to write your life.” And if I work hard enough, for enough years, I should be able to bring it back to you and say, “This is where you went to summer camp.” And you will say, “That was my bunk. Exactly.” People often ask how I wrote about Argentina in 1976, but I often think the bigger leap in this novel is the mother. I’m not married, I have no kids, so to dream parents, to dream a mother, and then to dream a mother of a missing son – that to me sometimes seems the greater leap.
IS: How does a single man in his forties get inside of the mind, the spirit of a mother, of a father, of a family?
NE: Firstly, I’m not yet 40. Still some time there. I guess this is a question that applies to the writing process itself. Up until now, I’ve been an obsessive redrafter. I often compare it to how they make Samurai swords – how they get their tensile strength, the decorative swirls. You fold the metal and re-hammer it and re-hammer it, and then fold and hammer again. I think of the writing process the same way. That’s how a world gets built. In this case I started with bunches of characters, multiple generations, four different continents. I drew it out and then folded it back in, so over time – all of that – it became one mother, one father, one son…to be real to my readers, they had better be real to me.
Nathan Englander is the author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Knopf, 1999) and The Ministry of Special Cases (Knopf, 2007).
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.