Novelist Nathan Englander on writing and theater, the universal appeal of Nora Ephron, and how 'Jewish writing' is not a genre
It's not that much of a surprise that Nathan Englander looks like the kind of person who stays up till all hours tinkering with his writing in endless pursuit of the perfect sentence.
Writing is Englander’s craft, his passion, and as he himself has often noted he puts an enormous amount of work into every page. When I spoke with him over coffee last week in a Fort Greene cafe, he had the sleepy eyes with faint circles underneath, the unkempt wavy hair to show for it. And he spoke at a rapid-fire pace, tossing out non-sequiturs alongside sharp observations and ideas as though composing the rough draft out loud.
He’s sure to deploy plenty of both when he reads from his work and chats with his friend, Nora Ephron, tonight at 7 p.m. for Selected Shorts at Symphony Space.
Since his best-selling debut short-story collection, For Relief of Unbearable Urges, came out in 1999, his name has been mentioned frequently among a generation of writers—Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith—who found their first success in the rosy pre-9/11 days, but were soon being relied upon to usher literature into a different era.
But unlike the Midwestern Gen-Xers at loose ends who populate Franzen’s work, or the eccentric immigrants in Gary Shteyngart’s fiction, Englander fits the mold as his generation’s New York Jewish storyteller, heir to Roth or Bellow, using Jewish characters and milieus in the way Updike played with WASP ones. When I mentioned this to him, he noted that he prefers a more simple designation, “It took me a long time to see that I’m just telling my stories," he said. "Jews with pride will say you’re a Jewish writer. Then a gentile would say you’re a Jewish writer, but it’s not fucking genre fiction.”
Englander grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community of West Hempstead, Long Island, and the characters in his stories reflect those he knew in his youth: elder Jews in the twilight of their lives; Hasids who just want to make the perfect wig; bullied Yeshiva boys.
“This idea of people who write their lives … it’s really concepts of truth,” Englander said. “What is fiction and what is a truth, and how that melds.”
Then he stopped for a moment to think, which was one of the few times during the conversation when he actually took a pause. He then went on, as though he had broken through to a deep truth, “I always talk about writing as if I’m doing bong hits in my mother’s basement.”
Given Englander’s frantic manner, the image of him stoned in the suburbs is the last thing one could imagine. His newest short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, (out February 7) comes three years after his debut novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, a work that took him nearly a decade to finish. After Special Cases was finally done, Englander decided to return to the short form, which was what had made his name in the first place.
“I needed that decade where I couldn’t brush my teeth or get groceries. I had to focus on that and now there’s this free moment of I’m going to focus on 3000 things,” he said as he took another sip of his coffee. “I really felt like I would like to write a book of stories.”
It’s apt that one of Englander’s first events to promote the new book is a staged reading; his fiction seems to lend itself more easily than most to theatrical interpretation. One of his earlier stories, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” is being staged at the Public Theater in November.
Yet when it was put to him that the title story of his new collection is similarly ripe for theatrical interpretation, Englander initially looked a bit uncomfortable with the suggestion, and mentioned that some writers would feel insulted by the suggestion, before conceding, “Yes, I already have my eyes on that story as a play.”
Englander’s interest in the form has been helped thanks to a friendship with writer and director Nora Ephron, an early fan and champion of his. As he is of her work: “You can be in Scandinavia and make a joke from When Harry Met Sally," he said. "Her range is astounding.”
People recognize Englander. They recognized him in the coffee shop where he was interviewed, and they know his name from The New Yorker, where he’s published a number of stories. But despite such notoriety, Englander keeps a lower profile than many of his contemporaries, not a chronic over-blurber like Shteyngart, not behind a non-profit or an indie press like Dave Eggers or a genre-dabbler like Michael Chabon, and not yet the winner of any of the big prizes or a presence on the lecture circuit. He appears to be more content teaching masters students how to write fiction at Hunter College than getting his face on the cover of Time.
But with the new collection about to come out, the play’s premiere on the horizon, translations of Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s work and of the Passover Haggadah (with Jonathan Safran Foer) set for release, Englander seems content to let his work do all the talking.
Nathan Englander reads with Nora Ephron January 25 at 7 p.m. at Symphony Space for Selected Shorts.