An Interview with Nathan Englander
Nathan Englander’s first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, was released late last month by Knopf. It’s been eight years since his short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges received near-universal praise by both reviewers and readers. He has managed to do it again.
The Ministry of Special Cases tells the story of the Argentine Dirty War of the late 1970s, through the lens of a single family: Kaddish and Lillian Poznan and their teenage son Pato, who is “disappeared” by the secret police. In his new book, Englander makes hard writing look easy, examining loss, grief, the bonds that hold a family together, and the unreasonable lengths to which men and women can be driven.
Englander agreed to an email interview. When I phoned him for a brief introduction, we ended up speaking at length. Luckily, I had the tape recorder running. In the end, I decided to forgo the email component and use our phone conversation here. Englander was a great sport about the change of plans. His candid insights into his life, tackling big subjects, and the high stakes of his first novel reveal a great deal about the mind of one of the greatest writers producing fiction today.
Do you like doing these interviews, or do you just get pushed into them by your publicist?
After a decade on this book -- I learned this last time -- I very much see this as part of the process. And I do like it. Certain friends of mine, you could lock in a box and drop to the bottom of the sea, and they’d be perfectly fine working. I’m a workaholic, but I also like people. So I don’t mind doing these and I’m thankful anybody wants to talk at all.
Do you live in the states still?
In 2001, I came back.
You’ve lived in New York since that time?
Yeah, I came back to my old neighborhood. There’s a coffee shop here that I like. All my other writer friends are in Brooklyn. I’m up on the Upper, Upper West Side.
Do you surround yourself with a lot of writers, or are you the only writer in your group?
It’s strange. That’s one nice thing about living here. My old friends are up here, like my best friend from nursery. Those are the friends I have around here, college buddies too. My agent and editor treat me like a delicate flower. They were worried that coming back to New York would be distracting or overwhelming. It was so nice in Jerusalem. There were the Israeli writers, but it was a very private, isolated way for me to work. I lived my life in Hebrew and worked in English. I wasn’t part of a scene. But really, since coming back, all my new friends, my closest friends, are writers. I hang out with an enormous number of writers. I feel very fortunate that the people doing good work and living in New York are a lovely, generous group of folks.
Is anybody in your crew publishing work that you really like?
I won’t start naming names because I’ll accidentally leave someone out.
What are you reading now, what are you really into?
It’s funny. I don’t know if I busted my head or something. I’m starting to wonder if it’s an age thing that has me reading more nonfiction lately, or maybe it’s the tone of the novel I just finished writing. But it’s pretty much all genocide all the time. I’m just starting Machete Season. And I read the Chernobyl book [Voices from Chernobyl], which I loved.
The other thing which is strange is that the more writer friends you have, the more time you spend reading friends’ books. Chris Adrian is a good friend from back in Iowa. I see his book up on the shelf.
I’ve been following Chris Adrian’s career, since 1994 or 1995, when he had a story called “High Speeds” in Story Magazine.
With the kid sitting on the teacher’s lap in the car?
Right. Absolutely terrific. It was so sad when Story fell apart.
There’s a subject to discuss. That was a great literary journal, and they really mixed established people with new people. I owe them so much. Chris too.
I know he just came out with The Children’s Hospital, but what did he do before?
Gob’s Grief. I sell it door to door.
Oh, right! Gob’s Grief is completely bewildering to me. I don’t know how he put that together. Structurally, it’s such a weird book.
Because he’s a freakish, freakish genius. The strangest, most original mind. I love him. His brain is just Chris’s brain. Who knows what’s going on in there? He’s going to have a book of stories soon. I hope “High Speeds” is in it. All those stories. There was one in the Paris Review that was great. They’re all great. Of those guys -- back to Story -- I’m reading the advance copy of Junot’s Diaz’s book. I just read A.B. Yehoshua’s A Woman in Jerusalem. I interviewed him onstage at the Y, and I really liked that novel. He has a really good take on Jerusalem, which I feel is so hard -- to draw that time, and I feel that he did a really good job.
Are there any modern writers with whom you’re totally unimpressed?
I was running with my editor the other day. She’s got kids and it’s a really nice time for us to go and have this time to run and talk. I really cherish that time with her. She’s one of the few people I’ll give literary opinions to and then slap my hand over my mouth. Obviously, I have an aesthetic. I feel like I must be supremely judgmental. Extremely. I am secretly probably cruel. But I never feel the need to be the person who announces it for other people. I don’t want to be that guy. I’ll be at a dinner party and think, now it looks like I have bad taste. People will be talking about a book, and I’ll be like, “It was lovely.”And everyone else is saying “Hack, hack, hack.” Now look at me. Now it looks like I can’t even read.
Before publication, I’ll rip my friends’ heads off because that’s done with love. But once it’s in between covers, I want to be my mom, where all the kids are handsome, everyone’s handsome.
What do you think of the writing program classics like Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver…
It’s so funny because the subject of writing programs comes up so much. I don’t teach very much. I’ve taught two semesters over the past ten years. For me, workshop was perfect. It was brutal being in workshop. I get more and more nostalgic for Iowa City. For the summer. No, not the summer, which is when the cows are exploding from the heat. Not the winter, where your skin freezes off. But in a general way, I get more and more nostalgic for that place. I like that structure. It was what I needed at the time. I liked teaching a lot too. Some of my ex students are of my closest friends. The decision to go to workshop is deeply personality-based. People ask me, “Should I go, should I not go?” It depends who you are. If you think you can go, then go. If you think it’s not for you, it’s not. You’ll know the first day.
For me, that community, that structure, it works. My experience is based on Iowa and those two semesters I taught at Columbia. But about the complaints, if they could guarantee an original voice they’d charge more money, you know what I’m saying? People always say, “It’s a workshop story, it’s a workshop story.” So… if they’re coming out more structurally sound or with better grammar even, I’m like, “Okay, great.” You have to bring your voice there.
As for the books you mentioned, those were really formative for me. I think you can sort of tell when people went to workshop by their sort of biblical, canonical workshoppy reads. For me, one of my favorite short story collections is Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. I feel like when I was in workshop, we were all like, “This is the bible.”
So, in workshop at Iowa, those ghosts are still there. To be there and think, “Okay, Flannery O’Connor was in a Quonset hut here and Raymond Carver…” I don’t even think of it as a school for writing. It’s like, Chris Adrian again, you pick up a story by Chris and you think, “I don’t know what’s going on in this dude’s head, but he’s doing the right thing.”
And you can get an education just by being in the same room with Marilynne Robinson for about an hour. I think if you put someone on the other side of glass from Marilynne, even with no sensory contact at all, I think you’d be smarter. Same with Jim McPherson. Just to look at them, you can see their seriousness. Just to look at their eyes makes you smarter.
It’s funny to talk to you because, I don’t remember my impression of you after the first book, but The Ministry of Special Cases is so dark in the end. I finished reading it and was so sort of drained. It’s nice that you’re not this dark guy.
I should be wearing a beret and a smoking jacket. It’s funny. I can’t help if this is where my head runs. I think a teacher in college explained it to me in a really harsh manner that was really traumatizing -- I probably didn’t write for a year afterwards. But it has to do with the way my head runs and becoming aware of it. In a sense, the stuff in the book that balances out the darkness, I really thought a lot about it. I desperately want to live in a black and white world, and it’s gray. Nothing is pure. The greatest tragedy is also funny. There’s TV comedy where it’s all yuks, but that’s not what art is. Not that I can achieve art. That’s an outside judgment. But in what one attempts to do, to cross the line from craft into something else, to make a book that one can stand by. I know this book is heavy. It’s not a conscious thing. Those decisions are made because of what the book seems to need. It’s not about thinking of the reader in terms of entertainment, thinking, “I must entertain. I must lighten this book.”
I think it’s ballsy. It takes courage. Especially for your second book on the heels of…
The ten year heels.
Of what was probably one of the bestselling, most award-winning collections of the decade.
I just want to write. And I just wanted to write this book after the last one. This is what I wanted to be spending my time on. And, to be on this end of it, I really feel that I’m pulling my head out of the sand.
I bet. As you approached the end of the book, was it a dark period?
I feel like I should get some of my friends in here to answer that. Get an ex-girlfriend and put her on speakerphone. “Yes, it was an extremely dark period in Nathan’s life.” I look at stuff now, and I notice that everything is broken or unpaid, or not dealt with and I literally forget that I was another person until now.
I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s like, I’m missing a shoe. I look down and see that I’m only wearing one shoe. Recognizing it, I think, How can I walk around like this? Why would I walk around with only one shoe? And I remember, oh yeah, I was in the book. That’s why I never noticed. And there are a million things like that in my life. Why isn’t that shelf organized, or why didn’t I write that person back or... I can’t understand why the person that is me didn’t do these things. And to that question my mother responds, “Because you were like a tortured madman working on this book,” and I remember and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s why.” I loved doing it, but it truly was a dramatic time. It was unbelievably intense, but that’s what I wanted to be doing, so I don’t see it as a bad thing. I was interested in the book, but now I see how unrelenting I was about not letting other aspects of life intrude.
Was there a lot of rewriting?
Yes, yes, yes. The ten years is not from not filling pages. I redraft compulsively. I throw stuff out. I don’t care. These are the things I get all religious about with fiction. I really do believe in process, otherwise I’d kill myself. I just have to believe that. For this specific book, I have to believe that the time and the drafting helped build a world that enriches the story. Nobody is writing all this stuff to throw it out. I don’t know anyone who works that way. It’s all intentional and for the book. You know, I spent a year writing Kaddish’s grandfather [who didn’t end up in the finished book]. You have to believe that the use of negative space functions in a central way. In this case, the story is so gigantic. The Dirty War story. It’s almost the belief system on which the novel hinges: that the true size of the story can only be shown through the space that is one family.
There’s something really graceful about the way you fit such a huge story into the book. I can think of so many writers who would make this same story an absolute nightmare to read.
I worried about certain dangers in the beginning -- so many things are funny to think back to because it was so long ago. I remember these very basic decisions, like, “I am me, writing my book. It will be my narrator once I find the voice.” Just because it’s set in Buenos Aires doesn’t mean that I have to have an angel in the backyard with feathered wings. You know. I mean, I love that story. I love Borges, I love Cortazar, all those guys, but I’m not doing that. I’m not writing magical realism. Step one.
So the other thing that became clear as I wrote was that I had to own a world that is very distant from my own. I put so much thought into this. To really know a place is not to address everything in it. There’s a fakeness to over-research. For me to be like “I’m in the subway, and look at that third rail, which electrifies the train, and it’s very dirty down there,” that’s not how I see the subway. I talk about this a lot with my friend. It’s like being a tracker in those old cowboy movies. There are eighty-seven cues I pick up the second I enter the subway, and they aren’t consciously acknowledged. Whether it’s the way people are walking or the click of the track or the density of the crowd or the way someone’s dressed coming up the stairs, I can tell you if it’s an uptown train or a downtown train. That’s how you own it. You have the cue that you need and everything else falls away. That for me was a huge danger for this book. To make it Lillian’s life is to throw out all these hundreds of pages about her, because a specific motion is going to be her, whether it’s unzipping a boot or whatever. That’s what real life is in a continuum. And, in the same way, that’s why I don’t use all my ten bazillion Dirty War facts. I’m not telling the story of every single person tortured, because that’s some sort of, I don’t know what. If I’m building a world, then these have to be the specific boundaries of the world, and that was one of the hardest things to figure out.
I would tell myself all the time while I was writing it, “The book isn’t called Look How Smart Nathan Is or Look at Nathan’s Most Excellent Theories.” I’d come up with these huge theories about society, about totalitarianism and write them into dialogue or whatever. Even the conversation between Lillian and the priest, there was a 30 or 40 page conversation that was one of the most painful cuts. I thought, I’m going to challenge myself, I’m going to get this down -- my 30 page point that I’ve spent years dreaming, the whole social philosophy, I’m going to say it in a line. And it makes me plain happy if anyone notices, if that line pops.
It’s such a more courageous approach, because it’s not minimalist either. It’s just precision. You can tell that you made really hard choices.
That’s really heartening to hear. It’s interesting because it’s chaos theory. The idea of pulling things out, wrestling with the painful cuts, and hoping that you’ll know when it’s critical that a section be returned. This book was easily twice as long, but there’s only one scene that came out that I just knew I needed back in. One of my friends still hasn’t forgiven me because his favorite line isn’t in the book. And I’d thought that line was essential. In the end, I knew the book had taken on the right form when that critical line, that there had to be a place for, no longer fit. Something had shifted, and as much as I personally felt it had to go in, I saw that it was no longer of that world. That’s when I knew the novel was done in its way.
That’s also probably a function of really understanding and accepting the scope of your book -- that you can’t cover it all, that you’re doing a certain kind of work.
I’d almost flip that, actually, and say that it all better be in there. It’s not that the other stuff is superfluous. I’m so superstitious, it’s almost like I treat it as holy. To me, it’s that the world of the novel better be complete and whole.
Did you know where you were going all along? Did you have a sense of exactly where you were heading?
It goes back to listening to the story. It took a long time for me to hear. All the parts had to morph and grow and drop and fold into one another. When Knopf was buying it before it was written, I sent them a page. That’s all I sent them at first was this one page.
I love that. That’s a moment when you know you’ve arrived.
Maybe that’s a bad story. It’s more that publishers don’t generally just want a collection. It was part of a two-book deal. But this idea -- I had this page, which was a central to the book. I always knew the book would be about Kaddish and cemeteries. It’s always been bones, bones, bones for me. But I had written this one page and it was weird to have to go find it eight years into the process and to go back and say, “I don’t believe this. I can’t believe that I’ve finally written this thing with an infinite number of threads and then realize that it’s time for that page.” I had to go find it.
It was one of the more intense moments of my whole life. I couldn’t believe it. Where’s that page? I had to go find it and lay it in, and with very minor tweaking, I just placed it, like a puzzle piece, in the novel. It freaked me out about the brain. I’d had this weird goal where I’d one day write this book that would make room for -- and justify -- this one moment.
As a writer, one hopes to be happy with the finished product whether it ever reaches a larger audience or not, even if it just sits on a closet shelf. How much of the success of this book for you hinges on the reaction it gets at large?
Everything. (laughs) You know, as you’re saying that, it immediately pops into my head that I split myself into different parts that way. When you’re composing and writing, above all, it’s about being happy with the work you’re producing. That other people will be seeing it, that’s a whole separate thing. I feel like it’s better to split those things up. Writing this novel demanded that I make endless wrong decisions about real life: every wrong career decision, every wrong financial decision, or life decision. It’s not sensible to spend so much time working in secret on a single project. And then when you’re done, it’s a different matter. It’s very honest what you just said about a manuscript sitting on a shelf. It’s all right if another part of you, the other you, wants it out there and cares about what happens. That’s why I call this the season of upsize-downsize.
For me, it’s like asking everybody in the world to the prom. You can’t pretend it doesn’t matter. I mean, I get paid once a decade. I joke about looking for horse farms on Craigslist while I’m telling myself that a root cellar might not be such a bad place to live. I can’t pretend that I don’t know that finances, career, a million different things are riding on it, not to mention personal sensitivities.
But looking at the book purely artistically, do you look at it and think, this is a real success? This is what I’ve set out to do?
There’s this writer, Barry Targan, who’s just a moral guy. He had some quote about writing a fiction he could bear. You know? And I really always liked that idea. It’s more that I knew that I would not let go until it was done. And everyone was nice about that. My editor. My agent. I missed every deadline. The book was supposed to come out this month because of some publishing strategy, and I ended up missing that deadline too. But I didn’t care. I needed two more weeks and I took them. As for finishing, at some point there’s a line, where you say, “I stand by this. This is the book and it’s done.”
Was there a moment when you got to really appreciate what you had done, when you felt that it was really over?
The nice thing about living in Manhattan after finishing the last one in Jerusalem and dealing with the FedEx guy -- the contracts say “on delivery.” I forgot that “on delivery” is so final in contract speak. I just got on the subway, and I delivered it. I walked into the building. I went in and said, “Here’s your book.” It was great. My publisher, Sonny Mehta, said, “I’d like to read it.” And I went to answer, and my editor answered first. And I realized, “Oh, it’s not mine anymore.” That was such a great, nice moment. For ten years people said, “Can I read this?” and I said, “No.” It was so secretive. But it was so freeing and weird to hear someone ask, “Can I read it?” and to hear someone else say, “Sure, I’ll make you a copy right now.” It became clear, it’s my book, but now it’s theirs. It’s such a concrete thing. Physical. Legal. It was such a pure moment in my life. It was literally out of my hands. That was really sharp and clear.
Are you working on something new?
I started this novel before I finished the collection. And that ended up being a great way to work, and that will be the way I will work from now on. It’s how I knew I was going to survive the novel, when brain space started to free up. You’re writing one thing and suddenly there are ideas for other things. I’m looking around in my head and suddenly there’s space. One minute I’m working in my notebook, then I turn the page or draw a line and suddenly I’m writing some other idea. That means that something has relaxed, something has made room, and something else can start to take root there or grow. So, yes, now I know the next book.
How do you write? Do you use a laptop?
It’s funny, as I talk to you about life, I keep thinking, “You know what be a cool experiment for the next book? To try and balance having a life that I’m involved with and writing at the same time.” I really want to get a dog or learn to call it a day at some fixed point and say, “At night I stop working and have dinner plans with friends.” Plans that I’d make in advance. I hate to have to be anywhere when I’m composing. When I’m done, I just pick up the phone to see who’s around.
What was the question? Oh! Longhand. Someone saw me working on a laptop the other day and said, “I see you’re working on a laptop.” I love it when people notice those changes. The point is, I write longhand. I love the idea of having pages. I like to see the work in space, as a concrete thing. I think you can tell from your handwriting what’s working. Hold it across the room from me and I can tell you which parts are fine and which are rough, what’s raw, what a new idea. But I wonder what will happen with the next one. The computer is so fast. Still, I like the speed when one writes by hand, in terms of slowing the mind down.
Will you return to short stories?
I’m dying to. I’m actually yearning to write a short story. There’s one story that I really want to write that’s been cooking for years. I love short stories.
As you were writing this book, did you ever have any other writers or books in mind who you went to for guidance?
Not as relates to the novel. I have a hundred maps in my head. This is what happened in this writer’s career, or this is how this person became who she was. Or this guy was doing this and then he was doing that. Mapping, mapping, mapping. It’s not an idea of “I’m writing this one, and this other one helps me.”
It’s more like… I did a reading at Hunter for Peter Carey and I thanked him for one of his novels. You read a certain book and you connect in a different way. I was reading The Kelly Gang, and thinking, “This is the work of a fucking madman. You have to be crazy.” I mean, I couldn’t put it down from the first second. It’s masterful. And that was a good lesson.
It’s not about finding a way or justifying or saying, “This is safe.” It’s about writing the book as it needs to be written. So it’s sort of like seeing successful versions of someone doing something that you think is just crazy. That they had to know while they were writing it that, “This is just a very bad idea.”
That’s the way I felt when I was reading Gob’s Grief. I remember thinking, there’s no way he woke up one day with this structure in his mind.
Yeah. Back to Chris, our friendship and the way it’s helped me over the years. I read twenty pages of Gob’s Grief maybe five years before it came out. And I can honestly say that he created a totally different world, one hundred percent different from those original pages, but that it was exactly the same book. And that was a good lesson. For me, this book was always bones, it was always Kaddish, it was always grace, whatever freakish elements that are the same for me. I mean, you can say it’s not the same book because there’s no Polish agricultural settlement or one hundred pages on beekeeping. But, no, this is that book. This is inherently the book that I started even if all that stuff fell away. Because it is Kaddish, and was always Kaddish. And I might say that even if his name was Jorge at first.
As you look back at For the Relief of Unbearable Urges… I don’t know if you’ve read it recently.
Every night before I go to bed.
Do you look back on any of those and see how they could be better?
I think with publishing things, nothing should go out there until the person is ready to stand by it. The stories were the best I could do then and I stand by them. And I hope I’ll always stand by them. That’s the way I feel about this novel. I’m putting it out there, and I’m ready to stand by it. And that’s scary for me, but it’s the whole idea.
It feels counter to everything in me. It’s so strange to say, “Oh, this book? Yeah, I tried my best.” You know? The way I didn’t like book-smart people in high school? “Sure he did good on the test, but he studied.” I had distain for that. “If you want to learn stuff and be smart, that’s an easy way out.” Like there was something wrong with trying. It’s the opposite with writing. So the collection? That was the best I could do.
That actually does feel like a big confession.
Yeah. Different drafts, handing in the novel, showing my editor, it’s fully vomitly. I just prayed there was a book there to work with.
I’m sorry I keep asking you questions, I’m sure you need to go. But I want to ask another. Did you have any battles with editors or any problem of that sort? Was there much that met resistance with your publisher, agent, editor?
No, it’s a wonderful process. I can’t be any luckier on that front. I feel really close to both my editor and my agent personally, and I feel like they know my brain good. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier. If you can look at this thing and tell me, “this is how it can go better,” I want that. I want to hear it all during that stage, anything that will allow me to make the book stronger. So, no, there’s no conflict there. It’s all good for me. The whole process excites me.