What to Talk About

How I Write: Nathan Englander

Acclaimed writer Nathan Englander talks about translating the Haggadah, how he writes his fiction (hint: throwing most of it out), his coffee addiction, and what to put on his tombstone. His latest short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, is out in paperback.

David Levenson/Getty

You’re in Madison, Wisconsin now. Is that home number two?

It sounds very writerly to have two homes, doesn’t it? My wife is getting a PhD out here at U of Madison. Go Badgers! So we’re back and forth between Madison and New York. In the fall my play [The Twenty-Seventh Man] was up at The Public Theater, so I was in New York, while Rachel was doing research in Malawi.

Did you grow up multi-lingually?

I hardly grew up mono-lingually! I was raised religious, so there’s a tradition of semi-access to a second language. When I learned my ABCs, they taught us our Aleph-Bet at the same time. But it just about freezes there for about a dozen years. You learn Hebrew prayers, but the spoken Hebrew language doesn’t get much play. You pray at school for an hour every morning and then again in the afternoon (and are supposed to pray yet again in the evening). So in one sense you have this access to another language—you are uttering words—but they never taught us how to speak or even what we were saying. I think my love for rhythm in language comes from repeating the same words, the same sounds, over and over again day after day for so many years.

But that’s impressive, for someone who has not trained in a formal way, that you’re able to translate short stories and the Haggadah.

Well, I did live in Israel during my junior year in college. I mostly ran around Jerusalem, but I lived there that year. Then I moved back to Jerusalem for another five years later on. And that’s when I really got interested in working on the language. I spoke Hebrew at home pretty much the whole time I lived there.

How did you approach the new translation of the Haggadah?

I’m really thankful to Jonathan…if I don’t say Jonathan Safran Foer here then you’ll have to shove the Safran Foer into brackets. Anyway, I’m thankful to Jonathan [Safran Foer] for talking me into this project. When you see “editor” on a book, there are many permutations of what that title can mean. Really, he had to make a decade-long commitment to this project, and it called for a real distinct vision on his part. When he came to me, I’d never translated anything, I’d never dreamed of being a translator, and I surely wasn’t looking for a religion-based project. Sometimes I feel like those born-again folk, always working on their faith, but I’m always working on my atheism. We all have our struggles. Anyway, the idea of engaging so deeply with a religious text wasn’t something I was after….I haven’t answered your question yet, have I?

It’s cool, you’re on a roll.

The point is, working in new forms was a giant gift for me. Discovering that I could become so fully absorbed in mediums with which I did not previously identify left me almost giddy. Your column is geared toward craft, and there’s just much weight on how we [writers] identify ourselves. And I have to say that I wasn’t working as a translator, because I wanted to be a translator—I literally didn’t identify as one in any way. And the same feeling held true when it came to being a playwright. So to find myself so fully absorbed in the act of translation or playwriting—as absorbed as I get with my fiction, but without any point of reference or sense of identity—it just took me right back to that pure place, when one starts writing in one’s room, in secret, with no expectation of anyone ever seeing a word. It re-reminded me of something I so deeply believe—and that is, there is nothing but the work. Your only obligation is to story, no matter the form you choose. All else—everything—is distraction.

As for the Haggadah, I did the rough translation in a few weeks, but then I started to think about the project and the obligations that go along with it. This is something people will use to interact with history, memory, something through which they will engage in prayer. It made me understand what writing and language are about in a whole new way. And so a quick six-week project (the whole book is a few thousand words), ended up taking another three years to finish. I spent that time studying the text in hevruta, one-on-one, with a brilliant guy by the name of Baruch Thaler.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

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That’s too much pressure. If I choose someone, I think it would really hurt the feelings of all the other deceased people—and they are legion.

Let’s turn to your short fiction now. I’m a groupie for “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” which is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Please walk us through the creation and writing of it, from the initial image or idea that sparked the story, to the outlining and brainstorming, to the writing and editing?

That’s the most generous question ever, on a number of levels. Thank you so much. I was doing an event in Rome with Etgar Keret. Afterwards we ended up sitting on a friend’s terrace, telling stories into the night. Etgar told this unbelievably moving family story of his father’s. Later, in the taxi on the way home, I wanted to say, very nicely, in Hebrew, “May I interact with your story as narrative?” I was trying to be delicate. I didn’t want to be insensitive about the history of the story, the personal truth to it, but I wanted permission to ask a great friend and a great writer a question about its narrative shape. And Etgar just said, “Take it, it’s yours.” I’d never been gifted a story before. Etgar writes these wildly Kafka-esque pieces, about a guy with wings who’s not an angel and a talking fish and a wife who turns into a husband at midnight. So it was really a sweet thing for him to gift me this story, one that, to him, did not fit into the world of his imagination. And, of course, when I wrote it, it took on a new fictional form. And though it’s not the oldest story in the new book, it was very much the start of the collection for me.

It kind of began at the American Academy in Berlin in 2009. I was struggling with the issue of being comfortable in my own brain. In my first collection, I’d written a story called “The Tumblers” that took years. That story was about the reach of the Holocaust, and though I was drawn, pretty endlessly, back to the subject, I think I was being resistant to my own brain, unsure about revisiting those themes. Here I was living in a house built by a Jew, then taken over by an SS officer, and thinking about history and evil and memory. I was working on the play and staring out at Lake Wannsee, and staring across at the houses on the other side, in one of which—with Eichmann as secretary—the Final Solution was put into play. And I really began thinking about how the past can dictate the future and I just started a new file.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a story and its plot, before the writing begins.

I more and more let stories cook in my head. I carry a story for a couple of years, take notes, put it away for another year… I get more and more obsessed with the unconscious part of writing—sorry you asked a question that turns metaphysical—but I’m more and more interested in the bifurcated brain. That is, we experience the creative process through its conscious side, since we obviously aren’t conscious of being unconscious. And I guess I’m kind of interested lately in how the writing process is tied into the work that gets done in that other part of the brain. Am more aware of how integral that is to the formation of story. I started “Free Fruit for Young Windows” at a table in Berlin but then let the story sit for a couple of years until it was, in its way, ready to be written I couldn’t tell you why the structure took the shape that it did, why I set it in a fruit market, why the telling unfolds in that sort-of reverse order. That to me is the exciting part of the work—at some point it takes on a life of its own (which, again, relates I think to this parallel process in the brain). And I think that’s the amazing part of writing. If one works long enough and hard enough, then something so forced and so intentional as a written story, ceases to be a construct. It turns organic and begins to makes its own demands and, if all goes well, becomes real.

So you’re not outlining in a traditional sense, you’re beginning with an idea, letting it sink in, then doing many more free-flowing drafts?

Yeah. In fact, you know what I threw out this morning? During that time in Germany I wrote 200 pages of my next novel, but because of the other projects, this multi-year, multi-project run, I just now pulled out those 200 pages again and went through them, and worked on them for the last couple of weeks…and I threw them all out today. And I’m feeling light as a feather.

Future Englander scholars will be grimacing when they read this…a lost manuscript!

I guess I always work that way. I kind of subscribe to the school of compulsive redrafting. The reason I threw out those 200 pages is because they felt like they were subject driven and not story driven. I think story works for me when I hear a moment in my head, see a flash of something, and build a world around that. I hear two people arguing in a kitchen? That becomes “Gilgul of Park Avenue.” A woman trades her baby to trick the Angel of Death, and somehow that turns into “Sister Hills.” I believe in the process, and though I try to be cold-hearted it’s so touchy-feely. I write my way to the voice of the piece. The Argentina novel took nearly a decade because I’d write for a whole year, then throw it out.

What is your favorite snack?

I used to drink coffee Balzac-style, literally 90 gallons of coffee a day. I’m three years clean on decaf. I thought the muse was contained in the act of consuming enough caffeine until you were at the edge of psychosis—you know, until you’re writing with the lights off because you also think you’re hiding from the CIA. Now I’m on a write-and-eat cycle. Write, then binge, then write, then binge. The food may play no useful part in it. It could just be the act of sticking my head in the fridge to cool it down.

I’ve recently embarked on a project to read a different short story every day for a month, and to write a response essay to each. Your story is among those I’ve chosen. Could you recommend three short stories that I might not have considered (not established “classics”) that I should add to my list?

I like to teach Mona Simpson’s “Lawns” when doing a craft class. (Is that one established as a classic already? Not sure how that works.) I just loved Chris Adrian’s new story, “Grand Rounds,” from Granta. I think it may be his best in some ways (though I love all of them). And ... I don’t know ... how about “Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down” by Ryan Harty? It’s a lovely-sad story about a robotic boy.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

A lot of the time (and this is fully goofy to admit), I’ll write with earplugs in—even if it’s dead silent at home. I think it’s some creepy thing about a different kind of internal sound. How precious does that sound?

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

Actually, most of the time—and my sister does it too—we don’t laugh, we say, “That’s funny.” Which makes people crazy. They’re like, if you’re saying “That’s funny” then laugh. And I usually say, Then be funnier. As for actual laughter….and I only pause here for honesty … I still have the sense of humor of a 9-year-old boy. Scatological wins every time.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

I don’t know what it is lately, I might have to do some blood work, but right now pretty much anything will bring me to tears. Even a good commercial will set me off.

Do you have any superstitions?

Now you’ve hit the jackpot… Superstitions? We are the most superstitious family in the world. It’s just endless. If you sneeze when you’re saying something bad, I will make you pull you ear. I was raised to believe that if anyone steps over a child’s legs, that child won’t grow unless that person step back over the other way. We knock wood, we do that tfoo-tfoo-tfoo spitting thing to ward off the Evil Eye. In my apartment in New York I have a wall of hamsot, those hands. Working towards my atheism, I’ve probably replaced every religious obligation with a superstition.

What phrase do you overuse?

“The point is….”

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

All I’ve ever wanted to do was write. “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” was the first break-through story for me. I got the idea for that before the Wall came down. I was in Jerusalem and heard about these writers Stalin had killed, the last of these Yiddishists all murdered on the same night, and no one knew anything, it was still secret. I became obsessed with the idea of writers being denied the greatest stories of their lives to tell. I felt that a real writer should write these people a story. I waited. And about four years later, I thought, if no one’s going to do it, I best give it a try. I was in New York, working odd jobs. A friend’s mother, Deborah Brodie, a children’s book editor, she told her son—before she even knew me—that she wanted to read something of mine. Tell him to come over for dinner and bring a story. She read the story and said, There’s a story buried in here and a writer somewhere in you, but this is a mess. Out of the goodness of her heart, she worked with me for months. She forced me to go to grad school, taught me what it was to rewrite, to find the story in the story. I moved to Jerusalem in 1996, after Rabin got killed, because I was still sure it was going to be this open city, liberal and peaceful, and that a two-state solution was imminent. And I figured as much as they needed soldiers, they’d surely need short-story writers, too. I pictured this vibrant arts community in this democratic, blooming Middle East. Now it sounds like a joke. But I was there, drafting and redrafting stories, sitting in this coffee shop for hours and hours a day. When the owner approached, I thought he was coming over to my table to kick me out. I was nursing, you know, one espresso from morning ‘til night. He said, I really want people doing their work here, you seem serious, but I can also see you’re totally broke. I can offer you 50 percent off anything on the menu, or a tab. I thought about it and I took the tab, because I felt that a healthy young man should work and shouldn’t be taking from someone else’s earnings. I lived in a leaky hovel, patched with tin, this fall-down place that’s still somehow standing. I spent a long time that way, writing and rewriting that first book. When it was finished it got sent to an editor I’d met at my first public reading, one I’d given in New York on my way from Iowa to Israel. It was at KGB and I read with Colum McCann. And the editor who came to listen at that first reading was Jordan Pavlin. I’ve been working with her ever since.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Turn off your cell phone. Honestly, if you want to get work done, you’ve got to learn to unplug. No texting, no email, no Facebook, no Instagram. Whatever it is you’re doing, it needs to stop while you write.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

Oh my goodness. That’s funny, and I’ve seen that question in your series, and I was guessing you’d ask it, but I thought it was against the rules to pre-think. And now…

This is a question that a lot of people I interview are psyched about, and they have their answer locked and loaded.

Well that’s it, I thought about it, and as I told you, I’m really a huge fan of the column, but I told myself, Nathan, you’re not allowed to prepare! How about…how about, “Do I look fat in this coffin?”

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I’ve been raised to be so utterly secretive that I have to reach deep into the vault to get something… Hmm. I’ve been throwing pottery out here in Madison, making lots of mugs.

This interview has been edited and condensed.