Book Interview: Novelist and Short-Story Writer Nathan Englander Is Happy to Go Back to Basics
Nathan Englander’s first play, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” opens at the Public Theater in New York tonight. Fuse Editor Bill Marx spoke to the acclaimed, best-selling writer about the script and the production when Englander visited Wellesley College recently.
By Bill Marx
When a talented writer expands his creative and linguistic terrain, the result is often a dizzying high, for the author as well the reader. Chances are extremely good that when Nathan Englander speaks at Wellesley College this Thursday, as part of its Distinguished Writer Series, he will sound like a very happy man. At least he waxed effusively ecstatic to me when we spoke last Friday over the phone about his career.
There is no denying that Englander, born in 1970, has been stretching himself in a number of different creative directions. Earlier this year, his collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, received impressive critical notices, building on an award-wining career (including selection as one of the “20 Writers for the 21st Century” by The New Yorker) that began in 1999 with the story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. A novel entitled The Ministry of Special Cases followed in 2007.
And now comes the premiere of his first play, The Twenty-Seventh Man, which opens at New York’s Public Theater. Barry Edelstein directs Englander’s adaptation of his story of the same name, which revolves around the tragic fate of Yiddish writers, known and unknown, in Stalin’s Russia. This year also saw the publication of Englander’s translation of a New American Haggadah (with Jonathan Safran Foer). He has also recently translated some of the short stories in Suddenly a Knock on the Door, a volume from the popular Israeli author Etgar Keret.
During our conversation, I asked Englander about the genesis of the play, in what ways it has changed his approach as a novelist and short story writer, and his thoughts about those who think that literary fiction, like the Yiddish writers in his play, may be doomed.
Arts Fuse: Why dramatize this particular story?
Nathan Englander: When my first book came out in 1999, the very amazing and sorely missed Nora Ephron read the book and said there was a play in the story “The Twenty-seventh Man.” It was her idea—I had never had any interest in writing a play. I was very single minded in purpose—I wrote literary fiction, and that is all I ever dreamed of writing. But Nora was such an inspiration, and the fact that she wanted to work on this with me, to produce and oversee it, convinced me to go ahead. I am not sure anyone else would have made me decide to do the script. She agreed to have me write the novel first, which took another 10 years. She was utterly patient, and I started drafting the play for her three or four years ago.
AF: How has writing this play changed you as a writer?
Englander: First, compared to writing fiction, composing a play is unbelievably different in terms of process. I am in a constant state of rewriting and redrafting. And this experience reminded me of when I started writing—nobody gives you permission. It is simply an act, and one hopes one’s heart is in the right place. I spent many these years learning to write dialogue for short stories or a novel, and one hopes that if all goes well, if the reader experiences the dialogue as intended, it makes a reality. I had to relearn writing dialogue for the stage so that it becomes a reality for the audience.
I was working without promise, no reference points, a vague idea of what it meant to be a playwright. When the theater was doing promotional stuff for the production, I couldn’t look into the camera and say with ease that I was a playwright. It is a very clear thing—I have written a play, people are acting in the play, by definition that must make me a playwright. And the same with this translation of the Haggadah—here I am starting with a project no less serious than the Haggadah, something people are going to pray from and use in a ritual. It is a crazy thing—how does one do this? How do I get permission to do these things?
So writing the script made me think about very basic things. I had to relearn the rules of drama. The short story unfolds one way, and when a short story unfolds in the form of a play, it is different. My experience translating the Haggadah also brought me back to an elemental relationship to words: you would sit for one day, even longer, staring at one word, a phrase, a line, and think about the rhythm of the word and every meaning in the Bible and what the echoes mean. So these experiences broke language down into its most basic parts and broke me down in the best and most humble way to explore what is the best way to communicate through story. And it also made me think deeply about issues of identity.
AF: Did these experiences influence the stories in your latest collection?
Englander: I sincerely feel as if this play and another project I am working on inspired my collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. That is how massive a change it was for me. The themes that run though the book deal with the ownership of identity on a number of different fronts. The literal title is almost a Rorschach test: people either ask about the allusion to the Raymond Carver title or the Anne Frank part. I have never had such a literal title. I started to think about it—the fact that I am very clearly obsessed with the Holocaust as a moment of history and the way that I see the world through that event, well, that was educated into me, so I started to ask questions. How do we use history? Who owns history? How are we educated about the Holocaust? There is this thing itself that happened, the genocide, the historical tragedy. But then there is everyone who considers themselves to be the guardians of it, the many positions it plays in modern society. Here I was working as a translator, identifying as a translator, and there I was working as a playwright, identifying as a playwright. And honestly, working on these three or four fronts changed the way my head functions.
AF: In what ways does What We Talk About When We Talk about Anne Frank differ from your earlier collection of stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges?
Englander: The earlier collection and the novel (The Ministry of Special Cases) taught me that the saying “write what you know” is both the best advice and the most misused. I used to be terrified of that, because I am a kid from suburbia, so writing about I knew left me with nothing of interest to work with. Half the reason I left town was to have adventures that would give me something to write about. But that idea of write what you know should be taken in an emotional sense—you can write any book in the world. Do you know what it is to be lonely? Or to love someone? If you can imagine the emotion, you can figure out all the rest of what you need. You can go to the library to figure out where the streets go.
The idea is to put your all on the page, to be true and open, honest and truly vulnerable. And for me, in the previous books, I found that distanced settings allowed me to achieve this intimacy. The settings allowed me to close the distance with the reader. The play which is based on the story from my first book—it is not about Stalin, but yes, it is about Stalin. It is about the loss of Yiddish writers, but this story, which took me years and years to write, is really about the decision to write. The experience of making it into a play reminded me of what its means to be a writer. Is it enough to write a story if nobody ever reads it? These were the real fears and philosophical demons I was considering alone in my room on the Upper West Side when I was 21.
So I have always used distance as a way to get close. But with What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank for the first time in my life, I took a half step back and looked back at my life. For example, my sister and I engaged in a deeply pathological game in which we would speculate which of our neighbors would hide us if there was a second Holocaust. And looking back at how utterly twisted and pathological and troubling it was for kids to play that game in 1980s New York suggested a story. Yes, it makes no sense at all, how ridiculous for an American Jew to engage in such a thing. Yet then there is the flip side: when you look at Jewish history, it generally only turns out one way. There is little that has ever happened in history in any place that didn’t turn out poorly for the Jews. So the reason I was drawn to story, why fiction was so life-saving for me as a kid, is that it at least posed difficult questions or was brave enough to wrestle with those challenging questions, as terrifying as they might be. In that sense, I unconsciously hunt for conflicts, for stories that allow me to hold contradictory positions in my head, particularly about Jewish cultural issues. I will articulate the opposite side or positions on so many things, Israeli politics, so many things. It depends on which side the other person is coming from. So many stories of mine deal with my obsession with the gray space, whether it is “Sister Hills” or “Free Fruit for Young Widows.” Are the characters moral or immoral? Are their actions hypocritical or just?
AF: There is a strong element of the elegiac in your stories—the story “The Twenty-seventh Man” and the play version deal with the brutal end of a generation of Yiddish writers in Stalin’s Russia. Philip Roth has recently suggested that, given current technological and cultural changes, our appetite for literary fiction may be reaching its end point. What do you think?
Englander: I happen to have had the good fortune over the past few years to develop a relationship with Philip, and it doesn’t feel that way to me. He is turning 80 and has become reflective about a number of things. Everyone has their point of view, and frankly I feel excited about literature when I talk to him about books. It is fair for him to make those global statements, but why get upset about them? It doesn’t threaten me. I think literature is vibrant. I don’t worry about it. And if a form is meant to die it will die. And then it should die. The novel shouldn’t have to survive by means of life support. If it can’t sustain itself into the future then its time is done. But I really am not afraid of that at all. Forms change, live, die, and then return. Silent film is dead and this year The Artist won five Oscars.
Don’t get me wrong, I am terrified of change, I can’t bear to read articles about the ice caps melting, but I would call myself a pessimistic optimist or an optimistic pessimist. Working on the play has been so moving and exciting to me because it encouraged me to work with a new form, to explore a different way of building a world. I was sitting with the costume designer yesterday, and she had all these wonderful photos, some I have seen and lots new to me, pictures of the people of that period. To see the faces of the different writers of the time, the cut of their suits—it was just so beautiful to me. Viewing the photos sent my brain spinning, spinning, hearing dialogue, real people inspiring a fictional reality, another living reality created on stage.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Fuse. For just over four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.