Nathan Englander is a critically acclaimed writer who has been translated into over a dozen languages and was named one of “20 Writers for the 21st Century” by The New Yorker. He is the author of one novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, and two short story collections, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, which won the 2012 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He translated New American Haggadah, which was edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and co-translated Etger Keret’s Suddenly A knock at the Door, both published in 2012. His stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Washington Post as well as in The O. Henry Prize Stories and several editions of The Best American Short Stories. In 2012, his play, The Twenty-Seventh Man, premiered at The Public Theater in New York City.
Englander is a winner of the PEN/Faulkner Malmud Award, the Bard Fiction Prize, and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. He has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the American Academy of Berlin. He earned a MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and currently teaches fiction in the writing program at Hunter College.
This furiously paced conversation took place over breakfast at Englander’s Brooklyn home while his spirited pup stole croissants and yelped for us to quit jabbering and start playing with her, already.
You grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home. Tell me about your childhood.
If we lined up all your author interviews, I always feel like you’ve asked authors, “How did you end up being a writer?” “I was a miserable unhappy child and someone gave me a book.” I feel like that sums up almost everyone’s bio: “Literature saved my life at some point.” I immediately get metaphysical; I can’t control myself. What is memory versus what happened? My point is, every once in a while I’ll see a picture of myself smiling and I’ll be like, “I must’ve been happy at that moment.” But I feel like I have a brain that erases everything positive and just holds on to…
Marina Abramovic said that a happy childhood makes a crappy artist.
Maybe so! I remember being happy at my grandparents’ house when we’d visit them once a month. But yes, I was pretty much an anxious, unhappy child, I guess.
Why, do you think?
I don’t know. If you ask my mother, her memory will be me always telling jokes. She said there’d be people over and I’d be telling the adults stories. She remembers this distinctly, that she’d be in the kitchen and hear laughter and I’d be out there telling a room full of adults stories. She remembers me climbing the walls and happy and storytelling and all that.
But I think it was more…. the sense of being an outsider. What we’re talking about – maybe that’s the central thing – is this distinct sense of feeling outside of things, of questioning the reality that I was in but not knowing that there were alternate realities. I think I sort of compare it to what it must’ve been like for people to come out of the closet. It was this real feeling that: this is the world, this is my reality, and if I’m miserable then I’m going to be a miserable person in this world. That’s why I compare it to this idea that if you’re told, “this is how your orientation is supposed to be, this is how the world is,” and you just know at a young age that you don’t feel this way and if this is the only way to be then its going be a long unhappy life.
So you felt “other”?
I could see the Catholic girl getting on her bus to the school down the street and neither of us…
Simply this: this is your world, this is your universe, and I just felt I’m probably just going to be an unhappy person in it. I guess you just don’t understand that there’s another option for you.
Growing up there was a real structure of rabbis and students and to me this very clear, very gendered power structure, and I think it was just recognizing – just questioning that this doesn’t make sense to me. That’s the terror of, “I’m just gonna be unhappy here.” You don’t know your alternatives.
The interesting thing is how early you knew that you were unhappy about it.
Unbelievably early. I was just theologically-minded, I always loved books and stories and I’ve always had a real need to understand a moral order to things. If I had different kinds of rabbis who would’ve engaged with that, I think I would have a beard down to the floor.
You said you loved books and you loved to read. In this Orthodox community, did you have access to books?
We were modern Orthodox, which is what I call “gap Orthodox”, you know yarmulkes and tzitzits and fully religious Hasidim get extra credit, they follow a Rabbi and they wear coats. But, like, you’re religious or you’re not. We were fully Halachic Jews but it wasn’t that there was an anti-book thing, my parents read. My mom was not raised in a kosher home, my mom was – they were reform religious. They went to synagogue every week and they were active in the community and she went to Hebrew school but they’re reform so my point is my grandfather made meat and bacon every morning and my mom did art growing up. My mom got married at seventeen or eighteen and dropped out of art school to marry my dad. So I think with my mom there has always been respect for religion and in a way there was always respect for the arts. I blame her for this subversive thread in me. I remember she had this book, it was a folio, like something from one of her art classes. You’d slide them out and they were nicely printed images of famous pieces of art. I must’ve been something like two, three, or four and going through this thing obsessively.
So my point is, why I believe in literature, why I believe in books: it’s a subversive form. This packet of art things in a lovely folio could be sitting on a basement shelf and I could pull it down and then just become obsessed with whatever it was, Henry Moore or Picasso. There’s a study from Guernica and one of my earliest memories is my mom taking me to see Guernica before they sent it back to Spain – things like that are formative.
I remember reading in 5th grade, finding my sister’s copy of 1984 and not knowing what it was but knowing that I was changed. I remember being, again, on the basement floor.
That’s an early reading memory. Any other early books that you read?
Philip Roth has already banned me from telling this story, but I can tell you that my mom and dad had, like, that clamshell bed and headboard and the two sort of Chippendale side things, very seventies, and I remember just looking for books and there was my mom’s row of books and I pulled it and found Portnoy’s Complaint as a teenager when I was already truly unhappy, already truly on the outside. And that to me… seeing someone write about that… I think the book maybe would’ve been less scary if I had my roach clip and a Camaro; if I was a naughty 1980s kid it would be one thing, but I got to read it with all the shock. It was like I was a 1950s kid, I literally got to be raised in the 1950s. I got to read it with the sensibility with which he wrote it. We were different generations but timed in our experience of morality and what is appropriate behavior. That to me was just was mind-boggling.
Then, in this super religious school with all these rabbis and stuff, there was one teacher who was Catholic and the way I had been relating to the rabbis, she had related to her nuns. She was a leftie and she would talk about how they forced her to write with her right hand. She got the ruler pretty good and I think she just knew; in that generous way she could tell who needed a book. She’s the one who liked Camus, Conrad, Kafka. I read that stuff in high school and I was changed.
You read it, not necessarily for class?
No. She would give these lists, like separate read-a-book-from-this-list – she was big on lists and knew some of us were hungry. I just think it was a gift.
At that age I really thought I was seeking answers for my questions. I had these huge questions that I was tortured with, tortured and hunting for something. And I read these books and understood, “Ah! It’s the bravery of engaging with the question.” You know what I’m saying? Like a full existential… like, maybe there is no answer. But it’s often as comforting to hear that there is no answer then it is maybe to get an answer.
Like Phillip [Roth] and the story I was telling him right before this book came out [What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank]. I don’t usually talk shop with him and I said to him, “Okay, it’s my third book, I’m gonna get a thick skin now, I’m gonna be tough now, right?” Sort of asking, you know I was nervous. And he said, “Harder and harder, thinner and thinner. Your skin’ll get thinner and thinner till I can hold you up to the light.” That was a deeply calming thing, for me to feel like this man with something like fifteen novels….
One thing [that teacher] did were these culture tests, god bless her, and I still use them to this day. I remember her saying it, it’s so naughty and wonderful, “Some of you are gonna go out into the world. Someone in here may, and you basically have no education.” It was basically to help us get through cocktail parties and it was just lists, honestly. I memorized those lists and I use them still today in my head. It would say “Darwin” – I never read any Darwin, they didn’t teach us evolution, we got six days of Creation – so it would say “Darwin – The Beagle” and you would just know the name of his boat, stuff like that. Literally today people say, “Ah, Arnold Schoenberg” and I say, “Ah, the twelve-tone scale.”
So you have something to say if it comes up in conversation!
Yeah, it was just lists like that I used. I remember the one AP test that we had, I got my credit but I was writing about – I’ve never said this out loud or in anything public – but I was writing about Dante and I knew “Dante – Inferno.” I wrote about the Inferno, I knew there were levels or something but past that? I wrote this whole essay about it as a painting. I thought it was a painting. But god bless, again, they gave me credit, I don’t know why.
You said reading changed you somehow.
At that point, did you also feel that you wanted to write?
I only ever wanted to write, yes.
You always knew that?
I cannot tell you why, there were no writers, I’d never met a writer, that wasn’t a job we did. I thought it was this thing from another world that I couldn’t be. There was very clear pressure of: these are the jobs.
What were the jobs that you felt that you were supposed to be going towards?
Well I am of the priestly class, which is a whole specific thing we won’t get into. I was a religious kid and so I never in my life considered being a doctor because I knew from an unbelievably young age that I wouldn’t be allowed to be around the cadaver to study. So I never once considered being a doctor.
But finance…When I was a teenager we didn’t have money for sleep-away camp. So, I got a job in the city working in arbitrage; basically at fifteen or sixteen I was already – not compulsive (or maybe so) – but extreme in my dedication to things when I found something I was interested in. I knew I wanted out of this community and I knew money was something we fought about, that we did not have a lot of. I just knew there had to be a way out of things and I thought: “If I make money, I will be able to have choice.” I knew limited funds make limited choice, like: you’re not going to sleep-away camp.
I knew how hard my parents worked for us to have the life that we had and I understood that if I make money I’m going to be able to move to the city and have a different life and I thought that would be freedom. I was studying for the Series 7 – my sister was older so I got an account in her name, we had a joint account – and I was literally with an early modem in my room making charts, reading books. It was sort of like Shawshank Redemption: I was in my room thinking, “If I make enough money I will have freedom!”
I had my most successful run working the stock market at age sixteen, trading this account in my sister’s name.
That’s totally ridiculous.
Yeah, redonculous. I was literally watching and studying the market and then it became clear to me at that age – this is actually turning mortifying in its vulnerability and honesty – that I’d rather starve to death and be around books.
Most of our town either went to Yeshiva University and lived at home or in the dorms there or Queens College and lived at home. People didn’t go away to school and they didn’t go to secular school, you know what I’m saying? Like, Queens College is a secular school but you can eat in a kosher kitchen and live at home, you stayed in the bubble. By then I was going to go to Baruch University, I’d already accepted a business scholarship. I was going to work at the stock market two days a week, take all my classes Monday-Wednesday-Friday and have two full days where I’d learn and be working from age seventeen. But then I understood and begged, just begged my parents, begged my family, “I really just want to go away to school and study books.”
Security was a thing we did not have. I’m not trying to make us seem poor in that way because we did have a house and food but we did not vacation, that kind of thing. Financial security was a concern and my mother really wanted me not to have those worries. It was the American Dream: you should find this security. And yes, I remember that first semester I took a filmmaking and a creative writing class but I took microeconomics. The idea still: I’ll take one…
How did your parents react?
You know what? I feel like we should bring my mom in for this. My sister makes this joke because we were both perfectly well-behaved and then I stopped being well-behaved. My sister would say, “Can I go away for school?” And our mother would say, “No,” and she didn’t. I mean, young women in our town pretty much didn’t. But that was the answer, and then I would ask these things and the answer would be, “No,” and I would do them. I said, “Can I go away to school?” She said, “You may not, absolutely not.” And then I was gone.
In the end they said, “Okay”?
Yeah, with help and support from my grandparents. It was a big deal to get that together. You know, junior year wanting to spend that year abroad and nobody had ever traveled, nobody had ever been abroad – my people came to America and stayed.
You went to Israel.
Well this is the point: I said to them, “Can I go to Israel?” and my mother said, “Absolutely not, you can’t go,” and I said, “I’ll see you in a year.” That’s how all these things happened. We laugh about it now and that’s exactly how we do the narrative of it as a family, like, “Can I…?” “Over my dead body! Absolutely not!” and then I just go. That’s how all these decisions happened, I was forbidden and I did them.
So you went to school and left the bubble.
I was still in the bubble. I was a super-religious kid. I was in school, but religious. It was in Israel that I gave up religion as soon as I got there.
Why did you decide to go to Israel?
Well it’s also because of creative writing. This guy G.W. Hawkes – I’ve never said him name in an interview before – I just wanted to study writing and the idea of me taking a creative writing course in college was like a dream.
And how was it? Was it a dream?
Yeah, I was really scared of him. I remember seeing him once sophomore year and I didn’t even approach him, it was so holy to me.
To do it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m a secular person but this could make you religious, just like the idea of good fortune. You know I did a Judaic Studies degree because I had a religious knowledge but I wanted to relearn this stuff.
Since you still had those questions.
Yeah, like: Let’s look at the Bible as literature. That was a really useful for me.
That’s what you had been wanting to do.
Yeah. So professors like Norman Stillman ended up being this really wonderful world-class professor who happened to have chosen Binghamton as the place he wanted to be. I ended up in two small departments with really fine professors. This guy Barry Targon, who is a wonderful writer, he was a moral, moral man and I deeply believe in a moral fiction, like the fiction writing itself is a moral act.
Actually John Gardner who taught at Binghamton, I was so happy – you know, this idea of people who dream of going to good schools, I was so happy to be at a school where a writer that I’d read had taught and was already dead. This was my joy, this was my dream, do you understand? When I got into Binghamton my joy was John Gardner who is dead had taught there. That, to me, was the goal. He has the story of the box painter, this guy who’s just a simple box painter and it’s so beautiful his boxes come alive. But he goes to this bar where there’s a violinist and an axe murderer and I think it’s a wonderful metaphor for the writing life, like, you’re not an axe murderer until you kill somebody with an axe, you know what I’m saying? You can be menacing, you can swing that thing, you can chop someone’s hands off, but you’ve got to kill someone with an axe to be an axe murderer. I didn’t understand that these are actions; like, when you are writing you’re a writer, that’s the way I see it now. You don’t ever look out at someone swimming in the ocean and say, “I don’t see a swimmer.” When you are swimming you are a swimmer. It was this freeing moment for me.
The dream was of being a writer and I didn’t want to miss a class. I wasn’t going to go to Israel for my junior year. I went to John Vernon’s office because I was afraid to miss Creative Writing: “I won’t be a writer if I don’t finish the series; I need 322A.” And he said, “I will see you in a year.”
Yeah, and to me that was a great bit of advice. That year changed my life. I think that did more for my writing than anything ever.
Tell me. You said you got to Israel and you sort of turned away from being a religious person. What was your…?
To meet someone who says, “I’m Jewish” but has none of the reference points that I have, none of the rhythms that I have, none of the world views that I have – that’s going to let me see that I can be this person or I want to be this person, you know what I’m saying? I got to Israel and I saw secular people – Jewish atheists. I mean to look at a soldier and say, “This person’s fighting for this country and so, like, wait, if they die they’re not going to heaven because they’ve eaten a cheeseburger?” To me it was this instant thing, like, this doesn’t add up in terms of dedication to place or people or culture.
But to meet somebody who’s living there, all in Hebrew, who has every Biblical reference – maybe not every biblical reference – but just the way you say, “Oh fuck it’s Christmas, the banks are closed!”; they know the holidays, the banks are closed on Rosh Hashanah. They have the cultural references, the social references, they eat the same food. I suddenly saw myself…
My point is yes, to see a functioning cultural Jew, I gave up religion that first week.
And I also wrote that year.
So you were writing?
Yeah, I wrote a whole novel in the spring. I still tell my students what Barry Targon would say. I remember at the end of the semester – I took him twice – he would say, “Your next story’s due August 8th” and we’d all be like, “Whaaat?! School’s over!” And he’d be like, “If you’re a writer, you don’t need it for me.”
You need it for you. When you came back and graduated, were there some years between graduating from college and going to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop?
I did not know anything. Where to search for jobs or how I should be working, anything. I just can’t even tell you how woefully unprepared I was for this world. The year after college I wanted to be an artist so desperately and I was afraid to write; I was so terrified to make this choice. So, through my sister, I met this photographer and I worked for free. Back to compulsions: I got a camera and then I was obsessively taking pictures.
Why did you turn suddenly to photography?
Writing is the easiest thing in the world; it is absolutely; there is nothing easier than writing when you are writing. The unbelievably hard, soul-crushing, terrifying, overwhelming thing is the emotional engagement. Right? When you are in the zone and you’re writing like a motherfucker, is that hard or is it the best part of your day for the whole day? When you are having a transcendent moment, you know, an out-of-body dis-associative, truly just a not-in-existence, like, just, at one with the story, the story is and you are not – that is what I live for. So you can’t tell me that’s hard; that’s joy.
What’s hard is: I know my next novel, now it’s time to really dig in. The emotional engagement involved, you know what I’m saying: that’s 99.99%. It’s the idea of people sitting down; it’s the engagement. And I think, for me, to have fallen hopelessly in love with something, with a life that was not possible for me to have, was pretty scary. I only understood that I could not have this. I had not been trained for this.
But why photography? Did that seem more accessible?
Because it did not scare me. It did not have my whole heart and soul.
So you’re thinking, “I can learn this thing.”
Yeah, and I still feel that about almost everything, in a weird way. I liked the photography and I would just – like the stock market: “I’m gonna learn this.” I would just shoot endlessly and print endlessly and go to photo shows and read books.
You were working for free for this guy?
For a couple of weeks, and then I was in Argentina and just shot. You know, I went for a wedding, which ten years later turned into a novel, but that was my only trip to Argentina. People are always like, “When you lived in Argentina…” I did not; I went for a wedding and took some pictures.
But the point is, this guy Dan Wilby, an utterly, utterly self-made man in the greatest definition, you know, got to New York and just shot until he had his own studio. They gave me a minimal base salary and on shoot days I got more and they just – like “You work hard and we’ll work hard.” And that’s where I learned about craft. Because it would be like, “You want to touch the camera? You don’t touch the fucking cameras yet. First you sweep this up, because if we have dust then we don’t have good photos. First you clean the whole studio, then you clean all the lenses, then you set up the equipment…” And we would have these long days. You’d get there first shoot day in the morning and shoot until late at night. The point is, I would have these unbelievably long days and I learned: 35, 4×5, 8×10, location, how to set-up – you know? Those guys just gave me an education.
At the end of a long week, on a Saturday, Dan would meet me at 7am, 8am, and teach me to shoot all day, teach me to print all day; he’s a mensch. This idea that you want to give that to someone else. Watching how dedicated he was to his craft, I then understood that to get work done, what it takes if you want to be a craftsperson, what true passion is and dedication is. I learned that watching Dan work and I also learned: “I don’t feel this way about photography.”
I went back to Israel; my buddy Joe called me and he was like, “There’s some job as a camp, you know, leader, you know, to be a guide on some summer group.” I hopped on the plane the next day and I’m like, “Oh that gets me a ticket there and I’ll shoot.” I thought: “I’ll do a photo-essay.” That was the first time I started to admit, I was like, “I’ll do a photo-essay. I’ll have photos but I’ll write alongside it.”
I shot it all summer and whatever. I started being alone in Jerusalem; I cut loose in some room I rented from this Russian woman, just a mattress on the floor. That’s when I started writing again. When I was utterly alone and, you know, we weren’t playing on the internets then; just alone in a room, no phone, just thinking – there were no cellphones then – just thinking without reference points to say, “What do I want to do?” And that’s when I said, “This is what I’m gonna do and I’m gonna find a way.”
My friend Daniel’s mother Deborah Brody, who’s a friend from Jerusalem, was an editor and said to Daniel, “I know your friend is writing in his room; tell him to bring me a story.” An editor looking for an extra story. It was The Twenty-seventh Man, which goes into rehearsal today, and it was called The Cosmopolitans then. I brought her this crazy story that I had been working on in secret and she’s the one who said what I’ve only ever wanted: “The story has potential, so do you. There’s a story in this story and it’s a big fucking mess.” I would just meet her and she’d cook me dinner and you know, “I want to see you in however many weeks,” and I would redraft and redraft.
What a great person to make you dinner and give you editing advice, pushing you along.
Yeah for six months basically, “We’re gonna get you out of your bedroom.” I didn’t want to spend the $45 to apply to Iowa because I didn’t want the rejection, I didn’t have the money, like I need the $45. She’s the one who made me, literally, “You are applying to this school.”
That’s the idea when we’re talking about this good fortune, I wouldn’t have known, you know what I’m saying? How is one supposed to know the story inside the story? She’d just work with me for months and when she was done she sent me to a line editor friend who met me out of the goodness of her heart to say, “This is how we work on the level of a line.”
She changed my life, literally: “We are gonna get you out of your room…” And by her good graces…
You went to Iowa.
Yes, which honestly changed my life. Jim McPherson and Frank Conroy and Marilyn Robinson. It just changed my life. Again, what it is to be around literally some of the great living minds. And Frank’s thing on dedication: you can post 3 hours a day, 6 days a week. Just the idea of simple discipline. When people say, “Give me some writing advice. What do I do?” Shut off your phone. Don’t tweet. Don’t interrupt your writing time. That is my most concrete advice. If you can’t shut off for a few hours you’re not gonna work, and I promise you I’ve been on that road, my soul is poisoned with technology right now. It’s only out of my deepest respect and self-control sitting here with you that I haven’t refreshed my email while we chat.
I want you to tell me more about Iowa but first I want to hear a little more about your time in Jerusalem. What were you doing to support yourself after that short stint as a summer camp counselor?
That year I did photography.
Where did you live?
I had a share – we’ve always lived around the corner from each other, me and my best friend since nursery school.
You moved to Israel together?
Yeah, yeah. You know Melissa, we went to school together from nursery to college then we went to college together, then we were roommates in New York and lived in an Upper West Side Seinfeld set-up until two years ago. My friend Daniel, Deborah’s son, I always say is Kramer. Literally people always hanging out at my house so I got to be the Seinfeld in this setup, the camera’s at my house. Kramer is a wildly successful pulmonologist and critical care specialist. So, literally I had him down the hall and then one floor down and around the corner was Melissa and she gets to be Elaine, just single 30-somethings in New York having those conversations.
We always would get the smallest apartments and put up those fake walls, like it wasn’t even a one-bedroom, looking at brick walls. I think the first room was $400 and then it was $450, you know, whatever it was, which was a lot for me then.
It was photography, that year I had this nice studio gig. And then when I came back from Israel I wanted to write, so I sold expensive shoes on the East Side – in a suit.
Yes, it was on commission, people were really fierce, you know, selling alligator-skin shoes. But you had to wear a suit and so I had to straighten my hair and put it in a ponytail. I had to be clean in a suit, but, you know, the hippie-ish-looking 22-year-old guy in a suit? Ridiculous.
That lasted one week and then I called this Art Director that I knew and said, “I just want to write books, let me be your secretary, I won’t cause any trouble.” I needed a job where I got to clock in, clock out, and then go write. She hired me that day and then called me late that night and was like, “My friend, I’m going to have to yell at you. I can’t do this. You’re gonna be my front office person? You’re gonna be in trouble if you mess up. I don’t want that relationship with you.” And she called her friend at a children’s book publisher and got me a job. I was the package boy, I would go in and wrap artwork and that was it. It was a half-day job by the hour and I would wrap artwork and run it to different whatever and I would ride my first mountain bike home, ride around Central Park a couple of times, and then I would write.
And then you created your own discipline, your own schedule?
Yes: I’m gonna write every day. It was perfect; a four-hour job, I’ll be whatever and then… I’m sure there was some distraught couch-sitting months in between there somewhere, but I found that system.
Did you find the satisfaction you’d been looking for?
Well this is when Deborah surfaced but this was the idea of me writing stories in my room and I just remember this obsession with that story. I mean there were other stories, but that was my first real story which has been such a central part of my life. It was how I got into Iowa; it was one of my first publications; it was part of my first book; and now my first play. It’s very strange, its many manifestations.
We’re catching up in time to Iowa and the incredible experience you had there. Then your first story collection gets published, and you get a great agent, Nicole Aragi. Did you approach her or did she approach you?
I feel like I just got married, an agent is a really big person in your life. But I always say it’s like this reverse dating thing where she approaches me but I know who she is. I was like, she was the…
At that point she was just super starting out, super young and I just knew she was fierce. I think she had Brady Udall, probably Junot [Diaz] and Edwidge [Danticat]. You know what I’m saying? She was my dream choice and then it was this strange thing where she approaches you and then you’re nervous and send your work… I laugh every time that it just goes back and forth where it’s like she has to want you, then you have to want her, and then she has to read your work and hopefully want you… It’s a very strange back-and-forth.
I just knew – you know, a lot of people who talk to me about my work just talk about the Jewish part. I sat down with her for dinner and we talked for four hours and she understood my work in its core way, you know what I’m saying? She just got it in this way that made me feel safer than anything and has yet to even abate in the slightest fifteen years later.
That’s wonderful. When you had your first story collection published, looking back at yourself as this desperately wanting to write, to create stories, to write books that someone would read and thinking: it’s not for me, I can’t do it, it’s off-limits. There is your first story collection, you’re holding it, you have the story collection: what’s the feeling?
I do not dwell on that; you’re the first person in all these years to ask me about that moment.
Really? I feel like that would be so huge.
I imagine it was an unbelievably huge joy. I remember the time as just an exciting time. I also see that I did not know what was going on; that was another thing about Jerusalem: I didn’t understand what was happening. I think it was a very strange, it was beyond my wildest dreams, beyond my wildest expectations.
The way it was received in the States while you were living in Israel?
Yes, all that. Truly, deeply, thankful but I did not understand what happened, I did not understand what that meant for me, and I just went back to my life in Jerusalem. But I just knew enough not understanding that I didn’t want to change anything there. I was American and an immigrant kind of person; I didn’t need to be a writer guy. I was in the middle of a big interview with the biggest paper in Israel and then I called him and was like, “Can we kill this?” He had tape, he had – and he killed it. It was really sweet of him.
You just didn’t feel like you wanted to…?
Yeah not talking to anybody, yeah.
All I dreamed of was potential and then all I dreamed of was opportunity and then when one gets the writing life – because people often will ask questions about it and I’ll say: “Learning to live life as a writer is its own challenge.” That’s the point: how does one live? How does one write a book when one’s supposed to be writing a book?
My point is, yes, learning to live the writing life is a whole separate matter.
So if you look back at your teen self, feeling displaced, and looking at where you are today – is there something you would tell your younger self that you think would’ve been good for you to know?
I honestly, this is my biggest advice that has really been so helpful to me because it simplifies everything and it’s so nice, my whole aesthetic, I’d say your obligation is to story. That’s it, that’s the only rule that’s not gonna break or change. You know, like, you wanna go out Friday night? Does the story need you to go out or do you need to work on it? And the same thing, when I want a character to do something, what does the story need? In a really Zen clear way it’s become so clear to me and it helps me live my life.
And anything that would be the nicest most generous thing to do actually serves your work best. If you say “This person got this, or this person’s book is doing this or that, that person got that,” like, you know, “I want to be jealous.” Does that help your work or does that muddle your head and send you into some sort of distraction hole? So how about supporting everyone that you root for? Oh, well then you’re supporting them and should I really be spending all this time? I better work on this and that, like I should be self-promoting all the time and that’s really how to do this. Everything that a nice person would do actually serves you. “Oh I don’t have time, a friend asked me to read this manuscript.” Guess what? If you’ve written a paragraph 7,000 times on 800,000 mornings and now it’s toward the end of your book and you need to look at that paragraph as if you’ve never seen it before with new eyes, totally raw, and find out from infinite negative space what is absent and what is present. Well, guess what? You’re not gonna be able to do that at first until you can look at somebody else’s stuff that you are divorced from and look at new work that’s not from your head and take apart those sentences. So that idea, reading for someone else that takes your time. Guess what? Reading that person’s work is going to teach you to read your own work.
I feel like on every front – from professional-craft-social – just doing what you think is the right thing actually serves your work and, you know, it’s really just freeing. Understanding that your obligation is only to the work in that purest, deepest sense is possibly the most freeing thing. Everyone falls off the wagon and gets caught up in stuff. It does not help the work and it does not help you. I can’t believe that more.
And I have to say I feel like it’s a really nice time for writers; I feel like I feel the support back. At Iowa it’s been funny; I was out there three times last year or whatever, I went for a talk and this and that. And they’re so much nicer. I feel like when I was [a student] there, we wrote as if in the whole world there was one shelf with room for one book on it. It was like a giant episode of Survivor. And to me it’s to understand that it’s totally the opposite, you know what I’m saying?
I’m a cynic. But we’re talking about sincere things. I try to be dark-hearted and cynical. Tell me a personal tragedy and I’ll make a joke instantly: “Oooh, sorry, too soon?” But I have to say, that’s the advice I would give.
Your obligation is to story and just put everything else out of your head. Can you feed yourself? Is there a roof over your head? Be thankful and do the work.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Juliana Sohn