I conducted this Nathan Englander interview for the Spring 2008 issue of the Southern California Review, and I’m posting it online now for easier accessibility. If you want the entire text, click the title above or the link at the bottom of this post.
Nathan Englander burst onto the literary scene in 1999, when he was twenty-eight and a few years out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Knopf), which included selections that first appeared in the Atlantic and the New Yorker, dealt with the life of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews in New York and abroad. The book garnered awards such as the PEN/Malamud Award and the Pushcart Prize, and pieces were included in The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Englander was compared to writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth.
Now, nearly a decade later, Englander has returned with a novel, The Ministry of Special Cases (Knopf), which describes the struggles of a Jewish family during the Argentine Dirty War in the seventies and eighties, when the government “disappeared” citizens. In it, Kaddish Poznan chips names off gravestones to erase familial connections to pimps and prostitutes, his wife works for a company providing insurance for those frightened by the recent coup, and his son fraternizes with rebellious youth.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA REVIEW: Although your novel is set in Buenos Aires, you wrote it while living in Jerusalem. Do you think this helped you better imagine The Ministry of Special Cases?
NATHAN ENGLANDER: That’s a great question to start with. It’s very funny to talk to you now, since I’ve had time to think about it. I see how much this book is a Jerusalem metaphor, and how much that played into everything—just about the idea of when I walk to my market and walk home, thinking: am I going to die today? It’s a very American thought to think your life has value. Most other countries don’t have that luxury. But this idea: Do I as an individual, do I have a right to think I don’t want to die? Does the country need to protect me? What do I owe the society when we’re trying to move forward? You see how much I become obsessed with loving complicated cities. And the individual’s obligation to community and vice versa. So right now, it feels hugely like a Jerusalem metaphor.
Living in Jerusalem, I began to understand Kafka better, as a reader—this is what it’s like to grow up in a certain society. Bureaucracy in every country is a way to oppress. How do I imagine the Ministry? Just try getting a parking permit in Jerusalem. So much of that stuff is drawn directly from going to get my parking permit. Bureaucracy is how paper is used to oppress, to keep people in line, to terrify.
SCR: I know you’re not writing anything akin to magical realism, but—
NE: Thank you, I’m already happy to hear that.
SCR: Did the literary history of Buenos Aires, such as Borges and Cortázar, have any effect on how you visualized or created the city?
NE: Well, I’m a hopeless neurotic, I’m hyper-aware … I forget whose quote is it—if you have time to think, you will brood. I have written fiction for a lot of years now, I spend a lot of time in my head, and I feel like it’s almost insulting to answer on one level, when you know there’s so many more levels. A lot of questions end up with all these weird complicated meta-answers. It’s a line between intense dedication and madness. Do you let the book go? Do you put a book out into the world? I always use the character from Camus’s The Plague that’s working on the same line throughout the novel—I could work on one line for the rest of my life, but that’s madness. I could just talk about influence, but I’m of the world, so I recognize [that] I’m wholly decided to the novel, but I’m not unaware of other facts of life, such as me as a person, me as writer, so setting out to do this, it was a concrete decision.
In regards to Kafka, I actually dialed stuff back—I said, “This is my head, but this is going to be called Kafka-esque.” You have to be aware. In that sense, in terms of owning a world, I love Borges, and I love Cortázar, and I love Amado.
SCR: In some sense it’s almost inevitable that they would have some effect.
NE: An opposite effect, is what I’m saying.
SCR: Right, you’re avoiding it purposefully.
NE: Well, you know what, this is just to say, this is my Buenos Aires. I better own this world, it’s my head, this is my imagination. What I’m saying is that one must recognize pitfalls. You can only have your knowledge base.
I’m reading Homage to Catalonia now, and I just turn the page, and there’s Orwell saying how the anarchists and the socialists would go into the graveyards and chip the crosses off the gravestones. [Similarly, in The Ministry of Special Cases, Kaddish Poznan chips the names of respectable Jewish families from the gravestones of relatives buried in the cemetery for gangsters and prostitutes.] That fucking blew me out of the water. I wish I would have read it eight years ago as a confirmation. My point is that it’s already in existence. I didn’t know that fact. How nice for me to see that fact after, to feel good in a different way. These things are just of the world—the chipping of gravestones.
The point behind your question is central to what this novel is. If I needed it to be in some made-up town, I would have changed it. It’s not hard to remove all the Buenos Aires references and call it “Calibia”—I don’t know, [to] just make [up] a name right now. The idea is that it’s a hyper-realistic world that turned absurd, it’s a fabled world, it’s all these absurd, upside-down things, but this happened. My story isn’t made up. The most unbelievable elements of the story are dialed-back versions of actual reality, which is innocent people being thrown from planes into the sea. What I had to separate out is that nobody’s getting wings, and nobody’s floating. … [But] there were real secret rooms, they were dungeons. I would think that’s a pitfall to this story—someone who thinks that because I’m telling a story about this place and this time, I am also adopting someone else’s style. This is the voice in my head, and I was very aware from the start. People are often very nice and very generous with me in comparisons, but at least for these two books, when I go to find a narrator, this is the voice I hear.
SCR: It was nice to see how you slipped in description of Buenos Aires without making it obnoxious—the wide avenues, the mate, the Pink Palace, as well as the historical references such as the 300 percent inflation. How much of a temptation is it to be able to show off knowledge about a place or time in history but not make it over-the-top, not make it over-researched?
NE: I’ve spent a decade on this book, I have thought about every element of it an infinite number of times. The one thing I can say about this book is that it is intentional. Everything. So that’s a huge thing to me. I don’t know where I was—Minnesota—someone asked me, “Why didn’t you draw more of the city?” It’s the idea of how much of the city I removed and how many facts I removed and how many food references I removed, because your obligation is to the story. I am telling a story of two people who are of the city.
I spent a year at the New York Public Library when I was writing this book. If you say to someone, “Meet me at the library,” if you’re a New Yorker, you say, “I’ll see you at the lions.” That’s it. You don’t say, “Come down 42nd Street, there will be an entrance on the south side of the street, and across from you will be a bookstore. You will come up three steps, there will be eight round tables, with three chairs, cane-backed chairs, each that will be chained to the ankles at night, they will be carried in by a guard.” That is not how you own a city. I’m looking out my window in New York, and I can see forever. Every detail will drop out. I’ll say, “I see water towers and the tip of the Empire State building.” Because it’s my view and I know it. I’m not going to tell you about this building or the Columbia tower on 96th Street. For me, it’s Kaddish’s Buenos Aires, and Lillian’s Buenos Aires, and when you really own a city, that’s what you feel: a certain wideness to the avenue, or you notice the specific café you’re standing outside of.
SCR: It’s the selective details that pop.
NE: Yeah, and also for a reader. It’s weird how writing becomes holy. I take everything apart as a reader, but I look at novels of the last years, like big fat novels that are heavily researched, and to me, that is often a problem with reading them, when I can feel the author having fallen in love with his or her research and betraying, in a sense, the obligation to story.
The joke that I have with my friend is that this novel’s not called, “Look how smart Nathan is.” Because you end up writing that book, too, at the same time. Here is my complex theory that I’ve worked out for years on the movement of Jews as a people, and Diaspora, and it ends up as a forty-page speech, and actually, it would serve the book better if that forty-page speech was a line. And, in that same way, look how much I know about how much topsoil is in the north of Argentina, or this is when they tore down the old BA, which was the Jewish neighborhood, and they put [in] the Pink House, and the Jews had to move over to Once, and here is a very moving thing about urban planning.
SCR: You don’t think that people want to read about topsoil?
NE: [laughs] No, I don’t think so. Maybe in the next book. But that’s what makes a world real to me—now tell what the story needs. It was such a hugely conscious decision for me. To own the city in the right way, which is it is both the center of the story and just the place where things are happening. If you are telling it from the view of the people who are from that place, tell it their way.
SCR: Disappearance and loss are themes in the novel—lost IDs, lost fingers, lost noses, lost books, lost people. What initially attracted you to write about those disappearances and losses during the Argentine Dirty War?
NE: It’s an almost infinite number of threads. I met these Argentinean guys my junior year abroad in Israel, the first time I was away, and these guys were so deeply formed by this period of history that it got under my skin and stayed with me. To get really personal and be really open, I’ve written distant—you know, like a distant setting—if I really want to get to the things that make me tick, or that need to be worked out in my head.
I talk about Israel—it’s a very young country, it’s got a lot of problems, but you never have to list them, because the world will find them and list them. But it does some things right. They have an amazing fucking press there. We could have used that in the buildup to the war here. The Anti-Defamation League would be picketing the New York Times if they covered Israel like Haaretz does. The reporters there recognize that it’s raw and brutal. I also feel that the type of zeitgeist—that they’re willing to look at alternatives, to adjust their story as time goes by, in a quick way, because it’s sort of imperative. Mainstream historians there—it’s not crackpots with crackpot theories like, “Did the government blow up the Twin Towers?” It’s mainstream realist stories, like, “In the war of independence in ’48, did Israel actually have the advantage?” These things that are like national myths that they’re willing to adjust.
I began to see on a very basic level how we use story or narrative to shape things. We’re always editing our stories. On a personal level, you’re sort of leaving out some things and adding others. It’s not lying—it’s a different thing, it’s the creation of history. I just got—this gets really philosophical—really interested in how we are formed by story, religious story, on a family level, on a personal level, and that plays into this, with Kaddish being the son of a whore. We erase these pasts. You can never know what’s going to come out of it.
In Argentina, in terms of disappearance, it’s pure evil but pure brilliance. It’s trying to alter the past as well as the future. If I murder someone right now, I’m denying them a present and denying them a future. But this other idea of undoing, of denying someone a past, it breaks the time-space continuum. When you tell a story, you want to tell the biggest story, and to me, Argentina at this time, on every level, from Kaddish to that community, to the Jews, to the government, it’s the extreme of what it is to define true story.
SCR: Going back to one of your early comments—the really personal, really open part—it sounds like you wrote about Argentina because writing about America or Israel would have been too personal?
NE: I don’t know, because it’s after the fact. I’m already years in. One metaphor in this book is representing a government gone awry. For me, a very simple metaphor for a government literally out of control is the suspension of habeas corpus. But I had this as a metaphor for years, and then my own government decided to suspend habeas corpus, so it wasn’t a political book but then I inherited a political stance. You know, it was very strange to come to a belief on my own, sort of like I wasn’t passionate about plastic surgery before, and I could care less about it now, but that belief system is very central to this book, about what it means to alter face or self. [In The Ministry of Special Cases, Kaddish accepts nose jobs for him and his wife as payment for cemetery effacement.] In that same way, habeas corpus is central to this book, and that became really close to my heart and stayed with me, and then was accidentally political, because our government decided it could incarcerate people who couldn’t challenge their detention. Which is absolutely insane. So it’s not like I was being distant actively. I think you’re always writing in the world, so it can’t not affect it. I don’t know how to talk to you, except from right now, with this distance. I just see how deeply this book was affected by living in Jerusalem, and then showing up in New York just before September 11, and writing it in the years that followed, how much that feeds in.
SCR: One of the lines in the novel that seemed to have special metaphorical significance was from Gustavo, the manager of the insurance company: “It’s only profits that can be arranged absolutely during a war.” It seems this is commentary on current events, and perhaps also past ones.
NE: I sort of break the world up into parts—there’s all this stuff woven in here for Argentine readers, and there’s all this stuff woven in here for Jewish readers, and lately I’ve become really aware how much I weave stuff in for close readers. It’s sort of how I get feedback—there’s so much stuff that I can’t process and it’s not useful to process, but I can process the reactions of Argentines who lived through this time, in this place, who survived it. That to me is really moving, and also, as a writer, if I’ve imagined the world in a way that’s acceptable to someone who lived it, that’s amazing. There are probably seven lines in this book that are huge concepts that I got down to a line and left in there, and the more they get said back to you, the more it’s like a way for me to read what’s being communicated, whether things that are stressed are actually hitting right. Yes, you say that line to me, yes, that to me is a very big concept to me personally that’s down to that one or two lines. It’s like, “Pick a side and begin to earn.”
SCR: You mentioned feedback from Argentineans. Do you have any stories of people telling you things about the war?
NE: Oh, God. It can’t be any more moving. I was seeing from readings—I’m out on the road endlessly now—that that’s the only thing I can really take away. I learned this from the last book, in which I have a story where a Hasidic man makes money by dressing up as Santa Claus—
SCR: “Reb Kringle.”
NE: Yes, and … going around the country, I met more Jewish Santa Clauses than you would imagine would exist. Same thing [with this book], it’s really moving: in Detroit, a woman came up and said, “My husband was in jail in BA for two years before they let him out,” and another woman told me that her aunt was one of these Jewish prostitutes that used the money to bring her father out of Europe before the Holocaust. To me, that’s a crazy thing about the fabric of the world, that you could put an imagined story out there and then people from history will come to me now. It’s hugely personal.
SCR: You mentioned that sometimes you boil down large portions of text into a single line, and I know you cut out enormous portions of the novel—for instance, a section with Kaddish’s father, and a long discussion between Lillian and the priest. How does the process of writing all that extra material change the final book?
NE: I don’t believe any writer would write his or her heart out for a year at a time, writing the backstory, if they thought it wouldn’t be included. If that’s your process, I’d be really surprised. It’s always for keeps, it’s always for the book, but I just think as a writer for these two books, they’ve both taken me a long time and that’s been central to the process. I write Lillian again and again and again until she can’t say anything unless it’s true to her, until she can’t do anything unless it’s exactly what Lillian would do. That’s how they form in a sense. At the time, that is the book, that’s all there is, that’s central. But then it becomes clear that Kaddish would be better served if he was an orphan than a kid with parents. Then he starts to take on shape and have a history. But the stuff that’s still true to him that gets cut and the stuff that no longer fits with him that gets cut, that’s how they become people. If I didn’t believe in process, I would go mad.
SCR: Especially with this last book, you would have gone mad.
NE: Yeah, you have to believe in the process. The point is that I can’t tell you whether I need to believe it, but I have to believe it. It may be both true and necessary, if that makes sense.
SCR: Already in our conversation you’ve mentioned the word “holy,” in regard to reading. I know you’re no longer religious, but I find that in interviews you often characterize the process of writing and reading as something “holy” or something you do “religiously,” and I’ve even heard it said that when you do readings, you sound like you’re praying.
NE: Oh, God. I get that every night—almost every night.
SCR: So in what ways do you think the rituals of religion in your youth have affected the way that you conceive of and practice writing?
NE: On so many fronts. I can’t tell if it was bred into me, or if I was just suited for it. But I like ritualistic behavior, I like the continuum of how the process works. Almost like the monkish ideas where it’s not about me—you don’t want to write today, you still write, it’s not about you, it’s about your obligation to the story. And also this idea of building a continuum that way, ideas of sacred space and sacred time, which is this idea of how blocks of time work. It’s not calendar time, you don’t say, “I write in March,” it’s the idea of prayer, things that are daily. The breaks are built in.
SCR: Having the sacred yellow pad, sitting in that sacred coffee shop.
NE: Yeah, you are set in place. It’s the same as yoga stuff, which I love. It’s true: if you write every day, and work hard to get to this spot, and you do it in a certain place, you will get there more quickly if it’s the same seat, same time, same whatever. The machinations of it are very religious to me, that suits it. But I was also raised in a world of story, and I just think that to me—you can call it magical, you can call it whatever you want, some people call it the muse, or the zone—but when a book is working for me, I do believe that the goal is perfection, and I do think it’s about grace. I am really moved when a book is singing, when it’s working, you know, when I read. I kind of believe in the process in a deep way and believe in fiction in a deep way.
SCR: So the reverence for books in the religious sense just sort of filters over to your reverence for books that you’re reading.
NE: Yeah. My obligation to the book is like religious practice, but my love of the book comes from—you know that people say, “Oh, Jews, the people of the book.” This idea that books are holy objects is how I was raised, and that did not not affect me.
SCR: In regard to research, you write it and then fact-check it—which is the opposite process of a lot of writers. Do you think you create a different type of world because of that order?
NE: I’m glad this follows the religious question because this is where I get all hokey. But it is sincere. It’s sort of this idea that I feel really clear about craft and stuff, but I think fiction is truer than truth. What’s its purpose? It really does build worlds, and it really can communicate things, and you really can learn. Again, it’s a story, so you’d be hubristic and fucked-up to sit down and think that way. I keep spinning again my obligation as storyteller, my role as reader. But the point is, I think fiction can allow for a greater truth.
And if you’re a person like me who’s a rule-follower and terrified by authority, you’re going for certain bigger things that need to be dealt with first, before if Amsterdam ends at Columbus Circle or goes further. It doesn’t help me if I get every street right in Buenos Aires. That’s a start, but you don’t believe ever that I’ve dreamed Lillian as a mother of a missing child. I’m single, I’m not married, I have no kids. Or just this idea of what it feels like for Kaddish to be in the world or what it’s like to walk the street on the day of the coup. That has to be real and true and spot-on to me. The book is nothing without those points. So I’d rather get my whole world down.
Anything that’s essential to the story is true by virtue of its necessity because it is fiction. So the idea is I’ll put all my buildings in place, and I’ll have all my people set. If I didn’t check that below the equator February actually is summer, if I didn’t check that, if I had just missed that fact, [and] if I needed it to be winter in this book in Argentina during summertime, [and] I wrote the whole book that way and it was just really, really necessary, then it would just be true. That’s the way I like to work. Then when I’m done, everything that is not essential to the text has to be fact-checked and verified. And it can be really painful. It can be something that’s almost central—I will change it. [But] the idea [of] the Ministry that I built is correct by virtue of its necessity.
SCR: Even though it never existed.
NE: Yeah, it never existed before I wrote it, but it better exist now. That’s the goal. But yes, I will be brutal. Again, it’s like when I wrote “The Tumblers,” that one actually being a fable [about a troupe of Polish Jews who escape a train to the death camps by boarding a circus car instead, pretending to be acrobats and ultimately performing before an audience of Nazi sympathizers]. Here I’d written a fable, and I had one of my characters getting on a train car, and I didn’t know if he pushed the door or pulled the door. I felt like I spent years on this story, and yes it’s a fable, and no it does not matter at all, but it matters to me if there’s one person alive who knows which way the door pulls on a German train car. I went to the New York Public Library and pulled the blueprints, and I think it sort of changed me. I went to Iowa and studied with Marilynne Robinson [(Gilead)], and certain things affected me about what my obligations were to text on that front.
SCR: She has that demand for detail?
NE: Yeah, yeah. I just felt fiercely that stuff better be right. And it’s also deeply out of respect for the reader. I had [Argentine rock musician Luis Alberto] Spinetta singing solo in the book; it’s like one line. But the idea is he was with Invisible in 1976; at that time, the band hadn’t broken up yet. I don’t know who in the world reading it who even knew it in the back of their head would do the dates and work out the time and say, “Actually, you mention him, but it sounds like he’s singing solo, which you should actually mention …” But you know what? If that bumps someone, if I did that to someone who lived through this time and lived through this period and will be generous enough to read this book, that I’m going to bump them over something knowable is unacceptable to me.
SCR: Your process is so counterintuitive because so many other writers want to make so sure that all the big things are well researched that the small things end up slipping through.
NE: The big things better be right because I better put in enough time to dream them right. That’s sort of it. Again, it keeps coming back to the religious thing. Not to be hokey, but my mom gets excited when someone says, “How would you know that?” That, to her and to me, is the biggest compliment, the “How could you know that?” from someone who knows. I do feel that if you write it hard enough, there will be an order to the world. I can’t say it enough. I just think that if you had a few facts and dreamed Manhattan, I think if you spent enough time writing it, you would put the Empire State Building in the ’30s and not the ’50s. You’d put it on the right street, and you’d build it the right height. I think that there will be a logic from the infinite. But, yeah, it is counterintuitive.
SCR: It speaks a lot to faith in imagination.
NE: Yeah, absolutely. Absolute faith in it.
SCR: Writers are often asked who their literary influences are, but I’m interested, since you have a history of being a photographer, in what other artistic genres have influenced you, whether photography or painting or music.
NE: That’s funny because of all these writer friends, I always think “God help me” when everyone’s at my house and it’s my iPod on.
SCR: You feel like there’s pressure.
NE: Yeah, and I feel like … I’ll open something and it’ll be like, “Oh, did you just spend three days with James Brown before he died?” So many of my writer friends are encyclopedically musical. They know everything, and I just sit around the table, and they’re all talking about this band’s in town, and that band’s doing this.
Frederick Brenner, the Jewish photographer, French-Israeli, whatever he is—I don’t know what he identifies as—but I remember when I was first shooting and I saw these shots of [his] that I feel fed into things when I was shooting. He’s really capturing this world, and it’s crossing over. It’s so very Jewish, but who gives a fuck? That’s the subject, but that’s not what makes it its thing.
There’s so many things… just things that always feed into your work. I remember seeing a Balthus painting. There was a mountaintop, and there were a couple of people on it, and I can’t remember the name of it, but there was a study for this painting and then the giant canvas of the painting. I think I saw it at MoMA years ago, the two of them. And that to me exactly spoke about process, because the first one was great and brilliant and wonderful, but it wasn’t anything, anything like the richness, like the world captured like he’d done in the final. It was that idea, where I saw a process there. He had the same people and the same mountain and the same whatever, but it just—I actually remember, because I think that was the last time I was teaching, and it was four or five years ago, and I almost wanted to get a slide of both and show the first slide and show the second slide and be like, “This semester is over.” I did not do that, and instead taught the class for a semester. But I really thought: “That’s it.” Okay, here is process. Here is what you do. Here is your masterpiece, and then you look at it and say, “This is nothing. This is wrong.”
SCR: I think your students might have been disappointed.
NE: Yeah, maybe they would have been better off than how corrupted I left them. I like music, too, but the photography actually really did help in a lot of ways, I think. I’m very visual, and I think it made me recognize how visual I am. I always wonder if that’s what makes me more anxious than a lot of people. When you think someone’s mad at you, do you think, “He’s mad at me,” or do you actually set the scene, picture the room, hear the dialogue? I’m wondering if the idea of hyper-visualization of things actually makes things scarier since you can move people around the set in your head really clearly.
I’ve always wondered if painters actually see, like, we’re both seeing red, but they see something just a little bit more lit, you know? So I almost call it emotional photographic memory. The writer Colin McCahon … has this wonderful ability. We always laugh because he’ll teach me the same Beckett quote a hundred times that’s one line, and I just won’t get it because he can do hours of poetry by heart. But I feel like I have a different kind of memory. I feel like I’ll be able to repeat the conversation exactly, but it’ll be the gist of it and the emotional tenor and the exactly what everybody’s representing, but not necessarily Battle of Hastings, 1066.
SCR: So like a Jeopardy memory rather than—
NE: Yeah, I like to play Jeopardy at home. I always wonder if I would choke. For me, not being a basketball fan, I think that’s the height of romance—a girl on the couch and I can do every Jeopardy question. Sometimes [when] it’s a category I can really do, I always say, “Would I choke? Would I get the button down if I went on the show?” If you can be the only one, if you can get Final Jeopardy and no one else does, I really think that’s the same as dunking on the basketball court. That’s the thinker’s version. Nice, huh?
SCR: Earlier when you were talking about Brenner’s photography, you said Jewishness was the subject of his work, “but that’s not what makes it its thing.” Do you think that’s how you approach the way that Jewishness informs your writing—it’s the subject, but it’s not the main focus?
NE: The Jewish thing, that’s really loaded for me, and I get into that a lot. I would never comment on a review ever, but with this book, the [New York] Times Book Review, for some reason they ran a picture with Jewish stars and some sort of Israeli settler with sidelocks and a weird yarmulke. You know, it was a crazy image. It has nothing to do with any character in my book. With all the Jews I’ve had, I’ve never written a character like that, and it’s not representative of any way of my life, it’s not representative of anything that I have ever been. It’s just—a Jew. That ideal. I don’t know why that would be acceptable to be like, “Get me some picture of a Jew. That guy’s a Jew.” There’s the sweet support, like it’s Jewish Book Month, and I tour the hell out of it. I love that community support—that’s great. But I spent ten years on [this] book. Is anyone going to accidentally call me an Argentinean writer? No. Well, the point of this book is it is at least as Argentinean as it is Jewish. You can say maybe it’s more, but it’s not less. This is definitely an Argentinean story.
You know, it’s sweet—a Jewish reader will come up to me and say, “Can I give this book to my Gentile friend?” That comes from a point of love. But we all read distant. You would never say, “Well, I want to give you Candide, but you’ve never been disemboweled, you’re not dead, it’s not 500 years ago, you’re not French—you think you can get into [it]?” It can come from a point of support, as I said, like somebody feeling close to it as a Jew, but you always better feel like a book is just for you.
I was raised in a closed world. When somebody says, “A black man walks into the room …” That’ll bump you for sure. It’s sort of this idea like an African-American writer should not say, “A black man …” because unless you’re accepting someone’s else’s view as your point of view, why would that be a qualification of man-ness? Unless it’s necessary to the story. So that idea that Kaddish would walk into a scene, and I’d say, “A Jewish man walked into the room,” that’s saying to me there’s a qualification of the very basic nature to be human, to be a man. “No, he’s not a man, he’s a Jewish man.” Well, I was raised in a closed, closed world, and to me the only way to be was to be a Jewish man, and that was to be an Orthodox man. If you weren’t that, you were other, you were non-Jew, not us, outside, and if you weren’t religious the way we were, you might as well have been. That’s a point of view, and that is a complete universe. Your universe is whole when you’re little. You don’t think, “Oh, I’m in this subset, closed-off community.” You think this is the world and everybody else is in the outside world.
A fiction better be universal. It’s just not functioning if it’s not. It’s just so limiting if you want to say, “I’ve written these stories that are so vastly different from this book.” To me, the stories are about religious and secular, whereas this whole book is about community.
SCR: The book is about community, but it seemed like in the beginning, with the walling off of the disgraced dead from the honorable dead, there was a separation of community, and that division extends to the whole of the book. Even in the marriage, really, there’s a division between Kaddish, who wants to take the underhanded route, the back-alley route, to finding Pato, and Lillian, who wants to go to the official Ministry of Special Cases. So more specifically than just community, it’s about how communities divide or how communities expel—
NE: As a Frenchman, you don’t look across a border to Germany and say, “Oh, now I understand who I am.” Because they’re just other. That’s so clear. And then I started to think of the pariah, the extreme, where a whole community says, “Oh, this person’s bringing a shame on us, and this one’s embarrassing, and this one’s going to bring us down.” [But] we actually need these people. That’s how we judge our own boundaries. We need them to reflect on ourselves, so we say that we wish they weren’t here, but actually that’s what we use to define ourselves. They’re essential. That’s why we become obsessed with the American Taliban. We’re like, “Oh, here’s the very edge of Americanness.” And I got really interested that we [use] edges of community to define ourselves, the whole time cursing them.
I guess it comes from a point of wanting to believe in loyalty on so many levels—a government’s responsibility, a religious community’s responsibility, a neighbor, a family member. The idea is I didn’t paint a pretty father-son relationship because—you know what?—love has to be greater than that. His search should be just as strong as if they went fishing the day that he was grabbed. In my head I held the metaphor of the community of the healthy. Like, we formed this great community of the healthy, and we’re going to swear allegiance, and everybody’s in it forever, and we will die for each other—and then someone says, “I don’t feel so good,” and we’re like, you know, “Love to help you, but we’re a community of the healthy.” That’s not loyalty.
SCR: You tend to be reticent when talking about future writing projects. Do you think that not telling others about in-process work somehow forces you or compels you to put it on paper?
NE: It’s not even like a baseball thing—it’s not like I won’t change my skivvies until this book is done, you know, which would cause more problems over a decade. But it’s not superstitious. I just feel like I’ll bend on so many fronts, and you’ll ask me anything and I’ll tell you anything, but it doesn’t necessarily serve the work. The obligation is to what’s best for the work, and having to say things about it or commit to things about it right now doesn’t yet serve it.
SCR: Is it a novel?
NE: Yeah. Yes, I’m working on a novel, and I’m excited about it. I’ve known for a couple of years that I’m getting in deep, and as I said not really talking about it. But also I’m touring now, so I can’t really dig into it. And I’m working on a short story now, and a play that I have been meaning to do for years and working on a translation for something else, but it’s good stuff for now when I’m crazy busy and crazy swamped and on the road constantly. Dave Eggers asked me to do a fable for McSweeney’s. You know, a quick turnaround, and he’s doing an issue with fables, and it was really nice today to spend the afternoon working on this weird fable for adults, 600 words. Because that’s the thing, you can hyperfocus. I have a day, I can work on the last paragraph for the day. It’s actually been really fruitful and nice for me.
SCR: I didn’t know you were working on a play.
NE: Yeah, I agreed to it years ago. Again, we’ll see, but, yeah, I’m adapting a story. “The 27th Man” [about a young aspiring author who finds himself locked in a Soviet prison with the prominent Jewish authors he admires] was the first I feel like I’d ever written, one of the last ones finished in the collection but the first one drafted, but I always felt, for the years it was cooking, when I was 19, 20, 21, I thought, “Should this be a play or a story? Ah, I’ll write a story.” But it always stayed with me as the idea, “Could this be adapted into a play?”
SCR: But you’re hesitant to talk about it when it’s still a work-in-progress.
NE: Yeah, but there’s that extra pressure that I’ve told somebody, that I’m going to show it to them. I’m already, like, why did I say that out loud about the play because if there is no play—so there’ll be no play. That’s not a failure of anything. I judge the success of everything as the final piece. If it goes out into the world, you have to stand by it. That’s where things are to be judged.