Eagle interview with Clinton Hill resident Nathan Englander on his new novel ‘Dinner at the Center of the Earth’
How much did I relish reading Nathan Englander’s new novel “Dinner at the Center of the Earth?” Let me tell you, my enemies should never enjoy such a book! Englander is a writer possessed of bountiful humanity and wisdom. His novels and short stories have a sweeping sense of the historical and the personal. In fact, for Englander, history is personal.
Englander himself overflows with ideas, conjectures, declarations. Listening to him riff on writing fiction, the current Trumpian moment, Israel and Palestine, the concept of Aliyah [the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to the Land of Israel], the fortunes of the University of Wisconsin football team — often all in the same sentence — is like listening to a great jazz group, say Benny Golson & Art Farmer’s Jazztet. There is the opening melody, then the frontline solos, then the rhythm section enters, then back to the melody. Englander’s free-associative musings at times had me feeling that I was at Birdland, not the Primrose Cafe in Clinton Hill.
Englander’s longtime (and only) literary agent Nicole Aragi tells me by email from London: “I signed Nathan because I was attracted to his voice. I love it when I can recognize who the writer is within a few seconds … Nathan’s originality, voice, even the rhythm of his sentences felt utterly original and compelling, like nothing else I had read. Nathan’s brain travels in circles and loops around and then around again, incorporating dozens of thoughts. Often, I have to say ‘Whoa, slow down. Hang on, say that again, you lost me. Love it, now compress that to a sentence, or a page, or 25 pages (depending on the situation). You need to give up caffeine!’”
Thus my apprehension when, in the course of our one hour conversation, he ordered a second large Americano. I had to tamp down my Jewish mother instinct and not exclaim, “Nathan, don’t drink that!”
These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Eagle: The structure of “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” is so interesting. Did you know when beginning the book that you would shift perspectives and jump around in time and place?
Nathan Englander: Not to make this too much of a Talmudic interview, but it depends where the beginning begins. I’ve wanted to write this book since the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace process fell apart. And I was searching for the right form. I knew I didn’t want to write a 900-page lecture on heartbreak or a didactic treatise on peace. Until this past presidential U.S. election, I couldn’t claim that I was an expert on geopolitical matters. But now with Trump and his cabinet — coupled with the research I did for this book — I can say (laughing) I’m qualified to head NASA or be the Secretary of Education. My biggest challenge in writing “Dinner” was bringing all those pieces and people together.
Eagle: Did you use a bulletin board with colored cards to keep track?
NE: Oh, I love those boards! I’m so jealous of writers who use those boards! I wish I was disciplined enough to have a crazy person’s board that organizes everything: the plot, the characters, the locations.
Eagle: Like a storyboard that filmmakers use. Hitchcock famously said that once he had his storyboard completed shooting the film was an afterthought.
NE: (laughing) Well I’m definitely not Hitchcockian. Here’s the point: I’m obsessed with the dissociative states, and with the subconscious. I mean I do have writer friends who can work that way, like Colson Whitehead, who, when he sits down to write, he knows how everything is mapped out. But that’s not me, as you can probably tell. I mean, I feel my way through differently. For example, we’re two minutes into this interview and I already have 15 threads going.
Eagle: I’ve been in psychotherapy; I can handle the threads. In fact, I’m enjoying them.
NE: Well, that’s good because I think in circles; you know that New York Jewish circularity. At the age of 19 I decided I was no longer going to be an Orthodox Jew. For my junior year of college, I went to Israel and, for the first time, I understood what it meant to be more culturally Jewish. When I showed up in Iowa City [where Englander studied with Marilynne Robinson at the famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop], I was still newly secular, yet my speech patterns, so shaped by my yeshiva education, were very much reflected in my writing. I learned that I was basically building sentences with an almost Yiddish-inflected pattern.
Eagle: To often hilarious effect, as in your story “Camp Sundown” (from Englander’s most recent collection of short stories “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”), where Josh, the beleaguered camp director, asks Agnes, a 76-year-old camper.
Here is an excerpt:
“Why do you talk like that?”
“Like ‘Always he takes care.’ Like you haven’t been living in Livingston, New Jersey for the last 50 years.”
Englander: (Laughing) Yes, that’s a perfect example. But it’s funny because I don’t speak Yiddish. I speak Hebrew. The Yiddish inflection is due to the fact that I was taught by rabbis with those speech patterns and I absorbed them. How I think, how I write, how I build a sentence — so much of that is shaped by, obviously, the education I got. For example, right now, “This you call an interview?”
Eagle: Did you ever think of becoming Hasidic?
NE: Plenty of my Orthodox friends shifted that way. I went the other way. I mean, still, the yarmulke, tzitzit, kosher, halachic. But not black hat.
Eagle: Regarding your new novel “Dinner at the Center of the Earth”: It’s interesting, and ironic, that we’re talking about it because just three weeks ago I interviewed Jennifer Egan, whose new novel “Manhattan Beach,” like yours, is also a shift in theme and style from her previous novels.
NE: Yes, I know. Jenny and I are friends. [Note: Jennifer Egan and Nathan Englander will be speaking and reading at the 92nd Street Y on Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m.] Although, in her novels before “Manhattan Beach” she still had plots. My previous short stories and novels have not been particularly plot-driven.
Eagle: Since it’s your first thriller, were you channeling your inner Graham Greene or Eric Ambler when you decided to write “Dinner”?
NE: Allow me to answer in a bit of a roundabout way: So, a motivating factor, with this extraordinarily loaded subject [the Israeli-Palestinian question] that I decided to tackle, was that it not turn into a lecture or a diatribe, that we enter into the conversation solely through character. Now, of course, that puts a different kind of pressure on the plot. And regarding the thriller elements, it wasn’t conscious in that way, beyond the fact that, once I knew I was writing my “Prisoner Z” [based on the real-life case of “Prisoner X”], that his thread would have that [thriller] feel.
Eagle: Actually, “Dinner” is a mix of genres…
NE: Yes, a big mix of genres — the General is, I guess, a magic-realist-dream-history genre, then there’s the love story and then the allegory. I was aware of the different threads, but not the genres — that only became clear when I was done writing.
Eagle: I’m wondering — was it that you didn’t feel “ready” to write such a novel earlier in your career?
NE: It wasn’t the thriller part that I was waiting to write. It was the Israel-Palestine part that I was waiting to find the right form for the telling. And [“Dinner at the Center of the Earth”] was it. To tell the story of this conflict the way it needs to be told, it has to be told in circles. And I’m organically desperate to use those circles. This is my fourth book, and when I was starting it, I thought, “Oh, I think I can finally control those circles … and, yet, I discovered that here’s a story, that if you’re going to show it any respect, you have to tell it in circles.
Eagle: Why do you use generic names for your principal characters: “the General,” “the Waitress,” “Prisoner Z”?
NE: There are two answers. The first is that I literally discovered while I was writing — almost as if a lightbulb went off — that I was writing an allegory, and if you’re writing an allegory, rather than use mellifluous, poetic made-up names, I wanted to keep the names generic. Thus “the Waitress,” “the General” — that’s how allegories work. And here’s the second part of my answer: There’s the conscious part, the things I think as me writing and then there’s the unconscious part. The circles within the circles. I wrote part of this novel in Madison, Wisconsin…
Eagle: That’s my alma mater.
NE: Yeah, go Badgers! I just got my daughter her first Badger T-shirt. My wife is getting her Ph.D. from Wisconsin; in fact, she’s upstairs working on it now…
So, I’m sitting in my office in Madison working on the novel and I realize that every reader is going to come to this book [and] its Israel-Palestine background with their own set of preconceptions. You know, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” yet this is such a volatile issue, a divisive issue, that I wanted to use the generic to try to tamp down some of that. I mean, if I had used “Sharon” instead of “the General,” that’s a book-destroyer. Because the people who love him, love him for his warrior aspect, his defender of Israel persona, the man who said, “We’re was just going to go into Lebanon for a day,” and then spent 20 years there, the man who would have taken Cairo in ‘67 if he been allowed.
But what interests me about Sharon in this world now, in which you and I sit, are the reasons that people still hate him. I mean, he was a killer. And by the way, so was Rabin; Rabin said, “Break their bones.” He was as much of a hawk as Sharon, but unlike Sharon, Rabin came around to believing peace was possible, he had feelings for the Palestinian people. He believed people should have certain rights such as passports [and] borders. Sharon, on the other hand, was a killer. I don’t think he had any love or feeling for the Arab people. He liked to fight, he wouldn’t do anything to endanger Israel. But he was a killer — and, of course, there are people who like him for that and people who hate him for that. But here’s why things get complicated: Sharon pulled out of Gaza … the man who was the father of the settlements, the “land grabber,” a “Greater Israel” guy … the man who lived in a house in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem — he’s the guy who pulls out of Gaza. Now, did he do it to be kind? No. But of course still there are people who hate him. So, in my book I didn’t want to write, “Sharon” — it’s too loaded. I wanted to avoid that, which is why I refer to him as “the General.”
[Note: The above response is pure Golson-Farmer, Miles-Coltrane, Monk-Rouse; Thus the jazz analogy.]
Eagle: You thought if you “named” the General it would be too much of a lightning rod?
NE: Yes — it doesn’t work for my brain … for someone who becomes a writer from being a reader … the books that changed my life are the books that ask the questions but don’t give the answers. We have a shortage of empathy in this world now, to such an extraordinary degree that, whatever your political stripes, it has to break your heart when you know that we have a president who’s willing to take health care away from children. I’m not even talking about giving health care to children, I’m talking about someone who will take it away, i.e., children will die. My book explores empathy; I wanted the reader to enter into the Israel-Palestine conversation with me. The concept of what John Gardner called “moral fiction.” While one is reading my book, I want them to test and re-think their own values.
Eagle: Nathan, if you hadn’t been born a Jew, what would you write about?
NE: (laughing) Wow…that’s a question that stops me in my tracks! You know, I always like to have quick answers. For example, part of being a writer today is coming out of your room and going on a book tour. And people expect you to have favorites. Like “Nathan’s five favorite summer salads.” Or when I’m on these tours, I’m inevitably asked if I’m still religious, and my quick response is, “No, I’m a failed atheist.” I mean … I have 20 pre-packaged, Woody Allen-like jokes about where I am religiously. But when you ask me a question like that, my head short-circuits. Because to try to answer your question, I have to differentiate between Jewish, New York, bagels or just neurotic. And because at this moment in America we essentially have a white supremacist president, I sometimes feel like doing my readings with 10 yarmulkes piled high on my head. But, truthfully, I have spent such a long time saying, “I am not a Jewish-American” writer. I mean I’m fifth-generation American. My dad worked for the City of New York, my grandfather also worked for the city. Everyone’s welcome to see a Jew when they look at me, but I don’t write about Jews, I write about people. You know, you are the first person that’s ever asked me that question.
Nathan Englander’s “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” is published by Alfred A. Knopf and available at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, Barnes & Noble and online at Amazon.
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