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Nathan Englander

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Photo of Nathan Englander

Photo: © Joshua Meier

About the Author

Nathan Englander’s short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Englander is the author of the novels The Ministry of Special Cases and Dinner at the Center of the Earth and the story collections What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which earned him a PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2012, Englander’s play The Twenty-Seventh Man premiered at The Public Theater, and his translation of New American Haggadah (edited by Jonathan Safran Foer) was published by Little Brown. He also co-translated Etgar Keret’s Suddenly A Knock on the Door published by FSG. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and daughter.

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Vintage International

A Vintage Short

Author Essay

I’m thirty-seven years old. I live in New York City. Actually, I live in Manhattan–which probably needs to be stressed now, as there are about three of us left writing fiction on this island, roaming around lonely and dazed. Everyone else has gone off to Brooklyn. The pull is great.

Why I don’t live in Brooklyn, also pretty much lets me sum up the first twenty years of my life. I was born and raised in West Hempstead, Long Island. Most all the parents had moved to our town from Brooklyn. We were not raised to dream of moving back there. I think living in the Five Towns (for those who know the suburban hierarchies) may have been our greatest aspiration.

What we were raised to do was get married, have a lot of kids, and lead a religious Jewish life. After graduating from yeshiva, the boys generally went off to Israel to continue their religious studies. I begged to go to a secular university, and went off to Binghamton, a state school. My roommate dragged me off to Hebrew University in Jerusalem for my junior year. I immediately fell in love with the city and, also, gave up religion my first week there.

I came back to America, finished college, and then went off to Argentina the next fall to attend a wedding and join my friends on their honeymoon. While in Argentina, a photographer I’d met in New York contacted me and offered to help me find work. (I was afraid to write after college; I was going to be an ace photographer then.) I ended up managing his studio in Chelsea. It was an amazing experience. (And makes me feel freakishly old, as, back in the day, we shot on film. It was a chemical and mechanical–not a digital–process.)

The next summer, I went off to Israel to shoot a documentary project, photos and interviews, which is now moldering in an attic. Sitting alone in a rented room in Jerusalem, it became clear to me that what I really wanted to do was write–that’s what I’d always wanted to do. I went back to America and started writing stories in earnest. I went off to Iowa in 1994, and, in 1996, two weeks after finishing up at the Writers’ Workshop, I moved to Jerusalem forever (which turned out to be a period lasting five years).

The intent in Jerusalem was to live my hippy-dippy life and watch peace in the Middle East bloom. I was going to write short stories and, I imagined, slowly starve to death–but romantically. I moved into a neighborhood of twisty alleyways, tumbledown houses, and unbelievably leaky ceilings (a permanent feature in my life). I don’t know how to explain it, but, even with all the violence and the suicide bombings, those really were hopeful years. I thought peace was right there–that things could be settled at any time.

There was no end to how shattering a disappointment it was when everything fell apart in September 2000, with the start of the second Intifada. This was after my first book had already come out and I was busy being writer-guy. I’d just been at a festival in Italy with David Grossman and Amos Oz, and I remember the good feeling, how nice it was to meet these legends of the peace movement, how their hard work was about to pay off. Back in Jerusalem, I hosted a big dinner party for Rosh Hashana, and then the second Intifada began.

I moved to New York in 2001, and, on September 1st, I moved into an apartment in my old neighborhood–sort of a post-Jerusalem flophouse, where people coming back to America passed the rooms off to each other. There’s obviously no way to mark that time without acknowledging the insanity of it. When I settled into New York, and New York settled back into itself, I was, simply, living and writing, wholly engrossed in the construction of the novel. It was a wonderful and daunting and, for me, allconsuming task.

The strangest side-effect of spending a decade on a book is having the world outside the novel change around it. When I started writing this novel, the idea of habeas corpus (which is a central theme) was a metaphor. When I finished, I seemed to have inadvertently ended up with a live political stance. It’s not a very complicated one–and sort of terrifying that it’s being debated at all in current-day America. But after ten years of thinking about it, I’m pretty sure that when governments arrest people, those people should be accounted for, entered into a just legal system, and tried. (The other Dirty War elements–abducting the innocent, secret prisons, torture–need not be discussed when dealing with a democracy.)

Now that the book is done, people keep asking me about money. How did you do it all those years? Like this: I was poor, then I had money for a while after the first book, and then I got poor again. I think it’s a standard writer’s setup. I was fortunate enough to get some wonderful grants that helped me keep going in New York, including a Cullman Center Fellowship at the New York Public Library. (The best part was being in that building alone. We were allowed to stay after closing, and, being nocturnal then, I was often the last one there. I used to turn off the library when I was done, literally pulling twenty switches and turning off the second floor. I always wished I could be outside on Forty-second Street to see it. To me it was like turning off the Statue of Liberty when finished writing for the night.) What else? I taught for a couple of semesters in the M.F.A. program at Columbia. It’s in my neighborhood. I often write at a coffee shop nearby. (I practically live in that
coffee shop.) I’ve been in the same leaky-ceilinged (I really can’t escape it) apartment for five years or so. And, even more conducive to writing, it’s filled with musicians and has paper-thin walls. One special year had a persistently loud pianist living downstairs and disrupting people’s lives on three different floors–I remember thinking, I can’t live like this. Who can work like this? And then I remembered settling down at my desk in Jerusalem and putting in my earplugs to try to block out the noise of tank fire and machine guns echoing off the hills as we all (ridiculously) tried to maintain a sense of normality in freakishly abnormal times. Catching myself feeling fully tortured by classical piano–I don’t think I’d ever so clearly recognized how life changes as I did right then. How delicate everything is. I think it may even be called “perspective.”

I have some new hobbies (I’ve really gotten into yoga and running), and I got myself a new haircut (I no longer look like a roadie for the Allman Brothers), but otherwise, life has been about this book. And for those who’ve been expecting it, I appreciate the wait.

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