Nathan Englander is not yet the household name that the short story writer Raymond Carver became during his lifetime, but Carver - and one of his best-known stories, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" - may be the boost that pushes Englander to that level. Englander's just-released collection of short stories is entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Knopf, $25). The title story, in which characters play something called "the Anne Frank game," is a smart, dead-on homage to/pastiche of the Carver story. It's imbued, however, with Englander's trademark themes: contemporary Judaism, Israeli politics, the persistent echo of the Holocaust.
Englander's work is often mentioned in the company of great Jewish storytellers like Bernard Malamud, Isaac B. Singer and Franz Kafka, as well as contemporaries like Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon. Englander returns insistently to emotionally charged, difficult issues, in this book and in his debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999), and novel, The Ministry of Special Cases (2007). The stories in the new collection are rooted in the recent history of Jews but also, as in "The Reader," take us to the cusp of our current cultural shift between old-school written word and the digital future. He has lived primarily in New York City and Jerusalem.
Now Englander, 42, is calling Madison, Wis., his part-time home base. We spoke on the phone just prior to Englander's nine-city, cross-country promotional tour in support of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.
I was surprised to see in the press materials for the new book the sentence, "Nathan Englander lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Madison, Wisconsin."
My partner, she's getting her Ph.D. in educational policy studies at Madison, so we are back and forth. I'll be on the road soon, and right now I very much need to be [in New York], but I got to spend a hunk of the fall in Madison.
I did my MFA at Iowa, so I was excited to return to the Midwest in general. I'd been to Madison before and done a reading at the old Canterbury bookstore, so I was super-excited.
It's obviously a big transition from Brooklyn life to my Madison life, but I have 50,000 things to say. I didn't think I would need to come back to Brooklyn to lose weight, but I'm eating myself silly in Madison. The food is devastating. It's officially the best farmers' market I've ever seen, by far. And I'm obsessed with Spotted Cow, which you can't get in New York. I think I've bought out all of Fromagination. We love Sardine, we eat at Ha Long Bay - I can tell you my whole restaurant list if you want. I've been eating my way up and down the isthmus and around the Square in a pretty unbroken circle.
Will you be doing any writing in Madison, or will you go back to Brooklyn to do that?
This [past fall] was really a nice time. This book was basically on press, so I finished up the final proofs. I have another book, a translation I've been working on with [Jonathan Safran] Foer. So I closed two multi-year projects in Madison. But really, I spent the fall locked in my room, working on the new novel.
Can you give me a thumbnail of what the new novel is?
That's funny - I brought it up just now, didn't I? I have to get back in interview shape. I've been back in America for 10 years now, so I think this may be the Israel novel that I've been thinking about writing.
Being in Brooklyn and Madison has been a good balance for me. We got a puppy, and it was a beautiful fall of walking the puppy around town. The one thing about being back in Brooklyn is, I had been waiting for the lake to freeze over. We're east-siders, we're a few houses from Lake Monona, and I would be up at dawn and walk down to the lake. That's one of my favorite features, those little mini-parks at the ends of the blocks.
The lake access points?
Yeah, it's crazy. It's the sweetest thing, a public park of one bench. I would take the puppy there and we would watch the sun rise and the fish jump. And I can promise you, watching fish jump in silence at dawn is not part of my New York day. I didn't realize until I got back, I had really built up a nice routine in Madison.
I also often have obsessions that come and go. I've been taking pottery - that's been my head-clearing Madison thing. I would write all day and do pottery in the evening. It's right near our house, Midwest Clay Project, and I just walked in and sort of never left. I just sent my agent a picture of all these mugs for her to choose from. I've been running around New York, promising people mugs.
Have you met other writers in Madison?
After I sold my first book, one of my first grownup writer dinners was with Lorrie Moore, and she's been very nice to me. Everybody's been so nice. I was invited to the faculty/grad writing workshop Christmas party. Everyone's been very welcoming.
How would you say the stories in the new book are different from your first collection?
I call this part "playing your own grad student." I don't have that distance. When I'm in them, I'm so fully absorbed in them.
Every story is different, each one is a different world to me. I don't even know how to compare them, except to say this one's about a reading, this one's about the West Bank - that might be the safest answer.
One difference between the first collection and this one is that, in a strange way, I've been letting stories rest. I've been writing them in my head and then sitting to put them on paper when they're done.
Do you imagine the reader engaging with the stories?
Putting a story in the world is about erasing distance. It's about true communication. That's how you're thinking about the reader. It's not thinking, "Am I entertaining?" or "Is this funny?" or "Is the person still with me?" You have to let that fall away. Your obligation is to the story. It's an unbelievably intimate relationship with the reader, but maybe not in the way one would think.
In this book you tackle really big motifs that came out of World War II: Anne Frank, Nazi guards being discovered in our midst, Jews returning to their homes to find them taken over by their gentile neighbors. How did you approach that? Did you feel pressure to "make it new"?
That goes to the same thing. That would be an obligation on the work, but I better not be thinking about that. A story better be unique and it better be new, but I don't even understand how people live in the world and can say every story's been told or whatever. Then why even live? Why marry, then? Other people have been married. Why get a puppy? I can't tell you how unique I feel my puppy is. You know?
A few years ago you were grouped with a number of other writers as "The New Yiddishists" by Vanity Fair. Do you feel this is a movement, and do you feel like you're part of it?
We all live in the world and stay sane and anchored by making connections. That's how we process things. I am very thankful for the generous comparisons I receive; I'm very happy in the fine company I find myself in when grouped. But I don't identify that [way]. You can say, this is a group of Jewish writers. I've always been Jewish, I was raised in an insular Jewish religious community, I lived in [New York City] for nine years, and we have no shortage of Jews here. It's not a way of being other. I don't even know how you would compare them, their work can't even be more different.
When you were writing the title story, at what point did the "Anne Frank game" come into the Raymond Carver story framework?
Actually, that's a game my sister made up at our house, and introduced into my world, 20 years ago. It was not a game to us - as in the story. It is really quite a serious world view. For 20 years I carried that idea in my head. I decided at some point to start layering that story over the Carver story, or echoing it. But the Anne Frank element is the story, that's what was with me for 20 years.
Do you think about mixing humor with very dark topics, or does it come out of the storytelling more naturally?
For me, if you are truly building a world, the world of the book, if it is functioning, it's as real as the world we are in. And anything real is going to have those multiple dimensions. God forbid if a friend calls with rotten news, but at least with the people I know, there's a joke in there. The darker the news, the darker the joke. I don't think anyone could survive tragedy without humor. There's a reason drama forms that way. That's what reality is.
His other family
From "Free Fruit for Young Widows" in Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
Professor Tendler was expecting no surprises, no reunions. He'd seen his mother killed in front of him, his father, his three sisters, his grandparents, and, after some months in the camp, the two boys he knew from back home.
But home - that was the thing he held on to. Maybe his house was still there, and his bed. Maybe the cow was still giving milk, and the goats still chewing garbage, and his dog still barking at the chickens as before. And maybe his other family - the nurse at whose breast he had become strong (before weakened), her husband, who had farmed his father's field, and their son (his age), and another (two years younger), boys with whom he had played like a brother - maybe this family was still there waiting. Waiting for him to come home.
Tendler could make a new family in that house. He could call every child he might one day have by his dead loved ones' names.
The town looked as it had when he'd left. The streets were his streets, the linden trees in the square taller but laid out as before. And when Tendler turned down the dirt road that led to his gate, he fought to keep himself from running, and he fought to keep himself from crying, because, after what he had seen, he knew that to survive in this world he must always act like a man.
Nathan Englander will read from What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank at Boswell Books, 2559 N. Downer Ave. in Milwaukee, on Feb. 21 at 7 pm. He will also read in Madison later this spring; for details, check his website.