Nathan Englander on Juggling Fatherhood and Writing
The author of "Kaddish.com" on how he's turning into Joyce Carol Oates
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A new book by award-winning author Nathan Englander is always a literary event. But his latest, Kaddish.com is a special treat: Englander’s fifth book is coming out only one year after the release of his previous novel Dinner at the Center of the Earth.“Trust me, I’m as surprised by it as anyone,” he says when I ask. “I saw Joyce Carol Oates recently (we both teach at NYU), and I was like, “Joyce, I’m turning into you!”
Englander’s earlier books were more reasonably spaced. His first novel, The Relief of Unbearable Urges, for which he won thePEN/Faulkner Malamud Award, came out in 1999. The Ministry of Special Cases followed in 2007, and in 2012 he returned to short stories with What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, which won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Kaddish.com is a slim and fast-paced novel, the kind you might delightfully devour in a sitting or two, and it has Englander’s signature humour and wit all over it. It is also a moving portrayal of a man starved for connection and meaning, a meditation on the tensions between tradition and modernity, and a gripping mystery story. Shuli, the protagonist, is a lapsed orthodox Jew. After his father dies, his observant sister, Dina (who lives amongst “these southern, Memphis, Grace-Landian Jews”) expects him to take on the responsibility of reciting the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, every day for eleven months. Shuli vehemently refuses, which Dina views as unforgivable, a selfish act that could keep their father’s soul from achieving “a truly radiant afterlife.” “Why can’t you do it, Dina?” Shuli asks his sister. “Fix your religion.” Eventually, Shuli comes up with a creative solution to his predicament. He goes online, finds a stranger, based at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, and pays him to pray for his father.
I chatted with Englander over email about novels and short stories, about parenthood and writing, and about Israel and Hebrew and literary translation.
Ayelet Tsabari: After Dinner at the Center of the Earth was published last year, you said at an interview with LitHub, “The joke that I am dining out on is that for Knopf’s 20 years of supporting me, I’ve written a book that is finally not about a rabbi eating toast.” Would you say that your recent book, kaddish.com, is a return to the rabbi-eating-toast genre?
Nathan Englander: There’s no better place to begin than with the self-deprecations of interviews past! I stand by the joke, but not the genre. My last novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, was a kind of magic-realist, literary thriller. It was a huge departure, and it got me to thinking about — and missing — the world I started out writing in. So I went back there for kaddish.com. And I kind of feel that the quest that consumes Shuli, the main character, gives kaddish.com more velocity than anything I’ve ever written. Still, back to self deprecation, what do I know? But, yes, we’re here to talk about the new novel, and so, it’s about Shuli getting himself caught up in a crazy situation and risking everything to try and put it right. Along the way we end up pondering technology and tradition, faith in the age of the Internet, sex and guilt, identity and transformation, and a host of things that I feel safe saying make this the opposite of a ‘toast’ driven book.
AT: You write beautifully about the experience of Orthodox Judaism, with humor and heart, and kaddish.com is no exception. I was fascinated and taken aback by your protagonist’s transformation, who begins the book “radically secular” as you once described yourself, and then returns to the orthodox lifestyle he had once rejected. To be completely honest, I was momentarily saddened, because I liked Larry and his “Larryness.” I felt the way I felt when people I knew became religious, a fear of losing them. But then, of course, Shuli (the name Larry goes back to) remains as loveable a character as Larry was, maybe more. I thought that was so well done. Was that a difficult thing for you to write? And what role does faith and religion play in your life and in your writing?
NE: I get teased a lot for how bad I am at being secular. Despite all my claims to the contrary — my friends (my wife!) they all think I’m harboring a religious zealot inside, just waiting to burst free. And that’s one of the ideas that sparked this book: What would it take to send someone like me swinging back the other way, to send me back to the religious world with the same kind of vengeance with which I left it.
You ask about faith in my life, and I can tell you, I’ve got plenty. That’s what a writing life is — an act of faith. It’s so vulnerable-making and so out of one’s control, and the swings are so vast, the creative swings, the ups and downs of career, of one’s own sense of self, it’s really a brutal kind of existence, one that I’m thankful for every second of every day, even when I’m banging my head against the desk. So, even when one can’t see one’s way forward, in the writing, or in the writing-world, it’s that deep-seated faith that tells you to keep writing on.
AT: You lived in Jerusalem in the mid-90s, you attribute your secular awakening to arriving in Israel at nineteen, and you write about Israel all the time, including in this novel, in which you are going back to Nachlaot, the neighborhood where you once lived. “Of all the beautiful neighborhoods in the world,” you write, “is any as lovely as Nachlaot in the early light of day?” The journey to Jerusalem transforms Shuli, as it did you.
As someone who was born and raised in Israel and is now back to living there (after 20 years away), I’m fascinated by your experience with Israel. I suppose I’m also just fascinated by the relationship so many American Jews have with Israel. Like you write in Kaddish.com, “this is how it is for so many in their community, back and forth to Israel, as if it’s nothing, as if one could take the Lincoln Tunnel and find Jerusalem on the other side.” What drew you to Israel, originally? Why do you continue to write about it? Would you ever consider going back? (And, not to rub salt in anyone’s wounds, but it is 68 degrees and sunny all week).
NE: What drew me to Jerusalem originally was my college roommate saying, “Go get a passport, we’re going.” And that was already a wild thing to do. My family, we didn’t travel or vacation, we didn’t have that kind of lifestyle — it was already a big deal when I went away to college, that was already a stretch. I think, tracing one line of the family tree, I can go straight back to a great-great-grandparent coming to America from Europe as the last time anyone had crossed an ocean. So, yes, just being abroad was mind boggling.
As for Jerusalem, the idea — or, better, the ideas of that place that I showed up with were really deep-rooted and gigantical in my imagination. So when it came to laying that imagined city over the city that I found, that contrast really transformed me as a person and as a writer — it was life changing. After that year, I kept going back, and then I moved there after grad school to be a part of the great historical moment that was in full swing. I wanted to be a part of the peace process, and to witness the two state solution, and to explore the new, peaceful Middle East that was being forged — that was unstoppable and inevitable — and which has long since come crashing down.
AT: You said to Haaretz once, “I wanted to live my life in Hebrew.” That’s a pretty huge statement for a writer to make (and one that interests me especially, as someone whose first language is Hebrew, but writes in English). Did you ever think you might write in Hebrew? Does the Hebrew language inform your work in any way?
NE: I just loved living life in another language. I think that’s a real gift for a writer — to spend a day speaking and reading and thinking in one language, and then to compose their work in another. I feel like I’m a different person when I’m speaking Hebrew, that the way the language works, affects the way I work within it. And I also like a challenge that seems impossible — so it was really fun, as an adult, to crawl toward fluency until, say, I really would find myself just thinking in Hebrew, that my brain had a choice, to think or, at night, to dream in one language or another. As for writing, there must be a bad Hebrew poem somewhere, but I think I always knew books would get built in my native tongue.
AT: You’ve translated Etgar Keret’s Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, and the New American Haggadah, a literary translation of the Passover texts, created in collaboration with Jonathan Safran Foer. I find translation to be an interesting form for someone who’s also a writer; it is a good exercise in letting go of ego (and I’d imagine it would be more pronounced in the case of the Haggadah, which is an ancient and sacred text.) What are your thoughts on the act of literary translation? Do you plan to do more of it? And were you involved in your own translations into Hebrew?
NE: Aside from the Haggadah, my literary translation experience consists solely of translating some of Etgar’s stories, a job for which I was paid back in kind — that is, instead of writing out some sort of contract, Etgar just translated some of my stories into Hebrew in return. The whole experience made me really happy and I still try and come up with two other living writers who have translated each other.
I have no plans for any more translation, beyond the fact that I’d love to do some more Etgar stories if the timing ever works out. At this point, I’m pretty rusty anyway; I’ve been back home for near twenty years and only speak the language when Etgar calls. As for my own Hebrew translations, I’ve given notes a couple of times, but I mostly stay out of their hair.
And to the first part of your question, I’ve always respected literary translation as writer and reader. How could I not? Most of the books I love are books I only know through a translator’s voice. But after trying it for myself, getting to pretend to be Etgar in English, and spending a couple of years on the Haggadah, I’ve added a whole lot of wonder to the mix. It was an absolute education. What it did, was give me the chance to ponder the meaning of specific words at astonishingly inefficient lengths, to unpack, to obsess over language — over someone else’s choices — in such an extreme and highfalutin and thinky way that I couldn’t help but bring that back to my own work. It changed the way I write.
AT: You started out, like many writers, with short stories, (The Relief of Unbearable Urges) then after your first novel, you went back to short stories (What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank). How differently do you approach writing short stories and novels? Did you find the transition challenging? What do you (secretly) prefer?
NE: Each book is always the hardest and most all-consuming in its way (even if some parts go more smoothly than others, as noted above). So, I wouldn’t break it down by form, just by the task at hand.
My first novel was published eight years after the one before it, and kaddish.com is coming out a year after Dinner, so I feel comfortable saying that the individual books make their own demands. For me, with each new project the approach to writing changes as a whole. That’s probably what keeps it feeling brand new on this end. To me, every book feels like it’s the first book, like I’ve finally got an idea about how to work, about how to write. With kaddish.com, it honestly felt like I was finally ready to write after a lifetime of writing. Prior to this book, I’d have said that the brain holds a short story differently than it holds a novel. But for kaddish.com, the experience — it was really clear at the time, really distinct and sharp — but this is the first novel that I wrote in the way I’d write a short story. It just had a different kind of genesis in my noggin, somehow bridging the two forms for me.
As for choosing a (secret) favorite? I learned this lesson when I wrote my first play, “The Twenty-Seventh Man.” Whatever I’m committed to at the moment turns into the supreme form — that is, at the time, I believe it to be the ultimate, in a real way. I thought a lot about that, sort of interrogating myself, and I decided that it’s not disloyal, or deceptive, to let my brain do that. It’s not the same as swapping out a Yankees hat for a Red Sox hat depending on who’s winning. I just think when you’re wrestling with a certain form, when you see the potential, how could you not fall in love with it? You can’t do the work if you don’t believe — and you surely couldn’t expect that belief to translate to the reader or theatergoer without that commitment on the writerly end. And, since we’re talking about the novel, I can tell you unequivocally that the novel truly is supreme — the ideal. Simple. And if you come back to me when I’m in rehearsals for my next play, I’ll tell you, there is nothing that holds a candle to live theater. It’s not me lying, it’s just me being bowled over by enthusiasm for the power of a given form.
AT: You said before that you write intensely, six days a week, allowing for one day for Shabbat. From my experience, such schedule tends to change dramatically as we become parents. How do you manage your time now?
NE: I manage it better, that’s how I manage it. Being a parent has been a real blessing for my work. I basically lost all my ennui time, the hours spent on my fainting couch with an arm thrown over my eyes, and clutching my smelling salts. Simply, the framing of time, the extreme limitations parenting puts on the work hours in a given day (if you have any control over your work hours), was something I was really determined to turn into a positive for myself. So when I get started, I kind of roll up my sleeves differently, and start typing differently, and see the time I have differently, in a way that has been really creative-making and efficient-making, despite the fact that I’m naturally super slow in all ways. What it also means is that, with my teaching at NYU, and the dog to be walked, and the gym as something that I don’t want to give up on, that I see a lot less of, well, everyone. And, also, I do a lot of night rounds after everyone has fallen asleep. When I was on deadline for kaddish.com, my wife was on deadline for her dissertation, and there was a period there that was really bananas, with the two of us tapping in and out like tag-team wrestlers, seven days a week. You take two hours. I take two hours. Back and forth until the work was done.
AT: What are you working on now? Does it involve Jews and Israel? Will it be published next year? Is it about Rabbis eating toast?
NE: With the back-to-back books, I think this is the first time in years and years that I’ve been starting from scratch. So I’ve got a million things cooking. I have a play to rewrite that looks like it will open a year from now (it’s an adaptation of my story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”). And there are some stories I want to spend time on, and some book ideas to unpack. My head is basically spinning right now, and as soon as something gains traction, I imagine I’ll disappear into that — that’s what I dream about, getting lost in the work. When I’m not with my family, that’s where I love to be.