March 19th, 2012
02:45 PM ET
By Todd Leopold, CNN
(CNN) – Nathan Englander’s characters are always looking over their shoulders.
They’re Jews, mostly, often of an intensely devout stripe, but whether they’re Israeli settlers, Orthodox youngsters or thoroughly assimilated middle-class New Yorkers, they’re waiting for judgment, either from history, a disappointed God or their next-door neighbors. They’re straddling worlds and don’t want to put a wrong foot in either.
Englander, author of a new book of short stories called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” has roots in many of these worlds. He was raised in an Orthodox community in Long Island, New York, and then entered the secular world when he went to college. He’s spent time in Iowa – at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop – and has lived in Israel. He now lives in Brooklyn and describes himself as “culturally Jewish.”
The concept of identity and its burdens is close to his heart.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” comes five years after Englander’s critically praised novel “The Ministry of Special Cases” and 13 years after his first story collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” put him on the literary map.
Englander recently did the translation for a new Passover haggadah (a book that recounts the Exodus over the traditional meal), due out in March. He’s now at work on “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” a play based on a story from “Urges,” which will premiere in the fall.
Englander spoke to CNN while visiting New Orleans. The following is an edited version of the interview.
CNN: It’s been five years since “The Ministry of Special Cases,” and that took you several years. How long does it take you to write?
Nathan Englander: (For) the novel, I didn’t do anything else, except for like mild dental hygiene, for eight years.
I get so consumed. I work these stories in my head. I wrote five of the eight stories (in “Anne Frank”) in the last year. And I do draft after draft. As a reader, if I see a comma out of place, I slam the book shut. I did NOT invest all this time to see an errant comma.
This Jewish idea of kavanah – focus – I was raised with. The rabbis were always on us: “kavanah, kavanah” – “focus, focus.”
I also like the idea of things that transfer from Jewish life, like a makom kavuah (a fixed place for prayer). You pray in the seat in the same place every day, because that will help you.
It’s like writers, why you should sit at the same desk or eat the same thing or work at the same time: It’s all about finding focus. To write is an out-of-body experience. That is the point. That’s where the work gets done.
CNN: The Jews in your stories are almost carrying a physical burden and are always looking over their shoulders. Is this religious or cultural?
Englander: I don’t know if these are the ideas of a culture or of a religion. It might just be being a New Yorker. (But) these things are me.
I want to shy away from stereotypes. I get so sensitive about the Jewish writer thing (because) I understand where the assumptions come from. We all have to categorize. (But) a story’s only functioning if it’s universal. That’s the definition of art to me. It’s not a functioning story for me if it’s not absolutely real world, and it’s not absolutely real characters.
I grew up totally religious in this insular world. I lived in Israel. I lived in New York. I lived as a religious person. I took a degree in Judaic studies when I was at college to learn everything secular. I’ve had many facets of Jewish experience. The whole world is Jewish to me. That was my experience. The other world didn’t exist. So for me to see this as somehow “other,” I have no sense of what “other” is.
CNN: Your stories are often haunted by the Holocaust.
Englander: I spent a fall in Berlin a couple years ago, and I was living at the American Academy, formerly the American Officers Club, and before that it was built by a Jewish banker who got out before the Holocaust, and then it was taken over by a high-ranking SS officer. But the point is to live in the house that was built by a Jew and also has the ghost of a very horrible Nazi, and basically our windows looked out at Lake Wannsee of the Wannsee Conference, looking across the way at the house where (top Nazi officer Adolf) Eichmann sat. … I feel like this book is part of that time.
Living in Germany in this Jewish house, this SS house, something snapped, a freeing thing. I suddenly became comfortable that this is how my head is patterned. If this is something that obsesses me and tortures me and focuses me and is all about this idea, that is how my brain is patterned, we are talking about me willing to be vulnerable and explore my pattern in this brain.
CNN: I like how you investigate that theme about whether it’s better to look forward and put the past aside or to never forget.
Englander: I don’t know what other idea to have.
In the “Camp Sundown” story (about elderly Jews who believe a member of their vacation camp was a Nazi collaborator), the idea of all these things – of religion, of faith – is finding meaning or making order from chaos. So we need the Holocaust for that story; we need Jews for sure; we need East Coast Jewish culture for that story.
But the point that I’m exploring is, what do we do if justice has not been delivered? If someone will not deliver justice, do you deliver justice? Religion helps to frame those things.
CNN: Do you enjoy poking at the hypocrisy of your more devout characters, who seem unaware of how elements of their religious lives contrast with their secular lives?
Englander: Often what we’re saying when that person is hypocritical, we’re saying that person is human. So the idea is more that when there’s a social contract. Teachers have responsibility. Clergy. That’s where hypocrisy comes in.
Where this religious thing never stops interesting me is people negotiating that balance of humanity and faith and what (the Bible) says and what they’re supposed to do. I hardly ever feel comfortable saying I’m sure of everything. The idea of people wanting to change things with such great surety, using the Bible for that, is such a misuse of the Bible and such hubris.
Clearly, we’re supposed to treat each other better, and the idea of using the Bible to treat everybody worse in this country, to me, is just a crazy reading.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.