An Almost Religious Faith in "Process"
Nathan Englander’s short fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times and numerous other publications and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.
Englander is the author of the forthcoming collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (on-sale by Knopf 2/7), as well as the internationally bestselling story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, and the novel The Ministry of Special Cases.
Translated into more than a dozen languages, Englander was selected as one of “20 Writers for the 21st Century” by The New Yorker, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a PEN/Malamud Award, the Bard Fiction Prize, and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. He’s been a fellow at the Dorothy & Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and at The American Academy of Berlin.
This year, along with the publication of his new collection, Englander's play The Twenty-Seventh Man will premiere at The Public Theater, and his translation New American Haggadah (edited by Jonathan Safran Foer) will be published by Little Brown. He also co-translated Etgar Keret's Suddenly A Knock at the Door forthcoming in March from Farrar Straus and Giroux.
He lives in Brooklyn, New York and Madison, Wisconsin.
Nathan Englander: I have a very simple aesthetic—and I say it all the time and I’m happy to share it with you, it’s really clear to me—which is, your obligation is to the story as a whole. That’s it. Different parts can change. You can be working at a different desk, or decide you’re interested in different themes or ideas or you’re going to work a different way. You know, your process can change all throughout your life and, you know, I assume, does. Mine keeps changing. But the idea is, that’s the one thing that stays steady for me.
That’s what makes it doable. You just have to have some—it’s a pretty existential life. You know, I used to work all night and sleep all day. You don’t have to have a day or a night or, you know, it’s completely—I was going to say abnormal and maybe that’s the word, but—it’s not a standard lifestyle. You’re building, you know, much like a story gets built from negative space, you’re sort of building routine from infinity, framing, as I said, day or night.
I guess you have to believe in process. I think even writers get romantic about process and they talk about it as epiphany or, you know, I’m sure I’ve already said it today, but this idea that you can suddenly have the final draft? A process has to have parts to it. And that idea, you simply couldn’t sit down—it’s a draft, you couldn’t sit down and write the finished book. That’s not how it works. You’re building a universe. Like, I think all those things . . . is not to see them as wrong turns. That’s what’s built into it, is writing down one direction, writing down the other. The idea is having, like, the honesty or the bravery or the ability to step away from your own work and look back at it from a distance and recognize what the story needs. If you’re always looking to what the story needs, then you’ll hopefully take it down the right route.
And part of it, you know, I think that’s what, you know, keeps me interested. I mean, what keeps me driven, what makes me want to write all the time, I think, is that at every stage, every book, every story, each one feels like me starting. Like, now I’m ready to work. That’s what I always feel like.
And I think you don’t even have to know, that’s also part of it. In the new book, the story Sister Hills, which is set in sort of the whole history of the West Bank done in one story, you know, compressed, but I literally, I remember sending off to friends, to a couple of readers—I’d written, you know, 10 pages, 15 pages—and I literally, I didn’t want the process affected in any way. I didn’t want to know if it was good or bad or if they liked it. I simply was in so deep and so did not know what I had. I simply sent it to a couple of people and said “I want no comments. Just tell me if these words are linked in order. Like, does this make any sense? When you look at this, are there words on this page, and does it make any sense to you as a narrative in any way at all? I just want to know if this seems part of something that is comprehensible.” And they were like, “Looks like a story to me.”
That to me, it was just so emotional and so loaded and so, you know, the story where I most did not know what I was working on or what I had. You know, the night when I—I did not sleep the night that I finished it. I simply did not know what I had. And I think sometimes following a story, you know, it’s a different part of the brain. The me that’s talking to you, this is writer guy me. The part of the brain—and we can talk about that—that’s engaged when you’re writing is wholly separate from the person that you see.
Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd
However many drafts and wrong turns it takes, says author Nathan Englander, total commitment to the writing process always results in a story the writer can live with.
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