Reading Nathan’s writing sometimes feels to me like walking down a very narrow, unexpectedly turning, brightly painted hallway; other times like being in the gossipy corner at a wake; occasionally like an inexplicably hostile encounter with a stranger. Always his writing feels like a space too interesting to ever want to leave. I even recommended it to my mom, a woman who likes only Maupassant and A.B. Yehoshua and basically considers the rest of literature a hoax perpetrated by pompous know-nothings and lazy ne’er-do-wells. Nathan’s recent book, The Ministry of Special Cases, a novel set in Buenos Aires during the dirty war, has only amplified my already bumbling and awkwardly metaphored admiration. Although I didn’t know Nathan personally, I felt for him the kind of kinship that’s really just wishful thinking. Here was a guy, not reared on a diet of Ovid and Melville, who had still managed to make an artist of himself at a very young age. He seemed to me to have the intellectual hunger of the autodidact. With a fan’s narcissism, I imagined him living a life in Jerusalem somehow significantly parallel to my own. This idea meant a lot to me, and so naturally I was glad I would likely never meet the actual him.
For years now I’ve been writing almost every morning at The Hungarian Pastry Shop, a decades old and illimitably appealing coffee shop in Morningside Heights. The coffee is $2 and there’s no limit on free refills. The many regulars generally have the grace and/or lack of social skills to acknowledge one another with little more than a head nod. I found one of the regulars particularly comforting to watch. He’d read the entire New York Post. Then the entire New York Times. Occasionally he’d tear out articles and file them somewhere in the depths of an enormous and overloaded messenger bag. Then he’d read some from The Makioka Sisters. The sternest of the Ethiopian waitstaff, when she’d come over to speak to him, became a puffcake; they always shared the newspapers. Eventually he’d take out a stack of yellow legal pads and write in a slightly oversized, occasionally manic, scrawl. I felt a little bit bad for him (he seemed to have no job) and a little bit jealous of him (again, he seemed to have no job.) When—through a friend, an overhearing, a description—I finally realized that he was Nathan Englander, the writer I’d so long admired, I resolved never to speak to him.
But somehow I’m now stuck with a wonderful friend.
Rivka Galchen The Ministry of Special Cases, the eponymous fictional institution that exists just in your Buenos Aires—how did the idea of it come to you? What would you describe as the seed of your novel?
Nathan Englander The idea comes from so many different places in my head and leads to the novel in so many different ways. I end up talking about my Argentine friends, and a trip I took, and ideas of bones and burial, and notions of community and identity and on and on. I could pick something else every time and never run out. How about this: When Baron Rothschild was sending all this money to build a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the 19th century, another Baron, Baron Hirsch, was doing the same thing, but putting his money on Argentina. And often, living in Israel, in a black humor sort of way, I’d think, How did we get in this fucking mess, maybe we should have put our bets on Hirsch? Wouldn’t it be nice, a Jerusalem in Argentina? And that is as good a source as any other for why my head shifted over that way.
RG There’s that Jerusalem ghost. A city with its own nightmares. Did you find that Jerusalem memories were making their way—transformed of course—into The Ministry of Special Cases? Is it really a novel about both of those cities?
NE I don’t know how aware I was of that at different points, but, yes, in many ways it’s a Jerusalem metaphor, absolutely. Up until now I’ve felt most comfortable writing about experiences distant from my own, and, through that distance, getting closer to the really large, intimate things that I want to explore. Intifada II was real heartbreak for me, watching the peace process come apart. It was a terrible time. But there were always cyclical periods of violence in Jerusalem while I was living there. And trying to live the life of an individual in a city that is the center of so many things political and military and religious and social and violent, I began to wonder what right a person has to expect normality. And I became obsessed with the idea of what it was to love a city and to watch that city come apart around you—for the global problems to invade the life of the individual. If one is thinking about complicated, troubled, wonderful cities whose people are supremely dedicated to place but again and again find themselves betrayed, in a sense, by their surroundings, Buenos Aires, to me, is of the most romantic and tragic.
RG With this novel, there’s a temptation to call you a political writer. But you definitely resist the label. But the fact is that you’ve written a novel where habeas corpus is both literally the central issue, and also the central metaphor.
NE Well, yes, I resisted calling it a political book, in that it wasn’t my intent—that is, I had no corrupting (as I’d see it) preconceived position that I was pushing. There’s a lot of politics in my novel, because it’s central to the world of that novel. Habeas corpus is a critical metaphor in the book, and, yes, at some point while I was writing, the metaphor broke its boundaries. It was very strange to have this book take on new meaning in America while I was writing it. I was prepared to resist calling it a political novel in America—but am also surprised at how few of the reviews that I read dealt with that fact. That is, my resistance is basically moot. Because I don’t need to defend my smaller point, about authorial intent and the political novel, when the major point—how accidentally political this novel became—hasn’t been very much addressed over here. A couple of weeks back, I was in England and Holland being interviewed about the book, and I was shocked at how different my first experiences abroad with this book were. Firstly, everyone I spoke to there knew about the Dirty War. Everyone. And we ended up talking about the politics in the book, but as it related to the bigger picture. I guess, in America, I was all prepared to be really, really defensive. I thought I’d be screaming, “This is a book about fathers and sons! It’s not just about habeas corpus.” Now I want to say the opposite. “Look how political this novel is!”
RG It must feel strange, having the book out of your head, out of your hands.
NE One of the purest experiences of existential emptiness that I’ve known goes like this: You dedicate your life to craft, and then a specific book becomes the manifestation of that dedication. You work on it, basically, every day all day for years and years, and the second you finish, when you might have a weird post-partum reaction to finishing, you are then busy twenty-four hours a day promoting so you have no time to think, not a second. But you have replaced work—your craft, writing itself—with all the things that seem like writing but have nothing to do with it. That is, everything that should be unimportant to the writer, that should be stupid, and superfluous and a sign of nothing that matters suddenly seems to be hugely important. And just when that nonsense feels like all that matters, that part of the book business is over and you’re sent home. So now you’re back in your life and what was important, the work on that book, is no longer there. And your right-headedness, your focus on craft and story, and obligation to the characters and the text, the very order and rhythm to your world has been replaced with absolute nonsense.
RG Let’s talk a little bit more about the central metaphor of your book becoming—over the course of your writing it—a real issue in this country. With the recent disclosure that 550 people had been detained at Guantanamo Bay without charges being pressed, and without their names being released. How or why do you think this came to be on your mind before it became, afresh, an actual current event?
NE I love to believe, when it comes to fiction, that there’s an order to the world. That if you think about something long enough, you can dream it, and write it, as it was. Like pick a stranger on the subway, and if you write that lady’s life for enough years and put enough thought into it, you should be able to go up to her and say, “Here are the dreams you had as a child,” and she will say, “Yes, that is so. Just right.” Anyway, as for habeas corpus being fucked with in this country, I surely didn’t see it coming. But in imagining a country’s war on terror—as that’s how Argentina saw it in 1976 (and I have a couple of terrifyingly familiar Argentine statements from that time)—in obsessing over it, habeas corpus became the central issue of a novel about paranoid government. To me it became the symbol of government run amok. And then, years into the writing, and due to a whole different set of circumstances, this administration decided it was alright to incarcerate people with no real evidence and deny those people the basic human right to challenge their detention. I still can’t believe it’s happening. It’s insane.
RG Tell me a little more about what you mean when you say you conceived of this as a novel not so much about political themes, but about identity, and community, and fathers and sons. For example, why did you choose to have your main father character, Kaddish, be the son of a Jewish prostitute?
NE Part of it has to do with language. While living in Jerusalem, living in Hebrew, I heard things very literally. Heard the basic meanings of things. And I got interested in curses. My favorite example is the first time I heard someone yell, basically, “A thousand vaginas upon you!” I wasn’t exactly sure how to take that one. But in terms of everyone running around on this planet screaming, “Son of a whore,” I thought, that’s because someone is. That all these curses (think hard) are based on things that people do in this world. And, I thought, aside from the insult to the mother, being a son of a whore is a truly innocent role. And this very much fit with my ideas of history and memory and identity. And shame. Why should Kaddish be ashamed of this fact at all? His mother a whore? Yes, she was. Those were the sad circumstances of her life. And why shouldn’t he feel proud to be her son and to be himself. That is, we make so much trouble for ourselves by hiding from truth, by altering truth and altering narrative. Think of how many big news stories in this country in the last years are wholly constructed out of people trying to hide things they could have just admitted or owned up to.
RG And what about that term, “Dirty War.” So far as I understand it’s a term the military junta themselves chose. And as a piece of language to describe what was happening, it validated the idea of a high-stakes civil war going on, validated the idea of a hidden, evil, internal enemy. We might say it was a victory in language that served to make it okay to murder a lot of people. That seems to be at play in your novel, the power of naming a thing (or person), and the power of a misleading name that is true and not true at once.
NE Well, that’s a question and an answer all in one. Yes, I think there are people in Argentina who want to change the name of the Dirty War because of the reasons you mention. (Though I don’t think it’s a problem, in that the meaning of the name has already changed, because—as I like to believe—there is such a thing as truth, and we all now know that the Dirty War was a government’s war against its own people.) But I got very interested in how realities are built, and how naming things plays into that. You and I are always talking about physics (even though I don’t understand it), but I did get obsessed with the application of quantum mechanics to the novel. Sort of an emotional quantum-mechanical structure, whereby two opposing realities exist at once in the world. And I think I got to that by thinking about the Mothers of the Plaza and why they still march a quarter century after the government that disappeared their children is gone. To me, it’s because they are still fighting against the false reality that was imposed upon them. They are literally battling the time-space continuum, not allowing the Dirty War reality that took their children to settle into place, not ever. It is epic and holy. In disappearing people, the paranoid, Dirty War government didn’t only deny its victims a present and a future, it actually took away their past. It reached forward and back in time in a way that is both brilliant and purely evil. And the idea of it haunted me, how people can willfully build these dark realities—how they might actually succeed. And on the most basic level the building of any reality is done with labeling, with names.
RG Often people hypothesize other writers as an author’s main influences, but it’s always struck me that a donut shop or a girl band or a fourth-grade crush might be far more influential; who or what are your real influences? Or what do you wish they were? Or does this whole notion of influence just make you want to vomit? On a related note, if you had, say, silky blond hair, would your fiction be different? I’m pretty sure mine would, though better or worse I’m not sure.
NE I know one thing, my fiction would be different if you had blonde hair. But back to the question, I’m very sensitive about literary influences these days, as it’s always dizzying when a book comes out and everyone starts comparing you to everyone. I recognize that I get compared to some very scary-lovely people and am unbelievably thankful for that, but comparisons are nonsensically, ridiculously, useless to the writer; they serve no purpose to me but to distract or to make me self-conscious. Until now, I’ve really, really written to voice. It’s rhythmic to me, the way story gets told. Which is why, when I give readings, people often come up to me and say it sounds like I’m praying. Which is horrible and makes me wince, as I know it’s true. And this, strangely, is maybe where certain holes in my education actually fed the writing. Because we prayed in school. A lot. I went to yeshiva and we spent an hour every morning praying—saying the same thing over and over again, day after day, year after year. But no one really ever taught us what we were saying. So I have these long tracts of beautifully written, lyrical prayer in my head—memorized, ingrained, but without any meaning. And I think that surely affected things greatly on a sentence by sentence level.
RG Without the literal meaning of those particular words, but as the thing you did every day for an hour—that’s a kind of meaning.
NE Absolutely. And it gives one an incantatory belief in the power of linked words. That is, you don’t even have to understand what you’re saying. The words themselves have power. And as for day-to-day repetition, that’s definitely shaped the way I work. But you asked me about everyday influences, girl-bands and fourth-grade-crushes. If one’s voice were solely formed by the stories and dialogue one read and heard, then my voice, should sound exactly like Brady Bunch, MA*SH, What’s Happening, Happy Days, Facts of Life, Hill Street Blues, Little House On The Prairie (which I always hated but watched), Diff’rent Strokes Bugs Bunny, Abbott and Costello, Get Smart (which I still remember watching before going to pre-school that’s how early a memory it is), etc. & etc. All I did as a child was watch TV. That’s it. I’d say upwards of eight-nine hours a day, except for all the days I didn’t go to school where I’d watch another eight hours (and those days were extremely frequent). At this point I haven’t turned the TV on in my house in a year and a half. It’s like grappling with a drug addiction. I don’t need to sleep if it’s on, don’t need to eat, don’t need to see anyone. In a weird way, I think we’ll soon recognize the effect TV has on America (and this isn’t me being a literary snob—it’s the self-righteousness and ferocity of the recovering addict), but it really has had a massive effect on this country, from the rise in obesity, to the way people think. Except for the very rare show that actually crosses the line into art (and I mean The Wire when I say that), television makes not a lesser emotional demand, but zero emotional demands—nothing. It’s deadening, nothing is being worked out—and that is exactly what I loved about it, the absolute escape. I think, say, if every married couple in America turned their TVs off for a week, half the couples would recognize that they need to get divorced immediately, and the other half might see that they hadn’t looked at the person next to them on the couch in years, and that they were actually in love. TV allows people to maintain monotony to such a huge extreme that it’s altering our brain patterns.
RG Surely you’re right, although who’s to say our brain patterns were so good in the first place? I have to admit, as a kid growing up in Oklahoma, I, like you, watched something like nine hours of television a day. Now I’m one of those irritating and culturally clueless people with no TV who just yesterday had to ask, “Who’s Jack Bauer?” But I’m not sure I have joys greater than what it used to be like to dance to the Hawaii Five-O theme music with my brother every night, or to fall asleep while my dad was watching The Twilight Zone. But also, it seems like a writer—or just a human really—should know what’s going on “in the culture.”
NE I had this fancy fellowship at the New York Public Library, where I spent a year with all these scholarly folk. At lunch, you might say something, and then, in response, someone might say, “I think what you’re after is the Tuvan throat singers of the Ukulele Peninsula,” or someone would quote some-something by Henry James that would be truly edifying. And it would almost constantly be my job to say, “Well, it’s the Freaky Friday??–??Mean Girls Lindsay Lohan that shows her true range of talents,” or, “No, you mean Posh Spice, that’s the one who married Beckham.” I was the pop-culture emissary, so I can’t say that I feel disconnected from it yet. That is, I agree with you, it would be stupid for a writer of fiction not to be of the world. When I finished the novel, I went out and bought an Xbox 360 and a copy of Gears of War??—because I heard it was magnificent, and felt like all the kids now have these new narrative spaces in their heads, these worlds that are extremely realistic and seemingly limitless, and concrete, etc. And I thought, I better not be ignorant about such a giant thing. I played it a million hours a day for about a week or two, found it to be fascinating and amazing, and beyond my wildest dreams when I got my Atari 2600, and then I packed the whole thing up and shipped it off to my nephews (minus the bloody, violent game—as per my sister’s request). I recognize the weakness of declarations like, “I don’t know why kids don’t play pick-up sticks instead of ??Gears of War, it’s far more engaging, almost mythic, the primal challenge of boy vs. pointy stick.” Because the difference is, you can’t chainsaw your enemy into a million pieces and then kick his severed limbs around the screen when playing pick-up sticks. That’s why kids prefer the electronic. For me, watching television kept me out of the world, and out of my own head, for most of my life. And if you look at both the TV memories you mention, they aren’t about you, alone, in front of the box. It was the interaction with your brother—dancing with your brother—that was the good part, or the presence of your father while you went to sleep feeling safe that you cherish. You are talking about the human interaction, not the TV interaction.
RG So I guess there’s better and worse repetitive habits. What about, say, writing at the same coffee shop every day? Many people like to write somewhere isolated and quiet. Why do you think coffee shops work so well for you?
NE I just love the white noise of it and having all those people around—those people that I actively block out. I don’t know, for me it’s maybe the solution to the fact that I’m both unbelievably needy and have chosen the most isolating profession in the world. I’ve been going to the Pastry Shop on and off since the early ’90s, and I like it for a million reasons, but one of them is that the Pastry Shop does not change. You can carve your initials in the bottom of a pastry and put it behind the glass and it’ll still be there waiting for you years later. And I just love that. It’s home to me. Maybe some people can’t disappear in public, can’t get their most intense writing done that way, but I feel more self-conscious finding that intensity in private and alone—it is more unbearably naked and self-conscious to go that deep when I’m by myself than when in public. I don’t know why.
RG That’s funny. I work in public precisely in order to feel more exposed and self-conscious. Alone at home I’ll organize a drawer or make a little snack every eleven minutes or so, but in public I somehow manage to be usefully embarrassed if I can’t put my head down and just concentrate for at least an hour at a time. Then I can go get more cookies or refill my coffee.
NE True. It’s a bottomless cup.
RG I had a class with your student Jay Kang after he’d been in your workshop and I found he’d always be making comments on people’s stories like, “Well I was enjoying it, but then you had that radio station call name start with a W and stations west of the Mississippi start with a K and then, basically, after that, the whole story fell apart for me.” So it was this sort of demand for precise realism—even though a story with someone growing cannonballs on vines was just fine with him, even wonderful. Your teaching made students run towards precision and imagination at the same time. What do you think that’s about?
NE I think it’s about a writer’s obligation to story. So few relationships are clear to me in life—but that one I understand. I know where I am, and I know where the story is, and I know what is owed. About abiding by the rules of the world, Frank Conroy used to say something like, “You can have a story where people fly, but if they hold their heads under water they still have to drown.” For years, I had Kaddish kicking a can down the street at the end of the first chapter of the novel. They did not have soda in cans in Argentina in 1976. It was in bottles. It’s just a shame to do all the other work, to spend ten years on a story, building a universe, and then bump people with a detail that is easily knowable.
RG The Buenos Aires of your novel is the real Buenos Aires, but also it isn’t, it’s your own. A Buenos Aires surely haunted by the Jerusalem you lived in. This Buenos Aires in your mind—what constituted it? I’m reminded of Borges having to defend himself against accusations that his writing wasn’t Argentine enough because Argentina wasn’t literally present very often—and his response was something to the effect of: Buenos Aires is all I’m ever writing about, again and again, and it wasn’t until “I had abandoned myself to a dream,” that I finally got it right.
NE Exactly, exactly. I first came up against this when I was writing a story about the Holocaust. Except it was a story about how we remember the Holocaust, and about storytelling traditions, etc., etc. And in thinking about people asking me about how I have a right to the material, and in asking my own self how I had a right to the material, it became very clear to me. How could I not have a right to the things in my brain? What stranger could come up to me and say, “That thought of yours, that dream you dreamed, well that’s my dream,” or my thought, or my world. The one thing that was always clear is that this was my Buenos Aires, and that my Buenos Aires would have to be a real, actual, living Buenos Aires. That is, it is the writer’s responsibility to build a world, and to people it with real people, to make a reality—and not to see it as any less real, or to allow for it to be read as such. So it’s Buenos Aires but it’s also another Buenos Aires, and it’s Jerusalem, and it’s 1976, and right now, and a Dirty War book, and a father–son book, and a world that is absolutely right-side up that is also upside-down and on and on. That’s what fiction allows. It is exactly about Borges’ giving us an alternate Argentina that is realer than the real and truer than the truth.
RG Actually, how did you research this?
NE My research process is so strange it’s almost embarrassing to address. I do very little research at the front. I build the world that’s in my head. Then, when I’m done, I go back and check everything—everything. It becomes this torturous process, of checking every fact that is not, by virtue of its imagined truth (like the ministry itself), unassailable.
RG Your first class of MFA students—not mine, we were the pale shadows—made T-shirts with your face and the “sew buttons” phrase on it, and I understand on the last day of class you showed up to find them all dressed in this creation. What was that like?
NE That was about the nicest thing ever. Yes, I came in the last day, and they—oddly—were all wearing these shirts with my head on them, and the phrase, “sew buttons” which I guess is a verbal tick and may come from a nonsense phrase like, “sew buttons on your shoes” from back in the day when folks had buttons on their shoes. I say it, apparently, endlessly. I taught for two semesters in the MFA at Columbia and had two amazing classes. And when people ask me why I don’t teach now, I say, Why would I, if I already had the two greatest classes you could have? It’s nice to be forced to talk about writing, about craft, about story. Over the years, one quietly, maybe even subconsciously, begins to believe all these things about writing—to know them. Finding clarity is such a rare thing for me, feeling that this is right and this is wrong; and that this other thing I know for sure, as much as I know the sun will rise in the morning…it’s nice to be forced to put those thoughts into words and to share those ideas with others. Though I feel like it’s a gross misrepresentation for me to sound confident and clear-headed. It’s a false me.
RG I’d more say, when you taught you weren’t pretending to be clearheaded so much as you were finally forced to briefly stop pretending to be muddleheaded. Although pretending is the wrong word. It’s really just your form of social grace, this way of trying to pay attention just to what the other person is saying, and not intrude with a bunch of your own opinions.
NE Next you’ll accuse me of pretending to be anxious and then I’ll have nothing left by which to define myself.
RG About all those little systems that help get writing done, why do you write on those crazy yellow legal pads with your big black pens? And why is coffee such a part of your process? They say that Balzac liked to drink coffee right to the point of the trembles, and that would be his sweet spot, and he’d try to maintain it. (Apparently he also liked to masturbate right to the edge of orgasm, but not over—and that also was for his writing. They say he liked to write in a state of excitation, rather than one of satisfaction. Is that why you work all day somewhere where the food isn’t too good, and the coffee doesn’t give too much pleasure?)
NE If the Pastry Shop sees this interview, you, first, are going to have to answer for the comment about the coffee. And I’m glad if, after watching me write all day every day for all these years, that you aren’t fooled by the fact that it looks like I’m forlorn and depressed, and recognize it for the state of near (but just shy of) ecstasy that it is. (And I have a similar apocryphal quote about writerly masturbation but it involves Flaubert and a velvet smoking jacket.) As for the yellow pads. It’s best not to fall in love with a desk, or anything too big to carry around. Pens and pads are better. As for the longhand element, each tour I get asked a favorite question, something random that hits right. This woman came up to me after I gave a lecture and, noting the alarming speed with which I talk, and the number of subjects I get going at once, and the general fragmented nature of it, she said, “You can’t speak as fast as your head, can you?” And I says, “No ma’am.” So, I can type really fast. At some point, early on, I decided I liked the speed of pen and paper. It slows me down. I like the way it looks. And that doesn’t mean I won’t write the next novel on computer. I just might. And I just might do it in six weeks. And it just might be called The Big Booby Car Chase and contain one sex scene, one fiery car chase, and end with the bad guy shot in the eye, and the hero in love.