Photo credit: Joshua Meier
Describe your latest book.
My new novel is called Dinner at the Center of the Earth
. When I handed in the rough draft, my agent made me a pot of tea, sat me down, and said, “You know, you’ve written a political thriller.” The book definitely, very intentionally, has those elements. It’s kind of a thriller, wrapped in a historical novel, that turns into a love story, and ends up being an allegory. It’s a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a subject I’ve been wanting to write a novel about for nearly 20 years. I was looking for a way to explore that very explosive subject through character and plot. In the end, the book demanded this circular structure that, to me, mirrors the heartbreaking circularity of the conflict itself.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I’ve been reading Drummer Hoff
a lot lately (to my daughter, that is, not to myself). It’s an extraordinarily pretty and amazingly rhythmic book by Barbara and Ed Emberley. It has these trippy, crazy woodcuts, and was a favorite of mine as a kid. Though the whole story is about firing off a canon, it’s a book about peace — at least to me. The last image is of the overgrown canon, covered in flowers, and with a happy bird’s nest in its barrel.
My favorite book that’s probably less likely to be considered a classic by others (to put it kindly), and whose aproned-mother messages are surely outdated, is Billy Brown Makes Something Grand
. I really love that book. And I think it’s because, when my grandmother was visiting, she’d read the hell out of it. She just killed with her delivery (which is something to think about before I hit the road with this new novel).
What does your writing workspace look like?
Today, it looked just like my friend’s kitchen. My buddy, the novelist John Wray
, is traveling. And after my wife and I went to the gym, we got bagels (because there’s no better way to instantly undo the gym than with a bagel), and let ourselves into John’s house and worked at his kitchen table, which is especially long for a kitchen table, with plenty of room for food, coffee, and laptops, and for spreading one’s papers out. At any given time, there are multiple novelist friends typing away in that house — or playing foosball in the living room or music in the basement. You, very literally, never know who you’ll find. It’s really wholesome and lovely (and if it were my house, I’d lose my mind).
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Well, that’s easy. I’m pretty sure I worry about helium, a nonrenewable resource, disappearing. It really pops into my head quite often.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
It was at an event for my last book. I was reading a short story about lost family history. And I read this part, based on our own family history, where the narrator shares how upset he is to learn, as a grown man, that the place his family came from — Gubernia — isn’t a place at all. "Gubernia" just means "province" or "state," as in New York State or Washington State.
After the reading, this woman came up to me, she must have been in her 60s, and told me with great excitement that her family was from Gubernia, too. She really, right there in that reading, learned the same thing as the narrator. And I have to say, it was so warm and nice, like meeting a relative. Both of us with shared ancestry, our people hailing from State.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
This question is, literally, my nightmare.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I go door to door selling Chris Adrian’s books. I just recommended Gob’s Grief
somewhere else, so I’ll go with The Great Night
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
There was a summer in college where I worked for a stretch picking up garbage at the beach. On the early shift, it was very meditative walking the shoreline and crisscrossing the sand, picking up the junk peopled had dropped or tossed, or that the ocean had returned. And there was this strange fantasy element to it. That is, there was this point when the early risers would start arriving. They’d take in the view and the fresh ocean breeze, and, I imagine, think, “What a beautiful, pristine beach this is.” And I’d think back at them, "Yes, it really is perfect, now that we’ve dragged all the garbage away."
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I’ve probably made a lot of them in my travels, whether to Edgar Allan Poe
’s house in Philly, or Oscar Wilde
’s grave in Paris (before they took away all of the lipstick kisses — which is a longer story). But I think I’ll share a reverse pilgrimage, where the writer would come to me. When I was living in Jerusalem, I used to write in a coffee shop called Tmol Shilshom. I’d sit at the same table every day and work. And right next to my seat was a weathered wingback chair by a window. And every once in a while, a very old Yehuda Amichai
would come into the coffee shop. As I had my seat, he had his. He’d always take that same chair, and it was so nice for me to write knowing the great poet was by my side.
When he died, the owner of the café, David Ehrlich, strung a ribbon across that chair for a period of mourning, so that no one else could sit in it. Or, maybe he was reserving the seat, hoping for a while that Amichai might return.
Do you have any phobias?
I’d say that in place of a singular phobic-level terror, I keep a whole collection of running, yet manageable, fears.
Share a Top Five book list of your choice.
I can’t tell you how many lists I started and abandoned, for not wanting to leave a great book out or hurt a writer’s feelings — though the idea of wounding anyone this way is insane (I project my own delicate sensitivities on everyone else). When I tried for broad categories, I wasn’t ever satisfied limiting myself to five. So, I’m going to go hyper-specific and list "The Top Five Books Currently Next to My Bed" (which face very stiff competition for this honor, as a very large pile has, once again, risen up):
The Fire Next Time
by James Baldwin, which I took back off the shelf for obvious reasons.
The Italian Teacher
by Tom Rachman. This isn’t out yet, but I have an uncorrected proof, and really loved his first novel, The Imperfectionists
All These Wonders,
which is a new collection of true stories originally told live at The Moth
, with which I’m obsessed. It’s edited by Catherine Burns.
King Solomon’s Table,
which is a cookbook by Joan Nathan, so I don’t intend to read it the way one reads a novel, but I do intend to try and bake the babka.
Happiness, Like Water
, stories by Chinelo Okparanta. A student whose taste I trust, is, I’d say, on the edge of turning truly angry at me for not having read these yet. I am looking forward to doing so. I am also judging Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize
this year, and as we finish reading the nine thousand million novels that were submitted, I will return my full attention to the pile.
÷ ÷ ÷
’s short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker
, The Atlantic
, and numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories
and The O. Henry Prize Stories
. Englander is the author of the novels The Ministry of Special Cases
and Dinner at the Center of the Earth
, and the story collections What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
, which earned him a PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Englander’s play, The Twenty-Seventh Man
, premiered at The Public Theater in 2012, and his translation of New American Haggadah
(edited by Jonathan Safran Foer) was published by Little, Brown. He also co-translated Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock on the Door,
published by FSG. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and daughter.