In celebration of the publication of his latest novel, kaddish.com, Narrative has ten questions for Nathan Englander.
1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Undine Spragg from Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. She is mean to pretty much everyone and wreaks havoc everywhere she goes, and yet Wharton has you rooting for her every step of the way. As for a favorite real-life character, I’ve been crazy for Quanah Parker ever since reading Empire of the Summer Moon.
2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?
That’s funny. Does anyone pick their own line for inspiration? If I were that confident, I wouldn’t need to be inspired.
In all honesty, I’m not one of those people with quotes at the ready. But I do keep lots of books around. And so I pulled down John Cheever’s journals, and I poked around and saw I left the receipt in it, or the person who owned it before me did. Since I can’t remember buying this copy back in 1993, I feel like it must have come to me after. Either way, from page 182: “So in the morning I say, Leap, my heart, my spirit. Nothing else will do. They must leap.”
3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time. What did it teach you?
Orwell’s 1984. I remember reading that on the basement floor when I was way too young and immediately understanding what a novel could do.
4. Best part of the day?
The afternoon, when my brain turns on.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
The gym, when virtuous. And a bagel at all other times.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
When writing emails, or essays, or letters to students, “That is” keeps me moving along. On the page, it’s probably safe to say “Jewish, Jews, Jewy, Jewtastic, Jewlicious . . .” In life—and out of respect for my Long Island roots—I say “Like, you know” pretty much infinitely.
7. What’s your current obsession?
The Great British Bake Off.
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
Oh, that’s easy. Marilynne Robinson taught me how to unravel my sentences and put them together in the right order. My natural rhythm has me building them backward.
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
That’s a tough one. I’ve worked really hard to forget age twelve completely. But if I dig deep, I guess there’s one thing from my twelve-year-old religious self that I wouldn’t mind getting back. I used to be able to sit, screenless and deviceless, for a full Sabbath day every week. I’d like that back. That ability to just sit and be for great spans of time.
As for current knowing: As much as I worry now, I wish I knew to worry less then.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
I like to think of love as something that one should keep feeding, like a fire.
Finally, is there a short passage from the book you’d like to share with our readers?
Of all the beautiful neighborhoods in the world, is any as lovely as Nachlaot in the early light of day? There’s the Jerusalem stone, and the Spanish-tiled roofs, and the mazes of side street and alleyway, on which even those used to the labyrinthine layout of the city find themselves lost.