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Nathan Englander Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Nathan Englander
Photo: Elena Seibert

Nathan Englander

An interview with Nathan Englander

Two interesting interviews: First, Nathan Englander discusses God, religion, Israel, and his collection of short stories, For The Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999). Secondly, he talks about his first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases (2007), set in the 1970s during Argentina's "Dirty War".

Tell us about your childhood, your religious upbringing and how you came to reject it.

I grew up in an Orthodox home in New York, where I had a right-wing, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, fire-and-brimstone, free-thought free, shtetl-mentality, substandard education. And so I began to look elsewhere; I began to read literature. Simple as that.

Was your move to secular life an epiphany?

No, very far from it. I think I took the route Maimonides recommended. I was religious for many years after I started questioning my world. I stayed religious until the first week I set foot in Israel, when I was nineteen. That was the first time I ever got into a car on the Sabbath. I had started veering; I went to a secular college, though I stayed religious there.

Was that a major culture shock for you?

College was unbelievably eye-opening, coming from where I did, though all it really consisted of was meeting my neighbors from Long Island. It wasn't exactly the U.N. up there. But, at the time, it was wonderful.

You then moved to Israel and became secular, yet you choose to live in the most religious city in the country, if not the world.

Jerusalem is where I fell in love with Israel. I love the architecture; I love the feel of the city. I live in this great little romantic ramshackle neighborhood in Jerusalem. Of course, now everything is turning into fancy villas, but nonetheless, I love the feel of it.

What are your feelings about the political and social climate in Israel right now?

Same as always, the climate is hot. Like any good Jerusalemite, I have very specific, very strong positions and am convinced that I'm the one that's right.

Recently, there have been huge protests by ultra-religious and secular Israelis. Can you tell us your perception of them and what you think this holds for the future of Israeli society?

I support free speech. I'm glad to live in a place where people have the right to make themselves heard. And I moved to this country with the understanding that I was moving to a functioning democracy. I don't know what the future holds for this society. I can tell you what I hope, and I can tell you where I plan on living--in a society with equality for its members and respect for the individual's rights within it.

Do you still believe in God?

If it weren't for fear of God's instantaneous and violent retribution, I'd declare myself an atheist.

When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

I grew up in this cultural vacuum, in a tiny neighborhood, went to a tiny school, and took the same tiny classes with the same group of people my whole life. I felt like I had no outlets. I was in this world and felt different, and I started writing because that was the one tool I had access to. When I went to college, I played catch-up, and I still play catch-up. It was after college that I decided that I really wanted to write and began to work hard. I had no idea that you could spend your life writing fiction, that this was actually an option. Coming from my background, I didn't think it was permissible. I couldn't believe anyone would support such a notion.

Who are some of your literary heroes?

Well, as I said, I'm still trying to catch-up, but I love the Russians. Gogol's Diary of a Madman is brilliant. The Nose and The Overcoat are absolutely amazing; young Gogol was a god. In terms of more contemporary writers, Leslie Epstein's King of the Jews is one of my favorite books. That was a direct influence on my story "The Tumblers." I almost consider the writing of that story to be part of a conversation. An answer to a different sort of question.

The stories in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges are extremely universal but they are set in a specific and rather private community. How do you feel about putting this subject matter out into the world?

I was Orthodox for two thirds of my life. The notion that after leaving that community, I forfeited my right to explore it is completely unacceptable. Even more ridiculous is the idea that some sort of self-censorship protects a community or that a serious exploration of certain topics somehow endangers it. If anything, I'd say the opposite is true. Regardless, there is no subject that--drawn to it--I wouldn't examine.

The range of the nine stories is broad both in setting and style, yet the book functions as a whole. The Jewish themes running through the collection are the most obvious, but there are a lot of other threads that hold it together. Can you talk about that?

It's no shock that people focus on the Jewish themes in the collection. They are not exactly hidden. But for me they have more to do with setting and with providing the rules, the logic, by which the worlds presented function. It's these other threads, the more abstract issues of identity or desire, that are, in my opinion, the true heart of the book.

Reading your collection, one can't help but be struck by its classic feel.

The most important thing for me in this collection is universality and people being able to connect with the characters. I don't think a work of fiction, just because it's about a very specific group, shouldn't have universal themes. I have no interest in a fiction that isn't universal; if it's not universal, then it's not functioning. I'm not making any claims of success, but I can promise you if they're functioning, the stories are more about the setting facilitating the subtext than vice versa.

What is your writing process like?

This book was written very intensely; I write hard. I write six days a week, and on the seventh I rest. My own Sabbath, I guess. For a long time Sabbath fell on Tuesday. This collection is very much an American product. I wrote much of it in an apartment on 88th Street in Manhattan. "The Twenty-Seventh Man," the first story in the collection, was the first one I wrote.

In "The Twenty-Seventh Man," Stalin orders the execution of twenty-six writers, and unpublished Pinchas Pelovitz, the twenty-seventh, lands in jail with the others through a clerical error. There is a strong political undercurrent in this story--can you shed some light on it?

There is the historical fact of the twenty-six people executed, many, but not all of them, writers. Very little is known about the incident, and even in the few facts I tracked down there were contradictions, though I've heard that more is coming to light as records from that period are made available. From the time I first learned about the killings, I dreamed of writing these writers a final story. Providing them with a fictional end. For me the story is about the four years I walked around wanting to write it. It's not a political story to me. It's a story about identity, with a very political setting. I wrote the first draft of this when I was twenty-three. And in my eyes Pinchas is the decision to write. He is permission and justification and hero. I'm glad if this story seems terribly political. All the better. That Pinchas should be functioning outside the politics that are pervasive in the story, politics pervasive enough to kill him--good. All the more a testament to what he represents for me.

In creating the backdrop for stories like "The Tumblers" and "The Twenty-Seventh Man," did you have to do extensive historical research?

I take liberties when I write. I don't know if that needs justification, but I justify it to myself by knowing what liberties I'm taking. A lot of my research takes place after a piece is written, and generally I'm looking to find supports for decisions I've already made or for elements already introduced into the story. With "The Tumblers," I spent most of my library time trying to confirm facts about trains, probably the same amount of time I spent tracking down information about bought-hair for "The Wig." It's a ridiculous way to work.

In "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," Protestant Charles Luger literally becomes Jewish in a Manhattan taxi cab, a metamorphosis that distresses his wife and psychologist, yet invigorates Luger. Where did the idea for this story come from?

Religion got a lot more religious while I was growing up. Mostly because we were a bunch of little zealots coming home on the school bus and announcing things, like, "It's a sin to rip toilet paper on Shabbos, there will be no more toilet paper ripping under this roof." We'd out-religious the next guy. And it was the people who came from the least religious homes who often got the most religious the quickest and that is a lot to deal with for the folks in their world. I've watched a lot of people turn very religious very quickly, and it always interests me, this change. And especially having turned very not religious, very slowly, I can obviously empathize with the act of changing. It's easy to picture the glassy-eyed sex addict turning into a drug addict and then into a glassy-eyed God addict. Visit Jerusalem, you can see that transformation take place ten times a day. There is also the measured intellectual transformation in the balanced sedate individual. The idea for this story came to me quite suddenly in a used bookstore in Chicago, which is fitting. It's the suddenness of some things that I find most interesting and I guess that's why I set up the story like I did. To me it was more interesting to explore a spiritual change--sudden and absolute--in a measured, thinking and formerly very sedate individual.

The last story in the collection, where a young man in Jerusalem experiences a bombing, seems like the only one that may be somewhat autobiographical.

That last story, "In This Way We Are Wise," has the most autobiographical elements woven of any of them, and I obviously use the conceit of using the name Natan, which is not a big jump. Jerusalem blows up all the time; it's been a lovely couple of years.

How does it feel to be compared to Roth, Bellow, and Malamud? You've even been described as "Isaac Bashevis Singer on crack." Is it intimidating, annoying, do you not even think about it?

It's not that I don't think about it, it makes for plenty to think about. It's that it has nothing to do with writing. Nothing at all. It's lovely and overwhelming and incomprehensibly generous. And it's too big to be ignored, too weighty to toss out. It's like a giant inappropriate and unreturnable wedding gift. That is, thank you. Whoever said such a thing should get a long, syrupy thank you note. But the wedding gift, keeping it around the house, well, it gets in the way when I'm trying to vacuum.

Tell us about what you're currently working on.

My next book is a novel, and much of it takes place in Argentina, which is an obsession of mine. It's gone through a million incarnations over the years, but there are Jews in it. You might have noticed I write about Jews sometimes. I'm thinking epic themes and hoping for less than epic length. It follows three generations: a grandfather, father and son.

What was your experience at Iowa like?

A friend's mother who was an editor, and whom I was always bumming dinners off of, told me to bring her one of these things I was working on. She read it and really pushed me to fill out the application to Iowa and I don't know if I'd be sitting here with you if I hadn't gone there. It's a tough place; you get a thick skin very quickly. If nothing else, it's a good place to have your peers beat you up and to have to run the gauntlet, so to speak. It's where I met my first readers, and I wouldn't trade them for the world.

How would you like to grow as a writer? What are some of your goals?

When I work, I worry about the piece of work. Polishing it and making it right. My goals are really not about me, just about that work. I hope that they're good stories, that people enjoy them and are moved by them. I feel very comfortable exploring these issues, which are big issues for me. About religiosity in the modern world.

What has been some of the response from the Orthodox community?

I imagine some people will have trouble with it, but I can't imagine the justification except having trouble with the idea of it. I write about my characters, and I'm only ready to defend my stories and my characters and the worlds that I've built here.

Are there things from your old life that you really miss?

I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the ankle-length denim skirt.

Interview 2: "The Ministry of Special Cases".

Your debut short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was a national bestseller in hardcover and paperback, winner of the PEN/Malamud award, and drew comparisons to Anton Chekhov and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Eight years later, The Ministry of Special Cases is your debut novel. What did it feel like to achieve success so early in your career?
Before the first book came out, I was living in Jerusalem and writing short fiction, literary short fiction–about Hasidim. I didn’t plan on success, early or late. When the collection received the reception it did, it was all very exciting and very humbling and now it’s also all very moot. Eight years later, what does it mean? The writing part never stops; that’s what I do. But as far as the career part–whatever was achieved–it feels like starting again. And when you publish one book in your late twenties, and then another in your (late) thirties, it becomes clear that a sizable hunk of your future is tied up in what happens with each book. Right now I’m packing my apartment up in boxes–because I know things are going to go one way or the other. I’m either upsizing or downsizing come summer, but everything is going to change.

Have you been working on the book for eight years? What else have you been doing with your time since the publication of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges?
The book has been all consuming. I’ve failed miserably at my attempts to take a day off every week. And I don’t like to have to be anywhere but sitting at my table writing. Due to my inability to have any casual hobby, there’s usually some activity I’m obsessed with at the same time, so that it’ll be write-and-run for a year or two, and then write-and-swim, or write-and-bike. For the last couple of years I’ve been obsessed with yoga–which has been fantastic but would have ruined me if I’d started earlier. It makes me too calm and optimistic. My first book would have been called something like, The Big Book of Daisies and Meadows: There’s a Little Good in All of Us.

The Ministry of Special Cases is set against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War. How did you become interested in the Dirty War and what inspired you to write about it?
Simply put, I became interested in what it is to lose your world, to have a city you love change around you. But I think that’s an idea that grew as the book did, developing alongside ideas relating to community and identity and (one hopes after spending all these years on it) a host of other themes. If I try and trace the idea to its very inception, I think I’d have to say it started when I went to Israel for a year in 1989. It was the first time I was properly exposed to people from other cultures (at least to Jews from other cultures–which was already racy for me). I was fascinated by this group of Argentines. I surely didn’t have a coherent way to say it then, didn’t know what it was I was seeing, but they were this very sweet, very kind, very closed group of guys, whose personalities–who they were as people, not just their worldview but everything that informed them as individuals–were shaped, very clearly, by the political realities of their childhoods. A fascination with the people became a fascination with the place. And when my ideas had taken shape and there was a story ready to be built up, it was clear that Argentina was the base on which to set it.

At the start of The Ministry of Special Cases, one character asks another: “Which man is better off, the one without a future or the one without a past?” To what extent do you think this is a choice people are commonly faced with?
Every big decision probably forces the choice in some way. There’s always a concession involved. Are you going to be truer to the person you want to be (i.e., yourself in the future) or to the person you’re supposed to be (i.e., yourself according to the selectively edited history with which you were raised)? In the novel, the idea plays out on a much larger scale. Because in the Argentina I created, in the Dirty War setting as imagined, I became obsessed with the almost quantum-mechanical evil that is a byproduct of disappearing people. To kill a person is to deny that person a future–the basic act that is murder. To “disappear” that same person is also, oddly, to reach in and undo the past. It’s not to make them no-more. It’s to make them, not-ever. It is to be undone. It’s a way of fracturing the seeming unbreakable link between future and past. The question that flows through much of this novel, I guess, is: Despite the best intentions how do we–as individuals, or societies (take your pick)–contribute to our own undoing?

The Ministry of Special Cases focuses on a Jewish family in Buenos Aires. To what extent does your own religion influence your writing?
This is the kind of answer that gets me in trouble, but the influence of religion on my writing is simply not my concern. I say this while acknowledging the very obvious role religion has played in my fiction until now, and with the awareness that this book, like the last, is chock full of Jews. My obligation is to the story–and I view any sort of outside categorization or conscious acceptance of themes that aren’t generated from within the fiction as limiting and potentially corrupting forces. Because to say, as it does in the question above, that the book “focuses on a Jewish family” is true. But it also means that the Poznan family is in some way “other.” The Poznans are the center of this novel. They are the family. And they are only “other” to me in the ways that they are other to themselves. That’s why I don’t think about religion when I work–I am exactly as aware of it as, say, Kaddish is at any given moment, or as that moment demands. Personally, I don’t think I could introduce myself to a stranger, or even see my oldest friend, and make it ten seconds without saying that I’m Jewish, or referencing it in some way. That’s me. But I don’t consider myself a Jewish writer, and I definitely do not look at the work as Jewish. For anyone who’d say, Hogwash! How could he not call himself a Jewish writer? Tell me–after a decade of obsession with it, in a book that is at the very least equally as much about being Argentine as it is about being Jewish–is anyone, anywhere, ever going to call me an Argentine writer? A single person? No, because I’m not Argentine. So if it’s not about subject matter, or the characters, or the soul of a book, and it’s not about how much time and energy, how much of a writer’s life he or she has spent dedicated to a subject, then it must be based on other judgments that should not, and must not, be part of the process.

Would you compare Argentina’s Dirty War to events happening in our world today?
Do you want me to list by topic: Military coups, state-sanctioned murders, disappeared innocents, silenced journalists…or should we go by victims as percentage of a population or break it down by hemisphere? I don’t know if there’s ever been a peaceful time on this planet, but at least, from my very-often-protected perspective, there have been times of greater hope. There’s definitely no shortage of ways to link those dark times in Argentina to current events–this, I say, while acknowledging the unique nature of the Dirty War (as I don’t think a nation that’s been through something like that believes any other experience is comparable, and rightly so). What was shocking to me was getting to the end of this novel and lifting my head up to find that one of the larger elements, the part about habeas corpus, was actually in the news in America. If I’d spent all this time writing a children’s book about an industrious Central Park squirrel that learns to drive a city bus, I would be no less surprised to have dropped off my manuscript at the publisher and then stepped on the M104 to find Chippy the Opposable-Thumbed Squirrel at the wheel than to find Congress passing laws denying people the right to file a writ of habeas corpus in 2006. I really don’t know what to say about it yet; I’ve got some studying to do. As regards Argentina in 1976 my position is crystal clear.

As much as this book is about Argentina and the Dirty War, plastic surgery also plays a considerable role. How does that theme fit in?
In a book where history is being altered on so many levels, I got interested in what’s behind people’s willingness to physically alter themselves. It’s fascinating to me, the idea of one acceptable nose (and, as technology advances, one acceptable body, or one acceptable age). This book is very much about the links between the past and the future, and the altering of identity through surgery is another way that the continuum gets broken. Insert your own body part and the gender of your choice, but how often do you hear someone say, “Her nose is so perfect it can’t be real.” Well that’s an odd thought, that the “perfect” nose would (or even could) be a fake nose. And it’s that agreed-upon illusion, and the kind of society that forms around it, that really fit with the novel for me.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a series of e-mails called In-Box Since 1999, where I try and salvage a thousand lost friendships. I’m really in trouble with the whole world.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by Nathan Englander at BookBrowse
kaddish.com jacket Dinner at the Center of the Earth jacket What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank jacket The Ministry of Special Cases jacket
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