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A Q&A with Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander

Amy Davies - February 28th, 2013

Nathan Englander

Do you have a favourite story in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank? If you do, what is it and why is it your favourite?
I definitely don’t interact with my own stories that way. Different stories make different demands, and I have different connections to them based on when or how or why they were written. But I never step so far away from the work that I’d be able to rate them in that way.

What is it about the short-story form that you find so appealing?
I always think of the short story as this spring-loaded form. I love the pressure that’s on the language and the narrative, a pressure that comes from economy, I guess. But when a short story is functioning, I think the emotional pay-off can hit the reader in truly exponential ways. Also, I think of it as a very organic form. It’s a form that is very much in sync with the way we, as people, naturally share story.

As a writer of short stories and novels, do you find it difficult to switch between the two forms?
Currently, I’m a writer of short stories and novel. But, yes, I imagine there is a distinct possibility that I’ll be able to use the plural ‘novels’ at some point. As for switching forms, it used to be a huge transition. But these last years, working on translations, and writing a play, I find that jumping between forms somehow stimulates all the projects at once. I love-love the back and forth.

How do you feel about being edited, and do you find editorial intervention more difficult when it comes to your short stories, in which it could be argued that an even more deliberate choice of words and structure is required than in, say, a novel?
I love being edited. And I can’t understand anyone who has a problem with it. Maybe it’s because I love the people I work with and think they’re brilliant. But I’m not sure why a writer wouldn’t want to hear what an outside, excellent, committed reader-of-one’s-work has to say. I’m a fairly compulsive rewriter. So when I hand in a draft, it’s as polished, as clean, as tight as I can get it. When I hand in a draft, it’s already at the point where I stand by every word and every choice. So when a book or a story is in that pre-published state, I love to see what my editors can find. And I usually take the vast majority of the advice I receive. And since I’m so open to listening, when I can’t take a cut or don’t agree with a change, I then know it’s for a reason and don’t think twice about STETing it (that is, keeping the line as was).

Would you suggest the short-story form as a good way for a new writer to hone their skills, or do you think that the demands of short-story telling are even greater than that of longer formats and as such they are better suited to a more experienced author?
What do I honestly think? What I think is that a writer should only write what he or she is most excited about. That’s all that matters. Not form or subject, experience or expectation. A writer is always – 100 per cent of the time – most likely to succeed by an infinite margin when writing what, at any given moment, fills that person with passion and drive.

Do you think it is important to write about what you know, or should a writer be able to go beyond the boundaries of his or her own experiences?
Write what you know is the best advice that is most often taken the wrong way. As a suburban kid, raised by a television set, I used to be terrified about ‘write what you know’. I thought, I won’t be able to be a writer because I have no experiences of my own – they are experiences absorbed from sitcoms while I sat on a couch. Then I came to understand that the ‘knowing’ of that phrase is actually about emotional-knowing and emotional-experience. So, have you ever truly longed for something? Have you ever been happy or sad or disappointed or in love? Those are the sincere experiences one taps into when writing. All the rest is easily made up.

Who have been the biggest influences on your writing, literary or otherwise?
Those folks are legion. There are teachers, like Marilynne Robinson and James Alan McPherson, Barry Targan and Frank Conroy. There was a friend, Deborah Brodie, and first readers like Chris Adrian. There are all the endless writers, dead before I was born: Orwell and Kafka and Camus and Flannery O’Connor. Voltaire and Dostoyevsky and a Brontë of your choosing. I feel many a debt. And now that I’m writing plays the list goes on and on.

Do you think a writer should write for her or himself first and foremost or with an audience and reader in mind?
My guess is that when most folks try to explain who they are writing for, what we end up hearing is a kind of simplification that eases communication, instead of hearing about the metaphysical, touchy-feely, pretty-much-intangible, intended recipients of that work. At least on this end, when I’m working, I don’t think about that in any way that I could sensibly frame for you.

Do you think the rise in people reading on digital devices will have an influence on your writing, or do you think a good story should transcend the form in which it is delivered?
I am fully Darwinian when it comes to writing. That is, I do not worry about forms, or the future of the novel, or how different technologies affect a form if the form does not change the work. That is, the talkie directly affects the role of the silent film, whereas a digital book that isn’t a hypertext is only another way of delivering a book. It does not change the telling anymore than an MP3 changes a CD. In those two cases, digital books and digital songs, it’s the business model that changes not the mode of storytelling. And before I find myself wildly off-track, what I’m saying about the Darwinian thing is that I believe in story. And the telling of stories can take on an infinite number of forms. And if one of those forms is meant to die off, then no amount of wrestling with it, or cheerleading for it, will save it. As for people reading in the future, I’m just not worried about that going away. And if we are in the midst of some sort of story evolution, we’ll see if I get to crawl out of the water or am left in the sea.

what we talk aboutWhat We talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is out now in paperback and eBook.

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