What we talk about when we talk about writing
Nathan Englander kicks off the Newhouse Distinguished Writers Series
Published: Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 12:10
As the first event of this year’s Distinguished Writers Series, the Susan and Donald Newhouse Center for the Humanities hosted an engaging book reading with Nathan Englander, an internationally-known author and veteran writer, on Thursday, Sept. 27. Englander read from his newest book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” and engaged in conversation with the host, visiting Professor James Wallenstein, and the audience.
Born on Long Island, Englander attended Binghamton University and then later completed his graduate studies at the University of Iowa.
His Jewish Orthodox upbringing shines through the creation of his fictional settings and characters. Despite this clear focus in his writing, Englander said he does not identify as a Jewish writer, but simply an American writer. “The world is boxed up,” stated Englander, addressing the over-labeling of peoples and genres.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is Englander’s third novel, although he has published many more short stories. His works have earned him several prestigious awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship. Englander was also named one of the “20 Writers for the 21st Century” by The New Yorker. Currently, Englander teaches at Hunter College in New York City and at the New York University’s Writers in Paris program.
On Thursday evening the lecture hall was quickly packed with locals from the town of Wellesley, along with a handful of students. As Englander began to speak, the room transformed into a large house in Florida and four characters began to take center stage. The author read for about fifteen minutes from his title story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” captivating the audience with witty dialogue between his four characters, Deb, Lauren, Mark and the first person narrator, whose discussions range from the trivial to the heavy topic of the Holocaust.
“The characters felt very real to me,” remarked HeeSoo Chung ’13. “Hearing a story read by its author, well, it’s a rare experience where you get to hear the author putting his own voice into narrating his own characters and story.”
Later, during the Q&A session, Englander explained his use of humor in respecting and humanizing realities. “I believe in fiction,” Englander stated. To him, each fiction is a reality, and all true realities have sadness and joy; therefore, Englander argued, humanizing a gross attack on humanity like the Holocaust, one must include the light with the dark.
As the conversation progressed, it turned its focus to the how-tos of being a successful writer. Englander’s first recommendation to beginning writers was to have “breakable rules.” He stated that, “My obligation is to the story. That’s it.” However, his best nugget of wisdom was a twist on the old cliché: “writing is a process.” Englander said in answer to an audience member’s question. “By definition, a process has parts.” He described, at length, how frustration, writer’s block and awkward prose are all integral parts of the process toward great writing.
Englander cites another cliché as tip to aspiring writers: “write what you know.” Englander firmly believes that his love of stories grew out of his Orthodox Jewish childhood. However, the author admitted to believing, earlier in his life, that his sheltered upbringing was detrimental to his pursuit of a career in writing, as he felt he had not experienced enough to write about. Englander explained his present understanding as this: “write what you emotionally know.” He explained that one has only to“harness emotions” in order to make any reality real.