Small talk: Nathan Englander

Born in Long Island, Nathan Englander, 42, was brought up in the Orthodox Jewish community of West Hempstead, New York. After university he attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and went on to publish his acclaimed debut short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, in 1999. He has been named as one of “20 writers for the 21st century” by The New Yorker and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a PEN/Malamud Award. Englander divides his time between New York, where he teaches creative writing, and Madison, Wisconsin.

Who is your perfect reader?

I was going to say my mum but that’s a Jewish boy’s answer. People who read a story for a story; people who read for the universal.

What book changed your life?

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which I read in third grade. I remember my pride in reading a big book and being lost in that world. Then there is Gogol’s story The Nose and Isaac Babel’s The Story of My Dovecote.

What is your daily writing routine?

I would like to build a proper day off into my week but writing is all-consuming. I’m genetically a slow person – it takes me 49 minutes to brush my teeth – so I work all day. I’m a wildly lazy, TV-raised boy, so it is all about discipline.

Who are your literary influences?

I love the Russians – Turgenev and Gogol. Also Kafka, Roth, Bernard Malamud. And Marilynne Robinson – she’s my living mentor.

Who would you like to be stuck in a lift with?

I wouldn’t mind a chat with President Obama.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?

My dad always carried a handkerchief, and so do I when I do talks. I’ve always known it would be fine if I sneezed on stage.

When did you last cry?

A week ago. I spent the day with a photographer for an assignment and I told her I loved James Baldwin. At the end of the day she gave me a print of a photo she had taken of him in Chicago. I was moved to tears.

What are you scared of?

Pretty much everything – that’s an easy question. I live in almost constant terror of all things.

What would you change about yourself?

A person could worry less and still not die. If I worried 99 per cent less, it would still be more than most people.

If you could own any painting, what would it be?

“Guernica”. I remember being taken to say goodbye to it in New York by my mum.

How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?

I’d be a psychologist. I’m really interested in people – although at this point I’m more interested in making them up.

Nathan Englander’s latest novel, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank’, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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