For Nathan Englander, there are more than two sides to every short story

Nathan Englander’s stories are universal. “I get really sensitive when people ask me if I’m a Jewish writer and of course it’s not even insensitive, I just feel like I’m always explaining it,” he says. “I’m an American. Yes, there are Jews in my book. They’re Americans, too. I’m a writer of stories.”

Author Nathan Englander argues that fiction is truer than truth. Then it, too, must have consequences.

In his compelling short story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” characters make controversial judgments that often defy social, moral and legal contracts. Whether in taking control of one’s own life or taking justice is one’s own hands, their loaded choices ask us to see just how gray our world is. Englander’s bittersweet tales of forgiving — and not forgiving — but never forgetting open a dialogue. We start one with him.

There’s something so raw about your stories that seemingly only first-hand knowledge can invoke. What inspired “Free Fruit for Young Widows” and Sister Hills,” both which take place far from Brooklyn [where you live]?

My aesthetic is really simple — my obligation is to the story. I don’t sound shy but what I am is private and distant worlds let me be as intimate and raw as I need to be. I was at a conference with the Israeli writer Etgar Keret and he told me a personal story about his father who was a Warsaw Ghetto survivor. I asked him, “Can I address your story as a story?” And he said … “take it, it’s yours.” I wanted to do it justice [in “Free Fruit for Young Widows”]. And “Sister Hills”? I’m always thinking about Israel. I wanted to write the whole history of the West Bank compressed into a short story. More than anything I’ve ever written, it was so overwhelming that I didn’t even know what I had. You have to have respect for the work you’re doing. It’s not about polemics or what I feel about politics, it’s about obligations to the story.  

Is it daunting to approach writing such polemic themes in the short form, which is relatively restrictive in scope?

I have a play opening in the fall in New York. The play is so suffocating. You’re limited by space; you’re limited by time…. Even dialogue — you have to learn how to make it live in this other world. I felt suffocated until I understood that what you’re doing is framing. Setting that limit allows a person to execute. When you put something out into the world with your name of it, you should want to stand by it for the rest of your life. So I don’t understand people wanting to rush their work. It should go out in the form that it needs to be however long that takes. I know it’s torturous at the same time, but writing is the joyful part, even if it causes you to bang your head against the wall.

A common thread in the stories is the boiling point: What causes us to break down, to expose our repressed emotions? Do you experience these points in your writing process?

“Sister Hills” was the last story in the book and the pressure was on. I was sitting there all day Friday, all day Saturday, all day Sunday. Then it was Monday night and I’d put in one of those 12-hour days where you’re just writing up to a new part, then not engaging and then you just know. I was suddenly writing the rest of the story. That sums up the pivot process. I built the whole world, so there’s nobody else who could know how it works but me. How can I know on Monday what I didn’t know on Friday? Things are cooking. Yes, those pivot points are built into the work, but I think they’re built into life.   

Even at their most brutal, there’s an underlying tenderness in your stories. Do you think there’s a limit to compassion?

[Writing fiction] is a moral act. How can you write a story that’s universal if you don’t understand what good and what evil means? I’m haunted that there’s no black-and-white world and that there’s so much injustice. I always get in trouble when people play that game, “can you imagine that”? Because I can imagine anything. The point of writing is exploring these questions. I would hope there’s no limit to compassion, but if you want me to explore otherwise, I will list scenarios. It’s case-by-case, moment-by-moment.  



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

MAP: New York City Street Closures August 22,…

The Percy Sutton Harlem 5K and NYC Family Health Walk-a-thon and Pakistan Day Parade and Fair will cause traffic delays and street closures in New York City this weekend. Plan…

International

U.N. nuclear inquiry on Iran seen making slow…

The U.N. nuclear watchdog appears to have made only limited progress so far in getting Iran to answer questions about its suspected atomic bomb research, diplomatic sources said on Friday,…

National

Violence-weary Missouri town sees second night of calm

By Nick Carey and Carey GillamFERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) - The violence-weary town of Ferguson, Missouri, saw a second straight evening of relative calm on Thursday…

National

Journalist James Foley's parents, after call with pope,…

The parents of James Foley, the American journalist killed by Islamic State militants in Iraq, on Friday called for prayer and support to free the remaining captives held by Islamic…

Television

Recap: 'The Knick,' Season 1, Episode 3, 'The…

The third episode of Steven Soderbergh's "The Knick" finds Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) meeting an old flame and other characters embracing self-destruction.

Music

Webcast: Watch Polyphonic Spree live on Sunday Aug.…

Polyphonic Spree singer Tim DeLaughter sits with Metro Music Editor Pat Healy for a chat and then the big band performs live. It begins on Sunday at 9:30 pm

Movies

Matthew Weiner on directing 'Are You Here' and…

"Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner discusses his movie "Are You Here," his history writing comedy and the tiny movie he directed in 1996 you can't see.

Movies

Michael Chiklis on his football past and 'When…

Michael Chiklis remembers playing football in high school and how that prepped him to play a coach in "When the Game Stands Tall."

NFL

Fantasy football draft guide: How to draft your…

Many are wondering if we’re entering a new age in fantasy football drafting — one where running backs take a backseat.

NFL

Jets vs. Giants: 3 Giants storylines to watch

The Giants have plenty to work on as they reach the dress rehearsal preseason game Friday night against the rival Jets.

NFL

Jets vs. Giants: 3 Jets storylines to watch

Metro looks at three Jets storylines to watch as they play the Giants Friday.

NFL

Giants expected to work Corey Washington into first-team…

The day of reckoning for the Giants' fringe players will fall upon them Friday night against the Jets.

Sex

Big weddings may lead to long-term happiness

Dreaming of a big wedding? A new study indicates that the longer your guest list, the happier you’ll be in the long run. l A…

Sex

Online dating for every generation

Frank Jackson and his mother Maggie are like lots of modern families: They have dinner together regularly, keep each other updated on their lives —…

Wellbeing

Going green could be the key to getting…

If we could just pursue the things that would actually make us happy, we could help the environment too, according to a New York researcher.…

Tech

Siren: A new dating app that puts women…

Online dating can be brutal, especially for single women. Noting that many women hate wading through inappropriate messages and photos, two tech entrepreneurs decided to…