Nathan Englander Says His New Book Is 'A Turducken Of A Novel'

Sep 2, 2017
Originally published on September 5, 2017 3:48 pm

Nathan Englander's latest novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, is set amid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It winds together the stories of a prisoner, a guard, mothers, sons, spies, statesmen, traitors and lovers. Sometimes they're even the same person.

"I call this novel sort of like a turducken of a novel," Englander tells NPR. "It's like a political thriller that's wrapped up in a historical novel that's really a love story that ends up being an allegory."


Interview Highlights

On being inspired by the story of Prisoner X, an Australian-born Mossad agent who died while secretly imprisoned by Israel

It was the end of my last Israeli book tour and this story broke about a Prisoner X and the kind of thing that catches the front page but also obsesses me, which was this notion that this Prisoner X, in real life, did not exist until he was dead. That is, he had been disappeared into the system.

And I thought about this notion of someone who isn't alive until they were dead. And then I read about him and he was Australian. I thought about somebody who becomes so dedicated to a new country and so dedicated to a state's ideology that he joins the Mossad, that he becomes a spy. And then to find out that he'd become a traitor. I thought, What would take the ethical turn? ... What would have to happen in his or her life for them to so empathize with the other side that they flipped? And that's where Prisoner Z was born for me.

On why he set the book amid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

I'm just very interested, fascinated, heartbroken, obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and our need to find peace on that front. ... Everyone's always, like, victim and avenger at the same time. And I thought, to me, in terms of a real metaphoric idea of it, I thought of this guard and his prisoner and the idea of both of them sort of being trapped together. There is of course [an Israeli] guard who is in a better position than a prisoner, but in the end, as the years pass, it sort of becomes vague who has freedom at all. ...

So many people discuss, you know, Israel/Palestine as if its people on a spectrum. ... People say, "Oh, Israel and Palestine, they disagree." It's not a spectrum; it's metaphysics. They're in a different reality. Whereas I lived in Jerusalem, that had the Temple Mount; and a Palestinian neighbor lived in Al-Quds, that had Haram al-Sharif. Like, literally we were inhabiting the same space and in a different city with a different, you know, extraordinary holy place on the same spot. And to me, that gets us to the title of this book. I was looking for a space for the no-man's land where a moment of understanding might take place.

On what writers and spies have in common

I spend all day being other people. For a book to function ... it has to be a functioning reality. The character has to be real, and I imagine that's exactly what happens for a spy who is in deep cover. I just think, yes, I wouldn't make it for a second if I had to do it in front of another person. So if you take the privacy of the room away, maybe that's the link. It's about inhabiting other realities in a convincing — beyond convincing; it has to be more than that. It has to be real for the person.

Eric McDaniel, Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Dinner At The Center Of The Earth" is a novel that winds together the stories of a prisoner, his guard, mothers, sons, spies, statesmen, traitors and lovers. Sometimes - maybe even more than sometimes - they're the same person. "Dinner At The Center Of The Earth" is a story set amid the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It's the latest novel by Nathan Englander, author of the acclaimed short story collection "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" and distinguished writer in residence at NYU. He joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

NATHAN ENGLANDER: Thanks so much for having me. I'm pretty thrilled to be here.

SIMON: At the center of this terrific story is a prisoner - prisoner Z he's called - and his guard. Tell us about their relationship.

ENGLANDER: Yeah. I'm just very interested, you know, fascinated, heartbroken, obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and our need to find peace on that front. But, yeah, I get very interested in the weave between both sides that everyone's always like victim and avenger at the same time.

And I thought - to me, in terms of a real and metaphoric idea of it, I thought of this guard and his prisoner and the idea of both of them sort of being trapped together. There is, of course, a guard who is in a better position than a prisoner. But in the end, as the years pass, you know, it sort of becomes vague of who has freedom at all.

SIMON: I will explain. The guard is Israeli. And prisoner Z is in prison because he is accused of betraying the Israeli state.

ENGLANDER: Yeah. I guess it was the end of my last Israeli book tour. And this story broke about a prisoner - the kind of thing that, you know, catches the front page but also obsesses me, which was this notion that this prisoner, in real life, did not exist until he was dead. That is, he had been disappeared into the system.

And I thought about this notion of someone who isn't alive until they were dead. And then I read about him. And, you know, I thought about this notion - he was Australian. But I thought about somebody who becomes so dedicated to a new country and so dedicated to a state's ideology that he joins the Mossad, that he becomes a spy. And then to find out that he'd become a traitor, I thought, what would have to happen in his or her life for them to so empathize with the other side that they flipped? And that's where prisoner Z was born for me.

SIMON: And we should explain that the guard turns out to be intimately related to the larger story of Israeli history, too.

ENGLANDER: Yeah. So, you know, I call this novel sort of like a turducken of a novel. It's like a political thriller that's wrapped up in a historical novel that's really a love story that ends up being an allegory. But I couldn't tell this story without doing sort of Israeli history, for me, and parts of Palestinian history. Also, there was the idea of Sharon. I have the general in this story, so...

SIMON: Sharon - we should say Ariel Sharon.

ENGLANDER: Ariel Sharon, the prime minister.

SIMON: Famous general who became prime minister.

ENGLANDER: Yeah. You know, he spent all these years in a coma. And I thought this is an unkillable man - the man who will not die. And the reason I bring the general in is because of, you know, this notion that I feel like every leader, you know, of that country up to a point and to this country up to a point - no matter whether I agree with them politically, they understood their obligation was to the future of the country not to personal need, not to greed, not to any other idea.

And to me why the general becomes an interesting character is because nobody will dispute, you know, Sharon was a violent man. There's Sabra and Shatila - I mean, a killer and a fighter and a warrior. And the fact that he's the one who pulled out of Gaza, I feel like anyone, up till the peace process crumbled, understood their responsibility - that peace was not even a choice out of kindness or out of love for the other, but peace is a strategic choice. If you want Israel to survive, if you want Palestine to survive, like, peace is the only option. And, to me, to have these warriors who become peacemakers - even beloved Rabin that we remember...

SIMON: Yeah. When he was chief of the army, yeah.

ENGLANDER: Yes. When intifada won, he's the one who said break their bones about the young Palestinian stone throwers. Like, we remember him as peacemaker. And I said that's - these are warriors who understood if you care about the future of Israel, peace is the singular option.

SIMON: I have to tell you one of my favorite features of the novel was the central strategic role played by Jewish mothers.

ENGLANDER: Oh, that. If you think I'm not going to call my mother and report how this talk is going as soon as I get out of the studio, you are mistaken. But, you know, a lot of writers start writing close and then become more distant. But - yeah, so this notion to tell the story of my, really, heartbreak and, you know, my pessimistic optimism or optimistic pessimism for the peace process, I wanted it to be close.

And I really thought about it - what would happen if I were a spy? And I thought, what would my out be? Who would I be calling? Because even Prisoner X in real life - that's why I connected to the idea of this person, you know? And it is a tragedy that somebody is dead and who knows what else. It's all very secretive. But people would be like, oh, yeah, he talked about being a spy all the time. You know, like, I would be the neurotic spy. I wouldn't even - you know, I'd turn to the next person on the subway and be like, I'm on a mission. And I would surely be calling my mother.

SIMON: (Laughter) I wondered how you were going to, you know, stick the landing, and you sure did.

ENGLANDER: Yeah, truly.

SIMON: And let me just explain to people who are curious about the title, "Dinner At The Center Of The Earth." The title winds up explaining itself.

ENGLANDER: You are so nice for not doing that spoiler alert. But, yes, so many people discuss Israel-Palestine as if its people on a spectrum. But this notion where people say, oh, you know, Israel and Palestine, they disagree. It's not a spectrum. It's metaphysics.

They're in a different reality, whereas, I lived in Jerusalem that had the Temple Mount and a Palestinian neighbor lived in al-Quds that had Haram al-Sharif. Like, literally, we're inhabiting the same space and in a different city with a different extraordinary holy place on the same spot. And, to me, you know, that gets us to the title of this book. I was looking for a space for the no man's land where a moment of understanding might take place.

SIMON: Is there an affinity between writers and spies?

ENGLANDER: That's funny. I'm like - I was going to the list. I was like, writers and shrinks, writers and sociopaths. But, yeah, I have a whole list of things...

SIMON: (Laughter).

ENGLANDER: Really, the link is, you know, if you strip away the neuroses, maybe. You know what I'm saying? I spend all day being other people - literally transforming. You know, for a book to function, it's not - I can tell the difference between realities. But it has to be a functioning reality. The character has to be real. And I imagine that's exactly what happens for a spy who was, you know, in deep cover.

I just think, yes, I wouldn't make it for a second if I had to do it in front of another person. So if you take the privacy of the room away, maybe that's the link. It's about inhabiting other realities in a convincing - beyond convincing. It has to be more than that. It has to be real for the person.

SIMON: Nathan Englander, his book "Dinner At The Center Of The Earth." Thanks so much for being with us.

ENGLANDER: Oh, truly, thank you.

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