The Books Interview: Nathan Englander

Your stories often have both a comic sensibility and a dark undercurrent. Is that how you see the world?
I think that is maybe the way my brain is patterned, my expectation of the world. That line has always been part of my work - even when I was at Iowa [Writers' Workshop] a hundred years ago, I'd show friends a story and say, "Look, I wrote the funniest story ever!" and they'd be, like, "I cried," or, "That was the saddest story ever." I started to understand I can be tone-deaf to what the response will be. It's less a structural thing than honestly just the emotional pitch of how I see the world.

I always call myself either an optimistic pessimist or a pessimistic optimist - I'm not sure which way it goes. "I'm having a lovely day. I guess I'm going to get hit by a bus": that is how I move through the world. I need to work on that. I think I'm afraid to enjoy. I'm always waiting for things to turn horribly sour.

You mentioned the way that your brain is patterned. Do those patterns change?
I spend a lot of time inside my brain. I didn't teach for years and now I'm teaching again [at the City University of New York]. I've started to see how much of the writing life is psychological. I feel like I'm getting more interested in relaxing into where my brain is at. That's what forms these stories and, when you get into them, they take over your head. You're building a world from nothing. It shouldn't be born in a perfect way, if you're a human being. Your brain forms a story and, if you're lucky, there's a line where the story takes over the brain. You don't even know what you have.

When the story takes over, does the intimacy with which you write surprise you?
As a suburban Jewish boy, I surprise myself when there's any level of intimacy. To have emotion in the outside world might be a better thing to work on now. There was a terrible fear for me when I started writing, which was that if you'd been denied unbelievably tumultuous experience, you didn't have permission to write. But if I'm afraid to go to sleep-away camp and someone else is afraid because they've just been taken to the Gulag, you can write [about] both, if the level of fear is the same. I got interested in this idea of the personal. We prized privacy in my family. I wanted to explore different kinds of truth and the line between memory and fiction. I believe that fiction is a supreme form, in a sense.

One of your stories is about the writer-reader relationship. Are you acutely aware of this as you write?
When a book is functioning, the connection between writer and reader is a crazy thing. I think about it all the time - this idea, where space is erased. Isn't the idea of success and work to find someone who truly gets it? That's how we feel with books that really work. I'm not picturing anyone when I write. It's a very vulnerable place to be in. It's painfully sincere, the way I feel about certain books, and I wanted to explore that in fiction. You know certain characters in books [better] than most people you know.

You've returned to writing short stories after writing a novel. Why?
I just felt very free. After the first book of stories, which I was very fortunate with, people would say, "It must be very hard to follow up such a success." And I'd be like, "Oh, thank you very much. It must be less hard than following up a huge failure." In our super-ADD world, where people fall asleep mid-tweet, why wouldn't people want more short stories? I feel that line between poetry and novels - this compressed form.

I happen to appreciate and love the form but another thing that allowed this book [to happen] was that I wrote it in secret. There was so much pressure when I was writing the novel. I've also freed myself from this idea of definition. I wrote a novel, so now they can call me a novelist. I tell stories: that's it. I have a play opening in the fall, I have two translations coming out in the spring (New American Haggadah and a collection of stories by Etgar Keret), but I would never call myself a translator or a playwright.

So much of the pressure of work is how you identify yourself. If a book has touched you and you want to make one, it's so overwhelming. People ask me how I write. I say there's a voice in your head telling you to quit - ignore that one. And there's one saying, "You can do this!" - listen to that one.

Nathan Englander's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£12.99)