Author Nathan Englander visited St. Andrew's on Friday, March 24 to meet with students and faculty, and to give a reading and talk on his creative process to the School community. Over the summer, students read Englander's short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2013.
"Nathan was so authentic and warm and generous with his spirit and time," said Dean of Teaching and Learning and English Department Chair Elizabeth Roach. "He was as interested in our community as we were him—in mining his mind and his brilliance and his thoughts on writing and storytelling."
When Englander arrived at St. Andrew's on Friday afternoon, he hit the ground running. He toured campus with VI Form students, attended a senior English exhibition with Lynden Fausey '17, met with English Department faculty, and then talked with creative writing students about the craft and form of fiction.
"We talked with Nathan about his observations in terms of the thinking and the writing skills we're developing in our students," Roach said. "He was able to give us some perspective on what we're doing in the department—what our goals are and what our priorities are. He talked about the importance of being good readers and of being able to absorb and process feedback." Englander is no stranger to the classroom; he serves on the faculty of New York University's Creative Writing Program. "He also commented on the level of sophistication of Lynden's exhibition," Roach continued. "He said it was by far some of the most rigorous thinking and questioning he'd seen, in a college or even a graduate setting."
In his classroom visit with creative writing students, Englander answered questions about What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and spoke about his attitudes and approaches toward fiction. "I'm more known as a short story writer," Englander said during their conversation around the Harkness table. "I cannot handle people shortchanging story collections. If you think short stories are less good than novels, you're reading bad short fiction." Englander has published two collections of short stories (Anne Frank and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges), and his short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and multiple editions of Best American Short Stories. However, he's also written a novel, The Ministry of Special Cases; a play, The Twenty-Seventh Man, which premiered at The Public Theatre in New York in 2012; and translated the Haggadah, a sacred Jewish text read during Passover seder, which was published as the New American Haggadah in 2014. In addition, Englander will have two novels published by Knopf in the next two years, Dinner at the Center of the Earth in 2017 and Kaddish.com in 2018.
He compared the novel and the short story as literary forms during the classroom discussion. "There is an arc, there is an order to the world," Englander said. "A novel is a collection of chapters, and those chapters have an order. A short story collection should also have a thematic organizing arc—and a gut-punch feeling when you finish it, like you get with a novel."
"Nathan commented on the immediate connection he could feel from the students," Roach said. "There was a kind of openness and authenticity to every interaction he had with the kids. He just takes in the world around him and wants to make these connections."
On Friday evening, the School community gathered in the O'Brien Arts Center to hear Englander read an excerpt from "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side", from What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, and a passage from his forthcoming novel Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Following his reading, he sat at stage center in Engelhard Hall and engaged in a moderated discussion with Elizabeth Roach. Roach read and Englander answered questions that had previously been submitted by students and faculty, and they also took a few queries from the crowd. Questions focused on the relationship between Englander's creative philosophy and on the relationship between his writing and his personal experiences. Students wanted to know (among other questions) how Englander has used his experiences to develop as an individual and writer; at what point did Englander realize he was a writer and that he could write "from a place of emotional knowing"; and what he meant when he said that "fiction is truer than truth".
In his energetic answers, Englander gave the students lots of advice about the practice of writing, suggesting that hopeful writers try everything from committing to a daily writing schedule, to using exercise as a time for creative thinking; from reading finished stories backwards as a way of seeking out word repetitions and writerly "tics", to throwing out all "conscious writing." He also challenged some of the conventional wisdom about writing fiction.
"I want to say to you: you can have a dream, you can say, 'I want to be a writer', but [maybe you feel like] you have no big stories to tell," Englander said. "Well, I really grew up in boring suburbia. I went to the mall and watched TV in the basement. We didn't even have cable! We say to students, 'Write what you know,' and I think that's the fakest and worst advice to give to young people. Because 'what you know' gets interpreted as 'your personal experience.' I think write what you know, is about emotional knowing and emotional experience. If you ask somebody to the prom and they say no to you, it's not for me to say 'Oh, that's nothing, ask somebody else.' That pain, if that sense of loss, if that feeling of frustration—you can [use that to] write a novel about taking over a country, or summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro. It is endless what you can turn that into."
You can watch the entirety of Englander's reading and talk on our Livestream channel.