Writing about Things that Matter: An Exclusive Q&A with Nathan Englander
Dinner at the Center of the Earth, Nathan Englander’s much-anticipated new novel, is a riveting political thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It follows a fascinating cast of characters—a prisoner in a secret cell, an American waitress in Paris, a young Palestinian man in Berlin (among others)—slowly drawing their stories inexorably together. Tackling moral ambiguity and a potentially inflammatory topic, Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a provocative and highly relevant book that is sure to generate discussion amongst your reading group.
Nathan Englander is a bestselling author whose collection of short stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. We were lucky enough to engage him in an exclusive Q&A about his latest book. Read on to learn more about his writing influences and his motivations behind writing a novel that NPR calls a “beautiful masterpiece.”
Reading Group Center: How would you describe Dinner at the Center of the Earth in twenty-five words or fewer?
Nathan Englander: It’s a turducken of a book—a political thriller, wrapped in a historical novel, stuffed into a love story, with an allegory on top.
RGC: You shift time and storylines throughout the novel. Did you have everything worked out before you began writing? Why did you choose to write it this way?
NE: Part of what fascinates me about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what breaks my heart about it, is the endless circularity. I wanted to capture that structure in story. And, no, I definitely didn’t have it worked out before I started composing. When the idea finally came to me, the rough draft almost wrote itself (that is, if you add in the hair pulling and an unhealthy dose of despair). And then I spent a year obsessively rewriting, round-the-clock.
RGC: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is such a fraught topic about which people hold very strong opinions. Why did you choose to set the book against this backdrop? What did you hope to accomplish?
NE: I moved to Jerusalem during the peace process and lived there well into the Second Intifada. I always wanted to write a book about that time. And the fact that it’s a loaded topic is what grabbed me. I wanted to write a novel that allows readers to reflect, to maybe think about why they feel what they feel.
RGC: How much did you draw on current events and news headlines to inspire the characters and storyline?
NE: It’s very much a fiction. But, yes, an enormous amount of the imagining was sparked by my interest in the actual history of the conflict. This is my second novel. And I learned with the first one that the events readers believe I made up are often true, and the things assumed to be true are the ones I made up.
RGC: Which authors or specific works influenced your writing?
NE: I guess we have to get biblical. I grew up religious and, if we’re talking about the Holy Land–part of the novel, I’ve been collecting images of places like Jerusalem my whole life. As for the political thriller part, it was super fun to dig into a genre that I hadn’t really been exposed to and call it “research.” I definitely swooned over some John le Carré while I was thinking about what I wanted to do.
RGC: Imagine you’re part of a book club discussing Dinner at the Center of the Earth. What is one question you would pose to the group and why?
NE: Maybe, “How do ideas of empathy play into the novel?” Or, more simply, “Do you feel like there are two sides to the story?” I guess I just wonder how people’s understanding of the “other” plays into politics.