Nathan Englander on the distinction between Jewish writers and Jews who write

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On the phone, author Nathan Englander reminds me of young boys I sat across from at the Passover Seder table as a child; as if hyped up on one sip too many of the mild Manischewitz, he talks and talks, building invisible and fantastical windmills in the air before him. His stories are much like that, and though his imaginative work is drenched in the milieu of the Jewish life in which he grew up, he prefers not to be forever labeled a Jewish writer.

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His characters? They are just characters, though their families might happen to play a game called "Righteous Gentile," in which each player must conjecture about which of their non-Jewish friends would shelter them in the event of another Holocaust. But Englander does take wild, courageous leaps in his fiction, and stories such as these should never be confined to any genre.

The author will read from his recent short-story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, tonight in Boulder. We chatted with Englander in advance of the event.

Why does Englander loathe being typecast? In a way, it's a trick of language and a fact of life: He grew up in an orthodox Jewish-American family, lived in Israel and eventually shrugged off the heavily religious trappings that were his birthright -- and that does all factor into what he writes. But that's not the whole story.

"It's a line-drive question," Englander says. "Jewishness is not my subject. It happens to be my universe; it's what's obsessing me. I'm a fifth-generation American -- I'm as American as you can be. But my version of American is utterly Jewish, because it's part of my conscientiousness. I'm writing, obsessed with ideas of justice or vengeance or what it means to be in love, or how do we factor in history, but my settings and tools are Jewish tools."

And though he admittedly follows and admires the scions of the Jewish canon, from Gogol and Kafka to Philip Roth and Jonathan Safran Foer, writing is writing. It's something you do. "What you want to do is write," he adds. "It's simply the action. If you want to sing, you get some sheet music and sing. So much pressure is put on the wanting of a title. If you are writing, you are a writer."

When he's not writing or talking nonstop -- Englander, just back from a Hebrew book tour in Israel, says he drives the interpreters crazy -- the author likes to kick back at his home in Madison, pursuing other obsessions: training his dog, throwing clay pots. But he's also quite busy with writing projects, from the New Passover Haggadah he collaborated on with Foer to a new play commissioned by the Lincoln Center. "If you get to be the thing that you want to to be, then you have to learn to live as that thing," he notes. And that's something he's mastered thoroughly, no matter what he's writing: "Fiction will go where it goes. I've freed myself from that concern. The idea of craft as a challenge -- that's the big challenge for me."

Whatever he's doing, Englander always has time for the public, as he'll demonstrate at tonight's reading, in conjunction with a Jewish Studies residency at both the University of Colorado and the University of Denver. "I'm always touched that in a busy world, people bother to come out for this and hear what I have to say," he says.

Englander will speak at 7:30 p.m. in Room 235 of the University Memorial Center, CU-Boulder campus; admission is free, but reservations are recommended (contact Meghan Zibby by email or call 303-492-7143).

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University Memorial Center

CU-Boulder campus, Boulder, CO

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