"For me," Englander says, "that was the decision to write, in a sense, to touch this thing that I shouldn't dare. A real writer should give them this story. For me it was that idea. You know, I can write it in my room, and no one has to see it, but I'm going to give them this story."
Englander was just twenty-two and had written stories before, in college classes. But this was different. He could feel it as he started to picture these doomed old men and party hacks and unpublished poets no one had heard of; about how they were rounded up in an almost comic way, and how they argued, and how in the end they must have told each other stories.
As he kept writing, Englander decided to apply to MFA programs around the country. But first he needed to finish the story as his writing sample. Deborah Brodie, an editor at Roaring Brook Press and the mother of a friend of Englander's, agreed to help him as a favor to her son. They would meet and have dinner and talk about the story to try to wrangle it down from around a hundred pages to the twenty or so he needed. Almost as soon as they started, she saw something she rarely sees.
"I'm wrong about a lot of things," Brodie says, "but I know I'm never wrong about somebody having potential. I'm never wrong about recognizing a voice and knowing a person has the potential to be an amazing writer. And with him, you could see it in the raw material.
"At one point early in the process, I said to him, ‘I'm an editor, and I'm going to say something that I never say, because I can't control this and I would never promise something I can't be responsible for. But I'm telling you that not only are you going to get into Iowa, they're going to give you money.' And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.' Then he got into Iowa. And when they gave him money, he sent me flowers."
After reading his fiction, you might expect Nathan Englander to be a quiet soul, old on the inside, with his arms wrapped around the world's tragedies. But that's not the case. "Nathan is a serious writer with serious things going on. But in real life he's a funny, funny, funny human being," says McCann.
Englander talks fast. He goes off on rolling excursions that seem like tangents and come mysteriously around to the question you'd forgotten you asked. He is a one-man improv troupe with a thousand ideas competing for the stage. "His mind is always going a hundred miles a minute," says Whitehead. "He's taking everything in and processing it really quickly. It's hard to keep up with his witticisms and observations."
He's also self-effacing and modest about his achievements and about his work, which he sees as having its own life apart from his. "Out of all the emotionally tortured and screwed-up writers I met there," says Glen Weldon, a fellow graduate student at Iowa, "he was the most effortlessly funny. But there's also an utter seriousness to him."