Nathan Englander Channels his Inner John le Carré

In my last book [“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”] I did a story called “Sister Hills,” and that’s when I understood some of the elements I wanted to wrestle with here.


“Dinner at the Center of the Earth” is Mr. Englander’s second novel.

Patricia Wall/The New York Times

“Sister Hills” is about two women in a West Bank settlement.

It ended up functioning as a kind of Rorschach test. People’s reads were so extraordinarily different. They found what they wanted in it and that interested me, especially with this subject.

Your new novel comes at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at an oblique angle.

I wanted to tell this story so that everybody could enter into it. It’s about empathy for me. There’s a memory from my time living in Jerusalem, or maybe a trauma, that is at the core of this book. So many of the bombings during a period of terrible suicide attacks were near my house. I lived in the heart of the city, and my neighborhood would just blow up. There was this notion of people saying they’re defending their people or fighting for their people. And I just couldn’t shake it — we’re killing them because they killed us and they’re killing us because we killed them. Everyone always avenging. I just couldn’t shake this notion of the inability to see the other side.

What drew you to the Sharon character, the General in a coma?

I’m very interested in how people change. The idea that Sharon — this warrior, this violent, violent man, father of the settlements, a man who seemed to relish war and was not afraid of conflict, with his house in the middle of the Muslim quarter of the Old City as a poke in the eye — that he would pull out of Gaza. It’s what you do if you care about a future for your country, on both sides. It fascinated me to think that these men, who are warriors, understood the idea that peace is the next war to fight.

And how did you find the novel’s structure?

I keep thinking of my poor publisher. For 20 years of loyalty, I’ve written them a book that’s not about a rabbi eating toast. I’m so literary and “thinky,” I was like, “I’ve found this new device; it’s called, a plot!”

How was it working with a plot?

I really wanted to tell a driven story. We meet Prisoner Z and he’s in jail and something has gone wrong. And…

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