If you’re unfamiliar with Nathan Englander, you’re really missing out.
The Brooklyn-based author made a splash in 1999 with his prize-winning debut, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.” He took eight years to follow that up with “Ministry of Special Cases,” which was also lauded.
Englander’s engaging and resonant writing has made him a darling in the critics’ circle, and he has a reputation for charismatic personal appearances. But you don’t have to take our word for it. Englander sits down in conversation with Zadie Smith, another lit-world favorite, Dec. 2 at an event to raise money for the charity Matawi — an organization founded to provide scholarships for refugee young women and girls on the Kenya/Somalia border.
Do you guys know what you’re going to talk about? I’d call our plan for the evening ‘controlled spontaneity.’ That is, we’ve got a plan for the night, and it’s properly literary, but we do want the evening to feel natural and fun.
You’re working on a theatrical adaptation of “The Twenty-seventh Man,” from your short story collection. What made you come back to that story? It was Nora Ephron’s idea to turn the story into a play. She contacted me after the story appeared in my first book and asked me to write the adaptation. I said I’d be thrilled to do it, just as soon as I finished my novel. The book took nearly ten years to write. So, a quick decade later, and here we are.
The story that inspired “The Ministry of Special Cases” — the Dirty War in Argentina — was an idea that you lived with for a long time before writing about it. What makes you hold on to these ideas for so long? That’s a lovely question. I really think it’s an issue of distance. When you find an idea that you want to dedicate all that time and energy to, it’s obviously deeply personal. And I think, as with actual life experiences, the imagined experience, when deeply felt, might also demand a little time.
Your writing seems very much grounded in specific places. As a New Yorker, is there any aspect of this city that you’d like to explore? New York is an endless source of inspiration for me, even if the city doesn’t always appear as itself in the writing. I’m a die-hard New Yorker. And after a million years in Manhattan, I’ve just moved to Brooklyn. So, as for actual exploration, the whole place feels brand new again.
If you go: "A conversation with Zadie Smith and Nathan Englander," Thursday, 8 p.m.; $100, VIP $250, students $35; Silas Theatre at the School of Visual Arts, 333 W. 23rd St., matawi.org
About the event
Matawi is an organization founded to provide scholarships for refugee young women and girls on the Kenya/Somalia border. Englander talks about his involvement:
“I’ve been donating to Matawi since the organization was founded. I’m sort of obsessed with a very simple statistic. There are 300,000 people in the Dadaab refugee camps, and out of those 300,000 people, maybe two-dozen young women graduate high school a year. Only a couple of those students get to go to college. That Matawi wants to make sure every one of those girls gets to continue her education is really moving to me.”