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Writers' Workshop grad to read from first novel tonight

BY HANNAH KRAMER | NOVEMBER 15, 2010 7:20 AM

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To accompany a lifestyle he calls "unstructured," Nathan Englander shifts from one compulsive hobby to another while working on his literary projects. Whether it is rock-climbing or yoga, he finds something to keep him occupied beyond writing.

"A side obsession really feeds the writing for me," Englander said.

The graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop will return to Iowa City to read from his first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, at 8 p.m. today in Van Allen Lecture Room 2.

The Ministry of Special Cases details the struggle of a family torn apart by the beginning of Argentina's "dirty war," in 1976. Throughout the book, Englander's dark humor peeks through the bleak subject matter.

"[His work is] always really funny," fellow Workshop graduate and friend Christopher Adrian said. "Even though the material that he works and grapples with is on the darker, edgier side … there's always stuff to laugh out loud at."

Englander spent eight years constructing The Mystery of Special Cases. He said it was an intense writing process in which he spent time focusing solely on one project. For this reason, Englander is enjoying the chance to multitask in his work.

While he is known as a fiction writer, the 40-year-old author said he is very aware of the concept of "doing" verses "being." For example, if he is working on a play, he often wonders if he will soon be called a playwright by critics and reviewers. But he has worked on a lot of different projects recently to avoid limiting himself to a certain title.

"I think there is something after a second book when it's like, 'This is what I do,' " he said. "[The books] are your whole life, but in the end, you are separate from the work, and I feel like I have a better picture of the continuum in a way."

One of the projects Englander is working on is a play called The Twenty-Seventh Man. The idea for the play stems from a short story he submitted for his application to the Writers' Workshop. He also recently translated the Haggadah, a Jewish religious text that explains the order of the Passover Seder.

A difficult aspect of branching out into new forms of writing is the reception by a wider range of audiences.

"I never feel entitled in any way," Englander said. "[Writing] does always have some holy aspect, and it does take a balance."

While reception of his work by others is not always the most comfortable topic, he said he loves meeting his readers, and visiting the UI is one way for him to connect with an audience where he was once a student. While admitting he's not nostalgic for many things, he said Iowa City is a place he often misses, calling his time at the Writers' Workshop a life-changing experience.

"I fell in love with Iowa City, and I was such a die-hard New Yorker when I moved there," he said. "For me, it was my first time living outside of New York, and I just a great, great time."

Englander continues to share much of his work with Adrian.

"Nobody had any trouble recognizing that there was an astonishing level of craftsmanship in his work," Adrian said. "It is also true that he was considerably more disciplined than the rest of us."


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