"My Stories Unnerve People, They're Supposed to."
The Jewish Community Center recently hosted author Stuart Nadler.
Those who braved the torrential rains last Thursday evening to attend the JCC Book Month event showcasing short story writer Stuart Nadler were richly rewarded.
Nadler’s recently published short story collection, The Book of Life, has been critically acclaimed. The New Yorker wrote: “Betrayal and forgiveness infuse this impressive début collection … Nadler skillfully creates characters whose failures and faults make them comically, endearingly human.”
Nadler, who was hoarse from fighting off a cold, was a funny and candid speaker. A 2008 graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Nadler admitted that his “characters do behave very badly [they] lie, cheat, steal, make bad decisions.” He likes to look at “moments of crises in people’s lives … moments when people are faced with temptation.”
The author spoke about his upbringing in Needham, and went on to deliver a thoughtful accounting of himself as an emerging artist—how his drive to become a writer led him to ask difficult questions of himself and of others, which is where all literature, not merely story telling, comes from.
The son of an artist and a scientist, Nadler fell for books, the written word. He read Tom Sawyer as a young boy and then wrote his own version, on the assumption that what one did when finishing a great story was to write another.
Nadler recounted going to the JCC in nearby Newton, and attending High Holyday services with his family, but giving no thought to being Jewish or to his spiritual life.
This changed when he moved to Iowa for the writing workshop. There a search for Hanukah candles turned into a pilgrimage. He went to CVS, to Walgreens, to a Walmart, which featured a full automotive section and coffins, and to a candle shop at an Iowa City mall.
He ended up by knocking on the door of a small synagogue. A young boy, who “looked a lot like me at that age,” answered. “Of course we [have candles],” he said. He added, “I want to show you something. Come in and see the play me and my friends are putting on.”
Nadler expanded on that moment. He kept thinking about “the way the woman in the candle shop looked at him when I came in there and asked to buy candles, like no one had ever asked her that question before.” This “really started to bother him.”
This and other “experiences helped me confirm my own identity.” As a result, Nadler “started to devote myself to writing about issues of identity.”
He said of the writing process, “I started to write about a faith I had some distance from and by the end of the book I learned about it afresh.”
Nadler added, “There is no one in my generation who writes for Jews like me.” There are the religious writers, like Nathan Englander, and there are secular writers. The Jewish writers of the last century, Malamud, Bellow, and Roth are “not my generation.” They are “not about people I know.”
Nadler spoke highly of being mentored by Ethan Canin, author of The Palace Thief, among other books.
He had the audience chuckling while describing the self-doubt that is the writer’s curse, and said of entering the Iowa program, “everyone starts to look at you like you know what you’re doing.” Then, “after a while I realized that no one, not even the Pulitzer Prize winners knew what they were doing.”
He added that, for writers, “Every sentence is a wish. Every idea is a wish.”
Nadler also had praise for Iowa teacher Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping and Gilead, calling her the “smartest person I’ve ever met” and the “best living American writer.”
Nadler’s next book, a novel, Wise Men, about a family’s rise from poverty to riches and spans 60 years, will be published a year from January.
The 17th Annual JCC Book Month goes from October 26 to November 30, and features a series of authors on a wide variety of topics.
For more information about upcoming JCC Book Month events, visit: http://www.jccns.org/jewish-book-month-2011/