story behind the book | kate tuttle

Seeing America in tale of riven Mideast

david wilson for the boston globe

“It’s really while on the road when you’re thinking about the next book,” said the writer Nathan Englander; at an airport a few years ago, he picked up John le Carré’s “Smiley’s People” — a book he called “an extraordinarily beautiful literary novel with spies in it.” Under the influence of le Carré and others, Englander’s “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” blends elements of spy thriller and love story, magical realism, and an all-too-real history of one of the world’s most intractable problems: peace between Israel and its neighbors.

Englander, a Long Island native who lived in Israel between 1996 and 2001, said earlier drafts of the book were longer and wordier. But eventually he arrived at the novel’s spare, allegorical style — “I really wanted to strip it down to characters and story. No lectures, no didactic part, no soap boxing.”

The book’s surreal political landscape was inspired by Englander’s time in Israel but, he said, is increasingly relevant to the United States. “I didn’t write this book as a metaphor for the States,” he said, “but you work on these things over years, and the world changes around you.” It’s heartbreaking, Englander said, to see the United States become increasingly riven, “a country split with two separate realities. I don’t mean positions or polar opposites or where you stand. I’m saying we now have dual realities where people believe they are in different worlds in this country.”


“What I watched in Israel is what I’m watching in the states,” Englander added. “It takes so many good people to build a good thing — a country with marriage equality and health care — and it takes so few people to burn everything down. That’s what obsesses me there, and now it’s obsessing me here.”

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Still, he added, “I’m hopeful for peace there, and I’m hopeful for America.”

Englander will read 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Temple Israel of Boston, 477 Longwood Ave. (more information and tickets at

Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at