Thanks to a junior year abroad in Jerusalem, Nathan Englander’s latest novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth (Knopf, Sept.), has been brewing for a long time. “It was truly my first sense of place,” says Englander, who grew up on Long Island. “I fell in love with Jerusalem,” he says, “and I had so much hope and optimism for this city. I kept going back, and I moved there [a few years later] for what I thought was for good in ’96.”

But the intifada of 2000 quashed Englander’s hopes; he returned to the United States in 2001. “I always call that the two bad Septembers in a row,” he says. “September 2000, intifada in Jerusalem, then I came back and moved to New York [for 9/11].”

Englander’s despair and frustration about the prospect for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is palpable. “I was just so heartbroken by what I saw then as the end of the peace process. I still held out hope, and I still do hold that hope,” he says. “But I’ve just been obsessed with that period and dreaming of that time. So this is a book I’ve wanted to write for two decades.”

A political thriller centered around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Dinner at the Center of the Earth takes place mainly in 2002 and 2014. “You spend so much time as a writer telling straight and linear stories. For this book, I wanted to relax into my brain. I think in circles, I speak in circles. I unravel my thoughts that way,” Englander says. “This book for me was the first time where I wanted to address that circularity and not be afraid to weave time, to weave threads, to explore this question of Palestine and Israeli peace, of occupation, of greater Israel. I wanted to find a story that could contain it and look at it head-on.”

This is also the Pulitzer Prize finalist’s first time at BookExpo, and he is “super-excited.” Because of this afternoon’s signing, he calls this “the crossover day,” when his novel goes out into the world and the book becomes real.

Today, 4:30–5:30 p.m. Nathan Englander will sign at the Penguin Random House booth (1921).