Interview with Jonathan Safran FoerSeptember, 2016
Ever since Foer catapulted into the literary consciousness with his debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated (2002), he has been asking enormous questions in entertaining ways. Here he joins Goodreads to answer a few. Debut author Jade Chang, who releases her own novel, The Wangs vs. the World, in October, spoke with Foer about searching for home, writing about divorce, and his favorite chair.
Jonathan Safran Foer: They sort of did and sort of didn't. It's very hard to describe the process because it's not neat, it's not clean. I was for a couple of years working on a project for HBO with producer Scott Rudin, and in that project there was a marriage where a phone was discovered—this is maybe six years ago, something like that. That became a moment, obviously an exciting moment, in the book. I was intrigued by that. The characters were completely different.
I got to spend a little time in Israel, and for whatever reason became fascinated by the notion of an earthquake. I spent a day with the director of earthquake preparedness there and became increasingly interested.
GR: What sparked that interest? Was it the arbitrariness of natural disaster?
JSF: I have no idea; I never have any idea. In a funny way, if I were to have an idea, I'd probably be much less interested. It's just some little intuitive, scratchy, almost fetishistic thing, like, "I like that. I don't know why I like that, but I like that." Part of writing becomes the exploration of why I like it, why I'm attracted to it. It was a process not unlike my other books, where I had lots of eclectic, disparate material, and some of it came together and some of it didn't. I threw away many more pages than are in the book in the process of writing the book. Maybe it'll end up in something else one day, maybe it won't. I don't know. But it was very intuitive. That's the process of writing. Then when I was editing, it was completely different. Then it was very deliberate. I was trying to make the best use of everything; I was trying to be efficient in the ways that are good and construct something according to a form.
GR: Whereas the television writing process is pretty much all editing! Did that show get picked up?
JSF: We got pretty far. I wrote about seven episodes, and it was green-lit. We were going to start shooting it, and I had a kind of crisis of "Do I really want to do this?" Doing a show like that becomes not only full-time but more than a full-time job, for years. I decided I wanted to be a writer, a novelist. In a funny way, that was the first moment in my life that I chose to be a novelist. My first book had just kind of happened, and my second book happened because of my first book. This was a moment where I chose, and I actually chose against a kind of bigness. TV, as you know, has a much larger cultural impact than novels do: a broader audience, a more expansive conversation. It's hard to choose against that, but I really wanted to make that choice, and I felt good about that choice. I also returned to my original editor, the guy who I worked on my first book with, and I started again from the beginning.
GR: Had you already been writing another novel as well?
JSF: Here and there, but not really seriously. I would say the real book…I wrote the majority of this book in the past year.
JSF: No, not at all. First of all, there's no ethical act in imagining something, certainly in the context of art, but secondly I think the imagining of it raised a lot of useful questions, or useful ways of thinking about…not Israel, but really interesting questions about home and homeland and where we locate our identities, what we are devoted to—whether it's a person or a house, whether it's a country, whether it's a religion, whether it's a profession, whether it's a family. Everybody is always looking for home and trying to better find home, so the imagining of the end of one kind of home was a good prompting to bring some of those questions or paradoxes to the floor.
GR: Do you think everyone searches for home? Are there people out there who feel so secure about their place in their world that there is no search?
JSF: I suspect it's interesting to any thinking and feeling person. It's at the bottom of so many of our other questions, like, "What kind of job should I have? What kind of friend should I be? Do I want to get married? Do I want to have kids? Should I live in America? Should I vote for Hillary Clinton?" So many questions that might actually boil down to "What is my idea of home? Where will I feel—and what situation will I feel—at home?" And that is everybody's goal. Every single person's goal is to feel at home, including and maybe even especially wanderers.
GR: Is there a central question that you started out with? Or one that developed as you went?
JSF: No, I wouldn't put it like that. I don't start with much of anything. I don't start with questions; I don't start with arguments or points. I just start with an openness, and hopefully, if anything, I start by not asking questions: "Is this good? Is this bad? Is this funny? Is this stupid? Is this going somewhere? Is this wasteful?" I really just try to let it go and see what happens. It's not until I shift into that editing phase that I become more questioning of what I'm doing. I do think questions arose, like, "What does one say 'Here I Am' to?" That's a central question of the book. Others are "Where do you locate your identity? What does it take to be ready to live your life? What is the power of language, right? What is the difference between saying something and doing something? What is devotion? What is adulthood? Or manhood?" Those are all questions that are integral to the book.
GR: Can you talk a bit about the title—Here I Am—and how you came to that?
JSF: Well, the first is a passage in the Bible—a story of the binding of Isaac—where Abraham…when God calls him to sacrifice his son, he [calls] to Abraham and Abraham says, "Here I Am," in this unconditional, unreserved way. He doesn't say, "What do you need?" He doesn't say, "Where are you?" He just says, "Here I Am," fully present. And then when he's walking Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him, and Isaac starts to catch wind that something weird is going on, Isaac says, "Father, my father in fact." And Abraham says, "Here I Am."
And it's a paradox: How can he be unconditionally present for God who wants him to kill his son and for his son? I really love those paradoxes of identity, like being a father and an ambitious professional; maybe having a firm political stance while having a certain religious stance; maybe being in a marriage while also having certain ideas of selfhood in the world. These are things that normally you can push to the back burner and they don't cause any real destruction or pain, but sometimes a crisis will force a choice—the crisis of a discovered phone, the crisis of an earthquake—and suddenly these things that we've been keeping distant or keeping dark become very alive and bright. And we have to respond to them. We have to decide whether to stay in a marriage or leave a marriage, or we have to decide to go fight or stay home.
GR: There's so much theology in the book. Did you do a lot of research, or do you also have a secret life as a biblical scholar?
JSF: Well, neither. I didn't really do much research except in certain cases where something became very specific and I needed a specific or accurate answer. I'm no kind of scholar, and I'm not observant, but I did go to Hebrew school and have a kind of Jewish literacy—culturally, textually—that I think had a lot of holes in it. But that's OK because so does Jacob. Jacob is a character who has a similar background to me, in terms of Jewish literacy. He knows some things, and there's an awful lot that he doesn't know.
GR: Jacob worries that as a Jew who doesn't live in Israel, he's somehow a lesser being. The feeling is exacerbated when his Israeli cousin, who has a son in the army, comes to visit. What's your take on that worry?
JSF: Well, there are certainly people who would say so. Most of them live in Israel. And there are a lot of people, like myself, who don't think so. What I wanted to do with the book was not to advance any one argument or perspective but to give a kind of funny, joyful, and occasionally tragic chorus of perspectives. I got people who read my book and said, "God, are you worried that people are going to think this is super pro-Israel?" Then I've had people say, "Are you worried that people are going to think this is super anti-Israel?" Then I've had people read the book who say, "Hey, great argument for divorce you make." Then I've had people read the book and say, "The book made me want to work on my marriage." I've gotten all sorts of things. I think the book advances a lot of different ways of thinking about things—a lot of arguments. I like the conflicting voices; I'm not really interested in a unified voice.
GR: The protagonist of your last novel, which came out in 2005, was a nine-year-old—you wrote that before you had your own children. Has raising kids changed the way that you write about them?
JSF: I think it changed dramatically. Before, I was fantasizing about kids, and now I was writing from experience. I don't think I wrote better per se, but I wrote more authentically, I wrote more socially realistically. In a way that's a question for a reader to answer more than for me to answer, but in the book there are very few places where I refer to my own experience in life, [and] the only one really has to do with kids. I would sit down and mine my memory, like, "What was it like again to unpack a Pack 'n Play or a collapse stroller?" Or "What does frozen breast milk look like again?" Those kinds of things I really was drawing upon memory.
GR: You occupy a weird cultural place for a writer: Most novelists don't get a lot of public speculation about their love lives, but you do. Was it on your mind that writing a novel that's set in the middle of a divorce would lead to a lot of awkward interview questions about your own divorce?
JSF: The divorce stuff I wrote…. It really predated my divorce. I couldn't have been thinking those things at the time. In retrospect, yeah, maybe it's an unfortunate overlap. My divorce had nothing at all to do with the divorce in the book, so, no, it didn't feel risky at all. People can think whatever they want to think, and maybe it's fun to wonder, maybe it's not, I don't know, it's not exactly my thing. I certainly never felt that I was either dredging something up from my experience or setting the record straight or anything like that. I'm not Jacob. I'm probably more like Julia than I am like Jacob. The events that happened in the book, I had no such events in my life at all. I don't think I would've written that book, so maybe there's nothing lucky about it.
Eating Animals (2009). A lot of very serious vegetarians really want to know whether you're still a vegetarian and if—they have their fingers crossed—you might now be a vegan.
JSF: I am a vegetarian, but I am not a vegan. Although, I consume virtually no dairy or eggs because my older son is allergic. We have a house that for all intents and purposes is vegan, but every now and then I'll eat something somewhere.
GR: Goodreads member Sean says, "Cormac McCarthy gave an interview to The New York Times where he said he doesn't understand writers who don't 'deal with issues of life and death.' He even seemed to suggest that writers who fail in this regard cannot be considered good writers. What is your reaction? Is it possible to be a good writer without dealing with issues of life and death?"
JSF: I don't understand people who make blanket generalizations any more than he doesn't understand writers who don't write about life and death. What does that even mean? Serious writer, not a serious writer, who cares? I have no desire or instinct to divide people into good and bad; some things are for me, some things aren't for me. Oftentimes I do love books that address the big questions, but oftentimes I enjoy things that are just fun or funny or suspenseful. There's room for everything. I don't begrudge people who are into whatever they're into; I don't begrudge people who aren't into what I'm into. I feel very good when I stumble upon something that I love, whether it's a project that I'm working on or something that I'm reading.
GR: Goodreads member Gerben asks, "I have read three of your books, and I have gotten the impression that you are a person with a keen eye for the zeitgeist. As you know, the world is more polarized than ever…. Do you believe that literature and education can still turn the tide against the dominant, increasingly racist, zeitgeist?"
JSF: I do, but it's not necessarily a role that has to be understood in any kind of explicit way. I think when writers try to write about what will make the world better, they typically write books that are worse. I think the imagination, creativity—just the artistic enterprise in sharing inherently ethical things and good things—expands care for others and understanding of others. Clearly they are not only a part but also a necessary part of any kind of functioning culture, functioning society.
JSF: I really loved The Phantom Tollbooth. I remember my dad reading that to me as a kid.
GR: My favorite, too! What are you reading now?
JSF: I'm reading Colson Whitehead's book The Underground Railroad. He's a good friend of mine and an amazing writer. It's just wonderful; it's absolutely wonderful.
GR: Do you have any writing rituals?
JSF: Yeah, I always write in a red chair, and when I find myself blocked, I just move the chair to another room. One chair has migrated through my dining room, living room, kitchen, bedroom. It travels. It's big, it barely fits through doors, it's almost too large to carry, but I must love the craft.
GR: Is it the same exact red chair?
JSF: It's one chair. I wouldn't take it to the neighborhood café or anything. Actually, I probably would.
GR: I would love if your tour rider said, "Must provide red chair."
JSF: Yeah, green M&Ms and red chair.
Do you have a question for Jonathan Safran Foer? He's taking your questions on Ask the Author! Ask him whatever you want here.
Jade Chang is a former Goodreads employee who has interviewed authors such as Jamaica Kincaid, Richard Ford, Patti Smith, and John Green for the newsletter. As an arts and culture journalist, she has written for the BBC, Glamour, Metropolis, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and more. Her debut novel, The Wangs vs. the World, is being published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in October 2016.
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