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Interview with Jonathan Safran Foer

Much has been written about the precocity and talent of Jonathan Safran Foer, whose debut novel Everything is Illuminated (2002) commanded a $500,000 advance and was released when its author was barely 25. Originating in a creative writing thesis written under the guidance of Joyce Carol Oates when he was an undergraduate at Princeton, it tells the story of one Jonathan Safran Foer, a young American Jew in search of the Ukrainian woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis.

 

Hailed by The Times as a ‘work of genius’ after which ‘things will never be the same’, it won the Guardian First Book award and was – unfortunately, disastrously – made into a film starring Elijah Wood in 2005. The praise wasn’t universal, with the book also facing charges of preciousness and factual inaccuracy.

 

His second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), is narrated by a 9-year-old boy who has lost his father in the 9/11 attacks. Ending in a flipbook showing a figure falling from the Twin Towers – or ascending, depending how one decides to flip the pages – it also divided opinion. Salman Rushdie called it ‘ambitious, pyrotechnic, riddling, and above all … extremely moving’; influential New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani described it as ‘cloying’. ‘While it contains moments of shattering emotion and stunning virtuosity that attest to Mr Foer’s myriad gifts as a writer,’ she added, ‘the novel as a whole feels simultaneously contrived and improvisatory, schematic and haphazard.’ Meanwhile, the film adaptation, released earlier this year, was ‘almost universally reviled’, according to the Guardian’s Xan Brooks, but made the author himself cry.

 

This is the way it has been for Safran Foer ever since his extremely successful and unnervingly mature debut: he is the only contemporary writer, with perhaps the current exception of Jonathan Franzen, to command such extreme reactions from the reading public. Foer-bashing, imaginatively and appropriately dubbed ‘Schadenfoer’ by the Guardian, threatened to spiral out of control in 2008 when the likes of Gawker took it out on the author’s lifestyle. Married to fellow author Nicole Krauss, Safran Foer is a practicing vegetarian living in Brooklyn’s pricey Park Slope neighbourhood. His agent, Nicole Aragi, claims the jealous frenzy had her ‘ripping [her] hair out’.

 

Since then, Safran Foer has penned two further books and the frenzy has died down somewhat. He released Eating Animals in 2009, a thoroughly researched work of non-fiction on the meat industry, focusing on the various dangers of the factory farm and the inhumane treatment of farmed animals. In 2011, Tree of Codes, a cut up of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, was published by British indie press Visual Editions, thus cementing the author’s reputation as an experimental writer with a penchant for, well, the visual.

 

On the occasion of the release of The Haggadah, a new translation of the religious Judaic text edited by JSF, we met in the (extremely loud) bar of his London hotel off the Strand, a stone’s throw from (or incredibly close to) Penguin HQ.

 

Q

The White Review

— How did The Haggadah project come about?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— I’ve been thinking about it for quite a long time. There are about four thousand different editions of it, so I’m not the first person to have the idea to create a new version. I’ve been going to {Passover} Seder since I was born and the book inspires me because it’s really aesthetically, politically and philosophically interesting.

Q

The White Review

— Is this a particularly radical version of the original text?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— No, actually: it’s funny because I thought when I started out that it would be particularly radical. My ambitions didn’t contract – in fact I think they became more ambitious. It shifted from the kind of self-expression that inspires most creative projects to, like, a Haggadah expression: just wanting to give this book its best form.

Q

The White Review

— Is this a religious project? I mean, do you feel that there wasn’t a good enough translation? Are you religious yourself?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— I’m not religious, no. I mean, it all depends on what you mean by religious. There’s a definition of God that, like, Richard Dawkins would believe in, and there’s a definition of God the Pope would believe in, so, for me, a lot of conversation that is presented is, like, simple, like religion boils down to whether or not you believe in God. To me, it doesn’t make any sense. I’m not even sure two people can mean the same thing when they’re talking about it. I care a lot about Jewish ritual but not from the perspective of being devout.

Q

The White Review

— I got the sense from reading Eating Animals actually that there was almost a link between these two projects, that you came at both of them from the idea of the family and the meaning of the Judaic tradition.

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Yeah, I mean I guess that could be said of everything I’ve ever written. The same instincts come up to us filtered through different lenses, and all of the books I’ve written are about a certain kind of journey toward identity. I was surprised with Eating Animals – and with this actually – by the extent to which the process felt familiar. Even though the books felt familiar I thought that I was, like, working on totally different kinds of projects and departing from who I was as a writer, but that wasn’t the case.

Q

The White Review

— How did you find the editing process? Is it something you enjoy and want to keep doing?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— I do… With The Haggadah I really wish I had known more at the beginning. Maybe that was impossible, but there was an awful lot of wasted time and wasted words. I mean, one can say, ‘No, they weren’t wasted at all, they were necessary to hear.’ I regret that so much was written that didn’t make it into the book, and I regret that, you know, once I’d figured out what the book was it took a year to put together, but it took me five years to figure out what the book was. So, it was a real, like, learning process.

Q

The White Review

Eating Animals seems to be explicitly political, The Haggadah less so.

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— They are both explicitly political. The difference is that Eating Animals suggests an answer and this raises questions.

Q

The White Review

— Do you see yourself as a political writer?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— No. I don’t see myself as anything. I mean, I’m not really one of those people who see themselves at all when they’re not looking in the mirror or being asked a question. I write what I’m thinking about or what I care about, you know. I write what I want to read.

 

I heard a great interview the other day, I can’t remember the name of the photographer, a photographer on National Public Radio in America. He was asked, ‘Why did you take a picture of that?’ and he said, ‘Because I wanted to see what a picture of that would look like.’ It’s such a simple explanation but it’s so true, or it feels so true to the creative process. So much of what I make is not because I think it’s going to be a good idea or because I have an argument or moral message, but because it is what I would want to read. I want to see what it would be like to read that book. So, I never – with the exception of Eating Animals where the cue was different – start with an intention or an imagined audience.

Q

The White Review

— For a Q&A in the New Yorker a few years ago you were asked, ‘What makes a piece of fiction work?’ You answered, ‘Fiction works when it makes a reader feel something strongly.’ Do you feel that you could have done more with Eating Animals had you written it as fiction?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— I thought about that, but it was important that people know that the imagination at play wasn’t mine but the farm industry’s and that when I said 99 per cent of animals are slaughtered in factory farms – that it wasn’t a figure of speech, it wasn’t idiomatic, it wasn’t an exaggeration, that those are what the facts actually are. The facts are very compelling but you have to trust them for them to be compelling, otherwise nobody likes the feeling of miscalculation.

Q

The White Review

— Do you think things have improved in terms of the slaughter of animals in more humane conditions, or even in terms of their living conditions, since you’ve written the book?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Yeah, I don’t know if it’s because of the book but they definitely have. I mean, like, McDonald’s has started phasing out some of its worst practices, Tyson Foods have started phasing out some of their worst practices… 18 per cent of college students recently described themselves as vegetarian. There are now more vegetarians in college than Catholics, so there is no doubt that things are moving in the direction of greater awareness and with a desire to be different.

Q

The White Review

— But are production levels dropping?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— No, no: they’re growing. It’s the methods of the industry that are changing.

Q

The White Review

— What about in Britain though? Is the meat industry much the same?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— It depends on what you mean by much the same. In America 99 per cent of animals are factory-farmed, but here it’s something like 87 per cent, so that’s a big difference. But is, like, 80 per cent what brings you comfort if you know that it comes from this morally reprehensible, environmentally destructive, in every way wasteful industry? That’s not that exciting. England is probably the best country for food production in Europe and the best country in the West. But that only says something about how bad it’s become.

Q

The White Review

— Have you kept up with it all since the book came out?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Yes, but not with the same energy I had initially.

Q

The White Review

— So, no activism?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— No. I don’t think of myself as an activist. There was something I wanted to contribute and I feel like I did and if someone asked me my opinion I’d always give it, but it’s not my life to go campaign.

Q

The White Review

— Do you miss breaking into factory farms in the middle of the night?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— No, I would be happy never to do that again. It was really shit actually.

Q

The White Review

— Really?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Yeah.

Q

The White Review

— It sounded pretty terrifying.

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Very scary, and I’m not cut out for that, I don’t like it.

Q

The White Review

— What was your fear? That you’d get arrested or beaten up?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Shot. Shot probably, yeah. Or that the animals would, I dunno, these animals have diseases, and that they would like nibble my ear and suddenly I’d have hepatitis {laughs}.

Q

The White Review

— Now, you mentioned something in a few interviews on Tree of Codes, that it was produced as a paperback because it would have collapsed in on itself had it been a hardback. I think I may have one of the only hardback copies in the world, right here, which I borrowed from the London Library.

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— That is cool. Wow. Could I just steal it?

Q

The White Review

— I’m afraid not because I’d be fined and I’d have to buy a new one and I am poor.

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— What does it cost to buy a new one?

Q

The White Review

— I assume the cost of the book. I’m not sure if Visual Editions have many left.

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Well, I mean, the whole thing about this is cool but I won’t put you in that uncomfortable position. I guess what I should do is get one of my own hardbacks made.

Q

The White Review

— Thanks. How did you come up with the Tree of Codes idea?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— I’ve been interested in the technique of die-cutting for a long time and this woman sent me an email that said, ‘We’re starting this big publishing house and we can’t pay much for anything but we’ll make any book you want,’ and it sort of made me chuckle for some reason, her ambition, and it also felt like a challenge. I wrote her an email saying, ‘I’m not so sure you can make anything,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, we’ll do that, no problem.’ And that was that.

Q

The White Review

— Why Bruno Schulz?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Well I’d given thought to a lot of different kinds of books to cut out from, like the dictionary – that was one of the original ideas. And ultimately there’re two reasons: one is that there’s just a lot of interesting resonance you know with the idea of removing words. The second is that whatever book I started with was gonna be the kind of palette for the book that I would end with, and there isn’t a richer palette than The Street of Crocodiles because it’s so dense, the language is so bright and factual, and, like, it just offers a lot to work with.

Q

The White Review

— How did you actually get to work on the text?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— I had a typeset manuscript and I printed out a slew of copies and I would take them around with me and read them and then I would start to find phrases I liked or to make new phrases and then I’d connect the phrases and then the phrases added up to something like a story.

Q

The White Review

— Did you find it a difficult process?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Yeah, it was very difficult.

Q

The White Review

— Different to writing?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— It was difficult in the way that, like, an enormously hard crossword, any kind of puzzle, is difficult. It was not difficult like novel-writing difficult, where the difficulties arise from self-consciousness or self-doubt or fear. With this, it was just technical.

Q

The White Review

— Was the Tree of Codes project a statement about the future of the book as a desirable object?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— No, I mean, I guess it could be read that way but it’s not why I made it. I love the book as an object, I don’t have any trouble reading it, but I love it because of what a book can do and I was trying to exercise something the book can do that’s different because, you know – the joy of it really.

Q

The White Review

— Your previous novels also have this visual element to them. Is that something that you were finding in your own reading?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— A lot of it is because I came to writing through the back door. I didn’t want to be a writer. I didn’t read voraciously until I was 17, so I think that saved me from having any kind of like unhelpful reverence to the form, so I was free to make what I wanted to make. When they said, ‘This book, we can’t file it under fiction,’ that didn’t upset me because I have never wanted to be a fiction writer in the first place.

Q

The White Review

— Were you finding that visual experimentation in your reading, even before you started writing Everything is Illuminated?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— I guess I must have a little bit. Sebald was becoming quite big, and I was also really interested in the visual arts. You know it’s funny, the contrast with visual arts: if you put words into a painting, nobody ever mentions things like ‘100 years old’ in the news, but when you put a few images into a book…

Q

The White Review

— Why do you think that is?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Because literature is the most conservative of any art form, formalistically.

Q

The White Review

— You said earlier that you’re not really comfortable with seeing yourself as anything. You’ve often been described as postmodern though. Do you see yourself as an experimental writer? Are you comfortable with either of those labels?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Well, I don’t know that I really care about labels that much, I can only say that I don’t experiment on purpose. I have never made a decision in a book because I thought it would be a different way to do things. My only sort of guiding principle is for things to feel authentic to me and the desire to have the finished product in my hands. You know, like the photographer said, I wanted to see what a picture of that would look like and when I write I just want to create the things that I want to see and to read and to hold. I imagine sometimes it will come out very very conservatively and sometimes it will come in a way that people would call experimental.

Q

The White Review

— What are you working on at the moment?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— A novel. I’m also writing something for HBO. A series.

Q

The White Review

— How did that come about?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— A producer owned the rights to a book, and he said, ‘Would you like to adapt this for HBO?’ And I said, ‘Not really,’ and that was that. Then I called him back and said, ‘Well actually, maybe I’d like to do something of my own, it could be fun,’ and he said ‘Sure, let’s talk about it.’ That was like a year ago.

Q

The White Review

— I have another question about the Tree of Codes project. In a sense you’ve gone down the opposite route of the twentieth-century avant-gardists who initially wrote into a void and later reached huge reading audiences. How did it feel to suddenly be on the margins of the publishing industry, working with a tiny publisher, Visual Editions?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Fine. I don’t care. I mean, there are a lot of advantages to having, like, a bestseller, but there are a lot of advantages to doing it this way around…You know, I did what I wanted in both cases. I didn’t write the novels to find a big audience and I didn’t write this to be obscure: I wrote what I wanted to write. Some things are easier to sell than other things and it has nothing to do with the quality of the thing. Sometimes great things find huge audiences and very often great things find no audience.

Q

The White Review

— I read that you write kind of blindly, that you don’t really plan things, you just sit down and let it all out. Is that the way you work?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Thus far, thus far. I do that for a while and then I purely edit what I’ve written and that’s a very different kind of process. I try to figure out what I’ve done and make connections and make use of the lessons I’ve learned while I was writing, but the first few couple of drafts are without any kind of plan.

Q

The White Review

— Do you start with an idea or do you just sit down one day and see what comes up?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Yeah, I sit down and I end up writing a lot of things and then I look at them and think well maybe this could go with this, or this and this, and maybe this one character is actually three different characters and this boy is a girl… It’s all very inefficient.

Q

The White Review

— Do you work on computer or by hand?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— I write on the computer and then I edit by hand. I don’t know why I can’t write a first draft by hand.

Q

The White Review

— Do you write every day?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— I try to but I don’t really work at the weekends.

Q

The White Review

— Is that a family thing?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Yeah. There’s other things in life.

Q

The White Review

— The non-fiction thing, is that something you want to come back to?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— No, I really want to write fiction.

Q

The White Review

— What’s your new novel about?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— I never really talk about it because I think descriptions are tenuous. I don’t like descriptions of things when you can have, you know, the end result.

Q

The White Review

— Which of your books are you most proud of? If you had to be remembered by one book at this early stage of your career, which would it be?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— I don’t think about it. I won’t be remembered. Nobody’s remembered. I hope to write a lot of books that try a lot of different things that hopefully connect with readers, but, you know, will books even exist in fifty years? I’ve no idea.

Q

The White Review

— Do you not think they will?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— Books in some form will exist. I don’t know what the form will be like, I don’t know what the reading experience will be like, bookstores are gonna be a different world. And you know, I mean, I’m lucky, I think this is a good moment actually to be a writer.

Q

The White Review

— In what sense?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— There’s still a lot of readers, like, I do a reading, people show up. I get to talk to them and to hear their amazing feedback and interpretations.

Q

The White Review

— You seem to be almost completely removed from the literary world. You don’t seem to really engage with genres or movements, and you’re building your own career brick by brick. Is that a fair assessment?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— I think that might be true but it’s not something I’m intending. I don’t mind being a part of a movement, the idea doesn’t bother me. I do what I do not to resist anything but because it’s something I want. If that takes me in, like, different directions, that’s fine. If it leads me in one direction that’s fine. I don’t know what it’ll be like in the future.

Q

The White Review

— You studied philosophy. Is that something that informs your writing? Do you still read philosophy?

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— I think it does inform my writing but it’s more the content of philosophical thought rather than the full argument. Like the way that philosophical arguments run an idea like into the ground you know or into the sky and just take them to whatever conclusion they’ll reach regardless of how crazy they sound. I remember I found that really appealing and I think a number of my characters think like that: well if this then this, and if this then that, and if that then that and if that then that and if that then that… Whereas in life we’re used to trimming that at a certain point once it’s no longer of use to us or not attractive to us.

Q

The White Review

— Do you think that novels of ideas work? I’m thinking of people like Milan Kundera, Will Self even, or David Foster Wallace…

A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— They don’t usually work for me as a reader. I’m sure there are examples where I would say, ‘That was really clever.’ But it’s not the way that I think about fiction. To me fiction is almost about the lack of ideas or a different mode of thinking than the conversational everyday reasonable motive. And reasonable thinking brings you to a reasonable conclusion, whereas unreasonable thinking or openness to the unconscious, whatever you want to call it, visceral thinking, can lead you to other places which to me are the terrain of art. It distinguishes art from journalism or rhetoric, just in the ways that it can be unreasonable.

Q

The White Review

— Why do you write fiction? To convey a sense of rationality, or is it a kind of a search for a humanity that links everyone together?
A

Jonathan Safran Foer

— It’s not that {laughs}. I don’t know why. One of my favourite sayings, which I’m sure you’ve probably read in an interview, is that a bird is not an ornithologist. Just because you are something it doesn’t mean you know why you are that thing or why you do it.

 

I write because there are a lot of things I like about what it does, the way it allows me to engage with a particular front of myself, a particular front of my thoughts. But I don’t write as therapy, and I definitely don’t write to show the world something.

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Jacques Testard is the publisher of Fitzcarraldo Editions and a founding editor of The White Review.