Interviewed: Jonathan Safran Foer, writer of Everything Is Illuminated and Eating Animals

The writer of Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Eating Animals talked to me back in 2004 about his journey towards publication.

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Back in the early noughties I interviewed a number of writers, mostly for the Bath and Bristol based culture magazine Decode (now defunct) and some for a writing project of my own, the Belvedere Writers’ Club (also now defunct). Among my favourite, and a real coup as far as I was concerned—it took around six months to finally pin him down—was Jonathan Safran Foer.

Foer is the writer of Everything Is Illuminated, winner of the Guardian First Book Award and National Jewish Book Award. My interest in his work began with his first novel, and was cemented with his brilliant and touching contribution to the short story collection The Burned Children of America.

At the time of the interview Foer was working on his second novel, which became Extremely Loud and Incredible Close, and since 2004 has gone on to publish a third novel, Tree of Codes, and the surprisingly compelling case for Vegetarianism, Eating Animals.

Foer is now a professor at New York University and his fourth novel Escape From Children’s Hospital was due in 2014 but appears to have been delayed. Let’s hope it arrives soon.


You’re often seen as an overnight success—I know this wasn’t the case. Would you mind telling us more about how you set about getting Everything Is Illuminated published?

Needless to say, my publishing experience was very, very lucky. But “overnight success” I wasn’t. I had several agents reject the novel, and then several publishers. I wouldn’t say that I was at the point of despairing, but only because I had no particular hopes for the novel. I didn’t write it to get it published, and so I wasn’t disappointed when it appeared that it wouldn’t be. That having been said, I doubt there’s been a moment more special in my life than when I found out that my book would go out into the world and be read. It’s a wonderful feeling, which I’d wish for every writer.

The Jonathan Safran Foer of Everything Is Illuminated; how do you relate to him? Has your opinion of him changed since the book was published?

While our biographies are rather similar—I did go to the Ukraine in search of the woman who saved my grandfather—we are entirely different. I’m less, well, flat. (Or I hope I am.) One of the interesting things about writing a novel is how all of the characters are, in some way, representations of the author. (The author created them, after all, so they must “come from” the author. They must have been “inside” the author.) Am I like Alex? Am I like Brod? Yankel? I suppose I must be.

There have been a number of successful writers in the last few years who have specifically written about very sad subjects with great humour—Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon, to name a few. Zadie Smith in The Burned Children of America argues that this is a fairly recent phenomenon and Nick Hornby recently said of such writers: “we’re taking over the world.” Do you agree with him?

I don’t know about taking over the world, and I don’t even know about trends. What seems important now often seems forgettable in ten years, much less twenty or fifty or one hundred. I have no delusions about influence or perpetuity. (I’m just thrilled not to have to go to work…) I figure I’ll write what I feel—regardless of what others are writing, and regardless of what others are writing about writing— and hope for the best.

Much of your writing is constructed around a series of anecdotes or allegories, including Everything is Illuminated, Cravings and A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease – how important is the production of short stories to you and how important is the notion of story to your work generally?

I don’t write many short stories. (I only have two or three that I’m at all proud of.) And yet, I think my style of novel writing might be closer to that of the short story. That is, my novels—the two I’ve now written—are really composites of lots and lots of short stories. Maybe this is because of my inability to focus. Maybe—a more generous explanation—it has to do with a tradition of Eastern European writing, which includes Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and more recently Aleksandar Hemon, all of whom I read and learn from. Maybe it has to do with the fragmentation of modern life: media snippets, Google searches, sound bites…

A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease speaks very openly about your family; by giving symbols to that which isn’t said you end up revealing a huge amount. Do you worry about revealing too much? How have your family reacted to your work?

I’m not sure the notion of “revealing too much” makes any sense to me. Betrayal makes sense to me, but I’m very sensitive to not wanting to betray my family, or anyone I care about. My writing really does flow from love – rather than irony, or cynicism, or anger – so if my books express anything other than that, the problem is with my abilities as a writer, not my intentions. It’s my intentions I’m most worried about.

I felt that Everything Is Illuminated was very much about the spaces between things—the present and the past; tragedy and humour; the Jewish and non-Jewish people of the village. It doesn’t seem like you’re trying to reconcile these different things—but stage an argument in the spaces between them. Is this how you see things and will we see this reflected in your new work?

I write because what I want written (or said) doesn’t exist. There is a hole. Every writer must come from that same starting point of trying to fill an absence. I suppose I go a step further and take that absence as my subject matter. It’s not conscious. It’s what most moves me. I try to write about what most moves me.

Philip Roth seems to convey a love/hate relationship with his Jewishness. Woody Allen—a somewhat one dimensional stereotype. What would you say your feelings are and what particular Jewish characteristics do you feel influence or play a part in you as a writer?

My feelings about Jewishness and Judaism (not even to mention Israel) change with time. The older I get the more culturally connected I feel, and less “religiously” and politically aligned with mainstream Judaism. In my mind, what Philip Roth expresses is neither love nor hate, but the argument. It’s not a frustrating argument, or an angry argument, but a sustaining argument. It’s an argument like life, itself, is an argument.

I’ve read that the visual arts are a big influence on your writing. What sort of visual arts interest you – any particular favourite artists?

The visual arts are hugely important to me. I doubt I would be a writer had I not been exposed to Joseph Cornell’s work at a particularly important moment in my life. I do quite a bit of sculpture and collage (although I don’t really share them with anyone), and have done a few collaborations with visual artists. Right now I’m working on a book, Joe, with the sculptor Richard Serra, and photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. It will be out in the spring of 2005.

There have been numerous titles for your new book suggested on the Internet including – ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, ‘The Zelnik Museum’ and ‘I’m Okay’. How does it feel to have people speculate about your work so far in advance of its publication? Amazon have had the option of ordering your new book available for about a year now. Has it put pressure on you—and can you tell us what your new book will be called?

First off, there really isn’t all that much speculation. The people who care that deeply about what my next novel is titled could fit in an elevator. I love those people, but I’d be out of touch with reality if I thought the world revolved around my writing, or anyone’s writing. The only pressure I feel is pressure I put on myself, and pressure that I imagine most people feel. Life is short. I want to live as fully, and well, as I can. A shitty book matters for reasons much greater than reviews and sales. It matters because this is what I’ve devoted myself to. And for the record, the title is EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE.

What are you reading and what music are you listening to at the moment?

By the time this interview comes out, I’ll be reading something different. (My musical tastes are more fixed.) I like to move around as much as possible, and be exposed to as many things. As I write this, though, I’m been working on Philip Roth’s new novel, The Plot Against America, and listening, mostly, to the same indie-rock I’ve listened to since high school.

Interview originally published in Decode Magazine, Issue 15 October/November 2004. Download the PDF here.

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