On an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in early October, Jonathan Safran Foer sat down with New Yorker editor David Remnick for a conversation and reading from Here I Am as part of the 2016 New Yorker Festival. Despite taking place on a well-lit stage in Chelsea before a few hundred attendees, the conversation was uncommonly intimate and marked by unguarded candor, lighthearted jibes, and a healthy dose of sophomoric humor. Foer and Remnick covered everything from Jewish identity and the struggles of writing to digital distractions and raising children. An edited and condensed version is below.
David Remnick: Welcome to The New Yorker festival! Good morning. I’m David Remnick, and our guest today is Jonathan Safran Foer. It kills me to say this, but Jonathan Safran Foer is still not yet forty years old. If The New Yorker had one of those under forty things again, he’d be in there once more. His new novel is his first in a decade and yet his collected works are impressively rich. Here I Am is to at least one reader, this reader, a masterful, deep, cunning, insanely funny, and deeply complicated piece of work, weirdly misunderstood in some corners, but I have to think it’s a masterwork of its time. It is to me.
I cannot recommend Here I Am more deeply and more highly. Its dialogue is among the sharpest and funniest in modern fiction, its political explorations in the light of the personal, its references to streams of previous fiction, including one P. Roth, are glorious. The publisher is Farrar, Straus and Giroux; the editor is the singular Eric Chinski, who is with us here today; and the book is Here I Am. And our guest today is someone extraordinary, and like the late Jack Benny, merely thirty-nine years old. Jonathan Safran Foer.
Jonathan, we’re here on a Saturday morning in October 2016. The front page of The New York Times this morning features language it’s never felt compelled to use before in the description of the quotations of a presidential candidate; there’s a well-known quote from Philip Roth in the book Reading Myself and Others that, to paraphrase, in the modern age, it becomes harder and harder to write fiction because it’s so hard to compete with the insanity of reality [audience laughs]. True or false?
Jonathan Safran Foer: First of all, thank you for having me. My first book was first excerpted in the debut writers’ issue in The New Yorker. That’s now sixteen years ago? And that was when I became a published writer. And I’ve always felt an incredible closeness to you and to Deborah Treisman, who’s edited me through all of the various publication experiences, and really the first substantial response I got to this book, when it was still in manuscript, was from you. As I said to you at the time and will now say in front of everybody, it was probably the most meaningful response I’ve ever gotten to anything I’ve written. It was incredibly bolstering in a moment when . . . there are various moments in life—when I was a freshman in college, maybe every day of high school, when you are open to an almost unhealthy extent, or impressionable to an almost unhealthy extent. And that letter found me in such a moment and really guided this entire process for me in a way that has allowed it to be something that fills me with pride and gratification, so that meant a lot to me.
You were asking about fiction competing with the world. I think just the opposite. The world has become so flat and so boring. Trump is boring. Anthony Weiner is boring. Elliot Spitzer was sort of interesting for a moment or two but I’ve often thought, “God, if you were to write Anthony Weiner as Anthony Weiner as Anthony Weiner,” any editor would say, “You’ve got to have him to do something different at some point!” [laughs].
DR: You mean like pass legislation or something?
JSF: Yeah, pass legislation or at least mix it up . . . Even if it’s gonna be sexting, you’ve got to mix it up somehow. Have the underwear come halfway down the cock or something! But the same photo! I mean, the introduction of the son was sort of interesting, but in fiction it would be dull . . .
DR: Too much. Eric Chinski would say to you, “Enough.”
JSF: No, he wouldn’t say, “Enough.” He’d say, “Not enough.”
DR: Now, when I first heard word of this novel, almost as a rumor, a friend of mine who knows you said, “Jonathan is writing a book about the destruction of Israel.” And that is a subject—Israel—that at least in some quarters is followed with obsessive attention. I thought, “Wow, this might go off into a deeply, deeply political place.” And you just described how reality is boring. Is the news from Israel something that’s boring? I would assume not? Your attention to Israel is quite keen and complex. That’s not boring to you.
JSF: No. First, I would say, in what quarters wouldn’t such a book be sensitive? I can’t imagine a reader anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of the Bible Belt in America, who doesn’t respond to the name of the country as a kind of provocation. I just don’t know. There is no other country in the world whose mere mention raises hackles every single time. Not just some of the time, not just most of the time, but every single time. It’s a sensitive issue. Am I bored of the news from the Middle East? There probably is a sense in which I am. I’m not at all bored about my response or the response of others. Because the news hasn’t changed in quite a while, and part of what makes it so depressing is how increasingly impossible it is to imagine it changing. But the reactions to the same news change. Certainly in Europe. And I think this book, one of the ways it explores the politics of Israel is how the news is perceived. Part of the story is about an earthquake in Israel, which precipitates a war, which gets so extreme that the prime minister asks all Jews between the ages of fifteen and fifty-five to come fight, to defend it. This doesn’t actually appear until halfway through the book, about 250 pages in.
DR: Jonathan, there’s an overt reference in the book to the flow of family novels, and Jewish-American family novels, that you are conscious of, self-conscious of, and even parody and have fun with. Your reading of that tradition—how does it feed something like this? Is it daunting, something you’re doing battle with, in a certain sense? Are you going up against the collected works of the authors we could easily name?
JSF: Well I certainly wasn’t aware of it while I was writing. In full seriousness, there’s not that much that I am aware of when I am writing.
DR: How do you mean?
JSF: I write from a very intuitive place. And I try to repress a certain kind of question, the question, “Will anybody like this?” But also, “What’s the use of this, the purpose of it? Is this thing that I’m writing now meaningful or shallow, funny or stupid, interesting or dull, new or clichéd?” The asking of those questions and the answering of them just stifles me. And I find that when I repress those questions and am more open, I get material that is better than the kind I would have intended, or planned. And then I become an editor of my own work, and I have an editor who helps me to edit my own work, and then I do give thought to what’s actually going on here, and I do make decisions based on things like accessibility or negotiating with the form of the novel, and I give thought to what I have done and how to make the best use of it. I will notice things like allusions that I hadn’t consciously put there but are undeniably there. I’m not describing something mystical; it’s more like something intuitive.
I had an experience the other day. I play a lot of games with my kids and we were playing a trivia game and I asked my younger one if he could name five kinds of dinosaurs. And he said “Yeah, absolutely not a problem, you got your Tyrannosaurus Rex, your T-Rex, your Rex, your Tyrannosaurus . . .” And we straightened that out. In other words, I said, “Yes, you’re correct. Go to an Ivy League, please. Actually, please don’t go to college.”
DR: Stay home forever.
JSF: Yeah. He said, “I have a question for you. Did you ask me that because there’s a dinosaur on the back of my T-shirt?” And it was breakfast, and I hadn’t actually seen his back yet, and the front of his shirt was totally non-descript, and I said to him, as I would say to you, with full honesty, “I did not see that dinosaur.” I just didn’t. I hadn’t seen the dinosaur. On the other hand, the truth of the situation must be that I had seen the dinosaur. So it just fell into that enormous category of things that you have seen without being aware of having seen them. There are also things we’ve heard, without having been aware; I mean everybody sort of knows that experience of repeating a joke or citing a fact that was on an advertisement on the subway, that you only later become aware of having heard or seen. There are also thoughts we’re not aware of having thought and feelings we’re not aware of having felt, so those are the things I’m most interested in as a writer and I find most productive. It’s not like entering some kind of mystical stream; I don’t go for stuff like that.
DR: So novels that you’ve imbibed over the years, you’re not thinking about them at all?
JSF: I’m thinking about them as little as I can.
DR: You know I’m going to flash on this scene . . . One of the comically bravura scenes in this book is a masturbation scene, not since the obvious, not since Portnoy’s Complaint. And both of these books are about more than what they’re usually cited for—Portnoy’s Complaint is not about sex, it’s about freedom. The freedom provided by the ability to say anything, which is the voice of the author, I think, and this book is about much more than certainly that scene, and yet, you know damn well that the reader is going to compare in his or her mind those two moments, one from 1968 and one from now.
In the same way that I remember page 23 of The Godfather, you’ll remember page 333 of Here I Am for the rest of your life. You’re going up against a famous scene. You’re doing a kind of comic-literary battle. You’re conscious of that.
JSF: Alexander Calder owns mobiles. No one can make a mobile without referencing Alexander Calder. Roth owns the act of masturbation. It’s an enormous piece of real estate! But yes, I was aware of that. And I’d even thought about making some kind of explicit reference to it, but I thought it was so obvious there was no need for it. The connection was explicit enough.
DR: If he were to write you a note and say, “Dear Jonathan, regarding page 333, you win,” would you die and go to heaven?
JSF: There’s a dirty pearly gates joke here that I’m trying to work out [laughs].
DR: Don’t do it! Stop at pearly.
Jonathan, over and over again, you’ve got characters—in particular, Jacob and Julia—who are alienated from their inner lives. They are doing things in their work lives that are far short of who they want to be, how they imagine their futures to be. They have a very hard time finding a language with each other, their marriage is diminishing and becoming more banal, and then there is this earthquake in their relationship triggered by sexting. Through something as banal and yet deracinated and alienated as that. How do you make the leap from that story and set it next to something large and political, and I have to think in a certain way, intimidating to deal with, because of the way people react to that particular political situation?
JSF: There is this crisis moment of a discovered phone, but the book takes its time to trace how that moment simply allows them to acknowledge where they are; it’s not actually a fracturing moment. Here I Am, the title, refers to the binding of Isaac, which begins, “And then God put Abraham to the test.” He said, ‘Abraham.’ Abraham said, ‘Here I am.’” So the obvious interpretation of the test is: I need you to sacrifice your son. But it’s also just simply how will you respond when called. And Abraham responds unconditionally, with devotion. And completely, without reservations. And then a few sentences later, when Abraham is leading Isaac up Mount Moriah for the sacrifice, and Isaac senses something is weird because they have all the makings for a sacrifice but no sacrifice, Isaac says, “My father,” and Abraham responds, “Here I am.” And it’s a poignant moment, but paradoxical, because you cannot be unconditionally present for God, who wants you to kill your son, while being unconditionally present for your son, who doesn’t want to be killed. So the two central crises in the book—the discovered cell phone and the earthquake—in their different but sort of similar ways compel Jacob and Julia to have “Here I am” moments. It’s easy to be “Here I am” in the marriage and “Here I am” outside of the marriage. They’d been doing that for ten years, fifteen years, they had their versions of “elsewhere,” whether it was Julia designing these fantasy homes her family or maybe just herself would one day live in, or Jacob working on the secret TV show, or ultimately the sexting. But the fracturing that happens when the cell phone is discovered compels the choice: you are here or you are there, the choice at the expense of the other identity. The one identity is in a devoted relationship and a marriage; the other identity is a kind of individuality that Jacob at least thinks he values, or thinks he needs, even.
The earthquake, and the moment when the Prime Minister of Israel asks Jews to come fight, compels a choice: it is no longer possible to waffle about Israel, or to defend it at cocktail parties among your friends who aren’t Jewish and then criticize it at the restaurant with your friends who are Jewish. You have to say, “Here I am, I am going to put my life on the line in defense of the Jewish homeland, or I am going to acknowledge that I never really thought it was the Jewish homeland to begin with, or that perhaps it is dispensable.” There are a lot of narrative ways in which those two events end up playing off of each other—the choice whether or not to go to Israel becomes really enmeshed in the choice of whether or not to stay in this family, and Jacob’s desire to prove himself to his wife and to himself, as being an actual person, someone whose identity extends beyond words. It’s Julia’s greatest doubt about him and I think it’s his greatest anxiety about himself, that at the end of the day, he’s just all talk. Everything he says is empty. And in life . . . authenticity of the words we put out aren’t revealed until there’s a crisis that compels a choice. So these two events reveal who he actually is.
DR: Can you talk a little bit about the form of the novel? Here I Am did not begin as a novel. It began with a different title, and as a television series that you were writing for HBO. Why did it change from a television show into a novel? And what were you doing writing a television show? We know you as a novelist and you only get so many years on this planet—why do that instead of this other thing?
JSF: I don’t know if I’d describe the process that way. There was a part of the book that began in this TV show—a TV show in which the characters had different professions—that was about a dissolving marriage. The main plot point that I brought over was the discovered cell phone. But there was no presence of Israel or an earthquake or any of that. Another part of this book takes the form of a “bible” in a television sense. So it’s a document that a TV writer creates in order to persuade a network that they’ve thought about the show beyond the pilot . . .
DR: An extended treatment of the arc of the show, in any given season.
JSF: That was actually a story I had been working on for ten years, probably. I brought together things from different places, as was the case with all of my books.
What was I doing writing a TV show? I think ultimately the questions you asked were the ones I asked myself, perhaps a little bit too late. I loved the process, I absolutely loved it.
DR: I guess my question is this: You had early success as a novelist. And then came another novel. And I would assume that there’s an expectation of your readership and of yourself and of the way the cultural world impinges on you, or knocks on your door, that where’s the third and the fourth and the fifth? You’re seeing your work in a more expansive way in terms of form. Why? Why isn’t it novel, novel, novel? Is that form not sufficient for you? Or you want a much greater variety?
JSF: No, it is actually sufficient, but it’s also difficult. And . . .
DR: Writing a novel is more difficult than the other forms?
JSF: Yeah. I think so. And I also think it’s fuller. And more rewarding for me. For me it is the most ambitious way to spend time. This book I wrote in about the same amount of time that I wrote my other books, maybe three years, something in that neighborhood. It took me a long time to start. It took me a long time to start for a number of reasons: life itself—my oldest child is exactly the same age as the length of time between my two novels, and I’m sure that’s not coincidental. I wrote Eating Animals, which is a book-length investigation, which took a lot of time; I did a few other projects . . . The truth is, I am as proud of Eating Animals as I am of my novels, but I wouldn’t have written it if I had been invested in a novel, and I wasn’t invested in a novel.
DR: And you can’t force it.
JSF: You can force it but then you get a forced book. You can force a relationship, then you get a forced relationship. People often ask me about process, you know, “Do you write a certain number of hours in the day? Do you try to write a certain number of pages?” When it comes to the point of needing to rely on ideas of process, then I’m completely screwed.
DR: So how do you put yourself in the place? In other words, process can oftentimes just be a way of saying, “I’m going to be at my desk at such and such a time, I’m not taking phone calls, I’m not looking at e-mail . . .” What is process?
JSF: Process is trusting that the ultimate good is having material you want to return to. So if that means stopping something after 250 pages because there’s something else you want to return to, then you should do that. If it means working on something that seems like the worst of all ideas, then it means doing that. People who love what they’re working on have no problem with finding the right time. You think about anything you’re obsessive with—maybe in a guilty way is the best kind, you have a sort of primitive relationship to it—you always have time for it. There is no shortage of time when you love something. So the challenge is to love a piece of writing, which is very difficult, in the same way it’s difficult to love anything. It’s just that you have to do it for longer.
DR: In the way that we live our lives today—work obsessed, time short, constant consultation of what’s in our pocket (not that, but the phone)—to read a new, enigmatic novel, and ideally do it in a fairly compressed period of time (a week or something depending on how quickly you read), is so difficult. And then you have to ask yourself, what are novels for, in the modern world. What are texts like this for, and does it concern you that increasingly modern life mitigates against that kind of concentration, considering what concentration in this form is competing against and up against?
JSF: It’s hard to say what a novel is for. I don’t enter into any fiction writing process with an intention. That having been said, I know as a reader what the most valuable experience is, which is the feeling of being known. That experience of reading a book, and then at a certain point . . .
DR: Not famous, but known. Exposed.
JSF: No, for the reader to feel known. Not for the writer.
DR: I see.
JSF: You know, you’re reading a book and—everybody knows this—you buy a book and you’re interested in the artifact of the book and it’s kind of interesting, it weighs a lot, and this is thick, good for him, and then interesting blurbs! And author photo! I wonder if he still looks like that, anyways . . . nice picture! And then you read the summary, okay, fine, you’re the kind of person who jumps to the acknowledgments and you start reading; that’s a funny font, and the margins, don’t those seem small? And interesting, header and footer, okay, wow. The pages are very white! And you have an awareness. An awareness of the fact that you are reading a book. And the deeper you get into a book, if it is a deep reading experience, the less awareness of that you have.
DR: So to be known is in a way more sophisticated language—sometimes people will talk about a novel they liked or not and say, “I relate to that character.” Or “I want to read about characters who are more like me. I need novels that speak to me.” Now, this novel, it speaks to me in a million different ways; I don’t doubt that part of it is that ethnically, generationally, in the language, it speaks even more directly to me in those kinds of details than Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is by a remarkable writer, a book that I love, my wife loves and introduced to me . . . but it does concern me the way people talk—“I like that because it spoke to my . . . specificity.” Ethnically, geographically, or in terms of sexuality . . . It spoke to me, I needed that book. That helped me, or entertained me, or I learned from, or I felt as, in your terms, I felt known. I felt known. That novel did something for me in that way. Is that what novels are for? In part?
JSF: I don’t know the exact meaning of that question, what they’re for. One of the great things about novels is that they’re the rare thing that isn’t for anything. We live in a world where we are increasingly focused on everything’s utility. There’s a moment in Here I Am when Jacob is bringing Julia into the house for her fortieth birthday, and they bought groceries to cook that night, and he insisted that they not buy anything they didn’t need for that night. He said, “Tonight won’t be utilitarian. It’s just going to be a celebration of you.” And it points to how unbelievably rare it is in family life and I think in modern life to do something that isn’t utilitarian. Utility. And a novel can maybe excuse itself from that, for a little bit. That having been said, there are things that novels do. And to me that quality of feeling known has absolutely no relationship to cultural specificity. It is true, you have a different experience than would a Japanese reader, in Japan. But not only do I not think you have a deeper experience, I think novels are the antidote to the assumption that you would have a deeper experience.
DR: Jonathan, I was reading an interview with you and you were describing the generational difference between, well, you and me, which is to say you grew up with the Internet. Didn’t quite grow up with it, but it’s a natural thing to you and it influences how you think and see the world, even though all of us are into it, on it, reasonably fluid in its intricacies. How did you first encounter the Internet?
JSF: It was in high school, loading up . . . sitting with my friend in his house in D.C., it was pornography, is what I’m saying (laughs). He said, “I’m gonna download this picture. It’s gonna take eight hours . . .” (audience laughs). “It’s gonna be in three colors . . .”
DR: So longer than it takes to drive to Rhode Island and buy a copy of a magazine and drive back . . .
JSF: Well the way we used to do it, we didn’t buy copies of magazines, we would buy books on sensual massage. Things that had some plausible deniability. “I’m fourteen, I’m interested in massage, the arts of massage, touch.” Or, classically, we would slide something into a book—“I’d like to buy this book, I’ll scan it myself.”
DR: But a friend is downloading a picture for eight hours—
JSF: That was honest-to-god my introduction. And actually, you know, what came before that was I had an Israeli cousin. And they were into the Internet before we were into the Internet. And he was also downloading pornography. But the Internet—I remember going into my friend’s room, who lived next door in college, so I was in college already, and he was using the Internet. And I walked in and said, “What do you do on that thing all the time?” Like what is all the stuff to do? And he’s like, “Ooh, they’ve got these Web pages, and this, this and this . . .”
DR: You were still typing your papers on a Selectric or something?
JSF: No, no, on a computer . . .
DR: But as a word processor.
JSF: Yeah. And I didn’t get it. And to be honest I still largely don’t get it.
DR: What does that mean, “I don’t get it”?
JSF: I don’t use any social media at all. And it’s not because of an active resistance, I just find it’s not for me.
DR: Is that because you’re a famous person?
JSF: No. No, writers aren’t famous, actually. And it’s not avoidance. It’s lack of interest. If someone were to really sit me down and compel me to spend hours with it, I imagine I could probably become addicted to it. But the time that I’ve spent with it hasn’t given me any kind of instinct or desire to pursue it; I’ve seen people go down that black hole and I have enough black holes.
DR: So you went to college and took creative writing courses, and like Ian McEwan, like a number of writers, like a lot of writers now, you were really helped by this. You had a teacher, Joyce Carol Oates. What helped?
JSF: Well I actually had no intention of being a writer when I was in college.
If you’d asked me when I entered college, “What are five things you’ll do with your life?” writing wouldn’t be on the list.
DR: What was on the list?
JSF: I wanted to be an obstetrician, actually. I wanted to deliver babies. I thought that’d be a great way to spend my life. I continue to; I’m envious of, not exclusively, obstetricians, but I think doctors in general.
DR: You know, as my mother would say, “It’s never too late.”
JSF: As mine would say, “It’s too late” (laughs).
DR: I was seven years old in a subway station not far from here, and one of my grandmother’s friends said to me, “What do you want to be when you grow up, David?” And I said, “A writer.” And my grandmother interrupted and she said, “A doctor-writer!” (laughs).
So it was either being an obstetrician, or . . .
JSF: Obviously, first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles would’ve been fine. I didn’t have a lot of ambitions. There were a lot of things I know I didn’t want to do; I had a lot of negative models, and I don’t mean that judgmentally, I really don’t.
DR: What does that mean, negative models? Meaning your family?
JSF: And my culture. Yeah.
DR: What’re you saying?
JSF: What am I saying? There were not adults who I looked to and thought, “I want to be that adult.” There were not marriages that I looked to and thought, “I want to have that marriage.” There were not professions that I had exposure to and thought, “I want to do that.” I should say, the first time I ever felt otherwise was when I was a junior in high school, and I was in Israel, and I met Yehuda Amichai, a poet.
DR: The great poet.
JSF: A great poet. A great, great poet. A great person, as well. And I had never heard of him before. I walked into this room with fifteen other . . . future Jewish leaders . . . (laughs)—that’s how we were described, we didn’t describe ourselves that way.
JSF: And I went into the room, not knowing what I wanted to be, and I left the room wanting to be him. That is the person I want to be. There was something so plainly honest about him; there’s just a life force that was unignorable. And again, I’ve used a couple of expressions that I feel the need to give the caveat of, “I’m not the kind of person who usually refers to ‘life force.’” I’m not. It’s not a part of my regular lexicon. But every now and then, you meet somebody and . . . emanating from his eyes was a force of life.
DR: And you sensed it at fifteen, sixteen, however old you were.
JSF: Yeah. He was irrepressibly alive. And I just wanted to be like that.
DR: So when you got to Princeton and you took a writing course with Joyce Carol Oates, what happened? How did she go about the course? And how did it all take off?
JSF: We were halfway through the semester, you know, and I turned in stories, and she makes very few markings, actually doesn’t say a lot. She’s quite reserved as a teacher.
DR: She was the first writing teacher you had?
JSF: Maybe. If not the first, the second. I only took three or four writing classes while I was at Princeton. And I arrived early one class and she arrived early, and we were sitting there in the hallway together, and she said, “I’m glad I have the chance to talk to you outside of the context of class. I wanted to say that I’m a big fan of your writing.” And I thought, “Whoa.” But the “whoa” was not “Here’s a famous and great American author who likes what I do.” It was the “your writing” part. I didn’t know it existed. And that it was mine!
DR: It was something.
JSF: And that it took shape.
DR: What were you writing about?
JSF: Um . . . well, stories. And she very strongly encouraged us to write gothically. And so I did.
DR: Because she does, you think?
JSF: Yeah, or she did more at the time.
DR: And to write gothically meant what?
JSF: Stories that had some moment of the supernatural, that had some moment of violence, or eeriness. A creepy quality.
DR: Were you reading Joyce Carol Oates?
JSF: A little bit. I was probably reading magical realists more. It was just kind of pushing magical realism through the sieve of her . . .
JSF: Yeah. But she started writing letters to me. And I remember that they would arrive at my house in D.C. She never wrote to me at Princeton, for whatever reason. And my dad would call and say, “Got another letter from Joyce! Can I open it?” “No.”
DR: What’d she say?
JSF: They were just so thoughtful, so carefully written. “Been thinking about the thing that you wrote, your last couple of pieces. This one seemed actually quite thin to me and I think you wrote it too quickly. You should give more thought to how your sentences are working. You might consider reading these two writers, instructively.”
DR: Who was she suggesting?
JSF: Gothic writers. H. P. Lovecraft; she suggested Stephen King at one point. I remember her saying, gothic writing can be both intellectually stimulating and lucrative (laughs). She was just wonderful.
DR: There’s one particular letter when she said that “you were possessed of a particular quality. And it’s a quality of energy.” And I think that nailed it. I think that’s an essential quality of this book and all the others, which is, I read a lot, and a lot of the time I’m reading stories and I don’t want to turn the page. And it’s not necessarily because I’m tired. They just don’t demand it. Every page here demands it; there’s an energy that one’s favorite writers have, all in different ways. That must’ve charged you up tremendously.
JSF: Tremendously. And I think about it all the time. And to me is the most important quality of prose . . .
DR: As a demand.
JSF: Yes, a demand.
DR: How would you characterize it in your favorite writers?
JSF: Well, Roth has it. For sure. It’s the quality of, “I will not be refused. I am irrepressible, you have to read me, not because you care about what’s going to happen next, not even because you’re invested in the characters, but because you and I are in a communion right now, and I have my hands on the side of your head and I’m not going to let you go.” I remember when I was in college, a friend of mine—this is when OK Computer, the Radiohead album, came out, and that was a revelatory moment for contemporary music—we were sitting around, he was probably drunk, he said, “You know what I want right now? I want Thom Yorke to sing that album in its entirety to me, so close, that I feel his spit on my face.”
DR: Definitely drunk (laughs).
JSF: And yet I know what he meant, and I would like to write a book that feels like that. Obviously I don’t mean it in an aggressive . . .
DR: Don’t you think you have? In some way? Or do you leave it to me?
JSF: Leave it to you.
DR: Did writing for television teach you anything about writing, too?
JSF: Very much. Mostly about dialogue. I didn’t write that much dialogue in my first two books. And this book, the essence of the book is in the dialogue. It’s a big book, but it’s also a quieter book in certain ways. It takes place in rooms—bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms and bathrooms, with people working things through.
DR: There are some writers that you get the sense that they are almost exclusively bookish. I get the sense that while you read a lot, that’s not the case, that you have a very wide interest in painting, in music. How does that find its way to the book, or is it only incidental and not something you think about?
JSF: If you’re working on something over the course of many years, and your process, your ideal process, is that you will be open to the influences that are known and unknown, everything that matters finds its way. Whether explicitly or subtly or invisibly, I often have a feeling when I write—little voices; one of the little voices is energy, the other voice I hear is “This is the last thing you’re ever going to write.” I mean that the person writing this book is not going to write another book. By the time I write another book it’ll be a different person writing it. And I need only look at my other, older books to know that that is a fact. And when I look at them, I’m not embarrassed or ashamed; I just wouldn’t write them. And in fact, I didn’t write them.
DR: Does it feel like they were written by another person?
JSF: Not completely, but almost. And so knowing that I have only this chance to express—I don’t mean this in a therapeutic or cathartic way at all, I mean it in an aesthetic way, but as an artist, I only have once chance to express myself. My sensibility, my concerns. So I want it to be full. And if it’s full, it will have a quality of over-fullness, or muchness, which is the only kind of book that I want to write, and increasingly it’s the only kind of book I want to read.
DR: How do you shut out the noise?
JSF: You don’t jump into the river, you don’t get wet. It’s pretty simple. And I have no exposure to the world of chatter. I don’t even exactly know where it exists. I could sound like a very old person if I started to speculate about how all this worked. But it just doesn’t interest me, I know it’s counterproductive; nobody on their deathbed looks back or will look back and say, “If I had only fucking tweeted a couple more times” (audience laughs). “If I had only browsed that stupid gossip site a little bit longer, maybe my life would’ve been richer, that’s my regret.” Not a single person will think that. So the knowledge that we will look back and feel that way . . . there are a lot of things you might look back and say, “I wish I’d spent less time doing that,” which is not actually an argument for not doing it in the present; “I wish I’d smoked fewer cigarettes.”
DR: You’ve talked about the balance between accomplishment and life, your kids, and the maid. Is it okay with you if, by concentrating on your kids in one way or another, you lose one of these in the process? How do you figure these problems out? How do you figure out balance of life, when you are an ambitious, literary artist?
JSF: Fortunately the math is so complicated that you’ll never know what you’re trading in. The math not only of time coming from here instead of being put there, but also kids are incredibly, creatively generative, and being a parent is a creatively generative experience. Maybe I have this much less time but I have that much more material, or heart. I believe there’s time for everything. I really do. That we have time for the things we want to spend time on. It’s amazing how there isn’t time to do the things you don’t want to do. And it’s amazing how there is time to do what you want to do. The guilty pleasures. Everybody fulfills them. There’s suddenly time available.
DR: You come from a family of three boys—Joshua, who is a writer; Franklin, who edited The New Republic, twice, and who is a writer himself; and you—and we think of that family as incredibly accomplished and fertile, almost like the Glass family, and you have kids of your own, and then you have these hyper-articulate sons here, as well. How do your brothers read you through that screen? And how do you imagine your sons will read this, as well?
JSF: My brothers, I don’t know how they read me. I know how they talk to me about how they read me but there may be a great distance.
They’re my brothers. They’re not reading it as strangers, they’re not reading it dispassionately. I think they read it with respect. They certainly read it wanting it to be good. By their own definitions and by my definition. As for my kids, I don’t know . . . That’s a very sensitive thing to think about. I don’t mean it’s a sensitive question; it’s a sensitive thing to think about. Because the desire, as you must know, for your kids to be proud of you is sort of ultimate. And shame takes on an entirely different meaning when you have kids, because they are the judges who you stand before, at least for me they are.
DR: The ones you care about.
JSF: Yeah. So, I think we have quite a long time before they read my books. We may have forever. I know friends whose kids just don’t go there. They’re not interested or they want to protect themselves from it. My son’s school put this book in their library, for a week when it came out, a very sweet gesture and probably terribly wrong-headed. “Now you deserve to get fucked . . .” (audience laughs). But . . . that’s the least of it, as you know.
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of two bestselling, award-winning novels, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and a bestselling work of nonfiction, Eating Animals. His latest novel is Here I Am. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992.
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