Author Podcast: Jonathan Safran Foer
When Jonathan Safran Foer was 19, he journeyed to the Ukraine with only a photograph to assist him in finding the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He didn't find her, but Foer turned his journey of non-discovery into a novel that brilliantly imagined what might have happened. BookBuffet interviews the author of the critically acclaimed Everything Is Illuminated, (Penguin) a novel that he says is "...an invitation or more of the beginning of a conversation."
April 25, 2003 —
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Bookbuffet: Jonathan, I've read somewhere that you've stated that your book is above all things about love. Could you expand upon that, in particular your notion of "love between what happened and what will happen"?
Jonathan Safra Foer: I think the book more than being about story and about characters, is about relationships; relationships not only between characters of which there are plenty, but relationships between ideas. Usually the relationship is one of two things that seem contradictory trying to find a way to co-exist, and that's true whether it's the case of let's say Alex and his grandfather, or Alex and Jonathan, or ideas like the imagination and reality or history. Everybody in the book is looking for a kind of peace.
BB: Were these ideas ones that you wanted to explore when you were looking for a story, or did you find the story and realized that the story gave you an opportunity to explore these ideas?
JSF: In a way, neither. It was much more the case that I just opened myself up—or tried to open myself up—to the most genuine expression of myself that I could. I wasn't really worried about what form the story would take or what themes would be addressed.
BB: But you certainly found a story that allowed you to experiment and express yourself as well, which is great. I think that's always a challenge for an author, finding a satisfactory vehicle to express ideas as well as tell a story.
JSF: Right. My favorite review of the book was written by this guy Daniel Mendelson in New York magazine. He said this book pretends to be about a young man who goes to the Ukraine trying to make a link with a grandfather he never knew, but actually it's about just about everything else—love, redemption, guilt—and he winds up listing a whole number of themes. And that is the way I think about it. The story is obviously important and enables the book to exist as it does, but for me it's much less important; it's like the vehicle that transports these other things. And you know, as with a vehicle, it has to be chosen accordingly, like you wouldn't move from one house to another on a motorcycle. So it is a kind of big story and a very flexible story.
BB: It's a huge story. In the process of writing it, at some point you had to make some conscious decisions about the craft, about the structure, the language. You talked about the idea of duality in your novel with these two main characters and the two narrative voices. Why did you choose this structure or did it naturally evolve?
JSF: Well, it evolved over time, but it evolved because of decisions I made. I think I always had a sense that I didn't want to tell just one story and I really wanted to create an emotional world. I wanted to keep it as broad as I could. I also knew that I wanted to involve very different kinds of voices coming from very different kinds of places and times that would at first seem completely distinct, but then ultimately approach the same place. And in this case one story is very magical and fairy tale like and begins in the end of the 18th century. One voice is, I guess in a way, realistic; it's contemporary moving back toward the war. They do ultimately end up in the same place, at that scene at the riverbank...
BB: They converge.
BB: Well, the story is brilliant. The thing that's interesting to me is the phenomenal response to your book. If you look at our website, book groups post their discussion and research notes in the archives for other book groups to access. When I was going through the research, I was astounded by the number of links that are available, from interviews you had done to reviews. How do you feel about this phenomenon that you've sort of created and how you've been heralded? How are you holding up and what do you think of it all?
JSF: It's been awesome. Completely unexpected and really wonderful. In my mind the most successful book is the book that's talked about the most. I don't mean that's read the most by the most people, I mean the one...
BB: That brings a good discussion.
JSF: Yes, that encourages the most conversation. My book ends right in the middle of a sentence, there's no period or exclamation point. I wanted that to suggest the openness of the book, how it's more an invitation or more of the beginning of a conversation rather than it is a kind of lecture like lots of books are. I really wanted the novel to raise questions, not attempt to give answers.
BB: Some of the reviews I've read mentioned that growing up you really didn't have a strong Jewish upbringing or propensity, and it occurred to me that along the way of discovering your roots as you had set out to do originally by going to the Old Country, you ended up with a book that is very powerfully about Jewish identification, tradition, and culture even with your tongue-in-cheek 'Slouchers' and 'Uprighters'. I'ts evident that some of this awareness is from your grandmother, but is there a sense of coming at something innocently and with passion that comes with the transformation because of the self-discovery that you took?
JSF: Yes. I think that's really well put. I think there are explicit ways and very subtle ways of learning things. An explicit way might be to read about it in a book or to be told about it in school or from ones parents. The more subtle ways, well, there's a certain tone that conversations around my dinner table had. Or there's a certain kind of something that connected the stories my parents told me at bedtime. I think that was where I picked up a lot of the stories that I then alluded to in my book and retold. The process of writing a book I sometimes describe is like taking a photograph of yourself in that until you have it to look at, you can't really know what you look like. And everyone, I assume, has had the experience of being surprised by a photograph of himself or herself.
BB: Usually unpleasantly.
JSF: But not always. And that's what writing the book was like. Looking at it afterward, it wasn't unpleasant, but I was surprised to see who I was.
BB: So has it affected you now in your practices? Has it changed you?
JSF: I think it's made me more self-aware, but it hasn't made me change my practices. I wasn't observant before the book and I'm not observant now. It gave me a better sense of who I am.
BB: Jonathan, I was fascinated by this recurring motif of writing—Alex's letters, Jonathan's novel-in-progress, the Book of Recurring Dreams, the Book of Antecedents, Yankel's notes to himself on the ceiling—all as a kind of a means of not only remembering and "illumination", but also as a metaphor for the very act of living. That repetition of "we are writing we are writing we are writing" seemed, in a very real sense, "we are living we are living we are living". But, I wonder, if there's not an unspoken qualifier: we are writing = we are living, but only if someone is reading or witnessing us.
JSF: It's interesting. The book is obsessed by this will to express oneself. It's hard to think of a character in the book who isn't writing something, one way or another. I think more than a book about one story, it's a book about storytelling and a book about people exploring and expressing their humanity and just trying to be better, trying to be better than they are. As I was saying in my case, writing the book was an act of exploring and expressing who I am and finding out things about myself and trying to share them with others. So I think there are two components, the first of which is very personal and insular, and the second is like what you're saying and has to do with someone being at the other end of it. Maybe the most poignant example being the letter that Alex's grandfather writes at the end. One component of which is obviously this act of personal expulsion and just expression of who he is, and on the other hand, there's someone at the other end, a recipient.
BB: The reader.
JSF: Yes. Or, in this case his grandson first I suppose, then Jonathan, the reader.
BB: I think the whole act of writing is very important, especially in this story because it is a bearing witness and it's passing down lore and information through generations as well.
JSF: Yes. I think that true. Yes, that's like in life, that's how stories are kept alive and how things that are lost aren't really lost.
BB: So as writer what do you feel is your responsibility—or do you think you have a responsibility—beyond personal expression? As an artist do you feel responsible or obligated to remember, in a sense on our behalf, maintaining our collective memory?
JSF: I don't think that the author is doing anything on anyone's behalf. I think what a writer does and a reader does are actually quite similar in a way. When someone reads a book, there's a very real sense in which they are also writing the book and that they are participating in the creation of the book. I can't tell you how many times I've had people tell me about things in my book I didn't know about it.
BB: I always find that interesting. Is it there or isnt it there? People see it, but you didn't intend it
JSF: Yes, but it doesn't even matter. The book now has the meaning, it doesn't matter what I think. I certainly had a role in the beginning of its creation, but now it's out of my hands.
BB: Right. You do say something in the book about naming something and it taking on its own life and becoming a separate identity and suddenly it's not yours anymore.
JSF: That's a great thing because one person is capable of so much, and it's not that much, or it's a very small amount, as compared to what a community is capable of. And the book is a product of a community, not the product of one person.
BB: Which is something Alex says to Jonathan: we are writing the story together.
JSF: It's interesting because the trope in the book is we are writing, it's not I am writing.
BB: This process of writing together—Alex commenting, Jonathan commenting back—I kept thinking of the Torah with all the commentaries. It's no longer one text, but it's the text plus the commentary that is the word. I don't know if that was a conscious construction, or as reader, am I projecting onto the book?
JSF: I think its right. I don't know if you've ever seen what a page of the Talmud looks like. In the middle there is this one referenced story and around it—literally, physically around it—are all of these commentaries.
BB: Up the side and around and loops all over...
JSF: Yes, and that's what composes the page, the discussion around the story. That's definitely what I wanted my book to be; I wanted it to be about the discussion and about the ability for stories to be constantly remarked.
BB: I want to talk a little about the humor. Early on in the book, Alex writes in a letter to Jonathan, "I know you asked me not to alter mistakes because they sound humorous, and humorous is the only truthful way to tell a story." But much later on, Jonathan says to Alex: "I used to think humor was the only way to appreciate how wonderful and terrible the world is, to celebrate how big life is... But now I think its the opposite. Humor is a way of shrinking from that wonderful and terrible world."
It seemed to me that your book is actually an argument in favor of Jonathan's original belief: an argument for humor and the humorous in the same way that, say Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller's works are humorous. Can you speak to why Jonathan changes his mind, and overall, how you envisioned and used humor in your book?
JSF: I think argument is just the right word. The book is filled with arguments and ultimately not so much about which side wins, but the fact that we exist with the argument, we exist wondering. There was a lot on my mind when I was writing the book. I think the book is a lot of those arguments writ large. Kind of analogously, there are numerous things in the book that are split in two: the village is split into a Jewish and non-Jewish—Jewish and a Human part it's called; the synagogue is split into two different groups; the characters whose head is literally split in two; the structure of the book is split into two; and there's this unusual split of tone of humor and tragic. I think it's because I was really of two minds. I was split. I didn't know what the role of humor was in my life or the role of addressing things in ways that we're used to thinking of as serious. I didn't know what the role of Judaism was in my life as compared to the role of things that we think of being secular. So, I wasn't out to find any answers really, I was just out to express that.
BB: And now with some distance, have you found any of those answers or are you leaving that still up for argument?
JSF: Well, the book is a kind of answer in itself. The book is clearly trying to be funny in a lot of places, and also trying to be quite serious. The existence of the book is probably the final argument.
BB: One of the things that make the book funny, one of the joys of reading the book, is the language, what I call the "Alexisms", if you will. They are deceptively simple. They're absurd, but they can also be quite profound. How did you choose, or discover, or create this literary device?
JSF: Well, I've never met anyone like Alex. I'm sometimes asked if it was inspired at all by that Saturday Night Live skit, "Wild and Crazy Guys", which I hadn't seen before I wrote the book. I don't remember how I originally came to the idea. I mean there's something about it that just makes sense. It's just sort of funny in a very obvious way: having a translator who doesn't speak great English. When I was creating him, I wasn't trying to accurately replicate what someone learning English sounds like. I was trying to create a sympathetic character in a good vehicle. He's someone we can believe and trust and care about most importantly. And in a way that has nothing to do with verisimilitude, it just has to do with that thing that happens in books when you give over your trust and your sympathy. So it was never a question of shades of gray—would Alex use this word, would it sound like this or this? It was a black and white thing. I just knew when I had created someone I could believe in.
BB: And he had to sound like this.
BB: I read an interview that you conducted with Jeffrey Eugenides [author of Middlesex] for Bomb [magazine], and in it you mentioned that the visual arts influenced your writing more than literature does. I want to pose the very same questions you asked him back to you: "What art do you like to look at? What has been the role of art in influencing your writing?"
JSF: I look everything really. You know, any city I go to I try to go to the art museum...
BB: You went to the Walker?
JSF: I was just there. I'm in Milwaukee now, but I was just in Minneapolis and I went to the Walker. I just find it very, very inspiring, and there's so much to learn from. You know it's really necessary for books to change—it's necessary for any art form to change—and one of the best ways to change is to take cues from whats going on around you, from music, art, television, any number of places.
BB: Well, to be trite you definitely get a sense of Chagall in your book.
JSF: Well, I've heard that before.
BB: I'm sure you've had. The dancing chapter headings and the magical realism in some of the writing, you definitely get a sense of that, which is nice because is has its own resonance.
JSF: I think its one of those unarguably true things that there does seem to be a similarity, a sensibility. I think if I weren't Jewish, but had written a book of the same tone, if that's even possible, I don't know if people would say that.
BB: I was going to ask if you find yourself connected to this theme more than you do relate to it? That's why I asked you previously if it had affected you. I imagine that it's probably put in your face a lot.
JSF: To some extent I feel what you're saying, like wait a minute...
BB: Being pigeon-holed
JSF: But on the other hand, I must care about this stuff a lot given the book that I wrote. This is again the case of looking at a photograph of myself. I had thought that I was someone who wasn't interested in things that were Jewish. I thought that I wasn't even all that interested in family. When I look at this book, I have this piece of evidence that says, "You were wrong, you were interested in these things".
BB: These references to magical realism in relation to your book, is [Gabriel García] Márquez an influence? Who are your literary influences?
JSF: I have a lot. In terms of books that were very influential to this book, Genesis was very influential. Don Quixote was very influential. 100 Hundred Years of Solitude. Kafka. I remember I was reading Kafka stories when I was writing this. And I always read a lot of poetry. I've always been interested in the way that poetry uses language and how poetry is capable of moving readers.
BB: Any favorite poets, or poets you're currently reading right now?
JSF: These days I love the poet Paul Muldoon, who won the Pulitzer this year [for Moy Sand and Gravel]. He's really great.
BB: This idea of looking at a photograph and finding a you who was deeply interested in family, given how autobiographical the book is, what was the reaction of your family as you were writing this book or when it was published?
JSF: I didn't really share it with them until it was done. It was hard because they are the least impartial people on earth. It's hard to imagine a book that I would have written that they wouldn't have loved. It was an unusual experience given there was a certain amount of autobiographical groundwork. Someone asked me once, when you write about your family, is betraying your family a concern. It's just not a concern because I'm always writing out a position of loving my family. If it comes off as anything else, then it was a problem with my execution and not with my conception. I know that my conception is good. I know that if I express myself as I want to, it will come across lovingly. And I think in the case of Everything is Illuminated, it did. I think they felt good about it.
BB: I know you've been probably asked this question a million times, but the fact of naming the titular hero Jonathan Safran Foer, what was the thinking behind that?
JSF: That's one of those questions whose answer might not be in the service of the book. I just feel that conversation about that could be so much more interesting than anything I could say.
BB: So, we'll just speculate amongst ourselves?
JSF: I might have reasons. I not even sure that I do have reasons, but I suppose I could make something up. I do make things up all the time to answer that. In a sense I'm not exactly sure and I would love to hear what other people had to say. The problem is once an author says something, it becomes very hard to ignore.
BB: Would you contemplate another book and name a character after yourself again, or do you feel you're done with it?
JSF: No, I would.
BB: I understand you are working on your second novel. Given the phenomenal success and critical acclaim of Everything is Illuminated, do you feel any sense of pressure?
JSF: My approach is to follow the same guidelines as I did with the first book, which is trying to be authentic, and honest, and also energetic. To be as far from complacent as I can be, and just try to find more, and explore and express more. What form it takes won't be nearly as important as the amount of energy that goes into it. I think that will ultimately speak for itself and show itself.
BB: Its a tough act to follow, because we're all going to be looking for it and all the eyes will be on you, and I'm sure you'll deliver.
JSF: Now you're making me nervous.
BB: Not intended at all. Well, we'll certainly look forward to your second novel. We thank you for your time today.
JSF: Thank you very much.