#ScribdChat with Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer received instant fame for his debut novel, Everything is Illuminated, and immense praise for his follow up Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is why fans and critics alike have patiently anticipated the release of Here I Am, Foer’s first work of fiction in over a decade.
To commemorate the release, we invited Mashable’s Chris Taylor to Scribd HQ to interview Jonathan Safran Foer about Here I Am, the process of writing, and what it’s like to return to fiction after so many years away.
The following transcript was edited for clarity.
Here I Am is an incredible work, it’s your longest work, it’s a highly anticipated work. Did you feel a lot of pressure in writing it with the books that preceded it? Did you feel that you had something to live up to, or did you just tune that out?
I felt a lot of different kinds of pressure, but I don’t think that those were the kinds that I felt, for a couple of reasons. One, enough time had passed that I had sort of forgotten what it was like to be a published novelist. I had written Eating Animals only about five years ago and had the experience of going on book tours and doing readings, but it was very different. It’s just different to stand up for, or to converse about and defend, in a sense, a work of nonfiction than a work of fiction. So when I was getting ready for the publication of this book, it really did feel like it was the first book that I had done it for. I just had no memory of how you would answer questions on something that refers to nothing. Nonfiction refers to the world, but a novel maybe refers to the author, but not exactly.
In that sense, enough time had passed that I didn’t feel that pressure. Also, while having good fortune professionally can bring some challenges, they’re good challenges, and are not remotely the same if you are unable to publish a book. You know it took me a while to publish Everything is Illuminated, my first novel. I had a very hard time finding an agent and a very hard time finding a publisher, and I remember what that pressure felt like. And that is a real challenge. It’s a blessing to feel the pressure of having published a book that found an audience.
Everything Is Illuminated
So Here I Am is about many many things. It’s about relationships, it’s about one family, it’s about Jewish culture, secular culture, the spaces between people in relationships. Even the spaces between humans and animals. Do you have an elevator pitch for it? How would you describe it?
I think that was a great elevator pitch, actually. That was a really nice description of the book. Usually when people describe it, I find myself wincing because most often they’ll describe it in terms of major plot points, which is the easiest way to describe a book or a movie. They’ll say, “It’s about a domestic crisis of a cellphone that reveals an affair, and then there’s a global crisis in the Middle East, which precipitates this real calamitous war, and the way these two actions engage a family in Washington, D.C., over the course of four weeks.”
So that’s the surface of the book, but that’s not how I think of the book, and I hope it’s not how people experience it. I think that what you said about distance feels just right to me, and the distances between parents and children, between husbands and wives, betweens friends, between cousins, between cultures. And why the distances are what they are, and also even the distances in us, between our different identities, between the people we once were and have become. A lot of the book has to do with why those distances exist as they are, and are there ways to either close them when we want them closed, or to open them up.
One of the recurring themes of the book is the relationship between a father and a son. And that’s where the title of the book comes from, right? It’s a Biblical quote.
The title of the book refers to the binding of Isaac, and it reads, “And then God put Abraham to the test, Abraham said, ‘Here I am,’ and God said I need you to sacrifice your beloved son.” And so, the interpretation of that test is the sacrifice of Isaac, but another way to read it is simply, “How will you respond when I call for you?” Will you say “Here I am, unconditionally, I am present for you. Whatever you’re about to ask me, I can tell you that the answer will be 'yes'"?
And then in that story, Isaac senses that something strange is going on, because they have with them all of the materials for a sacrifice without an animal to sacrifice. And Isaac says “My father,” and Abraham says “Here I am.” And it’s a beautiful moment, but it’s also paradoxical, because you cannot be unconditionally present for a God who wants you to kill your child while also being unconditionally present for your child. I took that idea of these paradoxical identities and brought it into this modern setting and then created these crises where these people could no longer be “here” and “here” and would have to choose between those identities.
Let’s talk about that contemporary setting. I don’t think I’ve read a book that has so much of a literary take on technology scattered through it. There’s the hidden cellphone, there’s also a version of Second Life called "Other Life," and throughout the book there’s quotes from podcasts. And you don’t say it’s uniformly bad.
I think that clearly there are good things about it and challenging things about it, as with anything else, including reading books, for that matter. One has to strike the right balance. There are people who have their noses in books at the expense of the world, and that’s also bad. But technology presents these unique problems that we’re only beginning to think about in ways that are sort of practical and conversational.
In this book, technology is often used as a means of being elsewhere. Not being present. And so whether it’s an affair that takes place on a cellphone, or this 13-year-old boy named Sam who spends his time in this virtual world, there are examples of things that happen without technology. Julia, the wife, is an architect, and in her free time she’ll design homes that she can imagine living in, maybe one day without her family. Jacob writes a secret TV show that he shares with nobody and keeps in a secret drawer in a basement. So neither of those involve technology but are also examples of characters not being present. Their minds are somewhere where their bodies aren't.
Have you experienced Second Life?
No. I mean I tried it for about 30 seconds before I got confused. I don’t even have a Facebook account. Often times there’s a prerequisite to get into something, you have to have a Google account or a Facebook, and I don’t have either. So I’m just locked out at the door. But it wasn’t necessary, because I wasn’t trying to create a realistic representation of that specific technology, but rather show how an imagined world — and it doesn’t matter if the details are right — but that the character can immerse in and feel at home and comfortable, but also result in feeling uncomfortable in what is his accepted home.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Sam does use it to explore his identity; he takes on two different identities within that world. He builds and destroys a synagogue. I really got the impression from this book that the children were way smarter than the adults. Was that something that you were doing deliberately or was that just something that came through the writing?
Well you know the kids had less opportunity to screw up their lives. The more time you have, the more likely you are to screw things up. And there’s a kind of naivety or inexperience with the things that force one to make compromises and negotiate what, when you’re younger, seems nonnegotiable. When you’re older, fewer things fall into the category of nonnegotiable because you have to make things work.
It is the case where there are scenes when the kids seem smarter than their parents, or maybe it’s just that they seem smarter than their parents give them credit for being.
There’s this running gag that the kids just appear in the middle of the most difficult conversations.
It’s almost like a Murphy’s Law of child appearance, yeah.
At the center of the book is an earthquake that strikes not just Israel but the whole Middle East. They are suddenly without power, and it creates this international crisis. It’s a terrifying possibility that you lay out, and it feels kind of like a science fiction book because it explores the possible things that could happen in that situation. Is that something you researched?
I think it’s a science fiction vehicle towards an emotional destination. I wasn’t trying to write something that was like science fiction, or that had that flavor, but rather that took tools from that genre to approach questions of identity in this case, namely questions of home. What’s the difference between homeland and home? It challenges Jacob, especially his Jewish identity and his relationship to Israel. Just as I said, technology is one way of being elsewhere in the book, but only one way. The book is not a comment on technology or on Israel. It is simply one of the ways that the book explores this question of home. Where we locate ourselves.
It’s interesting that it is so backgrounded, and the family is dealing with so much while these world events are happening very much in the background. And it reminded me of 9/11. We look back at 9/11 now and think that everything changed in a moment, but it really didn’t. Life went on and people kind of avoided the true nastiness of it.
People were eating in outdoor cafes 30 blocks north of Ground Zero on 9/11, and maybe it wasn’t an event that was experienced primarily on screen. The experience of someone who lived in Midtown might have been very different from someone who lived in, say, Sydney, but it might not have. I was in Queens at the time, and I imagine my experience wasn’t so different from someone halfway around the world. I watched it all on a screen and that might suggest a kind of distance and coldness, but it was actually at the essence of the terror, and why 9/11 was so terrifying. It was above ground, it was visual, and there were images that we could share and traumatize people who weren’t there.
There’s a moment where Jake walks in on his kids, and he thinks they’re playing a video game, but it turns out to be footage of this terrible crisis. And the crisis doesn’t happen until halfway through the book, but you mention it in the very first sentence, which is, “When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish home.” There’s so much packed into that first sentence. How important is it for you as an author to grab the reader’s attention immediately?
I don’t really consider the reader all that much unless I’m including myself among readers, which I am. So often times we’re guided by, not so much what someone else will feel when they come upon this sentence, but rather, how do I feel as I write this sentence. I am my first reader. I know that I get in trouble when I forget that myself. Because ultimately novels don’t refer to anything in the world. There is nothing you can point at and say that it’s good or bad. You’re constantly referring as a writer to your own sense of what works, and that’s a mysterious thing in and of itself. Why does this work for me when it doesn’t work for somebody who I think would be quite similar to me and does work for somebody who is so entirely unlike me?
It’s a mystery, and it’s that mystery that makes books so magical. They’re the antidote to generalizations. The first mystery that predates a book going out into the world is writing a book, and just coming into contact with what it is that you like as a writer. And it’s a really thrilling process, because we think that we know what we like and it goes without saying, but it doesn't. Challenging your own tastes, or at the very least witnessing them, everyone should write just for that reason.
You teach creative writing, so I’m very curious about your process, how long you spent on the book, was it a 4 hours every day sort of thing?
I never started this book and put it down. I started other books, I made progress with other books, I wrote Eating Animals and wrote this TV show and had kids, I lived a life outside of books. It took me no longer to write this book as it did my other books, but it took me much longer to start it, to find the project that I could care about to the level that was necessary over the time that was necessary. It’s true of relationships, of friendships, of jobs, of everything, it’s just hard to care over time. With everything, it seems, we care less and less as time passes. In order to get to the end of a book, I have to find material that will engage me at that high enough level, for two years or three years.
What was the germ of it?
There wasn’t anyone, there were several ones, and they came at different times. One would override another, and so on. A short story I had been working on, for years and years, that took the form of notes to actors, who were going to play the role of the narrator and his family, there was something about the form that I was really attracted to. And then there was the earthquake, which occurred to me in a way that was totally disconnected, and little by little the connections were made and a web started to form and make sense. It’s a really complicated process and hard to define, but what it was not was intuitive.
Here I Am
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