It’s hard to believe, but it’s been almost eight years since the release of Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling first novel, “Everything is Illuminated,”. Since then, among other things, he’s released another novel, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," wrote a libretto for an opera, and been called everything from a "luminous talent" to "a fraud and a hack." His newest book, “Eating Animals,” is a personal account of his own struggles with and journey toward vegetarianism, and was inspired in part by the birth of his son. We talked to Foer about the process of researching, the factory farming system, and how his critics view him.
You spent three years researching for the book. What was the most difficult part of that process, and how was it different than the process with your other novels? The hardest thing about it is very straight forward, which is there's a veil of secrecy over the industry and it’s just about impossible to go over to the farm, the kind of farm where 99% of animals are raised in America. So if you wanted to find out where your grape juice comes from, you could probably go to the orchard and it wouldn’t be a big deal. If you wanted to find out how your bagel is made, they would let you behind the counter in the bakery, and you could see all the machines. But if you want to find out where your meat comes from, it’s very very hard to get in legally. I was able to do it legally, but it took a lot of contortions and research. It’s hard to see animal slaughter, it’s not pleasant. A lot of things were emotionally difficult, but nothing was as logistically difficult as simply seeing inside a farm.
Were you surprised by any of the conclusions you came to over the course of researching? Yes, totally surprised. The most surprising thing is the breadth of the industry. It’s everywhere. People have a mental image in their mind of what a farm is, and factory farms are the antithesis of that. There’s no grass, no outside, no healthy animals acting like animals.
How do you feel about PETA? Or more extreme organizations and their arguments? It’s hard to generalize, but it’s also important to distinguish between what they say and what they actually do. PETA’s publicity is a lot more extreme than their practice. Really what they’re working for, really just about everybody agrees with getting more space in cages for animals, or eliminating some of the worst practices. It’s not extreme stuff at all.
I found the anecdotes about your Grandmother very affecting. The book is a very personal take on the dilemma, not really any kind of “vegan manifesto”---yet some of the reactions to the book, like Natalie Portman’s on Huffington Post, have been very passionate. What do you make of the reactions to the book? I had no idea what the reaction would be. The only thing that’s really surprised me, and I don’t read that many reviews, but I have yet to read a review that disagreed with the argument about factory farming.
It’s a difficult conversation to have and I could come off as an asshole, and I did come off as an asshole to a bunch of people, and that’s ok, that’s fine. But I’m surprised nobody has said "this is wrong." Nobody has said this stuff doesn’t matter, this argument is wrong, or here’s another way of looking at it. The argument against factory farming, and I don’t mean the argument that I make, I mean the arguments that are out there, are so comprehensive, so compelling, that I know people reach different conclusions as to what to do in their own lives, but in terms of just the facts of the matter, it’s so straightforward.
Do you think it's easier to maintain a vegan lifestyle in NYC then elsewhere in the country? Well, in big cities in America there’s certainly better access to a wide variety of foods, which makes any kind of diet easier. That having been said, I’d probably prefer to live near farms where the food is made, for like selective omnivores, the kinds of people who feel like they do want to continue to eat meat but simply won’t have anything to do with factory farming. There are a lot of advantages to living near farms, but also, almost every city in the country has active green markets now.
Were there any specific arguments that you avoided, that you either didn’t want to get into or felt were unnecessary for your book's focus? I wouldn’t put it like that exactly. There’s a lot that I didn’t talk about that might have been very good to talk about--- I barely got into fish. But I wasn’t trying to write a comprehensive book. I was trying to write a useful book. And mine is not the definitive book, there’s many many resources around.
What were some of those resources/books that influenced you? There’s more on the web now than in print. I don’t think there are all that many books that can really handle the question of meat directly.
Even someone like Michael Pollan? Pollan is a great great writer, but he doesn’t grapple with meat. He sort of gets to a point with it, but it’s not his thing. He is trying to paint a more comprehensive picture of the food industry.