Jonathan Safran Foer is growing up. Last month, over a decade after the publication of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the once-precocious writer released Here I Am, a decidedly adult book about broken families, divorce, sex, and Jewish-American identity. We sat down with Safran Foer to discuss the novel, disasters both real and imagined, and whether or not he and his books are experiencing any growing pains.
There’s been over a decade gap since your last novel. What have you been you doing in the meantime? All kinds of stuff. I wrote some other books. I wrote Eating Animals, I wrote a couple of art books. And I had kids and time flew. A book just takes a long time. It takes a very long time, for me.
I guess I’m going to be spoiling stuff for readers, but a big thing that happens in Here I Am is the destruction of Israel. You've used real disasters, like the Holocaust and 9/11, to frame Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Everything Is Illuminated. So why create a crisis in this one instead? In Israel, there’s an old saying that once upon a time there was a person whose life was so good, that there’s no story to tell about it. Stories are responses to problems, whether they’re personal traumas, or cultural traumas, or national traumas, or just things not being right in whatever way. Why did I move to an imagined one? I think because there’s a certain kind of question that I wanted to provoke and to question identity, and the only way I could think to do it, with this particular question, was with this particular event.
And there's a parallel here, with the destruction of a marriage and the destruction of a country, and two homes are lost. Why is there such an attachment to the idea of home here? [The attachment] is timeless and probably completely unavoidable, irrepressible. Genesis through The Odyssey, through pretty much everything’s that published now, they're always about home, and people trying to get home.
There's been a lot of talk recently, about how fiction writers should stick to writing about the cultures, races, and economic backgrounds they belong to instead of imagine, to avoid cultural appropriation. Your books often deal with what you know, like Jewish kids and men growing up and living in New York and DC. Do you consciously avoid dipping into other cultures, or is it just easier for you to write what you know? It has nothing to with avoiding or writing toward. An artist has artistic concern, your personal concerns. Questions of, "Why did you try to do this?" or "Why didn't you try to do that?" is, to me, as silly as, like, "Why did you decide not to, you know, live in China, or marry an Indian woman?" It's because this is the life that I have. I come from a position of writing from my concerns, not from a position of trying to write comprehensibly or trying to write for anybody, or trying to give equal time to equal subjects.
I assume there are enough people in the world with enough concerns that everything will have its day. But it's not the goal, the burden or responsibility of any one writer to be representative of anything but him or herself.
Has having children changed the way you write? It probably has but I’m not exactly sure how it has. Maybe that’s something I will get a better sense of as time passes. There's a kind of blindness as you write. I'm not a student of my writing, or a critic of my writing, I’m just a person who does the writing. And after the fact, when it's completed and it goes out in the world and I start having conversations about it with other people, my relationship to it changes. But that’s only beginning to happen now.
Here I Am got some mixed reviews. How do you respond to criticism? Do you read the reviews? No, not really. Of course I still see them, but I don’t think about them very much.
This book is a little bit racier than some of your earlier work, like the scene with [the main female character] masturbating with a doorknob. Ha, I made you say it.
How did you come up with that? My God, I don’t know. What kind of answer could I possibly give. It's impossible to answer.
Clearly I’ve never done this myself, not having a vagina. I don't know. It's something that I thought of.
Have you heard any women be like, not sure about that as a thing? No, not at all. Look, I'm sure where there's a person there's an opinion, but I actually ran it by a number of friends of mine, of the other gender.
And they cleared it? They not only cleared it, they helped me with it.
Well, okay. Good to know. Have you been experiencing any growing pains with your writing? I know sometimes people who have success with writing at a young age struggle to recapture it later on. You know, it's all growing pains really. It's like, in a way, one of the best things about writing is witnessing yourself changing, you know? Growing up, and watching your mind change. You care about change and your ability to express yourself changes. I'm just so different than I used to be.
This book is so different from my previous books. I mean, it's a continuation in a way. There's definitely some continuity in terms of sensibility, that someone may recognize that the author of this is the author of that. For me, [this book] feels so different.
You still live in New York, right? You live in Brooklyn? I do.
Do you find New York a distracting place to write? I mean everything’s distracting to writing. New York presents its own kinds of distractions, but so would living in Siberia. I find these distractions more pleasant than most other places' distraction. But sometimes I imagine living in a small town or living on the water somewhere. I think it would be really good for me, but, it's hard, you can't just...I mean, when you have kids, you can't just move.
How do you shut out the outside world when you’re trying to get into the zone? Well I don't know if my goal is exactly to shut out the outside world, because sometimes the outside world is helpful. I think shutting out email is a good thing, and shutting your phone will help. In a way, in a strange way, this is the first book where I didn’t make an effort to shut out the outside world. There's a lot more of the noise of daily life in this book, and the details of daily life, like brand names, and overheard conversations, and radio podcasts, and telephones and virtual reality games. There's more of the influence of the world, that finds its way into this book, than I had in my other books.
So in Here I Am, there's this huge destruction that happens, there's a lingering apocalyptic feel. And it feels like in the real world, we're also teetering on this apocalyptic precipice, this possible global destruction. Do you feel like this novel connects with what's going on right now in the actual world? Gosh, I don’t know. I'm not really so interested in writing something that’s contemporary. My hope would be that this influence of the contemporary world and contemporary conflict just gives the book a specificity that allows it to be felt and trustworthy, and maybe even universal, going through the narrow path, how the world is and the details of it. I’m not an expert of anything really. I’m not an expert of politics, I’m not an expert on literary theory, I’m not an expert on child psychology, I’m not an expert on Judaism. But I am an expert of myself, in a very specific way, like having more access to my imagination than anyone else does.
And so, this is the fullest expression of that imagination, which doesn’t require a setting that is at all like one in which I live—but in this book, it has that, I really did write from a place that is similar to places I have known. I grew up in Washington DC, for example I wrote about a family like the one I grew up in, for example. I think it allowed me, in a way, to exercise some of that expertise, not because I was trying to write about other things in the world but because I was trying to write from the most forceful voice that I could.
So this is my last question, and I have to ask it. I bet you don't!
No, I do. The Natalie Portman emails in that New York Times piece. How did that come about? She asked me to do it.
Oh she did? Yeah. She just needed something at the last minute, basically. And we’re friends, so I said sure. We just concocted this little exchange a week or two, for that.
Have you gotten any feedback from that whole thing? No, not really. I'm not in the river of feedback. I don’t use Twitter. I still read stuff, but I don't go online. So I mean, I know everyone seems to have an opinion about everything in the world right now, but I’m happily oblivious to them.
Jonathan Safran Foer will join novelist Rabih Alameddine to discuss their recent novels at the 92nd Street Y on October 20th, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $28, $15 for attendees age 35-and-under; purchase online.