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Jonathan Safran Foer

Are we comforted by the official account of Sept. 11—the victims, the heroes, the assigned roles of good and evil—or do the generalizations shortchange our experiences? A conversation with novelist Jonathan Safran Foer about his new book, the writing life, and what it’s like to be reviewed by Updike.

Writer Jonathan Safran Foer grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended Princeton University. After graduation he worked at a number of jobs including as a morgue assistant, receptionist, math tutor, ghostwriter, and archivist. He was awarded the Zoetrope: All Story Fiction Prize in 2000, and his stories have appeared in the Paris Review and Conjunctions, and he also edited Convergence of Birds, an anthology inspired by Joseph Cornell. In 1999, he went to the Ukraine to research his grandfather’s life—the trip, as Foer tells it, resulted in his first novel, Everything is Illuminated, an international bestseller translated into 26 languages. His second novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, has just been published. Foer also recently finished a libretto, Seven Attempted Escapes from Silence, which was commissioned by the German National Opera House in Berlin. The opera will have its premiere in September. The movie of Everything Is Illuminated, directed by Liev Schreiber, is due for release this August, and film rights to Extremely Loud were snapped up by producer Scott Rudin. Jonathan Safran Foer lives in Brooklyn with his wife, novelist Nicole Krauss, and their dog, George.

Jon and I spoke for the first time in May 2003 when he was on the apparently de rigeur book tour for the soft cover edition of Everything is Illuminated, of which highly respected novelist Francine Prose opined, “He’s got his sights on higher—much higher—things than mere laughs, on a whole series of themes so weighty that any one of them would be enough to give considerable heft to an ordinary novel. A partial list of the book’s concerns includes the importance of myths and names, the frailty of memory, the necessity of remembrance, the nature of love, the dangers of secrecy, the legacy of the Holocaust, the value of friendship…and I’m not even mentioning a whole host of sub themes…”

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close follows nine-year-old Oskar Schell, an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, pacifist, and correspondent with Stephen Hawking and Ringo Starr, on his urgent, secret, eight-month search through the five boroughs of New York to find the lock that fits a mysterious key belonging to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. In addition to introducing the usual motley characters that populate any big city, the story wanders far afield to the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima. Oskar’s search finally ends in a meeting that is devastatingly heartbreaking but, as Oskar would say, also beautiful and true. Foer continues his penchant for including and attending to visual elements, ending Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close with what Booklist calls “undoubtedly the most beautiful and heartbreaking flip book in all of literature.”
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: Talking to Jonathan Safran Foer.

Jonathan Safran Foer: Like the number four.

RB: OK. Anything you want to say—do you have any opportunities to extemporize?
Foer, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
JSF: Yeah. When I am writing. [chuckles] That’s the only chance in life, when I extemporaneously say whatever it is I want to say. In the way that I want to say it. Otherwise I feel like I am always responding. Writing is the one thing in life when you are not responding.

RB: Well, say something.

JSF: Say something that isn’t responding?

RB: Here’s your chance. Otherwise, I’m just going to ask you the same tedious questions that everyone has asked you ad nauseam.

JSF: I doubt that’s true. I need a starting point.

RB: All right. Have you listened to any good music lately?

JSF: Bright Eyes. Conor Oberst—he has two albums out.

RB: I would only know recent music if it were on a movie soundtrack.

JSF: They will be. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn is one of them. The other is called I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. People talk about him like he is the next Bob Dylan, which is both absolutely right and absolutely stupid. [pauses] He is just a genius. He is 25 and has come out with maybe eight albums.

RB: Eight albums at the age of 25! Are they played on the radio?

JSF: No. Probably not.

RB: How did you come to discover him?

JSF: Oh the way you discover everything. Someone tells you something they had heard from someone else. His music is—has a kind of infectious quality. I don’t mean that as catchy. It’s really not catchy. But—

RB: Is that a statement about the nature of discovery? Otherwise, it seems things are impressed on and hurled at us. Most cultural items are shot at us, there is little choice about considering or appreciating them. Hopefully there are still opportunities to find things.

JSF: Right. Things are shot at you and it’s like food. The waiter serves it, you eat it, and you crap it.

RB: [laughs]

JSF: And then it’s gone. But then sometimes things you find them for other reasons. Have you read Elaine Scarry? Do you know her?

RB: No.

JSF: She’s a really great—I guess you would call her a philosopher. I think she’s at Harvard. She wrote a book called On Beauty and Being Just. The first paragraph is all about how beautiful things want to be replicated. Like if you see a beautiful person you want to draw them, and if you see a beautiful drawing you want to put it on your wall or you want to take a photograph of it. It’s definitely been my experience with music I’ve loved and books I’ve loved, the thing is, they inspire in me the desire to make more of it. I think that’s how something like this musician Bright Eyes has spread. Because, not just because people say you’ve got to hear this. I don’t think that’s all of what they mean. That’s not what I mean when I say to somebody, “You’ve got to hear Bright Eyes.” What I mean is I want to be somehow part of the creation that he is a part of.

RB: That makes me think of how there is this big engine that, as you say, is the big waiter that serves all this stuff, but yet there is still opportunity to—which no doubt frightens the money people, who sit at the helm of these artistic businesses, that what’s going to be a hit or is made into a hit, is not predictable. There is still room for people to make things and become successful not through any B-school marketing initiative.

JSF: There is nothing wrong with that. Money people have a job to do and they do it. What’s sad is when the jobs are confused and people who aren’t money people start thinking like money people and worry about things—like when the conversation become devalued with value. [laughs]

RB: I am not saying that money is absolutely corrupting. In fact I was reawakened to this idea with my reading of David Thomson’s The Whole Equation. He is not of the school that lionizes the directors and actors and vilifies the producers and says they are the evil in the otherwise noble art of making films. You can’t make a lot of things, significant things, without money. The hope is that the money people are not just greedy swine or short-fingered vulgarians. Thomson holds up as a classic example Irving Thalberg of MGM as someone who produced great things within the Hollywood factory system.

JSF: Everyone has a role to play, and again, I think the danger is in confusing the roles. I did a reading last night at Boston College and I was thinking about it. There were more people in the audience than will review my book—in the country. It’s very tempting to attribute too much weight to one kind of person over another. Like, a publisher’s opinion is not more valid than a reader’s opinion. A reviewer’s opinion is not more valid than a reader’s opinion. A reviewer’s opinion is not more valid than a non-reviewing reader’s opinion. It’s just that some people work in areas—carry bigger microphones, basically.

RB: Or their actions are included in the causal chain that has a direct effect on a book.

JSF: Readers’ actions have causality in that chain. No book survives unless readers talk about it and spread it. It doesn’t matter how good reviews are given. It doesn’t matter how much the author is paid; the survival of books depends on readers.

RB: I believe the part of that view that survival depends on a book’s being talked about. There is this oddity called the unread bestseller.

JSF: Right.

RB: There is much cultural conversation. But they end up on the coffee table. I’m thinking of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or even McCullough’s Adams biography

JSF: They say [Stephen Hawking’s] Brief History of Time is the most owned book that is never read. [both laugh]

RB: Ever see Herb Ritts’s photo of Stephen Hawking?

JSF: Maybe I have and I don’t know it was Ritts.

RB: It is a dead-on, tight head shot. It is oddly fascinating. Why did I bring that up? I don’t know.

JSF: I had the experience at readings a couple of times with a book and saying, “This isn’t mine. I’m borrowing it from a friend,” and then they stop and say, “Shit, that’s not good is it?” Or people who bring library books.

RB: Copies of your book?

JSF: Yeah. And I love it. If now we are talking about a distinction between things that are pouring more and more fuel into a kind of engine. There are two kinds of engines. There’s the commercial engine and there’s the real world engine. The engine that’s like, “I wrote a book because I wanted people to read it and for it to be part of a conversation.” There is nothing I like more than a book that comes completely beaten up with different people’s notes in it—it becomes a kind of palimpsest.

RB: There was a wonderful bookstore on Newbury Street [in Boston] for 27 years, and there were signs all over the store, “Please touch the books.” An obvious sentiment that moves the books away from being mere merchandise or inventory.

JSF: I had this idea in mind as I was writing it—

RB: To put a furry or velvet like cover on it? [both chortle]

JSF: A book is an intimate object whether you are conscious of it when you are writing it or not. A book is something that is seen with the eyes on a shelf, pulled off the shelf with the hand, taken home. What percentage of people do you think read a book in bed? 80? 90? People read books in bathtubs. People read books in their easy chairs with their glass of wine or their coffee, their cat.

RB: If the books could talk.

JSF: Thank God they can’t. I really love that idea. Books aren’t just vehicles for print. If you believe that, then you read books off the internet. Or e-books, or whatever they are. I really like books as objects, as a little intimate sculptures that you have a real interaction with, and a bookstore that encourages that is great. And I think publishers encourage it by just paying attention to the details of how something is put together.

RB: Do you have any interest in creating more tactile kinds of features in your books—to go along with the very visual? Or may be including one of those chips that if you press a certain part of the cover emits a sound or a quote?

JSF: I haven’t. I’m sure somebody could do it in a way that I would love. Someone like [cartoonist] Chris Ware could do it. It’s a very fine balance because the two things that make books books, that make them the art form I most love—are how much they give and how much they withhold. Like, books are generous things, they give enough to really stimulate your imagination. But they also have to withhold enough for it to be your imagination and not the author’s. Really good books are books that have two authors, the reader and the writer. Or maybe the idea of an author is actually just a combination of two people, the reader and the writer? So when writing you use the word “tree.” Four letters. Very, very short word. Fits a couple millimeters on a page. But in the reader’s mind it becomes a kind of idealized version of a tree, and that tree is different for each person who reads the book and because of that a book is customized for each person in a way a song never could be and as a painting never could be.

RB: One might like to think that. But it seems that’s probably the case for the serious reader and then there are readers who read reviews to be told what a book is about. And really become lazy about their function as a contributor to a book.

JSF: You can’t resist it. I don’t mean because it’s so tempting.

RB: Can’t resist?

JSF: Can’t resist being implicated in a book. Not because it’s so tempting or such a wonderful thing—but who is going to produce the mental image if not you? When you read, do hear a voice in your head or not? I can’t read a word without hearing a voice.

RB: I am not aware of it if I do.

JSF: I don’t mean an accent or persona. If I see the word “rock,” I hear the word “rock” in my head.


When you write a book, you are able to concentrate on very, very specific things. Individuals doing very specific acts. Orhan Pamuk once said that every book, at the end of the day, is about showing how similar people are to one another. And how different they are from one another. And you do that by showing how somebody pours coffee and drinks it. It’s not by speaking about diplomacy. It’s not by troop movements.


RB: I have taken to listening to the audio versions of books I have just read. I am listening to Sean Penn’s reading of Dylan’s Chronicles. It’s a hoot.

JSF: I can imagine.

RB: He pronounces “Don Juan,” “Don Jew-an.” I don’t know where that comes from. Sometimes I haven’t liked the audio text because the voice doesn’t sound right—though I can’t give a reason why it doesn’t sound right maybe I just don’t like the voice period, so.

JSF: Because a voice isn’t right. That’s the point. Again it has to do with the withholding. The thing I love in books is that the voice is mine. When I read a book, not when I am writing a book now. I read Kafka and Kafka is mine. To come back to the idea of how books can move away from just being text or move into other kind of media, it’s a difficult balance to strike. On the one hand there are all these things in the world that can be brought into books. Books have been more conservative than any other art form in terms of what they borrow. And there has been something very good about that. It’s protected something. If you go into an art gallery now, there’s like a dog turd on the floor. And that’s art.

RB: There are artists who use words [Barbara Kruger], whose art is typographic renderings of certain quotes.

JSF: Sure. And it’s good. That expands the possibilities. If the idea of art is to explore things that’s at least a part of it. That’s good. It’s good that literature hasn’t fallen off the cliff of meaning, but it has also suffered because it hasn’t. Because writers and reviewers have been so protective of the boundaries of the novel such that any kind of intrusion—not even an intrusion but any movement toward the edge is seen as automatically a gimmick. It’s got to be a bell and a whistle.

RB: On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be a clear decision procedure where you could say such-and-such is a gimmick—another thing that buttresses arguments against certainty. Either something works or doesn’t. You don’t really know why, right?

JSF: Right. Of course, from the writing perspective there’s a saying: “An ant is not an entomologist.” It’s not the case because you do something that you can describe why you do it or you know why you do it or even that you choose to do it. So much of writing and reading is just intuitive. It’s like the old saying, “I don’t know that I can tell you what is pornography is but I know it when I see it.”

RB: In future editions of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, would you include the notes that accompany the press kit about what went into writing the book as perhaps an appendix?

JSF: I don’t know what you are referring to.

RB: There is—

JSF: Oh, like the author questionnaire or something like that.

RB: The thing where you talk about writing 2,500 pages to get to around 300 pages—the self-interview. Would you include that in future editions?

JSF: No, never.

RB: Are there reading-club guides for the paper edition of Everything Is llluminated?

JSF: No.

RB: Why wouldn’t you?

JSF: I would keep that out of for the same reason I would put visuals in. A book is an organic thing. Everything should be in the service of making it just as forceful as it can be. It’s not—listen, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t have a bar code on the back. I wouldn’t have blurbs on it. I wouldn’t have an author photo.

RB: [laughs]

JSF: I mean, forget it. I don’t even like page numbers, to be honest, if you are getting really pure about it, in the abstract. That being said, a book isn’t just a pure organic thing. It’s something you want to share with people and in the interest of doing that you make certain compromises or you form it around, you make it into something that is more easy to share. Rather than less easy to share. But there are limits to it. That kind of information doesn’t belong in a book.

RB: I can’t remember if you had acknowledgements?

JSF: I just had two sentences on the copyright page

RB: So there were no other subsidiary/explanatory notes. So when you see these in other books—lengthy acknowledgments, do you see that as distraction?

JSF: It’s not for me.

RB: Do you read them?

JSF: No, not usually. I never do—now that I think about it. I’ll tell you, when I read them is when I first finished my book, my first book. And I thought it would be nice to try to publish this.

RB: Your first novel, not the [Joseph] Cornell book?

JSF: My first novel. I didn’t have an agent for the Cornell book—I did it myself and sent it out to publishers. For my novel, I knew that writers got agents, the very typical route. And so I went to authors that I loved. I went to their acknowledgments page and saw if they thanked an agent. And that was the agent I would send it to. So I remember I went to Howard Norman and he thanks Melanie Jackson. I went to a number of authors who thanked Nicole Aragi, who ended up becoming my agent. It’s a really great way to do things.

RB: As opposed to?

JSF: As opposed to going on the web and finding out in a businessy kind of way—any way to stay outside of that circle, I think, can really save you, and what better way to learn about books than pulling off the shelf books that you love.

RB: What were you like when you were nine years old?

JSF: I don’t remember very well.

RB: Seriously? It wasn’t that long ago.

JSF: Any description—I don’t remember what I was like yesterday.

RB: OK, that explains that.

JSF: Any description I give is based on photographs of me and based on things my parents have told me and then a few memories that have. I was very stubborn. That’s what keeps coming back in my parents’ account. That I was just the most stubborn little son of a bitch in history. I was quite flamboyant. I used to dress in glitter vests and bow ties and I wore rings all the time. And [I was] just a real ham.

RB: It is difficult to avoid the temptation to identify characters with their creator. Most of the time I can avoid doing it, but there is something about a child character that makes me believe that there is a good amount of the author’s history present. Maybe it’s the place that we are truly unique as we process the world for the first time? I think it’s hard to write a child. It’s probably easier to create a transsexual black woman for you than to do a child. So I am left thinking there is a lot of you in Oskar.

JSF: More than a transsexual black woman. [both laugh]

RB: OK, we’re narrowing it down.

JSF: I just don’t think that’s true. I don’t believe that.

RB: It’s not harder to write—

JSF: I am not really writing a nine-year-old kid. That’s not what I am doing. Or not in a realistic way. In fact, that is something that sometimes when I talk to people about the book or in reviews they say. “It’s not quite realistic, what he [Oskar Schell] does.” And I think, “Yeah of course not. We can agree on that.” That wasn’t my intention. My intention was to create something that was believable. Something that you could really empathize with, someone whose journey you wanted to be along for. I am frustrated when novelists are either judged by the standards that journalists are judged by, or they are not read as seriously as journalists. In terms of the second case, not being treated as seriously, it’s as simple as, “Why do people wonder so much and so vocally what is the novelist’s terrain—what can be written about, what can’t be written about—in ways that never would be asked of journalists?” And there is the case of being judged by journalists’ standards, as if a novelist’s goal was being realistic or to tell a true biographical story—which isn’t the case.

RB: After you read something you might question why a character was sympathetic, or “Why did I empathize?” I wouldn’t have less compassion for Oskar if he were 20 years old and lost his father—let me put it this way: I have trouble reading stories in which bad things happen to kids. I think of Stephen Dixon’s Interstate or John Burnham Schwartz’s Reservation Road, in which the children are victimized, and despite acknowledging that what happens takes place in a fictive space, still that has a heavy weight for me. In your book, I don’t say this is the voice of a nine-year-old and no nine-year-old really talks or acts this way. I accept him as a nine-year-old [and I question him in the way I question any character].

JSF: That’s obviously how I would want the reader to feel. I mean that sometimes you have to tell certain lies of reality in order to tell certain truths of emotion. An analogy that I think fits is a rock that is thrown into a lake and then causes all these ripples. There is a journalistic way of looking at that—how big is the rock? How heavy is it? What is its mineral composition? And for a novelist, you think about the ripples that it causes. The rock in the case of a novel is a non-existent thing. Oskar is not real. There is no Oskar in the world. But once he is thrown into the lake, once the book is given to a reader, the effects become very, very real. I know that because I read books that change my life. That make me look at things differently. Books that are so difficult that I have to put them down. Putting down a book is a real thing. It’s a real response to something that is unreal. So when I was creating Oskar—what makes Oskar, Oskar, is in one part all of his characteristics but in another part, the reader. You depend on the reader. In John Updike’s review of the book in the New Yorker he had a problem with the idea of a pre-sexual character—for him it could never be as interesting as a sexual character. I feel that the reader takes care of the sexuality. I don’t know that my book could succeed for a pre-sexual reader, someone who wasn’t older than 12 or 13. But then the reader brings all the sexuality that’s necessary to the book and their reading is informed by that. So when we read Oskar it’s not like we suddenly agree about the world that we all live in. No, instead we see Oskar as someone—one of the things that I find powerful about Oskar is the distance between Oskar and me, the things I know that he doesn’t know.




Foer, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005


RB: You can say that about your own creation or your relationship to him—let me pose a problem. Or what is a problem for me. It’s not exactly a mistake of mine but I started to read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead as I was reading your book. On the one hand, a character ostensibly nine years old, Jewish, a New Yorker set in post-2001 America, at the fulcrum of a transformational shift in history, supposedly. And on the other hand, the voice of a dying 76-year-old Protestant preacher in small-town middle America in 1956. And I was conflicted about what I was in the mood for—I enjoyed much of your book but at times it became raucous and I felt like I wanted to retreat to this calm, quieter—how about you when you were writing it?

JSF: Right. One doesn’t have to choose. The point is not that one book becomes your book. So when I read, and I read pretty widely, fiction, nonfiction, and when I write it moves around quite a bit in terms of voices. There are parts of the book that are quite subdued or voices that really stand in opposition to Oskar’s.

RB: I really liked when Thomas Schell is telling Oskar the story of the six boroughs of New York. It’s sweet little story. I don’t think even on television that you see parents telling, making up, stories anymore. It was a nice feature of family life.

JSF: Now we just see them hitting their kids. This is a particular kind of book. I wanted the book—Oskar is someone who has this overactive imagination, which is trying to compensate for things that are missing. Every invention of his is an act of trying to fill in a hole. I wanted the book to express that. I wanted the form of the book to express that I wanted the content, of the book, the tone of the book and there are moments to me when it feels very—I think “raucous” was the word.

RB: “Raucous.”

JSF: And not always in a happy funny way. Raucous in a “What is really going on here?” kind of way. “Why is this person so overheated?” It’s an expression of grief.

RB: Would you characterize this novel as accessible to read, hard to read?

JSF: It’s just not for me to say. I don’t know.

RB: When you reread, when you are preparing for, choosing a section for, a public reading, are you sometimes surprised?

JSF: I can never really be a reader of my own book. I am always the person who wrote it. And I’ve had people come up to me who have said, “I liked your first book and I had a little bit of a hard time getting all of it. This book seemed more accessible to me.” And I have had people say, “I found this a little bit inaccessible.” It’s one of the things I like about writing. For every example there is a counterexample.

RB: I am caught up thinking about as we search for certainty that it seems to always be denied to us.

JSF: Fiction is the opposite of certainty. That was one of the reasons I wanted to write this book now. Because the way that the story of Sept. 11 was being told was with absolute certainty. That’s the American version. It is, “This is what happened. There is good. There is evil. There are victims and there are victimizers. There are terrorists and civilians. There is war and there is peace. There are Arabs and non-Arabs.” And that is not what the world is. The world is this incredibly complicated mix of perspectives and vantages and life experiences. And when you write a book, you are able to concentrate on very, very specific things. Individuals doing very specific acts. Orhan Pamuk once said that every book, at the end of the day is about showing how similar people are to one another. And how different they are from one another. And you do that by showing how somebody pours coffee and drinks it. It’s not by speaking about diplomacy. It’s not by troop movements.

RB: Well our heuristic paradigms, we don’t think we have learned anything unless we can immediately generalize it to ourselves and the world. And seemingly random stream of things doesn’t comfort anyone.

JSF: The generalizations become hollow. There are always people who can’t fall into them, and the specifics can resonate into having a kind of universal meaning.

RB: Think about our own era—in which things that were formerly thought of as factual now seem not to be of concern to large numbers of people. They don’t care about facts. The information about the Iraqi incursion, the incredible story of the 2000 election debacle in Florida—how do these things happen and people just accept them?

JSF: There is an overload of facts. It’s impossible to sort them out, and we end up relying on unreliable sources.

RB: Right, right. You brought up the Updike review in the New Yorker? If I were a casual observer of the book world, I would think there are only two or three books out right now—your novel and Ian McEwan’s, Saturday. You get a lot of reviews. Do you read them or how do you decide which to read?

JSF: I’ve probably read four or five. I don’t go looking for them.

RB: They’re hard to miss.

JSF: Yeah, so I read the ones I can’t miss. If I start and I feel like there will be no use in reading it, I just don’t read it. It’s not going to help me. I’m not going to write differently because of them. So what’s the point in reading them? To feel good or bad about myself?

RB: It’s possible that you may learn something. Has that never happened? Was the Updike review instructive?

JSF: No. And it [the Updike] was a really thoughtful review. It was a mixed review but I enjoyed reading it. In part, I was honored that he would have read the book and written about it. What was clear was that he was not the right reader for the book. But why should he be? There’s nothing wrong with that. [All] books aren’t for everybody.

RB: Well, the book-reviewing playing field seems to be frequently about creating oppositional situations. Books being assigned to writers who have axes to grind.

JSF: You know, time is the only real reviewer. Things that are reviewed terrifically in a given moment and then forgotten. Things that aren’t even reviewed at all become important and you hope things work out in the end. But you can’t assume they will, and you certainly can’t leverage your own sense of worth on them.

RB: The current badge of honor is to have been rejected numerous times only to go on to some measure of success—I am thinking of Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land as the current example of that. Which, of course, reminds everyone that rejection is integral to the publishing process and no indication of quality.

JSF: Of course. How many of my favorite books were popular when they were written? Very, very few. I do readings at high schools when I am on book tour—every morning I go to a high school. There are a whole slew of myths to try to dispel. The first one is always that success in the world corresponds to the success of a book. It’s just not true. How many books on the bestseller list in any given week would you want your name on?

RB: [laughs]

JSF: And how many really wonderful books—really wonderful books—don’t find readerships? It’s a fact of the world so there is no reason to dwell on it too much.

RB: Yes and no. If I categorized myself as a literary journalist, then part of what I am straddling is an understanding of the intersection of art and commerce. You can’t help—I can’t help but feel the frustration. Is Steve Stern going to get much of a readership? [RB was examining a copy of Steve Stern’s Angel of Forgetfulness when he encountered JSF outside his office.—eds.] I am fairly attuned and conversant with what’s published and I was not aware of this writer who had published five or six books, and there are more writers like that.


In New York if a first author gets a $100,000 advance, that’s news. But a $100,000 advance for a book that took four years to write, you are talking about wages that a receptionist makes.


JSF: A book gets published in America every—

RB: [laughs]

JSF:—I’m serious now, every 12 seconds. That’s a wonderful thing. It really is a wonderful thing, but one of the side effects there is an overload and there isn’t enough attention, particularly in such an attention-deficient culture as ours, to pay attention to a lot of things.

RB: One answer is that probably ultimately there isn’t enough attention, but why does the New York Times frequently review a book twice? Why do the major newspapers with few exceptions basically review the same core of books? Who is served by that?

JSF: They are competing for the same attention that books are competing for. How many newspapers are there in the world right now? How many magazines? How many websites that cover these things? So they feel a necessity to make a splash, a necessity to be as contemporary as anyone else, to be as noisy as anyone else and—

RB: It’s based on a certain kinds of doublethink. The argument is that book readers are a marginal constituency, which will not affect circulation, which should free newspapers up to review whatever they like. So they don’t have to write about the five or whatever big books. They can write about other books.

JSF: There are exceptions. The L.A. Times book review is an exception.

RB: The San Francisco Chronicle, also.

JSF: Outside of New York, it starts to become different. Both of those, the Times and the Chronicle, put things you might not have heard of on the covers. When do you see that on the Times?

RB: Alan Lightman told me that he was more affected by what Gail Caldwell wrote than the New York Times, because she is syndicated to hundreds of newspapers with a vast geographical spread.

JSF: When my first book came out, I did an interview with an Associated Press interviewer and nothing has ever come back to me so many times as that. It was published in all sorts of local papers all across the country. The New York Times is something people either read or don’t read, and then it really is gone the next day. That’s the nature of a major newspaper. But some of these syndicated things, it’s really wild. I agree. I had a similar experience [as Lightman].

RB: You get a lot of review attention and then you get lots of extra literary attention. A couple of years ago I asked you then about it. Are you thicker skinned now? Does this stuff penetrate?

JSF: I’m all skin. I don’t even have organs anymore.

RB: [laughs]

JSF: It’s skin all the way through. This stuff is there only as much as you look for it, to be honest.

RB: I’d like to believe that. But I found myself knowing—why or how do I know, I don’t know if it’s true, the selling price of a house you are considering buying?

JSF: Yeah. It’s untrue, by the way. [laughs] Brought to you by the same paper that assured us that there were weapons of mass destruction for six months.

RB: I was not looking for that information. Nor do I care. But there it is, nestled in my awareness. Why do I know things about Michael Jackson or Britney Spears or whomever? I don’t care anything about these alien life forms.

JSF: And when was the last time you read an article about the Sudan, you know? It’s a real shame the things we pay attention to. Journalists have a responsibility just like novelists have a responsibility, to pay attention to important things. Because that’s who the culture pays attention to. That someone with as large an audience as the New York Times would pay attention to things so unimportant when [emphatically] such important things were going on is more than a shame. It’s a kind of crime, really.


If it takes a hundred thousand bad books to make a good one, do we cry for the trees? What is so upsetting? Have children died because a novel was a failure? It’s just not that big a deal.


RB: I had this conversation with Tom Bissell which dovetails with what David Thomson talks about. There is not this oppositional thing between publishers and writers—everybody is trying to do the right thing, to do good. How do they, the Times, for example, frequently fail so miserably?

JSF: The question is, what’s their idea of good? Is their idea of good to increase their circulation?

RB: I’d like to think it’s beyond that.

JSF: It’s a real mistake to make generalizations over an entire paper, certainly over an entire industry. I do think there are journalists in the world whose interest is to do something flashy. That doesn’t seem significant enough to me.

RB: The craven desire for fame has overtaken many professions, and journalism has hardly been immune. I remember in the movie The Paper, Robert Duvall’s character tells a story of covering the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck and joining a group of writers at a restaurant that it turns out was very expensive, which they only found out when they were presented with the check. Luckily a little man in the corner has noted their quandary and pays their tab. The man turns out to be Pablo Picasso. The moral Duvall’s character draws, they have no business in this restaurant that served the likes of Pablo Picasso. Covering people like him and others did not make them celebrities.

JSF: Uh huh. With writing in particular, it’s the only art form that is critiqued in its own language. Paintings are not reviewed with paintings; songs are not reviewed with songs. So what does that mean? It means very, very often that writers critique writers. There are really wonderful things about that—like getting to read a review of your book by John Updike. That’s a great cool thing. Regardless what he thinks. [chuckles] But it also encourages a kind perversion of scale. The world is a lot bigger than the writing world. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the way that books are reviewed. They are so often taken out of a historical context or cultural context, and in New York if a first author gets a $100,000 advance, that’s news. But a $100,000 advance for a book that took four years to write, you are talking about wages that a receptionist makes.




Foer, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005


RB: And that doesn’t factor agent’s fees and other things that come out of that advance.

JSF: Right. So it ends up fostering all sorts of resentments that are totally unnecessary. Really unnecessary, only because the scale has been so perverted. In any case [pauses] I guess its not worth going too much about.

RB: Is there anything that you are not interested in?

JSF: Sure. [laughs]

RB: Really? Tell me.

JSF: Things I am not interested in?

RB: If someone asked someone else with a good appetite, “What foods don’t you like?” The only thing that come to mind is stewed carrots. There is nothing else I won’t eat. It seems to me from my acquaintance with you and your work you have wide interests and a searching curiosity. Are there definite subjects? Do you have an interest in Central Asian hydrology?

JSF: Well, I don’t know enough about it to know. It doesn’t sound like something that off the bat I would be uninterested in. So much of being a writer is being open. If you think of how long it takes to type up a page—if someone were dictating to me. In what, two minutes, three minutes? Which is to say you could write a book in 10 hours?

RB: Type a book in 10 hours.

JSF: So writing must have something to do with just typing. It has to do with how do you come to those two-minute pages. How do those words get to you? It’s just being open and the idea that anything might be interesting, just being receptive to things you didn’t think would be for you but might very well be for you.

RB: Do you foresee expanding your reach into collaborations with other artists—filmmakers, musicians, choreographers?

JSF: I just don’t know. I wrote a libretto. That’s going to be performed in September in Germany. And I really loved that. In part because it was something I knew very little about. And it’s nice to do things that are far from what you know. But for the time being I really love novels. I like working on them and I have no idea what I am going to do next.

RB: Seriously?

JSF: Very seriously. My sister-in-law just had a kid and she is taking a couple months off of work. To get to experience motherhood, to get to know the kid. Get to enjoy a little time off. Nobody asks her if she is pregnant again. It’s a ridiculous question. She is sore, physically recuperating and she has this new thing to enjoy. And I guess I feel that way. It was very, very difficult process writing this book. I found it excruciating, actually.

RB: Did you have to write 2,500 pages to get 300 pages for Everything is Illuminated? Was the proportion the same?

JSF: It was close. I think I wrote more.

RB: So that’s the way you do it.

JSF: Yeah. It’s getting harder. Each time it gets harder. I saw W.G. Sebald’s last reading—in the States, anyway. He said being a writer is not like being a doctor. It’s not like the 10th appendix you remove is easier than the first and the 20th, you can do it blindfolded. Being a writer, it gets harder every time. You are more aware of what you are choosing against. It’s not the case that a writer creates out of nothing some thing. It’s much more the case that as you read and as you write and as you live you are aware of all these different stories that are out there to be told, to be explored. And you can only choose one at time.

RB: Could you stop reading for any period of time?

JSF: Could I? If I were forced to, I could.

RB: Perhaps that adds to your difficulties—as we talk about overload.

JSF: No. You are very lucky to be able to choose against things. There are so many people in the world that can’t. It’s a real good fortune to have too many things to think about.

RB: So it’s not a cure that you would prescribe?

JSF: I care more about thinking about things than making things. If I had to choose I would rather—if I could only be a reader or a writer, I would rather be a reader. It’s one of the things I value most in my life.

RB: What are you reading these days?

JSF: I’ve been reading a lot about animals. There is a dog [the ubiquitous Rosie] in the room walking between us right now—

RB: Talk about a fame hound.

JSF: She deserves it. Uh, I just finished that book Animals in Translation. By Temple Grandin. She is an autistic woman. She writes about similarities that she has perceived between autistic people and animals. And I read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer.

RB: Did you know him when you were at Princeton?

JSF: No, he came right when I was leaving. I wish I had; I would really like to sit down with him.

RB: His memoir about his grandfather is a sweet book.

JSF: I also read his collection, The Ethical Life or something like that. [Writings on an Ethical Life.—eds.] I’m now moving through his work now that I have read this one book. I just read a galley of an English book, It’s All Right Now, by a 74-year-old man, Charles Chadwick. It’s his first novel and it’s incredible. I was totally blown away by it.

RB: Mark Derr wrote a really smart book called A Dog’s History of America.

JSF: Do you love dogs?

RB: I do.

JSF: Why do you love dogs?

RB: They are interesting companions. Not too dependent—or at least the kind of dogs I like. A good combination of independence and dependence.


It’s like there are two kinds of writers, those that want for there to be more writers and those who want there to fewer writers. I feel like you could almost divide the world up like that. All those cases we just talked about Miller, Sontag, and Thompson—they all wanted more writers. They felt like the world would be better if there were more people writing books.


JSF: They are kind of like books, actually. In the sense that—I was saying the thing I like most about books is how much they give and how much they withhold? Dogs are like at the perfect distance from people.

RB: My son just got a dog, a bijon frise—and I am not big on the smaller [lapdog] breeds.

JSF: [laughs] Too small?

RB: Yeah, and I have watched the way people treat them, which I find distasteful. I watch people cart their dogs around on a small wheeled thing and put off to defecate and then return it to the vehicle.

JSF: I can beat that.

RB: [laughs]

JSF: I saw someone the other day who was wiping the dog’s anus with toilet paper after it took a crap. [both laugh] It was great. It was a little bulldog. You know those dogs, they are so asthmatic, they kind of breathe out of their assholes—

RB: But this, my son’s dog, Rex, is a little thug and snaps at Rosie’s feet and really tries to push her around as if he were a much larger dog. What’s your dog’s name?

JSF: George. Actually George is a girl. She was found tied up in a nearby cemetery, the week after George Plimpton died. Plimpton was one of those people who you don’t really appreciate their presence until they are gone. I didn’t know him, and I’d only met him once and that was just shaking hands. But I felt really moved when he passed away.

RB: Me too, I agree. He was a neat guy.

JSF: He was a huge contributor to the culture in the same way—that it’s really sad we are experiencing a very, very important moment now with him passing away, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow—four people who in very different ways were huge contributors.

RB: Hunter Thompson?

JSF: It’s true. And what’s going to happen? The book culture has become very destructive rather than creative.

RB: My overwhelming impression of Plimpton was that he was having a good time.

JSF: Laughing as he worked.

RB: And even as he grew older he continued to empower young people, young writers.

JSF: It’s like there are two kinds of writers, those that want for there to be more writers and those who want there to fewer writers. I feel like you could almost divide the world up like that. All those cases we just talked about Miller, Sontag, and Thompson—they all wanted more writers. They felt like the world would be better if there were more people writing books.

RB: There is the constant low-level ululation that there are too many books and there is too much crap being published. I am astounded by that because of the fair number of books that I complete each year I don’t read or see much crap.

JSF: Also, let’s just say there were. There’s this idea now that a bad book is as bad as a good book is good. Like, a bad book is a negative 1 a good book is a positive 1. That’s garbage. A bad book is negative one and a good book is positive 100,000. And if it takes a hundred thousand bad books to make a good one, do we cry for the trees? What is so upsetting? Have children died because a novel was a failure? It’s just not that big a deal.

RB: It’s about the apportionment of attention or the disproportions. If Dan Brown is getting 85 percent of the attention and, as importantly. the revenues, what does that mean for the rest?

JSF: Like those would be [poet] John Ashbery’s readers? [pause] There is just nothing to say about it.

RB: The thing to be said is that there is something that is built in to high culture, a need to complain—a whine factor. [laughs]

JSF: Uh huh.

RB: It’s criticism based on major disappointments and depravations that most of the afflicted haven’t experienced and that may not exist.

JSF: It doesn’t exist, or not nearly as strongly in the music culture or in the fine art culture. It’s again this perverted sense of scale—It’s a culture that critiques itself

RB: Everyone harbors the feeling they can be a writer.

JSF: Everyone can be a writer. The problem is that everyone is concerned with the side that to be a successful writer is to be a writer who is selling lots of copies and is out there in the world. That is one version. But if everyone is depending on it, then a lot of people are going to be disappointed. And sometimes for good reason and sometimes for bad reasons. We can’t sustain—only so many books can be sold and they are sold for all of these weird contingencies don’t necessarily have to do with the book that was written. To attach too much meaning to it, to get too worked up about it, is a recipe for unhappiness.

RB: I listen to sports talk radio on my drive home to New Hampshire. Ted Sarandis is not a racist or a political fascist. But to listen to his callers—he coined this phrase, or at least used it, the fellowship of the miserable. These fans seems to be committed to highly toxic amounts of negativity, the rabidity of their disappointments—

JSF: [laughs] Again it’s, “Children aren’t dying.” There is the idea that children die when Bill Buckner botches a ground ball. It’s one thing to joke about this but it’s another thing to say we have completely lost perspective in a way that has very real ramifications in the world.


When I live in Brooklyn, I think, “Why would anyone ever want to live anywhere else?” and when I am outside of Brooklyn, I think, “Why would anyone want to live in Brooklyn?”


RB: It does seem to give credence to Thomas Frank’s observation that it is an age of derangement and self-delusion. I wanted to get back to your experiences at high schools. What happens when you are there?

JSF: It’s a little different with each school I go to. I’ve been to a couple dozen now, I guess. I don’t talk about my book.

RB: Do the students know who you are?

JSF: Rarely. Maybe one out of 15 does.

RB: So you are just appearing as a young writer?

JSF: Sometimes I will speak to kids who have to be there, sometimes to kids who choose to be there, and usually we get very quickly into a question-and-answer session in which I try to encourage them to be writers, basically. To say, “Stop thinking of there being a huge difference between you as a reader and you as a writer.” Which is unfortunately something that is really drilled into kids in high schools. The idea that a book is something you go to for self-improvement, to make yourself smarter.

RB: People aren’t often encouraged to write letters. That’s an important kind of writing.

JSF: Right, right. Or if they do write letters or keep diaries—I had a student ask me the other day, I was at Newton North and he was saying, “I keep a diary and I really love it and write in it every day and I am very serious about it but how can I turn that into something more useful?” I tried to discourage him for thinking there was anything more useful. What I said was, “If I could I would write a diary…” I can’t. I don’t know why. I tried a million times in my life to, “I woke up today. This what I did…” It always sounds artificial. And so for whatever reason I am somebody who has to throw his voice in order to write truly about himself.

RB: A kind of literary ventriloquism.

JSF: I said, “Consider yourself lucky and keep doing it.” I think it’s one of the highest forms of writing and something I value so much. I am so envious of people who can do it in a way that feels that true to them.

RB: So how much more are you touring for this book?

JSF: This is the beginning. I’ve only been to New York.

RB: I feel like your book has been out for months. [laughs]

JSF: I’m on the road for two weeks.

RB: And you live in?

JSF: Brooklyn.

RB: Why would you want to live there? I thought you were in Connecticut.

JSF: Just a summer. I have gone there every summer. I have a friend who runs Yale’s summer art school. And we went once just to spend three days with him and we ended up staying three months. It’s just such a beautiful place and it’s nice to be around artists, young artists who are making things that have nothing to do with what you make but also everything to do with what you make. And sharing ideas across—

RB: What’s Brooklyn like for you?

JSF: [pauses] When I live in Brooklyn, I think, “Why would anyone ever want to live anywhere else?” and when I am outside of Brooklyn, I think, “Why would anyone want to live in Brooklyn?” [both laugh]

RB: Do you have a lot of writer friends?

JSF: I am a real homebody.

RB: Is there a nice bookstore in Brooklyn?

JSF: A wonderful bookstore, the Community Bookstore. On Seventh Avenue and Carroll Street. And it’s just like your ideal independent bookstore. You might like this, they have a dog.

RB: Right. How do you have a bookstore without a dog?

JSF: Right. [chuckles]
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum