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/ March 26, 2009
An Interview with NYU Professor and Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer


Slumber party massacre the”>Jonathan Safran Foer had Googled me. Since January I’d been pestering him about doing an interview for us, and finally he agreed to a casual jaunt around the Village while I anxiously gripped my recorder and tried not to come off as a bumbling, neurotic fangirl. (Epic fail, BTW) But then he admitted to Googling me, and suddenly this was even less real than it had seemed while dorkily practicing my interview questions on the cab ride there: this was my favorite contemporary author, the one who penned infamously polarizing novels like Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and there he was in this ridiculous knit cap, acting eager to answer my questions and admitting to researching me on the internetz. I had long considered the day I would get to ask him anything I wanted, and now that that day had arrived, I kind of felt like vomiting. But I didn’t. I didn’t! And indeed I got the chance to interview one of the most talked-about contemporary authors in New York.

Jessica Roy: I guess we’ll start off with you teaching at NYU. Why did you decide to teach here?

Jonathan Safran Foer: I had taught before here, this is not the first time I had taught. I’m teaching here because they asked me, really.

JR: And you’re doing a fiction workshop.

JSF: Yeah it’s kind of the only thing, well, if there’s anything I’m qualified to teach that’s the thing. I’ve had a very good experience so far, particularly this semester. This class is really, really good. There’s so many smart, enthusiastic, interesting, funny people. I’ve been really happy.

JR: I heard you have some kind of experimental teaching methods.

JSF: I don’t know about that. I mean, I don’t know if that is the case or if it’s the case that a traditional writing workshop has become very, very conservative and predictable, you know, it’s just one way they all go. That’s not true and wouldn’t be considered acceptable in any other academic classroom setting. If everybody taught Shakespeare the exact same way, that would be thought of as lazy or not sufficiently engaging with differences of what students you have or how the material has changed over time. I also find traditional workshops frustrating in that you don’t get to talk about every student’s work every week. In a way I think that format in itself discourages writing because you’re only having your work talked about every three weeks and you end up becoming more of a critic than a writer. Well, that’s the risk.

JR: You have described writing as urgent, like having to escape from a burning building.

JSF: Did I? I think “insecure Josh” said that. (Editor’s note: Local staff member Josh Becker is in JSF’s fiction workshops, and we had been joking prior about a time he called Josh insecure in front of the entire class.)

JR: No! Well, maybe, but also I think according to Google… but where does editing come into that for you? It seems like with a lot of your writing, it’s stream of consciousness, highly emotional– like you can almost feel that urge to just get everything out. So how does your editing process work and how do you think it should function for students in your class?

JSF: Well, I mean the world doesn’t really need any more novels. It needs more good novels. It doesn’t go without saying that people need to write. The necessity isn’t obvious. It’s a hard profession, you know, it makes one insecure in all kinds of ways — some of them logistical, like financially insecure, some of them emotional, some of them intellectual. So if you’re going to go about this really difficult pursuit, you should have to. The necessity should demand it. So I think that’s a way of thinking about writing that I try to encourage in them.

JR: You have really inspired a lot of polar responses to your work. People seem to either love it or just completely hate it. What about your writing do you think provokes such an intense reaction?

JSF: I don’t know but I’m glad to have it. I mean obviously I would just as soon have everybody love something and not hate it, but a strong response is the point. The point, as I see it, of making writing or any other kind of art is not to be admired, it’s to be really, really, directly, powerfully engaged with. And so do I like bad reviews? Not at all.

JR: Do they get to you?

JSF: No, not really. But I would definitely prefer a kind of violently bad review, the kind where you read and you think, “Whoa did he screw somebody’s girlfriend or something? What is that?” I prefer that to, “This is a nice book. The characters are believable blah blah blah.” And again it comes down to a question of necessity. The world doesn’t need nice books. It needs the kind of books that people want to throw across the room, or carry with them everywhere– that kind of really strong relationship. But why that’s the case? I don’t know

JR: So when you get a nasty review, what do you do? Do you read them?

JSF: I don’t really read reviews– I don’t avoid them, I just don’t seek them out. If one happens to come in front of my face I’ll read it, but otherwise I don’t read them– so I don’t end up reading all that many. If I read a good one, it makes me feel nice, and if I read a bad one, it makes me feel bad– but the good ones don’t make me feel that nice and the bad ones don’t make me feel that bad.

JR: I watched a video on YouTube that your brother took where you said that didn’t really know what you were writing about with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close until you got to the end. So then… why write? Are you trying to work something personal out in your head?

JSF: I mean, isn’t it more interesting to find out what you’re interested in than just to pursue what you know you’re already interested in? There’s a great line that I love by W.H. Auden. He said, “I look at what I write so I can see what I think.” And I don’t write for the purpose of exploring myself. It’s very hard to explain why I write. I write because I write. It’s just the thing that I do. One side effect that is really nice, and I value, is that I do get to see what I’ve been thinking. And what’s interesting is when that is not what I thought I was thinking, you know, when my concerns aren’t what I thought they were.


JR: What direction do you see fiction going in these days?

JSF: Not in any one direction. I mean, I have no idea. It’s hard for anybody to ever be right about things in the moment. 10 years from now things will look very different, and 50 years from now so many of the things we thought were important will be completely forgotten and so many of the things that we didn’t notice at the time will be considered important. Also, I’m not a literary critic, I’m a writer, and I don’t give a whole lot of thought honestly to the direction that fiction is moving in. I don’t read all that much contemporary fiction.

JR: What do you find yourself reading then?

JSF: I mean I read pretty diversely. If someone recommends something I’ll read it, or if I’m writing and I think something will be useful I’ll read it, but I don’t seek out contemporary novels in the way that a baseball player might seek out video of opposing pitchers or something like that.

JR: So who are some of your favorite writers?

JSF: Ever, or…?

JR: I guess that’s a two part question. Who are some of the writers that you admire, and who are some of the writers that you find yourself inspired by and make you want to write more?

JSF: Well I guess that is kind of the same question because I wouldn’t admire somebody who didn’t inspire me. That’s my idea of what good writing is. It’s not writing that makes you say, “Wow that person is smart.” It’s writing that makes you say, “I want to do that.” Contagious writing is good writing. I can tell you some of the writers that made me become a writer. My answer is probably not very surprising and probably shared by an awful lot of writers. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kafka, Bruno Schultz. That’s like the inner sanctum I guess. (Editor’s note: Two of the five writers that JSF listed got lost under the noise of Manhattan traffic, so I have only listed the ones I could clearly hear him say on my recorder.)

JR: Are you working on anything new right now that you’re allowed to divulge?

JSF: I have a book coming out in October, but it’s a nonfiction book about meat.

JR: Yes I saw you were on the PETA YouTube channel!

JSF: Maybe. Yeah I did a video once that I think they picked up or something.

JR: It’s about vegetarianism, right?

JSF: Yeah, so it’s a whole book about meat, basically. The premise is that I have been an on and off vegetarian since I was a kid, sometimes very off, sometimes very on. But never really all too informed about my decisions. I just based them more on intuitions or instincts. But when my wife became pregnant and I thought about having to make these decisions on someone else’s behalf, I took it pretty seriously and wanted to make good decisions, especially because they can be hard, difficult– they can create awkward situations. So I spent about a year going to farms all over America, talking to farmers and learning what I could and writing about.

JR: You were mentored by Joyce Carol Oates. What kind of stuff did she help you figure out? What role did she serve in helping you become a writer?

JSF: She was the first person to ever take my writing seriously and to suggest that I should too. Literally the first person ever to say, “Hey, this is good. You should work hard!” It was in the context of a class [at Princeton] that I took with her. She kind of suggested that I kind of go in a certain direction, or think about certain things, or try to write more or write less. Her real help didn’t come in the form of making sentences better so much as trying to instill in me a sense of how hard it is and how to make it somewhat easier.

JR: So what do you think has been the hardest thing about being a writer in New York?

JSF: I don’t know if anything is harder in New York than any where else, but the hardest thing is probably that you’re alone with it. And I mean that in so many different ways. One is that you have no real peers; there’s no office banter or boss. There’s no one who forces you to do it, which can make it very hard to do it. You’re also alone with your work. You know, it’s very, it’s not only hard, it’s totally impossible to know if you’re working on something good or bad, because there’s no objective yardstick. So in most other occupations people are regularly getting feedback that feels like it matters, but with writing you can be doing terrifically and have the world say you’re doing terribly, or you can be doing what you know is terrible and have the world say you’re doing well. So you’re alone in that sense. It’s very hard to muster all the energy that’s necessary.

JR: You’re married to Nicole Krauss, who wrote The History of Love. Do you guys share what you’re working on, or give each other feedback?

JSF: Not to date. By the time we met each other we were already basically done with our second books, and now I’ve been working on this meat book and she’s working on a novel and it’s so different. I haven’t read her’s and she hasn’t read mine yet and I’m basically done. Um, I think it’s that, you know, often we will do our work and then when you come home at the end of the day you want it to be the end of the day and not more of the same. So it’s nice to come home and not talk about writing. I’m sure we talk about writing more than most married couples do, but also probably much less than what one might suspect.

JR: You have a son, and you just had another baby. Do you think that you’re going to have to put off writing for awhile? That just seems like kind of a hard thing to balance.

JSF: Well I already kind of have, I mean the last couple of years have been– in a certain really limited sense– unproductive. It’s just hard to find the time and the energy. The one thing about kids is that they take a lot of energy. But that’s okay, you know, there’s a lot of time to write and there’s only a certain window in your life when you really can make a family. I feel like I wasn’t fully aware of what would be involved because one just can’t be until you have kids. But I’m more than happy to make the– well, if you would call it a compromise– I’m more than happy to give up that time and energy.

JR: Are you going to be writing any more novels?

JSF: Yes, I’m working on one right now.

JR: Can you tell us anything…?

JSF: Well, not really, just because the way I work, as you were saying before, it ends up being a real process of figuring out what I’m working on. So whatever I tell you now will probably sound really stupid to me very soon. So I’ve sort of stopped worrying about or having any faith in my sense of what it is that I’m working on.

JR: Okay. There was this news item awhile ago on various media and literary sites about this purported feud between you and…

JSF: I literally don’t even know what you’re about to say. (Editor’s note: He looked legit terrified)

JR: Really? Ok. Um… well supposedly this playwright named Itamar Moses

JSF: Oh no, no, I did know that!

JR: He wrote a play and it was…

JSF: Yeah he’s one of my best friends and I helped him with the play. It’s a classic case of if anybody bothered to think about it or ask… I love Itamar and I actually love the play: on top of which it isn’t really about us. But even if it were, he paints the character who would be me so well, especially compared to the character who is supposed to be him.

JR: So there’s nothing to it… you guys are friends?

JSF: Yeah I see him all the time! I was just talking to him on the phone before I met you.

JR: Okay cool. So the audience that reads NYU Local is…

JSF: The millions and millions!

JR: Oh yeah, all those people!

JSF: I’m a paid subscriber myself.

JR: Veryyy funny. So what would you want to say to our audience, primarily NYU students? What’s the number one thing you think people should take away from this interview?

JSF: Nothing! Uhhhhh…..

JR: Advice about the world, you know…

JSF: Probably most people reading this are reading it while they’re on the toilet and I will give a piece of advice that my grandmother gave to me, which is always look in the toilet before you flush. Because if there’s blood you have to go to a doctor.

JR: That’s, um… great advice. Your grandmother sounds like a smart woman.

JSF: Well she’s made it to 160 years old so she must know something.

JR: So my friend David is obsessed with your books, and I asked him what he would want to ask you if he could meet you. He really wants to know if the character Alex in Everything is Illuminated, is supposed to have gay undertones, or if that was just an accident, didn’t even occur to you, or… what’s the deal?

JSF: Not to be coy, but it doesn’t really matter what I say. Obviously he saw some, and so in his reading of the book they’re there. I don’t think the whole inquiry into what the author is thinking about gets too far in any kind of interesting direction. That having been said, I will tell him what I was thinking! Yes, that did occur to me. I wasn’t sure honestly what to make of him. As I was writing it and as I was reading it I was thinking, “Ah yes, this is something that’s there.” That doesn’t mean that I wanted him to be gay or even that I think he is. Often when you write… you know a writer encounters things in his writing the same way that a reader does. You notice things, things come up, like patterns you didn’t mean to put there. I often find myself surprised. And then you can choose to either make sense of it, and spell it out more clearly, correct it, or leave it as it is. Not always, but very, very often I think the best thing is to just leave it as it is.

JR: Your brother is the Editor of The New Republic, and your younger brother is also a writer. So how is it having two brothers involved in similar pursuits? I mean, you basically are this literary family that has their hands in all different kinds of writing stuff.

JSF: It’s funny because we are and we aren’t. My parents aren’t particularly bookish, and we weren’t growing up. I don’t think any of us were great students and we definitely weren’t the kind of kids who were always reading. We just ended up where we ended up. My older brother’s real passion is history and politics and writing was what brought him to history and politics. My little brother is really into a certain kind of life experience, and writing has facilitated that, taking him to see different parts of the world, meet interesting people, learn about interesting things. And for me, writing itself was never the point so much as what writing could do, the kind of vehicle it could be. I like the same things that readers like when they like a book, and writing just allowed me to generate that myself and to be around my own version of it. Which is kind of different. I mean some people are brought to writing in different ways.

JR: Ok, last question. They adapted Everything is Illuminated into a film with Elijah Wood. What did you think of the movie? Were you involved in the creation of it?

JSF: No. It was weird for me, it was awkward. I liked that they did it. I thought it was really fun. I can say I would have done it differently, but I wouldn’t have done it– I’m not a filmmaker. So there’s an awkwardness in that I wrote the book the way I did because I thought that was exactly how it should be. So when anything is changed, it’s upsetting. On the other hand, they couldn’t have made a movie that was exactly as the book was, it wouldn’t have been good and it wouldn’t have been possible.

Photos by Lauren Monaco

Interview recorded and transcribed by Jessica Roy