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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Unlocking Jonathan Safran Foer

Pick your favorite line from Everything Is Illuminated, a funny one, or magical, or perhaps something sad or profound. You might have a hard time choosing. "Comedy and pathos are braided together with extraordinary skill," one reviewer raved. Jonathan Safran Foer

The author's follow-up, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, pulls captive readers forward and back, up and down, much like its predecessor. Surely narrator Oskar Schell ranks as one of the most engaging—and complicated—kids to appear in recent fiction. Consider the publisher's synopsis:

Oskar Schell is an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, pacifist. He is nine years old. And he is on an urgent, secret search through the five boroughs of New York to find the lock that fits a mysterious key belonging to his father,

? prepare yourself for a rollicking, suspenseful jaunt across the city, right? But wait, finish the sentence: his father,

who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Forward and back, up and down.

Wikipedia notes that detractors find Jonathan Safran Foer's work "overly ambitious." Foer responds, "I would hope they say that about every author I like."

Incorporating photographs from Oskar's camera and still frames captured on tv, Extremely Loud lets in as much of the world as its pages can hold. At one point, the text literally bunches together into a tight, black smudge.

Foer spoke last week from the Brooklyn home he shares with wife Nicole Krauss. Their ten-week-old son, Sasha, peeped up only once, dozing all the while in a sling against Jonanthan's chest.

Dave: If the boy needs a break at some point, just let me know.

Jonathan Safran Foer: I think we should be fine, but if not, you will know, trust me.

Dave: If I hear wailing, I won't take it personally.

Foer: Good. Thank you.

Dave: When Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was published, a lot was made of the fact that it was "a 9/11 novel." It's true that 9/11 sets the plot in motion, but that's about it, as far as discussion of the attacks. The book is really about people coping with loss and tragedy. I was expecting a very different story after hearing that description again and again.

Foer: I think it's particularly hard to talk about books when you have a small space. The average book review or description is probably less than five hundred words, and so you talk about the biggest, easiest things, or what's most obvious.

If someone were to say to me, "What's your book about?," it would be disingenuous not to mention September 11th. It would misrepresent the book. On the other hand, to only talk about it is even more misrepresentative.

The kind of books I want to write, the kind of books I like to read, are never as simple as how they would be described. If Moby Dick were really a book about a guy that was obsessed by a whale, why would anybody read it a hundred fifty years later?

People seem to have two reactions to books. Either they describe what they're about or they describe how the book made them feel. I'd much rather write the kind of book that inspires someone to describe the way it made them feel. When you're talking about the book, you're not referring to an object; you're referring to an experience.

I can almost describe the books in my life that way. What is Atonement? I would probably describe to somebody what it's about. What is Operation Shylock? I would probably describe how it made me feel, how it made me laugh or made me angry.

Dave: In both of your novels, deeply emotional scenes appear alongside very funny ones. Is there a scene in particular you especially enjoyed writing? By the same token, can you recall a scene that was particularly hard to create?

Foer: The idea of enjoying writing something is foreign to me. I enjoy having written things. Someone once said that writing is like pulling teeth... out of your penis.

How do I put this? I love being a writer, but I don't love writing. An analogy might be, right now, I love having a kid, but man, oh man—it's so hard. Twenty-four hours a day. It's the hardest thing I've ever done. If you were to ask me each step of the way, "Do you feel like doing this?"...

As in: Do you feel like changing a diaper? No. Do you feel like jiggling a kid at four a.m.? No. Do you feel like cleaning barf off your shirt? No. But at the end of the day, if someone said, "Would you have wanted to spend the day any other way?," I'd say that's how I wanted to spend the day. When I write, I don't find it enjoyable page-by-page, but I'm really glad that it's what I do.

Dave: Oskar calls himself a Francophile at a time in American history when people were changing the name of French fries to Freedom fries. Here's a nine-year-old boy getting his news from international web sites. Did those details come from a larger vision of his character, or did they arise from the writing, itself?

Foer: The poet Auden said, "I look at what I write so that I can see what I think." That's how it is for me. The vision comes to me in the process of writing, not in advance. I did see this portrait being painted, especially as I got near the end of the book, but I couldn't say that it was what I intended.

Dave: Do you consider Oskar a realistic character?

Foer: Not in the sense that anybody in the world is like him. If your test for whether he's authentic is, Could you go find a kid in the world that is somewhat like him?, he would fail that test. But that's not really the test that novels aspire to pass. You want to create a character who feels authentic, who feels real. A lot of the time that involves creating characters that are unrealistic in another way.

If I went and dictated some nine-year-old's speech over the course of a couple weeks, I'm not sure he would sound like a nine-year-old on the page, and I'm definitely not sure he would be evocative of a nine-year-old. It's a weird property of fiction, and I think of all art, particularly visual arts: The thing itself isn't necessarily best at evoking itself.

There are ways to represent an apple that are better than just putting an apple on a table; you can tell a story about an apple that makes somebody nostalgic for apples, or you can paint an apple tumbling down a staircase. There are a million different ways to address the thing that can actually enhance it. So when I was writing about Oskar, I never asked questions like, Is this something this kid would know or think or believe?

Dave: When you interviewed Jeffrey Eugenides, you mentioned that visual arts influence your writing more than literature. I'm surprised that more authors don't express similar perspectives, whether they're referring to visual arts or some other medium. You can draw inspiration from other writers, of course, but it's easy to fall into the trap of mimicking someone else's style; whereas if you draw inspiration from art or architecture or anywhere else, you can freely apply analogous forms and functions.

Foer: Which is not even to mention: How could somebody living in our world not respond to all the visual stimuli? It's not a coincidence that words so often show up in painting. It's not a coincidence that in music there's so much sampling and borrowing. For whatever reason, writers don't show the influence of other forms of media all that much. They show it less than any other form right now.

In part, that's good. It protects storytelling. It protects the book as something that is different from a web site or a pop song. On the other hand, it starts to diverge from how most people I know experience the world, which is as a collage of different kinds of media, a jumble of sights and sounds and bits of information, in a way that wasn't true even five years ago or ten years ago.

September 11th, in particular, was so fundamentally visual. Can anyone even think about it without seeing the planes going into the buildings or the body falling? I read somewhere that it was the most visually documented event in human history; nothing's ever been seen by more people than what happened that day. In that sense, I think it was the first truly global event.

I was in Queens when it happened, and my experience was probably similar to somebody living in Australia or Iceland or China. Physically, we were at different distances, but we were experiencing it simultaneously. I know it's not quite that simple because, being an American, being a New Yorker, there are all these layers of emotional connection that you have, but in terms of the raw experience, we were sharing those images, those visuals. So for this kind of book, in particular, a visual language really made sense.

Dave: Something that's different now than, say, thirty or fifty or a hundred years ago, is that tragedy is in the news every day. There may not be more of it than a hundred years ago, but no matter where it happens, we'll hear about it. Granted, some stories make the media and others don't, but we're assured a dose of death, killing, genocide, something, in every news broadcast. We're no longer confined to local tragedy.

Foer: Not only that, but kids in particular have access to the tragedy that they didn't even five years ago. Kids are so proficient with the Internet, not to mention curious. Also, kids are darkly curious in a way that adults might not be. You can see a beheading within five minutes if you want— and a lot of kids want to, or they feel compelled to.

I don't know how one manages that as a parent. It's something I don't have to think about yet.

Dave: How old were you when you started using the Internet?

Foer: I think I was a junior or senior in high school.

Dave: And you're twenty-nine?

Foer: Yes.

Dave: I'm thirty-six, for what it's worth, so I have a slightly different vantage point. I didn't start using the Internet until a few years after college.

Foer: Isn't that incredible?

Dave: That was going to be my point. We were born only seven years apart, but technology is evolving very quickly. You must talk to authors that are older than you as well as others that are younger. Can you recognize differences in the way they process information and events?

Foer: It's going to be a while before we know—the younger people have to mature and write a lot of books—but I'm positive there will be major, major differences.

One thing, for example: I remember speaking to an older writer about naming characters. I said I thought about it as I went or as I was nearing the end of the book, because, when I decide, I'll just do a search and replace. There's no reason to stress out about it. But if you're writing by hand, it actually is a very big deal.

Which points to another big difference: Before computers, people tried to get it right the first time. Now there's no need. Not only is there no need, but the possibilities for changing the text are so much greater. I can pull things in from different places, I can cut and paste, I can create something that's almost like a web page, with textual links. The flexibility of books is greater than ever before.

But I don't know what the implications are. I think it will take a long time to see.

Dave: When Nick Hornby was here, we talked about the role of an editor versus a record producer. A producer generally has a much greater impact on the final sound of an album; a good editor tends to be almost invisible.

The book industry remains very old-fashioned that way, or maybe it's that authors are allowed to be conservative, themselves. Why don't we see more collaboration, for instance? I'm thinking of the way a good soundtrack can sell movie tickets. When authors collaborate with artists, it tends to be a small press project released in very modest quantities, a thousand copies, outside the mainstream.

Foer: It's funny. I just did a book [Joe] with a photographer named Hiroshi Sugimoto. I got the first copy today. And yes, it will be printed in about a thousand.

There are a lot of reasons. Some of them are decent reasons. It takes a lot of money to make an art book, and not a lot of people can buy them. That's a good reason.

A bad reason is that we're so used to assuming things of the reading audience. We assume they'll be interested in this and not in that. Unfortunately, I think a lot of books are published to the lowest common denominator—I don't mean the quality, but the print run, for example.

When I'm on book tour, in the mornings, I do readings in high schools. I go to a high school or two during the day, and in the evening I go to a bookstore. I'm always the first living author these kids have met, and very often the first living author they've ever read, if they've read my books. (They don't always, or even usually.)

These are people that have been left behind by contemporary literature. They read Harry Potter because that's what they're given, and it's all they're given. If they were given The Corrections, they would read it. To say that The Corrections is written at the high school level... We're used to thinking of that as a belittlement, but it's not. It's a tremendous compliment that a serious work of literature could be accessible to that age group, and I'm absolutely sure it would be.

You mentioned Nick Hornby. Kids in high school would love that. They should get it. If they don't become future readers, there aren't going to be readers. And the fault is ours, not theirs.

Dave: As a bookseller, I'm familiar with many of the reasons you mention. Yet there's a never-ending whine within the book industry that young people aren't reading and what will become of us all.

Over the last few years, momentum has been building for graphic novels, and that's great. Finally we're starting to see larger print runs and media dollars directed at a form that young readers can get excited about. But it still feels like a matter of all or nothing, publishers chasing the next big thing.

Yes, it might be more expensive to play with the format, pay collaborators, include visuals, but how much do kids pay for a video game these days?

Foer: Right. Sixty bucks or something.

Dave: A lot more than a hardcover novel.

Foer: Why do kids know what video games exist? Why do they buy video games in the first place?

Books will never challenge video games for popularity—they can't, they shouldn't. Books are too much work. That's what makes books what they are, why they're so intimate, why they can touch someone much deeper than a video game ever could. That's part of the explanation. A much larger part is that there are posters for video games, there are advertisements for video games in places that high schoolers will see. How would a kid in high school even know what books are in a bookstore at any given moment? They'd have to go to the bookstore.

Unfortunately, I feel like the literary culture waits for the world to come to it. It's a very top-down business. You put an ad in the New York Times, and you hope it trickles down, as opposed to what computer game manufacturers do, which is bottom-up. They find lots of kids, they make what almost amounts to a political campaign. They make sure that everybody knows.

I think it would be really wonderful if kids knew what books are being published in a given season—it's a really inspiring thing to think about—but it's so obvious that they couldn't right now, the way things are done.

Dave: I went to a college with a very conservative syllabus. We didn't read living authors. I discovered Kurt Vonnegut outside of class because a girlfriend gave Cat's Cradle to me. That was really the first time I read something that struck a chord with ideas in my head. I'd read some good books in school, but I grew up in New England, so it tended to be stuff like Hawthorne.

Foer: I think teachers don't always think about the right order in which to give books to kids. You know what I mean? Maybe Hawthorne isn't the first book; maybe Vonnegut is the first book. Just like Tetris might not be the best first video game to give to a kid.

Dave: Would you try to hook a teenager on music by playing a nineteenth century composer? There will always be some kids interested in that sort of thing, but you're fencing out the majority and setting a ridiculously outdated first impression that's likely to last a long time. The reading process does require effort, but it doesn't have to feel like effort. There's something out there for everybody.

Foer: There's a book that will make a kid go crazy.

Dave: Exactly.

Something I want to ask: Your Wikipedia entry notes that detractors find you overly ambitious. I'm always puzzled when I hear that criticism, whether it's aimed at a writer or a musician or whomever. I would guess you've drawn inspiration from others who may have faced that same complaint. Who comes to mind?

Foer: The term is so dumb that it's hard to even think about. I guess I would hope they say that about every author I like.

I just wouldn't be interested in a book that didn't bite off more than it could chew. I'm not interested in successful books. I'm interested in really terrific failures. If a book is a success, it's closed; it's done. The experience is complete. It wasn't reaching for anything that it couldn't touch. But when a book bites off more than it can chew and shows its seams...

Underworld was like that. It's not really one of my favorite books, but it definitely bit off more than it could chew, and it was wonderful in that way. Midnight's Children. A Hundred Years of Solitude. Philip Roth does it all the time.

Dave: Your brother, Franklin, wrote a study of globalism called How Soccer Explains the World.

Foer: Right.

Dave: A good book, but if I threw the title back at you where Soccer is left blank—How [Blank] Explains the World—what might you put in its place?

Foer: Wow. That's a really terrific question. Let me think about that one.

Dave: We can come back to it.

Foer: Give me a few minutes.

Dave: Sure.

In that Eugenides interview, you asked whether he found it important to write something that his wife and daughter would like. Your wife is an author, and your brothers also write. How would you answer the same question?

Foer: It is important to me, but if they didn't like it, that wouldn't mean it wasn't good; and if they liked it that wouldn't mean it was good, but it sure makes life easier.

I can't imagine anyone answering differently, though I think Jeff did. I mean, it's a nice, politically correct thing to say: They're my family first and my readers second. But I guess I don't see that separation.

In part, it's because I write so much about family. Even when I'm not writing about family, it still has to do with family, with the kinds of things that happen in families, like miscommunications, especially, silences, competing ideas, so it matters to me what people in my family think about how I've expressed those concerns.

When my son reads one day, assuming he learns how to do that, if he says he doesn't like something I've written, would that crush me? Probably. I think it probably would.

Dave: I would refrain from pushing him for an opinion during his teenage years. He might criticize something just to piss you off.

Foer: I'll withhold food until he starts liking it.

Dave: Any albums or songs that you can't stop playing lately?

Foer: I've been listening to The Decemberists a lot. Do you know them?

Dave: Actually, I was going to say that it's an excellent, political answer—they're from Portland.

Foer: I did not even know that. I think they're great.

Dave: What about books?

Foer: I've been reading a lot of nonfiction, a lot about vegetarianism, which is something I've been interested in for quite a while, or animal welfare. Animals and humans, how we relate, that kind of stuff.

Dave: I saw in the Washington Post that you were turned down for a job in your local bookstore every summer during high school. Anthony Swofford used to live in Portland. He was turned down at Powell's before he published Jarhead.

Foer: That's funny.

Dave: Either bookstores need better hiring policies or maybe promising authors aren't necessarily cut out to be good booksellers. I don't know which.

Foer: Maybe you recognize that they could be future writers if they don't get tied up in the bookstore.

Dave: Right. They need to get out and work on their writing.

I also read that you were valedictorian of your high school.

Foer: No.

Dave: No? That was wrong?

Foer: It is wrong. I gave a graduation speech. I guess somebody said I was valedictorian, but I wasn't.

Dave: Do you remember much of the speech? Have you taken your own advice?

Foer: I talked about worth, what worth meant and what it meant to be worth something. To do things that are never recognized, or to do things not because they will be recognized.

I was watching a documentary earlier today about the artist Andy Goldsworthy. Do you know him?

Dave: No.

Foer: You should check him out. He basically just walks around outside, makes things, and moves on. I was thinking, Wow, he has no audience. Nobody's there, watching him, but he still does it. Of course he photographs it, and there are times when he does have audiences, but a lot of what he does is private. I thought that was so noble, really wonderful. I thought, Could I now even write a book and put it in a drawer?

It made me think of that speech and the idea of doing things that aren't recognized.

Dave: What else?

Foer: Blank Explains the World. I still need to give you an answer. I'm trying to think of something that isn't negative. My first response is Fear. Anything I say is going to sound so pretentious and dumb. Something like Dogs.

Dave: You can email me later, if you want to think about it.

Foer: Send me your address, will you? I don't have anything to write it down with.

Jonathan Safran Foer spoke on the afternoon of April 13, 2006. As requested, I emailed him a reminder about my question. His response came the following day:

"Nothing," Foer wrote. "That's my answer: 'Nothing Explains the World.' "

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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