Safran Foer on art and Sept. 11

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Monday, September 18, 2006

The Herald interviewed author Jonathan Safran Foer, who spoke on campus Friday, by phone on Sept. 11.

Herald: When Oliver Stone’s movie “World Trade Center” opened over the summer, people were saying “too soon, too soon!” How did you feel about releasing “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” in 2005, so soon after the event itself?

Safran Foer: It wasn’t too soon after the event. I don’t really think there’s such a thing as too soon. I think it’s totally possible that you can look at a movie or read a book and say, “That was bad.” The critique of “too soon” is something people say before they have experienced the work. This morning on CNN they replayed the coverage from September 11 and suddenly it was September 11 as we know it … and the journalists were making all sorts of mistakes – but nobody said it was too soon. We need journalists to try to confront this stuff. We need artists trying to deal with the important themes.

Your first novel, “Everything Is Illuminated,” contained many autobiographical elements. How does your personal experience as a New Yorker translate into “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close?”

Not in any explicit kind of way. I felt like (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”) was actually a more autobiographical book than my first one … but it was more an autobiography of my imagination. I think that is the level that fiction works on.

Today is the fifth anniversary of the attacks. How has your perspective changed over the past half-decade? Since you published “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” how has the country changed?

I guess I’ve admitted to myself that I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Before I wrote my book I didn’t appreciate how much it was weighing on me. Nationally I don’t really know. … It’s been one of the sad mistakes of the past couple of years assuming that one person can speak on behalf of the whole country. My impression is that there have been a bunch of stages: being very afraid, very confused, a stage of grieving. And now we’re moving toward a stage where we can appreciate it less passionately, more historically.

Why did you choose a character like Oskar – young, naive, eccentric – as a narrator and hero to explore this topic?

I wasn’t thinking about any of that stuff when I chose him. I don’t feel like I have the luxury to choose what I write about. So much of writing is what I can continue to care about over the course of a few years. You just get bored. But I did care about Oskar. I found him very caring, very sympathetic. That has everything to do with why I chose him. I don’t know if he’s a good narrator for this topic, but he is an open wound. We dropped a lot of our protective barriers after September 11. Oskar does have limitations because he’s not an adult. There’s a certain style of writing that I wanted to use but couldn’t. Writing is sort of like infinity minus one.

There’s a struggle when you write to say things in a new way. One way to say something new is to have a speaker who speaks in a different way. One thing I’ve been really obsessed with is how language can’t express everything you have to say.

Both of your novels involve Jewish families. In “Everything Is Illuminated” this is essential, but in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” it’s maybe secondary. What about this theme intrigues you? Do you intend to keep exploring it?

I never intended to explore it once. It’s a funny thing about writing books: you don’t write about the things you thought you’d write about. Judaism has been the biggest surprise for me. I’m not a religious Jew. On the one hand I think I’ve exhausted it, and on the other hand I think I’ll write about it again.

Tell me more about your style of writing, which has received so much attention for its modernism and originality. Which authors have influenced you?

I’m not that interested in plot, not that interested in character, just in telling the story. There’s no point, there’s no moral to what I write. I wanted to become a writer when I first encountered the works of Joseph Cornell. It was a sublime kind of feeling. He used lots of thoughts, lots of feelings that transcend language. Whatever can get me to that is what I’ll do. The photographs and pictures (in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”) point out the boundaries of language. I don’t write my books as critics would read them. I write as I want to be experienced. I would assume what does it for me would do it for others … or at least for one or some.

It’s hard to believe you’re only 10 years older than I am and wrote your first novel as an undergraduate at Princeton. As one of the first novelists of our generation, in what direction do you see the fiction genre heading?

Well luckily I like to read, so hopefully it’s the right direction. But 99 out of a 100 predictions are wrong. My favorite writers – a lot of them died in obscurity. I think one should write the book one wants to read, not the book one wants to write. At a certain point I realized I could write the book that I as a reader would want. It’s a great way to think that really helped me. It’s a great way of connecting. When you try to imagine the outside world, you make generalizations that are wrong, but when you think about yourself, you somehow manage to find the thing that people want.

What themes of modern life deserve the attention of artists? I know you are involved in political activism; do you try to incorporate it into your writing, or will you?

Writing is not the place for it. I’ve felt myself becoming more and more political. When the (2004) election came around that happened to be an occasion to think about these things. With certain animal welfare issues I’ve become more political. Why? I think it’s getting older. Getting older gives you more humility, more continuity. I’m a dad; that has given me a different perspective. I would never bring it into my fiction though. My goal now is the same it has always had on me. The effect that Cornell had on me, he made me want to make things. That’s what I want: I want someone to read my book and say: I want to go write a book.

What are you working on right now? How much has your life changed since your son was born?

I’m working on a bunch of different things. Having a kid has thrown me off track. I’m working a lot less than I used to.

What’s coming up in the future?

I would really like to write another novel. I feel like with novels, the more you write the harder it gets. If I meet a novelist now, I’m incredibly impressed. I think if I could finish a novel now, that would make me incredibly happy. In terms of art, a couple things but nothing really worth mentioning. I’m working on something about meat, like a nonfiction essay-thing.

Are you looking forward to your visit to Brown?

It’ll be kind of exciting to be back at a college. It was a difficult time for me, but at the same time it was an extremely wonderful time. I envy you guys.