About ten days ago, the Nassau Weekly’s editor in chief Jacob Savage interviewed (via telephone) Princeton’s most recent wunderkind, Jonathan Safran Foer ’99, author of the critically acclaimed best-seller Everything is Illuminated, and the recently published Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Jacob Savage: What was Princeton like for you?
Jonathan Safran Foer: There were ups and downs. The downs: I didn’t feel like I had a huge circle of friends, and I sometimes felt alienated from the campus at large. The ups: I was in Terrace—I really loved that—and I met some professors I really loved, particularly Gideon Rosen in the Philosophy Department, James Seawright in sculpture, and Joyce [Carol Oates]… I had a very, very lucky experience.
JS: Did you write for any campus publications?
JS: Do you remember the Nassau Weekly at all?
JS: Any thoughts about the Nass?
JSF: No [laughs]. I remember it was funny.
JS: What residential college were you in?
JSF: Shit, what was it called?
JS: Was it good, bad, pretty, ugly?
JSF: Holder Hall.
JS: Oh, Mathey or Rocky.
JSF: Yeah, I was in Rocky.
JS: I asked that sort of stupid question because I think people want to picture you at Princeton.
JSF: Believe me, not everybody wants to picture me at Princeton… but if one person cares, well, that’s enough.
JS: At what point in your Princeton career did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
JSF: I think it was sophomore year… I wrote most of Everything is Illuminated in the summer between my sophomore and junior years. I came back and didn’t really do much with it until my senior year I took it up as my Creative Writing thesis with Joyce. Actually, one semester was with Jeffrey Eugenides when he was here, and one semester with Joyce.
JS: Did you actually go to the Ukraine?
JSF: I did. The book has a lot of autobiographical elements, but nothing that happened once I got to Ukraine was like the book. There was no Alex, no dog, none of that crap. I was kind of depressed and hopeful when I was there… There were no economic opportunities, and no one quite knew how they were going to make it work.
JS: How long were you there for?
JSF: I was there for three days. [But] I was in Prague for the summer, for two and a half months, just writing.
JS: What was the context of your trip to Prague?
JSF: I was trying to write. I didn’t know what kind of writing I was going to do, whether it was going to be fiction, or non-fiction… I didn’t really know… College is a great time in life to do something like that. Take advantage of it. You don’t get too many opportunities after college to do something like that, something you really want to do.
JS: You edited the Future Dictionary of America, a sort of political book whose proceeds all went to benefit the Kerry campaign.
JSF: Indirectly, [it] mostly went to MoveOn.
JS: What do you think of the current political moment?
JSF: It’s easy to be apathetic right now because we don’t have the rally cry of an election. I don’t know… There are so many issues, issues that I’m feeling more strongly about than I did before, like literacy.
JS: At what point did you decide you wanted to tackle September 11 in your new book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close?
JSF: I didn’t really decide exactly. It’s what I was writing, and I think most writers go with the idea. I think writers should write about what they are thinking or feeling. Being a New Yorker, being an American, being just a person, September 11 was pretty important. I feel like I didn’t have that much choice about writing about it. The choice was how explicit to write about it and I ended up taking a pretty explicit path… the way that people talked about it, still talk about it, is so politically charged, so commercially charged, and always having to do with general theories and reactions, with capital “J” Justice, capital “T” Terrorism… But what is it like for an individual, what does an individual case of loss look like? By talking about one person you can actually mean something to lots of people.
JS: Where were you on September 11th?
JSF: I was in New York, in my apartment in Queens.
JS: What do you remember?
JSF: I remember being fixated on the news. I remember certain images very, very, very vividly… I think my memory of the day is really through images, sort of the planes going into the towers, bodies coming down. I wanted to reflect that in the book. September 11 was the most visually documented event in human history. There’s never been anything seen by so many people.
JS: What do you think the lessons of September 11 are, where is September 11 going to stand in our cultural lexicon?
JSF: It’s really not clear… nothing will ever make September 11th okay. There are ways to exacerbate it, to make it worse, and there are probably ways to kind of deal with it. I don’t think the right answer is to look for retribution. I think we need to ask why it happened in the first place, what made so many people willing to die for that event. Why did so many people in world cheer in the streets when it happened? What’s behind that? I think the answers to those questions will probably continue to give meaning to what happened.
JS: What’s it like to wake up to Michiko Kakutani panning Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close [Author’s note: the interview was conducted the morning her review came out in the New York Times]
JSF: I guess I’m now in good company [laugh].
JS: Is that the worst review you’ve gotten?
JSF: Yeah, in my life… It’s just one of those things. What can you say? There’s nothing to say.
JS: In terms of your own books, to you feel they appeal to a younger generation? You make a lot of references to things someone older than yourself might not understand.
JSF: I just don’t know. I know that some reviews I’ve gotten because the reader is more conservative, it’s not necessarily true that older readers are more conservative. I would say that it’s not really age as much as a kind of conservativeness, a kind of protection of what novels are.
JS: Everything is Illuminated seems to me to be very much a book written by a Jewish novelist. It’s a very Jewish novel. From what I’ve read about your new book (name), it seems like you’ve made a conscious effort to move away from that, toward a Salinger-type world where characters don’t really have defined ethnic identities. Was that a conscious move? Did you not want to write another Jewish novel?
JSF: I think there’s some truth to that. I was thinking about that… Judaism is only one part of me. In certain ways the first book came out more Jewish than I think I was and the second book came out less Jewish. I don’t have too much faith in any one book in terms of getting “it” right – whatever “it” is – but I do have faith in sort of a group of books, that the whole project will come closer to truth than any one book.
JS: Do you have any idea what your next project is going to be?
JSF: I have no idea.
JS: What are you up to these days?
JSF: Walking my dog, writing letters, eating cereal.
JS: What kind of cereal?
JSF: I’ve been enjoying this cereal, I don’t know what it’s called, it’s a Quaker oatmeally kind of thing. It’s a good conduit for milk.
JS: What novelists have most affected you?
JSF: Kafka, more than anyone else. He had a lot to do with why I wanted to be a writer.
JS: Who are your favorite contemporary novelists?
JSF: Well, Joyce [Carol Oates], I’m not exactly impartial on that one, but… Phillip Roth I feel the same way about.
JS: What’s your favorite Phillip Roth book?
JSF: Operation Shylock.
JS: I found that one of the strangest books I’ve ever read.
JSF: Did you like it?
JS: I really did like it, but… I didn’t really know what to think about it.
JSF: That’s good. It’s good not to know what to think about it. It’s better than knowing.