Inspired Talks: Jonathan Safran Foer, The Author Of Everything Is Illuminated

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This post is made possible by Lexus Hybrid as a new part of the Fresh Perspectives series that focuses on featuring disrupting and innovative transmedia artists around the world. Every week, the program focuses on one of the six amazing artists involved in the Fresh Perspectives project.

Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer (born February 21, 1977) is a Jewish-American author best known for his novels Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). In 2009, he published a work of nonfiction entitled Eating Animals.

Ulterior motives

interview by Larry Carroll


Escape is a word that can’t help but come to mind when you consider the career of Jonathan Safran Foer. His acclaimed novels “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” gave readers a stylized version of our reality where tragedy still exists, but is woven into a tapestry of beauty, adventure and self-discovery. In “Tree of Codes,” he sliced out words and sentences from his favorite book, creating a wholly original work from its stripped bones. And in 2009, he published his first nonfiction work, an examination of his own struggles with vegetarianism called “Eating Animals.” In this interview, Foer talks about dodging expectations, mutilating one masterpiece to make another, and why he has blank pieces of notebook paper hanging on his kitchen walls.

When you sit down to write, what drives you?
A lot of different things make me do what I do. Sometimes, I do it because that’s what I want to do. Sometimes, I do what I do because that’s what I did in the past. Sometimes I do what I do because that’s my job. Part of being a writer is balancing all the incentives — or disincentives — to actually write.

After the success of your first two works of fiction, why did you decide to go so far off the beaten path?
I didn’t want to write another novel, just because I had in the past. With “Eating Animals,” the choice of becoming a vegetarian was a subject I’d been interested in since I was a kid, but had never given any real serious thought to my decisions, whether it was religion or instinct. When my wife got pregnant, before making the choice on someone else’s behalf, I wanted to take the question more seriously.

Is being a writer ultimately about following your passion? Do you need to be passionate to write well?
No, I don’t actually think so. You have to care about what you’re writing about, but on a day-to-day level it’s not about passion, it’s about willpower. Very often, writing isn’t fun at all; it’s quite aggravating. But I’ve found that when it’s most aggravating, it provides the best material. People have these magical ideas about it being an inspired process with muses and so on, but it’s just the opposite. It challenges one’s will — every day, there’s another blank page to fill.

With “Tree of Codes” you sliced out chunks of Bruno Schulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles” and used die-cutting to create as much a sculpture as a novel. How did you come up with such a unique idea?
I’ve always had some interest in that technique of dye-cutting books, the physicality of books and how little that physicality is taken advantage of. It’s a particularly interesting issue now, because books are becoming even less of a physical presence. With “Tree of Codes,” I wanted to make a book that remembered it was a physical thing.

You once wrote about your hobby of collecting blank pages from famous authors. Do you still do that?
No, I don’t do it anymore; that was something I did before I was a writer. Somebody giving me a page, a piece of paper, the next page they would have written on — that was really interesting to me, and moving in a way. I hung them up on the wall of my apartment when I was in Queens. Now I have 40 or so, and a number of the writers — Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace — have died. So they’ve taken on even more meaning.

Do you still look at those pages for inspiration?
Not really. I look at them because they’re in my kitchen [laughs]. But I continue to really like them.

Is your dream that someday, some young kid will ask you for a blank page?
No, my dream is to write the things that feel significant to me. A dream is something that happens before a book gets published.

Further reading

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