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Interview by Jane Zwart


Those Things Tumbling Around Inside

A conversation with Jonathan Safran Foer.

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Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the bestselling novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. His other books include Eating Animals, Tree of Codes (an erasure project taking Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles as its base text), and a New American Haggadah, edited by Foer, with a new translation by Nathan Englander. What follows is a condensed version of his conversation onstage with Jane Zwart at Calvin College's Festival of Faith & Writing in April 2012.

Plenty of readers have questioned you about the narrative techniques of your books—their hosting multiple narrators, their sliding back and forth in time, their embedded images, their typographical oddities, and so on. You've insisted, in turn, that given our daily experiences of hearing myriad voices or skipping around in memory, such techniques are actually more honest than perfectly linear storytelling. But what about the places where your books say nothing—the blank pages in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example? Is preserving silence sometimes as important to your writing as saying something—in whatever form—is?

I don't know if I have any interest in preserving silence since I don't think silence is a very good thing. I think that quiet is a very good thing. But that's really different. After all, the kind of silence that often appears in my writing is not the silence of reflection or the silence of serenity or peace. It's the silence of being unable to communicate.

That said, a lot of my writing has been born out of the inability to communicate things. When I was younger, I thought writing was this great romantic act where you would push mighty sentences together. That you would go to the office and toil every day, carrying these sentences and dumping them onto the pile, and that over time they would form a great big mountain. And then you would take all your friends to it and say, "Here. I've got to show you something," point to the top of it, and everyone would be in awe. It would be wonderful. But in fact, that's not what writing's like at all.

Instead, I encounter these holes in my life. The hole of my family's history in Eastern Europe. The hole of the silence about that history. So I take sentences to the hole and push them into it. At a certain point, the ground becomes more or less level, meaning that I can move on to the next hole—but never to the next great, romantic construction.

The older I've grown, then, the more convinced I am that there's nothing that shouldn't be talked about—and that, if we ever think that we are protecting each other by not talking about something, we're not. Even if the conversation is very difficult. Even if it is hurtful. Even if it's very awkward or uncomfortable. Even if it requires us to say things we wish never had to be said.

Your talking about holes and narrative in these terms makes me think, in particular, about Tree of Codes, especially because of that book's form. Maybe, then, you could describe the way you went about composing Tree of Codes and, after that, comment on how you think about the holes in it. For instance: Do you consider these cut-outs erasures or composition? Do you consider the book to be more about absence or about preservation? Or, more generally, how does the meaning of this book relate to the larger conceptual commitments behind it?

The story is this: I got an email one day, after I'd written my two novels and after I'd written Eating Animals, from a woman in London, and she said, "I'm starting a publishing house." I thought, "Oh boy. Here we go." She said, "We can't pay you any money." I thought, "Wow. You've got my attention." "But," she said, "we are totally invested in the idea of making beautiful books and we will make anything you want to make." And I thought, "Hmm." Well, I really thought, "I doubt that's true." Still, I started dwelling on the possibilities for a bit.

I had for a long time been interested in this technique called die-cutting. Die-cutting is a very old industrial technique. It's how they make cars. Basically, it means cutting out one piece of material from a larger whole—like taking a stamp. Then you press that stamp into some surface, removing a piece of it. In particular, I became interested in die-cutting paper. I thought it'd be neat to make a book where each page was an original die-cut. Meanwhile, at more or less the same time, I'd become interested in a kind of writing called erasure. Erasure is, on the surface, simple: you start with a text and then, by erasing certain words, you create a new text, all its sentences made out of the words that are left.

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