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Interview by Jane Zwart


Those Things Tumbling Around Inside

A conversation with Jonathan Safran Foer.

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Finally, I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to make a book where by cutting out words you're left with a different book?" So that is what I proposed, and that was what we did.

I used as my starting point Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles, which had long been a favorite book of mine. It's a collection of short stories by a Polish writer who was killed in World War II and who also happens to be one of the geniuses of the 20th century. His book lent itself to this project like no other, not only because of the circumstances of his life and death, but also because his writing is so maximal and vibrant and colorful. Most simply: the book that I was going to start with was going to be like the palette, and his was the most vibrant palette that I could think of.

And how did I think about the holes? That was your question. I don't know that I think of the holes. I think of the book itself as an object. A book-object. It's not a book like a traditional book. It doesn't invite a traditional kind of reading, and if you try to read it like a traditional kind of book, you'll be disappointed or frustrated.

It was really hard to make. And I was very, very proud when I got it, despite the fact that it's so weird and it's a little bit too expensive and it's never going to have a life in the world. It just won't. But I am proud to have done it.

What you have done, though, in making Tree of Codes resembles something Oskar does in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In class, he presents on Hiroshima, as most readers will remember, and at the end of his talk he holds up a die-cut page. He produces, as a visual aid, a version of the first page of A Brief History of Time translated into Japanese—but all of the characters are cut out just as they would have been burnt out by the nuclear blast. Is there a way in which you holding and handling Tree of Codes is kin to Oskar holding up that page from Hawking?

First, maybe, I should explain that the blast in Hiroshima had all kinds of unusual properties, one of which was that the light was so bright that it singed everything that was dark in color while preserving things that were light in color. For example, there were people who were wearing striped sweaters that day, and at the moment of the nuclear blast, all of the black got burned away so that they were left with only rings of white fabric. Likewise, some people had books open, and the dark characters were burned out of the paper. Only the paper was left. I was intrigued by that. It's just such a startling image. It's such a—if you can say it—it's such a beautiful image. An arresting image.

I had wanted to have die-cuts in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, actually, for a while. One of its incarnations had all kinds of die-cuts throughout the book. But it was prohibitively expensive. It was also not the right way to make the book. It just would've been too much. Too distracting. But yeah, the die-cuts in Tree of Codes and the one that Oskar presents in Extremely Loud are very, very much related.

I don't know that I was thinking about Oskar when I was working on the other book. Still, these concerns tumble around inside you. Some of them are emotional, some of them are intellectual, and some of them you'd almost have to describe as fetishistic. You just have little interests. Things that you like. Some people like fur, you know? I happen not to.

You don't say.

Some people like a certain kind of joke. Some people really like it when their neighborhood shows up in a movie. Some people really like peeling glue off their palms, right?

There are just things that people like. You can't describe why we like them. Maybe they go back to our caveman selves. They probably do, in fact. But we like them. Or at least we like them in the sense that we feel some kind of relief when we encounter them. And art is a good venue for those things.

I don't know what it is about one thing being removed. (By the way, what I just described—peeling glue off your palm—is not so unlike this die-cutting process or these letters being burnt out of a page.) Such minor fascinations just show up. And one of the great things about art is you get to see what your concerns are, what those things tumbling around inside you are.

It would be a shame, I've always thought, if I didn't write, because those things would be lost. It would be as if, to extend the metaphor, the dryer's door was broken and I never got to open it and see what was inside. When you make things and when you're open to an unself-conscious process and when you're open to your intuitions and to your subconscious, you end up seeing all kinds of weird things. Some you like; some you don't. Some are beautiful; some are ugly. Some are useful; some are garbage. But they're yours. And the idea of living your life without getting to see all of these things that you've been concerned with is sad.

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