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Interview by Jane Zwart

Those Things Tumbling Around Inside

A conversation with Jonathan Safran Foer.

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.

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.

One of the other things that you keep coming back to (for whatever reason) is, I think, the imagery of reversal. Readers of your novels will probably notice the trope of reversal most clearly in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—and especially in that book's ending, where the images of a man plummeting from the World Trade Center are reversed so that he ascends instead of falls. Could you talk a little bit about why such images of reversal are so compelling for you?

It's so funny you should mention that because I just reread an introduction I wrote for a book called The Heavens Are Empty, and I only read it because you had the book with you backstage. Anyway, that introduction contains—you might not have even remembered this—just such a reversal. I imagine the Jewish Diaspora that flowed out of Eastern Europe across the world reversing and going back.

Still, I can't explain why it interests me. It's just something that has always interested me. I like watching things happen backwards. I don't know why. I don't. But I find it very beautiful.

For one thing, I think seeing things occur backwards, because it is really disorienting, can make the mundane seem really spectacular again. I guess part of why I care about that is my anxiety about missing life, you know? I don't want find myself on my deathbed saying, "Ooh, that was so fast. Did that really just happen?" I would prefer to have been present for everything as it happened. Things that make me present, then, I appreciate. Or like. And often I find them very beautiful. Watching something in slow-motion, watching something in reverse, takes these little daily acts that are sort of throwaways and lets us notice them.

What might be an example? Every morning, let's say, my older son comes downstairs. We brush his teeth. Put toothpaste on his brush. Brush his teeth. He spits into the sink. To think instead of the water in the sink going back into his mouth—to think of him unbrushing his teeth and then taking the toothpaste back into the tube and walking backwards to his bed and the bed tucking him back in—well, it's kind of weird and it's kind of beautiful. More importantly, though, it turns this thing that is actually a wonderful, wonderful five minutes, but totally forgotten (because we do it every single day and it just becomes mundane) significant again. Worse, this ritual sometimes becomes a chore. So if there's a way to re-envision these little things so that their beauty is revealed, that's really exciting.

In fact, that's the most that art can hope to do, since art can't be more than life. That wouldn't make sense, because there is nothing more than life. Still, art can reveal what is amazing about life.

Do you think there's any sense in which that reversal, getting something back by getting it backward, is a way of keeping those eleventh and twelfth commandments you talked about last night? The commandments "Don't Ever Change" and "Change." Is there a way in which looking at things backward enacts that, do you think?

Maybe. Maybe in seeing things reversed, you get to have it both ways.

Again, kids are a great analogy. You want your kids to grow up and you don't want your kids to grow up. And you can't have it both ways. You want your kids to become independent of you, but it's also in a way a parent's worst nightmare: for them to not need you. So, how do you reconcile those two very strong emotions? You don't. You live with that problem. It's the real tragedy of parenting. And maybe there's some sense in which in art you can have it both ways whereas in life you can't.

Is there any possibility, do you think, whether for you personally or not, that religious belief lets us have it both ways: changing and never changing? Whereas in life, without that, we can't?

What do you mean?

Well, you're talking about the unbrushing of teeth and all of that, and that's in Extremely Loud, which I love, but so was the grandmother's backward narrative that brings us all the way back to the beginning of the world. And the last line of the grandmother's, after Eve put the apple back on the tree, is "And God said, 'Let there be light.' And there was darkness." So what I mean is this: do you think there might be a way in which religious faith and its sense of story allows us to have something already past (or even lost) back again?

That's a big question. I don't know.

Partly because that's not the kind of religion I'm interested in. I am actually interested in the kind of religion that makes life harder rather than easier, as strange as that might sound. That is, I am not interested in a comforting religion, but I do like the idea of a religion that forces me to take stock of myself, to ask the very hard questions. To ask: Who am I really? How do I measure against the person that I wanted to be?

Adam and Eve and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob: I think of their stories as the greatest stories ever told and as the most important stories in my life and as stories that are incredibly good at transmitting values. But I do think of them as stories. I don't read the Bible literally. Or maybe I do read the Bible literally, but using literally in a slightly different sense. I believe literally in the values that are being spoken about. Do I literally believe that Abraham took Isaac to sacrifice him? I guess what I would say is I don't find that question all that important or interesting even as I find the undercurrents of the story itself incredibly interesting and incredibly important.

So, whenever religion is used to have it both ways, that makes me uncomfortable. When religion is used to narrow the number of ways we can have life, that excites me. The framework for asking better questions or establishing better habits or dividing time in ways that are good for us: that's my idea of religion.

I think that's consistent with things you've said elsewhere, one of which is you can't imagine yourself praying to God but you want to be able to talk to God or talk about God in a literary way, which maybe approaches that other meaning of the word literally. To talk about God in a literary way, therefore: when, in your own writing, the word God comes forward, what's the best metaphor for what you mean by that word? Or what's the literary device you would appeal to, in thinking about God? Is God an author, or a narrator, or a character, or a reader? Or …?

That's an ongoing question for me. It's something that I think about a lot more now than I used to. I used to just dismiss the question.

I should say, by the way, that I come from a place—now New York City, though I've always lived in northeastern cities, among fairly liberal, usually intellectual communities—where this question would be dismissed without a second thought. I don't think it would be dismissed in a nasty way. The people that I know don't look down upon religious people. They just say, "It's not for me. I'm not religious." And that's it. There's no conversation to be had.

Again, that refusal to enter into the conversation is respectful. Of course, there's another kind of person who hears any group of believers speak and says, "Those people are idiots." That's not how I grew up. I actually grew up going to Hebrew school twice a week. In my family, in my community, there was an awful lot of respect for religion. When it came to God, however, the consensus was that it wasn't really what we do.

But I have become more and more interested in all of it as time has passed. Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, "I don't pray for things that I want. I pray to be worthy of the things that I want." That is the kind of prayer relationship or God relationship that interests me. I don't believe in prayer as a real communication with someone else, but I do believe in the value of making the effort to communicate nevertheless, because things articulated have a power that they don't have in silence.

In a way this comes back to what we were saying before. Until you articulate who you want to be, it's very easy to brush it under the carpet or to pretend that you just can't remember or that it's just not important right now. Until you articulate what you really want, it's easy to be distracted by the things that you want in a cheaper way.

So all I can say is that it's something I continue to think about. I will never come around to the idea of an anthropomorphic God. It's not something that I have it in me to believe. I also have a hard time even with the word God. When people ask me if I believe in God, I often say, "I'm agnostic about the answer and I'm agnostic about the question." What does that question mean? I think it's very definitionally complicated. After all, there's a definition of God that Christopher Hitchens believed in, and there's a definition of God that the pope doesn't believe in. We have to know what we're talking about. And it's very, very hard to know what we're talking about.

In a sense, if we could put what we mean by the word God into words, it wouldn't be God anymore. So now we have a problem because there's an impossibility of ever talking about the thing. If we are talking about God, in fact, we aren't really talking about the real thing. In that sense, trying to think about God has to be a personal investigation.

Then again, maybe rather than trying to gesture at the conclusions, I should just say that I find the process really fulfilling, that I find the sort of endless search or the endless wrestling really valuable.

Jane Zwart teaches literature and writing at Calvin College. For months prior to this conversation, she had a recurring dream about waking, on the morning of the interview, as Oskar Schell's mute Grandfather.

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