Reposted: an Interview with Jonathan Safran Foer

I interviewed Jonathan Safran Foer way back in 2006 for Boston’s Weekly Dig. I re-read the interview recently and it (well, he) made me laugh and think (like ya do). Since the link no longer functions, I thought I’d repost the original, full-length interview here for your “20 under 40” appreciation (as off-putting as I find that whole kerfuffle, as does Steve Almond.)


For a man who has appeared twice on the annual “50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers” list in the New York Press, author Jonathan Safran Foer is pretty damn likeable. When we meet in Brooklyn, he’s a little late and out of sorts—he’s just come from home where he lives with his wife, author Nicole Krauss, and their infant son, Sasha. As he settles into a slice of pecan pie and a cup of coffee, Foer seems serenely flummoxed by fatherhood and the duties that surround it (“Raising a kid takes as many people as you give it. If we had eight people, it would take eight people.”). We talk about his latest novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and how his life has changed since his son was born nine weeks ago.

I’m sure you’ve seen [in the New York Press] that you’re the 28th most loathsome New Yorker this year.

That was brought to my attention. It’s incredible. [Laughs] I think that’s great.

In 2003 you were number five, so obviously you haven’t been…

I’ve been doing something wrong. Or else other people have stepped it up.

You’ve lived with this media backlash. I don’t know how much you keep up with it, if at all…

Not very much. But I do have a little brother who is generous enough to forward me particularly mean things. I’m truly only aware of it when someone brings it to my attention. Like this thing, this list, was practically a cause for celebration. I guess I feel grateful that anybody cares at all. Nobody cares about books anymore.

You’re probably not aware of this either, but you’re something of a literary sex symbol.

That, I’m totally not aware of. Why didn’t my brother forward me that?

All the women I know would throw their panties at you at readings, if that were an acceptable thing to do.

Let them know it is. I don’t know. I wouldn’t go for me if I were a woman [laughs]. I feel like there’s a strong mixture coming from the same people in response to the book, or in response to me. Like I come off as someone that people like and hate.

There was noise about you writing a September 11 book so soon. Were people not ready to see a best-selling book about that?

I don’t know. I understand that it’s incredibly sensitive. I understand that something feels wrong about somehow borrowing emotion from it, instead of earning it. And if somebody’s fear was that, going into reading my book, I wouldn’t blame them. It seems like a perfectly reasonable fear. I would hope my book made them feel okay but if it doesn’t, that’s also okay. That’s their opinion. But I think there’s something else going on. I guess everybody’s hollering about this movie [“United 93”]. I don’t get that at all because nobody says that about journalists. Journalists are people who actually are manipulating the news because they have to sell commercials, and they have ratings to worry about, and their careers themselves. That’s why news is so alarmist–it’s the best way to get people to tune in. But nobody questions if it’s too soon for a journalist. Literally, people can die because of mistakes journalists make, or we can go to war because of mistakes journalists make.

The end of your book, the flipbook [a series of photographs of a man falling from the World Trade Center in reverse, so that he appears to be ascending], was maybe the most controversial part…

I think people get very uncomfortable when reality intersects with fiction. When it’s all fiction it’s nice, it’s pretty, we’re observing it from a distance. No one gets hurt. But when it intersects with reality, suddenly…well, what if the family members are offended? What if you’re borrowing that person’s grief for your own gain?

The picture isn’t a real picture. I made it. But I think one could have used a real picture. I don’t think there’s any ethical issue with that. I, for whatever reason, didn’t want to. I guess I didn’t want a person coming up to me at a reading saying, “That was my so-and-so.” I don’t think that’s a good test though: Would every victim’s family be happy with what you made? That can’t be a test.

You’ve written about the Holocaust and Dresden and Hiroshima a little bit, and September 11 now. What are your plans for the future?

Nothing like that. I just won’t do it again. I know I’m somebody who is obsessed with dark, catastrophic things. I don’t want to be like that. And I don’t think my book is a response to that instinct, either. I really didn’t want to write about September 11. If someone had said, “You’re going to,” I would have said, “Please stop me if I start to.” It seemed too heavy, or maybe I thought it was too soon. But I just couldn’t avoid it. That having been said, there’s nothing I know about what I’m going to do in the future, but I know it’s not going to be like that. But who knows? What if something happened tomorrow?

My life has really changed in the last year or two. Once I got married, a lot of needs that I previously had, I just didn’t have anymore. My creative output cut way back. And having a kid, it cut back even more. It’s very satisfying in so many ways. I have diarrhea under my fingernails. It’s all I do.

[My son] gives me a whole new set of emotions to use. Before, I was still somebody who was a care-recipient in the world. And now I’m a care-giver. It’s totally different. It’s the first time I’ve experienced love as not a good thing, or not necessarily a good thing. I used to think that love was a positive value. Zero is you don’t care about somebody. Positive five is you like them, and positive ten is that you like them a lot, and positive twenty is that you love them. Now, really, it’s just twenty. There’s negative twenty or positive twenty. You’re always very far from zero. Also, how do you explain loving something that doesn’t love you? My kid doesn’t love me. It’s the greatest unrequited love story of all time, having a kid.

I should go soon. It’s bath time tonight.

That sounds fun.

It’s really the highlight. I think the thing I like most about him is his body. I don’t get to see it very often. It’s rare that I get to hold his whole naked body. And it’s the sweetest thing in the world.

Does he like baths?

I don’t know what he likes or doesn’t like. He’s hard to get a read on. [Laughs] I know he loves breast-feeding.

Can’t blame him for that.

It’s such an overwhelming experience. I would really recommend it.

It sounds terrifying, but I’m sure once you’re in the midst of it, it becomes…

It becomes more terrifying. It makes everything else that I’ve done seem so easy. It’s so unbelievably hard. But that’s part of what’s great about it. That’s exactly what’s great about it.

-April 2006

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