The poet Galway Kinnell believed that “The secret title of every good poem might be ‘Tenderness.’”
It’s a sentiment that could be applied to the novels of one Kinnell’s admirers, Jonathan Safran Foer, as well.
Though they focus on fierce subjects (the Holocaust, 9-11, the destruction of Israel), Foer’s novels always exude a kind of longing for things that are gone, that will never again be. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a boy named Oskar whose father died on 9-11, imagines a book with everything backward so his father would leave the Twin Towers instead of entering them. He and his dad would then sit together in his room at bedtime, looking at the stars on the ceiling, and their conversation would go backward, from his father’s “I love you” when he left the room to “Once upon a time” as he tells Oskar a goodnight story, and then: “We would have been safe.”
It has been 14 years since Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, was published, a novel that prompted the Times of London to say that the author had “staked his claim for literary greatness.” Three years later came Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, then the non-fiction Eating Animals, then Tree of Codes, a work of art plus short novel plus poem. He edited, with author Nathan Englander, The New American Haggadah, and he’s won many literary prizes, including the National Jewish Book Award.
Foer’s latest novel is Here I Am, which the New York Times called his “best and most caustic novel, filled with so much pain and regret that your heart sometimes struggles to hold it all . . . Once put down it begs . . . to be picked back up . . . Here I Am has more teeming life in it than several hundred well-meaning and well-reviewed books of midlist fiction put together.”
Foer says Here I Am is his “best answer” to how he feels about his Judaism. “It’s the place I took that question most seriously” and is “a full expression of how complicated that is.” The central ideas in the book are “home, people looking for home, home and homelands in terms of family, religion and all alone,” he says.
Foer will be among the more than 30 authors speaking at the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit’s Annual Jewish Book Fair, November 2-13.
Foer will speak at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3, at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts, followed by a book sale and signing.
“Jonathan Safran Foer at once writes to the depths of our Judaism and humanity,” said Book Fair co-chair Susan Lutz. “His new book, Here I Am, aptly tells the tale of a family living Jewishly in the diaspora. What makes them Jewish, and what is their duty to Israel? Foer struggles with the belief in God, and yet his story reassures an indication of the concept. Forgiveness, righteousness and responsibility are thoughtfully considered in this must-read novel for any Jew living the span of 20th-21st centuries in America.”
Foer was born in 1977 in Washington, D.C., the middle of three sons.
He was never one of those kids certain of what he wanted to do when he grew up. But he had a feeling “that I wanted to know, that the answer would be a release and let me go.” He was, he says, “longing to know.”
He found his answer at Princeton, where he earned a degree in philosophy. Foer took an introductory writing class with Joyce Carol Oates, who later served as adviser for his senior thesis — which evolved into Everything Is Illuminated. Published in 2002, the book tells of a young American Jewish man who goes in search of the woman who saved his grandfather’s life in WWII. Both Everything Is Illuminated and Foer’s next novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, were quickly made into films.
So now he knew what he would do with his life. And it is a very good life.
“Who could be luckier?” he says. “I have no constraints. I can really just work from a position of my own joy or at least my own exploration.”
How Foer writes has changed over time. He used to be an early riser, and he could use his day as he chose. Then he married and had two boys (he has since divorced) and so, he says, “the logistics of life” now come in to play.
Everything starts with a bit of what he calls an itch.
Like thinking about those people who, at first glance, seem ordinary — but are sometimes tremendously dedicated soldiers of the past.
Civil War reenactors are a bit of an itch these days for Foer. There is, in particular, a group known as “Progressives,” who remain in character at all times, wearing only military outfits and clothing that might have been found in the 1860s, eating only food like cornmeal and hardtack.
The next step: “Let’s just give this a little time and space and see.”
Because maybe the Progressives will turn out to be just that small itch you scratch and it’s gone. Or maybe not.
Then comes the writing.
Foer lives in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, a charming neighborhood filled with historic buildings, parks and cultural institutions. It’s home to actors Patrick Stewart, Keri Russell, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Laurence Fishburne, writers Paul Auster, Dave Eggers and Pete Hamill, and politicians like Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Chuck Schumer.
Foer has a favorite red corduroy chair — “I just park myself there” — in his apartment. This is where the process begins. “It used to be the case that when I wasn’t writing well I would look for a new place,” he says. Now, though, he’ll stay at home, but maybe move from room to room if he needs a bit of a change.
What he will not do is lie down. “That’s a dangerous thing,” he says. “I might fall asleep.”
He writes his first draft on the computer, a place where his imagination is free to jump and spark and flash and dance.
“Writing is very open and intuitive,” he says, “so I’m not really worried about outcomes.”
Then comes the second phase — editing — which is, Foer says, almost like a different profession.
Writing is “trying to let everything out,” while editing is taming the wild, raw ideas. Yet while Foer’s imagination is let loose on the computer, editing is old school; he only edits with a pen, on a printed copy of the text.
Once the book is done, front and center at stores everywhere, Foer says he doesn’t read reviews because there’s little to learn from them, though he will listen at times to interpretations because he sometimes finds them interesting.
“I like learning the meaning of what I do,” he says, “because I don’t always really know what I intended.”
Here I Am takes its title from the Book of Genesis. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham responds with an answer that continues to intrigue, astonish and baffle to this day: “Here I am.” Foer’s Here I Am occurs over four weeks as a couple, Jacob and Julia Bloch, and their three sons, face challenges of their own — both struggles in their lives and crisis in the Middle East in the aftermath of a terrific earthquake.
NPR called the novel “dazzling.” Time raved “[It] lays bare the interior of a marriage with such intelligence and deep feeling and pitiless clarity, it’s impossible to read it and not re-examine your own family, and your place in it.” Giles Coren of the Times of London stated “[Here I Am] is a towering and glorious thing . . . And it is also, possibly, the funniest literary novel I have ever read.”
These autumn days, when the trees rustle and the wind sings and the air is filled with a kind of melancholy for the finished summer, the man behind all those rave reviews is mostly looking forward to taking walks and being with his children Sasha, 10, and Cy, 7.
Sometimes he’ll step out for a cup of coffee (he likes coffee a lot) or a vegetarian meal though, despite his only work of non-fiction, Eating Animals, Foer says he’s “not a militant vegetarian.” He enjoys reading poetry (especially by the late Galway Kinnell) and would love to be able to write it, but “poetry is difficult,” he says.
He might run into a friend, or sometimes fans will approach (being recognized is “funny and very sweet,” he says), and Foer is happy to stop and chat — the conversation invariably turning to his books.
And then he’ll return home where the red chair sits, waiting for the start of his next book. *
THE BOOK FAIR SCOOP
Jonathan Safran Foer will be among the more than 30 authors speaking at the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit’s Annual Jewish Book Fair, Nov. 2-13. The event also will include appearances by Ben Mezrich, Robert P. Watson and Larry Olmstead, a Sports Morning, Book Club Night with Boris Fishman, Kristallnacht Remembrance Day and Lunch with the Authors.
There will also be an entire evening of Star Trek, including the documentary For the Love of Spock and a presentation by Mark A. Altman, author of The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek. Beam yourselves over and check it out.
Unless otherwise noted, all events are free and open to the public.
For information, visit jccdet.org/bookfair. For tickets, contact the Berman Center for the Performing Arts: (248) 661-1900; theberman.org.
By Elizabeth Applebaum, Special to the Jewish News