26-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended Princeton University, where he won the Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior Creative Writing Thesis prizes. After graduation he worked at a number of jobs including as a morgue assistant, receptionist, math tutor, ghostwriter and archivist. Jonathan was awarded the Zoetrope: All Story Fiction Prize in 2000, and his stories have appeared in The Paris Review and Conjunctions. He also edited A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell. In 1999, he went to the Ukraine to research his grandfather’s life, which, as Foer tells it, resulted (though not planned) in his writing his novel, Everything Is Illuminated. Jonathan Safran Foer lives in Brooklyn, NY, and is writing his second novel. The softcover edition of Everything Is Illuminated has recently been published with a variety of "eye catching" colored covers, and we talked to Foer as he once more hit the hustings to promote his book.
Everything Is Illuminated is the story of a young man named Jonathan Safran Foer’s search in the Ukraine for the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Aided in his quest by a 20th century Mr. Malaprop, Alex, (quoting Francine Prose, "Not since Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio.") and his a dog named Sammy Davis Jr., Jr., and Alex’s own grandfather, Foer imagines the history of his grandfather’s stetl. There is, of course, a kind of convergence of these poles in the narrative. But, to quote Ms. Prose once again:
"He’s got his sights on higher—much higher—things than mere laughs, on a whole series of themes so weighty that any one of them would be enough to give considerable heft to an ordinary novel. A partial list of the books concerns includes: the importance of myths and names, the frailty of memory, the necessity of remembrance, the nature of love, the dangers of secrecy, the legacy of the Holocaust, the value of friendship…and I’m not even mentioning a whole host of subthemes…"
Robert Birnbaum: You have been talking about this book for a long time now, first for the hardcover and now for the paper edition. Do you at all feel like a musician who has to keep playing the same set on a 50-city tour?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, when I read from the book I do. That, at this point, is verging on being insufferable. But talking about the book—I don’t feel that way at all. In a large part because the book has stayed the same, but I have changed a lot in the ways I think about the book. Different parts interest me, different parts bore me. I am embarrassed by different parts, and I am proud of different parts. My ideas about writing are so different now than they were when I wrote the book, and I have a feeling they are going to be quite different a year from now. And part of the way I formed those ideas is by talking to people. So I think I have been very lucky in that my experience with interviews has not been these absolutely formulaic Q&A’s with people who haven’t read the book.
JSF: There has been some of that, but by and large I have talked to people who have really read the book and have interesting things to say. And very often, things that had never occurred to me.
RB: That’s pleasantly surprising. Has your touring been continuous?
JSF: Not at all. There have been long stretches when I haven’t done anything all. The last two and half months I was in Paris, working. Over the last summer I was in a small town in Connecticut just working.
RB: Working, meaning writing?
JSF: Yeah. So if you put everything together, maybe two months [of book touring]. Maybe a little more. They are two intense months in which I did nothing but this [publicity tour]. But if that’s the price one has to pay, it’s a very small price. Right now I am so grateful to have an excuse not to write—to just be able to get a little distance from what I am working on.
RB: The working title of your next book is The Zelnick Museum?
JSF: You read that correctly, but it’s not that. In fact, there is no Zelnick character. It’s stupid to talk about things before you know about things.
RB: Well, as long as we are talking about what’s stupid to talk about, I read an interview with you in which you said the things you were being asked about weren’t true. Do you live in Washington, D.C.?
JSF: No. I live in Brooklyn.
RB: You are no longer 22 years old. You are 26?
RB: Anything else that the interviewer got wrong?
JSF: A lot of things. I have won various prizes I have never won.
RB: You won the National Jewish Book Award, not the National Book Award.
JSF: That’s one of those cases when an ellipsis is infinitely valuable. You know, I didn’t write my book in a week.
RB: That was being claimed?
JSF: Yeah. I didn’t come out of nowhere. That’s one of those beautiful and romantic myths, which is, in fact, really ugly in the way that it’s not true. I wasn’t some naive person that wrote a book and the next thing he knew it was on the bestseller list. I was rejected by numerous agents and rejected by numerous publishers, and it’s so important for people to know that because…
I was a half a degree from never publishing my book. I just got a great ride. I got really lucky. I kind of hit the lottery.
RB: You have to suffer to sing the blues.
JSF: No, it’s not that I am saying that I deserve where I am. I am saying that a lot of young writers conflate commercial failure with artistic failure. And they think, "If I had written a novel like that, then I would be successful." Well, it’s just not true. I was a half a degree from never publishing my book. I just got a great ride. I got really lucky. I kind of hit the lottery. But it could have been another way and it was another way for a while.
RB: It must be very hard to write bad English, as in the case of Alex who is the Russian translator in Everything Is Illuminated.
JSF: Writing it was a lot like reading it, I imagine. In the sense that in the beginning it was hard and a little bit frustrating and disorienting. You didn’t know if you liked it or not. And then at a certain point it’s easy. And then you become fluent in it. Then, it’s almost hard not to do it.
RB: I did like it and found it amusing. But it seemed like you would have to labor over every word.
JSF: You get a good enough sense of the person such that there is this built-in sense of authenticity test. Does it sound like him or doesn’t it? It’s not a question of splitting hairs or degrees. It’s a black-and-white kind of thing. Whether he would say it like this or he wouldn’t.
RB: Stylistically, why did you want to flip between the contemporary with Alex narrating and the historic narrative of a 18th century Polish stetl?
JSF: It would be kind of disingenuous to talk about why I did things the way I did, in that I don’t remember ever deciding to do things a certain way. I certainly never had any kind of outline for the book or plan for where I was going. In fact, I was never writing toward the end of a book. At least it wasn’t until I was quite far into it that I realized that it was actually a novel and there are certain responsibilities to the form. But for a long time I thought it might be some letters to a friend. I thought it might be nonfiction. I thought it might be memoir or collected stories. I thought it might be something that was loose and disconnected and never be housed under two covers. So I allowed it to grow very intuitively. It’s a shame that people want to be writers…
JSF: …because they end up moving toward expectations. You know what a book looks like, so you are done with a book when you have created something that looks more or less like a book. I came from a great position of naivete. One that I wish I still had. I really think it is easier to write when you are younger. And I think it is easier to write the less you know about what is expected of you. Which is not to say that you can make better books then. Because if you are able as an older writer, a more mature writer to overcome those expectations then you are really doing something remarkable. A lot of the things that are referred to as being ambitious in my book really aren’t ambitious. Ambition implies that you are going against a norm…
RB: The problem that every writer faces when they are subjected to interpretation is that interpretations tend not to individuate. You are not looked at with great attention to your individuality and uniqueness. All you have done is matched up with what people know about. It’s a problem that all creators have and maybe we all have in life. We miss important details because—perhaps for survival reasons—we need to generalize. I see it as part of my responsibility to rein in the tendency to compare and pigeonhole. As in, "Did Jeffrey Eugenides really influence you?" as if the answer would tell me anything. I wanted to ask you something else, but now I have lost it because I thought I would talk a lot. (both laugh) The graphic tschotskes that are in this book, were they things you were thinking about as you went along the pages of ellipses and a repeating phrase or the titles in wavy type?
JSF: It was all in the manuscript. And I never thought, "I want to do this, I want to do that." I was really expressing the story as I felt the story.
RB: Saying it was all in the manuscript, you mean that’s the way it appeared there?
JSF: Yeah. Speaking of Jeff Eugenides, I’m very often considered part of his generation and writers like Franzen and Moody and people like that. But actually I am from a different generation. I am from a generation that was raised with the Internet, which is quite different. It makes a huge difference. And I was raised with a different kind of television and music. Music for example that depends very much on borrowing from different traditions, sampling pieces of other music and overlaying different rhythms and melodies and I think that is reflected in my writing. It was not intentional and it was not an attempt to reflect something about the culture in which I grew up, but it’s what I know. And I think that comes across in the typography and in the style in the combination of voices. The world is more of a collage everyday. It seems like there is less unity of voice everyday.
RB: Something about this reminds me of the Western Hemisphere writers like Alberto Manguel, Eduardo Galeano and Ilan Stavans who have a great appreciation of the literary and cultural fragment. A reverence for the partial phrases and texts and pieces of antiquity that they synthesize into something else.
JSF: I wonder what the inclination to break things down is. I have it very strongly. I find that I am always breaking sections into smaller sections.
RB: Maybe that’s the way we make things comprehensible. Experience doesn’t come at us in a clear narrative. It’s a "buzzing, blooming confusion."
JSF: I think it’s truer now than it was before. Things are more fragmented now than they were before. Certainly information is coming in smaller bits. Partly there seems to be a lack of patience that we might once have had. Were so many people attention deficit disordered before and we just didn’t know how to diagnose it? Kids today can’t sit in the same place for as long as they used to be able to. It seems like. Maybe that’s not a correct observation. And why is that? I’m not exactly sure why it is, but the symptoms are evident everywhere and they are evident in literature. Part of my desire to switch voices is a kind of impatience. I don’t think it is a bad impatience or immature impatience. It has something to do with the way we live now.
RB: So going back to what seems to be a recurring theme, your graphic embellishments weren’t a deliberate structural thing but a spontaneous gesture coming out of the way you see things.
JSF: It’s a very complicated issue. I can say it wasn’t deliberate; on the other hand, I can say I must have been doing a lot of things subconsciously because a lot of it works out into very neat forms, and there are very good explanations for why I did things. I think there are two really distinct parts of the writing process—at least for my writing process. The first is this kind of intuitive creative expulsion. Then there is the really rigorous serious editing. And the first part is like singing in the shower. You just like the way it sounds in a particular room. In the room of this book I liked the way it sounded to sing as I was singing. When I am in the shower I might sing like Eminem or Radiohead or something that’s contemporary on the radio.
RB: Will you sing [Eminem's] "White America" for me?
JSF: Well, I’m a little hoarse. And when you are editing it’s like what if someone walked onto the bathroom, maybe I should choose my songs a little more carefully. Or choose the key in which I’ll sing. Or turn the water off. And in that expulsive first part I was totally unconcerned with the question of why am I switching voices. On the second part I thought, "How can I break these voices up such that the book is readable and sympathetic and recognizable? And will it make a good book rather than just a good…?"
RB: How much do you get out in that first expulsion?
JSF: I had a draft.
RB: The two major camps of writers on this are that some will just pour the story out and work it over and some will not move on until they have cleaned up what they have done the day before.
JSF: Yeah, it’s like anal retentive and anal expulsive. And I’m expulsive. There is a great story about Jackson Pollack and how he used to paint. He would cover a huge area with a canvas, maybe sixty by sixty feet. Huge. He would paint the whole thing and then he would walk over the canvas, literally walk on it and say here is a three by three-foot painting and here is a nine by two-foot painting and he would cut those out and stretch them.
RB: I didn’t see that in Ed Harris’ movie. [Pollack]
JSF: Ah the movie, well. In any case there is something to that in how I write. And then there are others who are like subtractive sculptors, who take a block a of marble and carve out the shape. If you do that you really have to know what you are going to find. You can’t afford to adjust or make mistakes. But this other way which is also in a way subtractive. You are finding something out of a larger thing. I find that much more liberating and it allows for so many accidents. Joseph Brodsky has this great line, "That the rhyme is smarter than the poet." Which I take to mean, when you are stuck to find a word that rhymes with tree, you’ll end up in a place you wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise, and is better than you would have gotten otherwise. It’s very hard to make something brilliant. It’s much easier to stumble on something brilliant. I need to put myself in the way of as many mistakes as I possibly can. Having an outline or knowing what I am going to find at the beginning is too hard to screw up.
RB: Let me get to the part of you that had any inclination to write anything. You went to Princeton and you did take writing courses or were you in a writing program?
JSF: I took some courses. I was a philosophy major. I took a class with Joyce Carol Oates, and she was the first person ever to make me think I should try to write in any sort of serious way. And my life really changed after that.
RB: How did Oates do that?
I am from a generation that was raised with the Internet, which is quite different…And I was raised with a different kind of television and music. Music for example that depends very much on borrowing from different traditions, sampling pieces of other music and overlaying different rhythms and melodies and I think that is reflected in my writing.
JSF: She wrote a letter to my house in DC during one break, and she said, "We talked a lot about your work in the context of the class and now I would like to talk about it a little more personally." I can practically recite it, "You appear to have a very strong and promising talent coupled with that most important of writerly qualities, energy." And man is she right! Energy is the most important writerly quality. In any case, she gave me a reading list. It was a very Joyce Carol Oates thing to do. She gave me suggestions for what avenues to pursue. And somebody took me seriously. It was a revelation for me. The revelation was not just that—the smaller revelation was that a writer of Joyce’s caliber would like my writing. The much larger revelation was that there was such a thing as my writing. It had never occurred to me.
RB: You must have been 19 or 20 years old?
JSF: 18, yeah.
RB: For you, writing was not a youthful ambition?
JSF: Absolutely not the case.
RB: What did you intend when you went to college?
JSF: I had no idea. I mean I had absolutely no idea. I knew better with each day what I wasn’t going to do. If feel I had scratched off just about everything on the list.
RB: Investment broker?
JSF: That was off the list relatively early.
JSF: Doctor stuck around, believe it or not. I heard a great joke the other day, "A gynecologist is a spreader of old wives’ tales."
JSF: Anyway, I wasn’t that worried about it. I felt very strongly that there was something inside of me, something that I wanted to express. I am sure everybody feels this way but particularly young people. Like there must be something I am good at. I felt it burning inside of me or something I’d like to try very hard to do. I had no sense of what it was. And it felt urgent to figure out what it was. And then with writing I realized not so much that I was born to be a writer but that writing was a much more flexible activity than I had previously thought. That its constraints were my constraints. It was limited by my limitations. And that was exciting.
RB: You edited one book before your own novel was published, a book on Joseph Cornell. When you are introduced to someone and perhaps asked about what you do, do you say, "I am a writer?"
JSF: I do but only because, A) it has great a cachet, B) it’s a relatively interesting thing to say you do. It’s the reason I majored in philosophy. I don’t care about philosophy; it’s just an interesting thing to say you studied. But also it’s convenient. The fact of the matter is that it is how I spend most of my time. It’s an honest answer.
RB: Okay, "What do you do?" "I’m a writer." "What do you write?"
JSF: Frankly, I try not to get into these situations. When they happen and sometimes it’s unavoidable. "What do you do?" "Well, I am sort of a writer." "What do you write?" "I just work on different stuff." "Have you published a book?" "This novel." "What’s it about." "Uh, uh, uh, uh…" That has less cachet.
RB: From the trip took to the Ukraine to the time you finished the final draft of Everything Is Illuminated, what amount of time elapsed?
JSF: The final draft—meaning what was going to the publisher?
JSF: Two and a half years.
RB: I read a conversation you had with Jeffrey
Euginedes and one thing that caught my attention was the notion
that if you work on a long piece that you get better towards the
end. Which suggests that you have to go back and make sure the beginning
is up to snuff. In your young life, two and a half years is a long
time. Did you feel like what you wrote at the end was markedly better
than what you wrote at the beginning?
JSF: No, because the way I wrote this book was I got this draft out very quickly. Like in two and half months just a draft and then two and a half years editing the whole thing. I wasn’t working through it from beginning to end at any point.
RB: Then you presented the draft to your editor, Eric Chinski—how is that relationship?
JSF: It was awesome. He’s great. More awesome for this book than what I am working on now. Because I can give it to him in a stage that isn’t completed whereas the first book, you can’t send a one-fourth-done first novel to somebody and expect him to read it. But it’s good—we think about books in the same way.
RB: So something has changed about the way you are writing now. You are letting people read your work sooner.
JSF: Just him. He’s the only person. No, I don’t like to show things to people. Frankly, I only show it to him out of some vague sense of obligation.
RB: After Princeton, did you do any writing programs or workshops?
JSF: In fact, I didn’t do all that much writing.
RB: You were just a receptionist…
JSF: I had a lot of jobs. A receptionist for a while, I was math tutor, I ghost wrote for a prostate journal, of all things, for a while. I assisted an archivist for a while. Just anything. It didn’t matter to me. I really didn’t care. I wasn’t that happy either. It was just a different kind of life.
RB: I take it the success of your book has allowed you to concentrate on writing?
RB: Any feeling about the old saw about early success being a damning thing?
JSF: We’ll never know. I will never be able to compare my life with somebody else’s life. Or with an alternate life that I didn’t live. But if my next book sucks maybe it was the case that next book was going to suck regardless. All I know is that I would much rather—I am grateful to be in the position that I am in. And people are going to read my next book. Maybe not a ton of people but some people will. And I couldn’t have said that had this book not been put out the way it was.
RB: There is a kind of pro forma writing life that includes teaching. Any interest in teaching?
JSF: Yes. I love talking. I Iove talking about books, and I love talking to young people. On my book tour for the hard back I did a reading every night, and in the mornings I would go to high schools and just talk about books. Not my book, I didn’t read or anything like that. One of the worst problems going now is how little younger people read. It’s entirely our fault. Books are just not brought to younger people in the same way that movies are or music is. It’s not that they are incapable of reading very sophisticated books, because they are. More capable than a lot of older people. The problem is something embedded in the culture right now, the writing culture. A fear of a certain kind of advertising. A fear of books becoming too much like music or movies. The Oprah problem was a symptom of it, of people’s hesitancy. My feeling about Oprah was that there were a lot of bad side effects to what she was doing, but they were so far outweighed by the good things her program was doing. She read a lot of really good books—some really dumb books but a lot of really good books to a lot of people–who wouldn’t otherwise have read anything.
RB: I think there is a legitimate concern about marketing books in the way that other things are marketed. It’s very much about what is chosen.
JSF: The fact of the matter is, there are going to be a lot of ugly things about it, and it is going to be the case that probably writers probably for reasons other than the quality of their books are going to be more heavily promoted. And it will be the case that there will be a greater discrepancy between the people who make a lot of money and the people who make no money. As is the case in music, Britney Spears makes all the money and she sucks.
RB: Are you sure you want to go public with this?
JSF: Sure. On the other hand the entire industry is lifted such independent bands can survive. There are lots of small bands that are getting by…
RB: Why do you say that?
JSF: I am not saying they are making millions of bucks, but they are capable of coming out with records and having people listen. Young people are listening to more music than they are reading books. And people who listen to Britney Spears, their taste diversifies as they get older and they are exposed to different things and there is room for those different things. Because everybody has a CD player and a shelf for CDs. With books, young people aren’t getting in the habit of reading. Reading is considered an act of self-improvement. Work. Homework. Probably something you are not smart enough to do and enjoy. If just the act of reading were more present. It’s like the Harry Potter question, I suppose. Is Harry Potter good? Harry Potter is good. Getting people in the practice of reading enables them to have their tastes diversify later.
RB: All this points to the failure of pedagogical models. I see this in history, which might be why our politics are rife with such silliness. But in terms of literature, I recall having very little interest in so-called classics in high school and I was an avid reader. What can Dickens and Tolstoi and Victor Hugo mean to a 15-year-old?
JSF: Very little at first. You need a kind of gateway drug. Toni Morrison can mean a lot to a kid in high school. And Kurt Vonnegut and Dave Eggers can mean a lot. And that’s great and they should mean a lot. JD Salinger still means something to everybody, it seems like. And you get curious. And you say, "What is this is all about? And what inspired these writers what were they reading when they were my age? How does all this fit together?" It’s not quite that deliberate obviously or contrived. But one thing does lead to another. The important thing is to start the habit.
RB: Well. I wonder if there is still this high value placed on suffering an education to be effective. You must memorize and pound things into your head. To fill yourself with things of which you haven’t a clue to their relevance in your life—because that’s supposed to be knowledge.
JSF: There is a hierarchy established and students are at the bottom of it. You try to climb this ladder of knowledge and learn things. If you don’t like Middlemarch it’s because you have a problem and when you are more sophisticated you will like Middlemarch. There is a moment that a lot of students have when they say, "Wait a minute, maybe it’s not my fault. Maybe it’s Middlemarch‘s fault. And here’s proof because I like this other book. I like Catcher in the Rye." And it’s one of those wonderful moments of "I am not alone, I am not dumb. This just wasn’t for me." And that’s what’s great about books: the entire purpose of the enterprise is to hook up like minds. To say this is for me, this is how I would express myself if I were somebody capable of doing this.
RB: That doesn’t work for me. This notion of "like minds." There are books and writing I like because it is not what I think or how I think and that I may not even really understand…
JSF: I wasn’t saying anything that is in conflict with that there is a learning process inherent in books. The reason you stick with the Toni Morrison and maybe don’t stick with Finnegan’s Wake or some other thing is because you feel like at the end of the day you are going to learn something human, not really something intellectual. At the bottom of that is that you think that Toni Morrison and you have something in common. Something deeper than the circumstances of our lives that has to do with being a person. And being afraid of dying or wanting to fall in love or wanting to be healthy or whatever it is. Her rather unusual way of saying it may just be in the interest of saying it more strongly. Not to teach you a lesson but to say these very fundamental things with as much volume and clarity ultimately as is possible.
RB: And saying them differently is what keeps it interesting.
JSF: And keeps it relevant. Every good book wants to express more or less the same thing. Every book is addressing, at least, these major themes of family, mortality, sexuality, and things like that. The problem is that these things have been expressed or we have attempted to express them for so long that the words start to become dead. And the stories start to become dead. Just in the interest of saying these things in the most simple way that you possibly can, you sometimes have to take a very unusual circuitous route. An expression like "I love you" has virtually no meaning anymore. Everyone has heard it. Probably from a number of people. How can you then express it with any meaning? Because you want the truth of it to come across. The answer is you have to find new ways to say it. Maybe you still use the three words but you do them in a different place. Or a different inflection or you are constantly trying to express to the person you are saying it to, why it means something. Books are the same things.
RB: One would hope. How far ahead are you looking in your life?
JSF: In my writing life or my life-life? I have no idea. There are a lot of things that I am interested in. Writing is one of them. I think it’s maybe one of the bigger ones, but I am not even sure. I am really interested in giving it my all. That sounds like a naive, simple thing to say, but I am very afraid of time passing without my being aware of it and without my somehow recording myself or feeling as if, I did what I could do. Writing right now seems like the best way of recording myself. My writing is going to change a lot. I have a lot of other interests. Art is a big one. Some of the typographical stuff in this book is going be extrapolated upon in this book I am working on now, and it will have an increasingly large presence in what I do. I’d like to have family. I really like domestic things. I want to have a home and a home life and a secure life. Between family and working, expressing myself everything can funnel into those two things.
RB: How much of a burden has your success been?
…with writing I realized not so much that I was born to be a writer but that writing was much more flexible activity than I had previously thought. That its constraints were my constraints. It was limited by my limitations. And that was exciting.
JSF: I would be one of the bigger assholes in the world if I ever described it as a burden. There are certain things about it that are vaguely difficult.
RB: You seem to be the recipient of a lot of abuse. Some of it scurrilous. You are not the only writer that people take shots at, but being included in some NY weekly’s list of "50 Loathsome New Yorkers," what is that about?
JSF: That just made me laugh. It’s funny.
RB: Really? The writing is funny…
JSF: The writing is funny. But also look, I know… what is the inspiration for some of that? I haven’t even had time to be loathsome.
JSF: I don’t talk about politics. I don’t talk about other writers. I haven’t betrayed anybody. What is it that could possibly make me so loathsome? Clearly, like the person is [short hesitation] jealous. I can’t imagine it being anything else.
RB: Okay right. That would make you a very confident person. I agree that wasn’t a reader’s poll and that it was the staff sitting around deciding whom to take down. Nonetheless, when someone says you are a stupid shithead some of it has to hurt and the more cleverly that it is said, the more I think it hurts.
JSF: Out of certain mouths it would bother me. Out of the mouth of that weekly it doesn’t bother me. It hurts me much more when a reader who seems to be intelligent and who seems to have read the book carefully critiques the book with me. If one of my heroes were to say to say it, it would bother me. But that newspaper is its own creation, it has its own motivations. Which I don’t really understand. I thought it was hilarious. I wanted to know why I wasn’t number four.
RB: Or number one. Who was number four, Franzen?
JSF: He was number 49, are you kidding me? I kicked his ass. I beat Leona Helmsley.
RB: Henry Kissinger was on the list.
JSF: I thought it was hilarious.
RB: Well this stuff exists as factual monads of the sloppy narrative of it all.
JSF: Yes, it’s a humorous part of the sloppy narrative. It actually enriches the experience in a way.
JSF: I’m being totally serious. It’s funny. It’s just funny. You read it. The person was clever. It’s like in my book; I would include that if I were the story of myself.
RB: How about as blurb on the dust jacket of your next book?
JSF: No, because that is just obnoxious. When my book came out I was really hoping that three people would review it, one was James Wood, who didn’t review it. One was Daniel Mendelsohn, who did, and one was Francine Prose, who also did. They were the three reviewers whose opinions I really, really respected and whose reviews I read. In part, because they review as much as anyone else. Those opinions meant a lot to me, and two of them were two of the nicest reviews I got probably. If they had not liked my book, it would really have hurt me because I trust where they are coming from. I completely trust their intentions.
RB: Isn’t James Wood something of a dark force?
JSF: He probably would have hated my book—probably too much to review it. But I respect him nonetheless. He goes a little overboard maybe. My point is in order to care about the opinions, you have care about the mouth they are coming out of. And this one I didn’t care.
RB: Did you read Mendelsohns’s review of The Lovely Bones?
JSF: I thought it was brilliant. He is so smart.
RB: Did you see it as hatchet job?
JSF: No, God, I thought it was the farthest thing from it.
RB: I read a response to it that did not see it as placing Sebold’s book in a cultural context and…
JSF: And he said very positive things about the book throughout. I thought it was the best review I’ve read all year, in that it did exactly what a review should do for somebody who has read the book. I had read the book. He explained to me what I felt. I felt all of these things about the book and I couldn’t describe it. I didn’t have the tools, intellectually to understand what I was thinking exactly. Or to understand why certain things bothered me. Or why I liked certain things. And he clarified the book. He didn’t attach all sorts of pompous intellectual overtones to his opinions; he really just clarified it. He said, "Look a little closer, maybe you will notice this or notice that." I thought it was really brilliant.
RB: What do you read?
JSF: The English writer Helen DeWitt, she wrote The Last Samurai. I think it is the best book, for my money, published in the last five years or so.
JSF: It’s so humane and so ambitious. She says all sorts of things in ways that have never been said and yet are so much more familiar than the way that you have seen a million times. It’s a wonderful book. I like poetry. I like Kafka.
RB: It’s funny to talk about Kafka as a classic author.
JSF: Because it’s not that old?
JSF: These days everything older than ten years old is a classic. John Updike is a classic. I would refer to Saul Bellow as a classic. Even Phillip Roth.
RB: Are prolific writers like Roth and Updike and Oates taken for granted?
JSF: They are not in the sense that they have as many readers as any literary writer. They’re doing great, they get huge review attention. Roth is the biggest writer in America as far as I am concerned. In terms of who people care about and who is changing things the most. Updike is a little bit of a lull. But no big deal, he has a million wonderful books, and I bet he writes more great books.
RB: What’s in your informational mix?
JSF: I don’t subscribe to any magazines. I will always read The New Yorker if it’s around. I found it perpetually interesting. Always telling me things I didn’t know. I love National Geographic. I love art books and art magazines. That’s my real informational passion.
JSF: A fair amount.
RB: What do you look at?
JSF: Mostly pornography and e-mail, to tell you the truth.
JSF: I Look at Slate. I like Slate, and when the terrorism thing was going on I looked at CNN, but it gets boring.
RB: When might you be finished with your next book?
JSF: I think this year.
RB: Then it could conceivably be out in the fall of 2004?
JSF: If I were a betting man.
RB: You could be on the road with the presidential candidates.
JSF: Man. I would like to. I would like to be very active in the campaign.
RB: Do you do journalism?
JSF: No, it’s not so much that I am not interested, it’s that I just can’t do it. I know what I can do and what I can’t.
RB: Why can’t you do it?
JSF: I’m just not good at it. I don’t have that language. Or that mind.
RB: Well, good. I look forward to seeing you again for your next best seller or attempt at such.
JSF: Not an attempt as a best seller. An attempt at a good book…
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing