Jonathan Safran Foer was born in 1977. He is the editor of the anthology A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell, and his stories have been published in the Paris Review, Conjunctions and the New Yorker.
Are You What You Eat? Jonathan Safran Foer on why he doesn't eat anything with parents
The nine-year-old life of me
I first became a vegetarian when I was nine years old, and the rationale was entirely straightforward: I didn't want to eat anything that had to be killed for me to eat it. I couldn't, for the nine-year-old life of me, understand how anyone could possibly disagree.
I did eat plants. Albeit reluctantly. And I ate meatballs, my favorite food, which technically didn't have to be killed for me to eat them, as a meatball is not, technically, an animal. I wore leather, but I didn't eat it. But I did chew on it.
Although that's not the whole story...
Because there was a babysitter who was a vegetarian. She didn't want to hurt anything. She put it just like that: "I don't want to hurt anything." Which is different from not wanting to kill anything. It was a beautiful idea, and I loved her. She let me run my fingers through her hair while we watched the television in my parents' bedroom at hours past my bedtime.
Remembering those late nights...
I wonder what she was thinking when she let me run my fingers through her hair. Even at the time I recognized the inappropriateness. Whenever my Dad would take me along to pick her up he'd remind me not to say anything about how messy her house was. I told him of course not. Her backpack was covered in patches, her jeans were more rips than denim, she was "radical" in just about every sense of the world.
But that's not the whole story...
Because as it turns out, she'd been filling that patch-covered backpack of hers with my mother's jewellery. (Although, as I repeatedly pointed out to my mother, everything she took was returned, and always in its original condition.) My mother continued to hire her, so I continued to love my mother.
And several years after that...
I learned of her suicide. Someone who didn't want to hurt anything hurt herself until there was no more self to hurt. It didn't make sense to me. Or it made a kind of sense I didn't want it to make. I took the news of her death far out of proportion to how well I knew her. I took it like a child. Her death felt like the death of something more than a radical babysitter who let me play with her hair.
But the death of what?
The kind of romance and idealism that children believe they can construct their lives around? Childhood itself? Something that shouldn't have had to die. I starting eating meat again.
Hard things My diet has always been tied to changes in my life. When I went to college I starting eating meat. I don't know why. Maybe I didn't feel like standing out just then. When I chose my major (philosophy) and started doing my first serious thinking about serious thinking I became a vegetarian again. When I graduated I ate meat for about two years, until I fell in love – with a once-vegetarian – and we decided to stop eating meat together, as a symbol of moving our lifestyle toward something more sensitive, appreciative and ethical. Then we started eating meat, because we wanted to eat meat.
Then we got a dog that I was afraid of
I was afraid of all dogs. Even the tiny ones that aren't really dogs. George came very much out of the blue. It was a Saturday morning. We were walking in our local neighborhood, and a tiny black puppy was asleep on the curb, curled into its "adopt me" vest. I don't believe in love at first sight, but I loved that damned dog. Even if I wouldn't touch it. We took it home. I hugged it from across the room.
Eventually I pet it
I graduated to feeding it from my hand. And then I let it lick my hand. And then I let it lick my face. And then I licked its face. And now I love all dogs. I love them more than I love people. And it's impossible ever to imagine eating meat again.
Because if a fish, chicken or cow...
Had an experience of life that in any way resembled that of George's to so much as harm it, much less kill it for the ultimate vanity – culinary preference – would be unthinkably barbaric. Being able to eat meat with a clear conscience depends on the idea that animals don't have a valuable experience of life. George does.
When someone asks me why I'm a vegetarian, I tend to answer – or evade the question – with a little joke: I don't want to eat anything with parents. Like most jokes, it's revealing, and I think it sheds some light on the difference between the scared son I was at nine, and the scared father I am at twenty-nine. The world is relationships, and eating has always revealed me.
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on how he never ends up writing what he intended to write, writing from a child’s perspective and how he feels about seeing his alter ego on screen in the forthcoming film of Everything is Illuminated.
What was the starting point for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – did you intend to write a novel about September 11?
No, not at all, I started somewhere very different. I was writing a book about a writer in Eastern Europe in the 20s and then it flashed forward to a museum that was dedicated to his life, and it just kept changing and changing and changing as my interests changed, as the world changed… I never end up writing what I intended to write – I shouldn’t even intend to write anything because I always end up in such a different place.
Maybe that’s the best way…
It’s the only way. I don’t think there’s a choice.
Were you worried about writing about something so sensitive, something still so much at the forefront of people’s minds?
I was worried, but I wouldn’t want to write something that I wasn’t worried about writing, that wasn’t sensitive. I think those are the things that writers should be trying to write about. That’s not to say that I thought I would do it successfully, but I felt sure that it was the right thing to try.
What made you choose to write from a child’s perspective? Are you able to describe where Oskar’s voice came from?
It’s really hard to answer a question like that… I liked writing from his point of view, for one thing. He started as kind of a peripheral character but the more I wrote him the more I liked writing him.
It struck me whilst I was reading that he must have been so much fun to create – there’s just so much invention and imagination in him – and also that his voice made the subject matter so much more raw, and more personal.
Yeah – it’s like an exposed nerve in that he feels things so strongly but also he talks about what he feels in a way that adults don’t. I think that can be a nice narrator for lots of different kinds of stories, but for this particular story it made sense, given that it was something that made everybody feel so exposed.
I think that the book brings the awful tragedy of those events into clearer focus because even the story of one person’s experience is almost unbearably moving – it’s impossible to understand the full impact of what Oskar calls ‘the worst day’ on everyone it affected all at once. How do you think that fiction can help us to imagine the unimaginable, something like September 11, or Dresden, or Hiroshima, which are also part of the story?
I think the only way to talk about important things is to be very, very specific; not to try to speak on behalf of many people or try to tell one definitive story but just to tell one story, or part of one story, and sometimes in just getting the details right it can become almost universal, it can really resonate, and mean different things to different people. I wasn’t trying to speak on behalf of a many – in a way I was trying to tell a very small story because I think those are the only ones that actually have meaning.
To what extent does the book reflect your own feelings and experiences?
100%. Sometimes I view the other side of the case or have an argument with myself in a book or become very metaphorical but everything I write always comes from me and I try to be expressive, that’s important to me.
The book is filled with pictures and unusual word layouts and all sorts of other visual surprises – it almost becomes an artefact of Oskar’s quest. Did you plan to tell the story through other ways than words alone, or was that inspired by the events or characters after you’d begun writing?
I didn’t plan it any more than I planned the words. I didn’t even think of the words and the images being so separate – they came from the same place in that there was something I wanted to express, a story, and I wanted to use any means at my disposal to do that. A lot of the time it made sense to do it with pictures, other times it made sense to do it with words, some of the time the pictures were illustrating the words and sometimes in a way the words were illustrating the pictures. I wanted it all to be in the interest of the story, nothing else.
Would you say that the book is in any way a love letter to New York? I never quite understood that expression. It’s not a book about the city exactly, so much as it’s a book about certain themes that I think would be true in any city, in any place in the world, like loss, or how the imagination tries to heal certain emotional wounds. I wanted it to take place in New York in part because it’s what I know right now, and in part because I’d just seen so many places and so many things and had so many experiences in the city that I wanted to include in my writing.
How do you feel about the coming film version of Everything Is Illuminated? Were you involved in it at all?
I wasn’t involved. I don’t know how I feel. I’ve only seen a little bit of it. I guess it’s exciting.
It must be strange to see your alter ego on the screen, through the character of Jonathan Safran Foer.
It’s very, very strange. It’s like when you hear your voice on someone’s answering machine and you think ‘God, is that me?’ That’s how it felt seeing a little bit of the movie. But I haven’t seen it all so I don’t really know what to expect and I have a feeling that I won’t know how I feel even after I’ve seen it. It isn’t my creation but it obviously has a very strong connection to something I created – there’s no chance that it will be what I would have done, but maybe I’ll be able to just appreciate it as a movie.
Where do you do most of your writing and how much time do you spend on it? Or does that depend on where you are in the novel?
I do most of my writing at the beginning and end of a book. That’s when I work hardest. I don’t think I ever work for more than five hours a day – four or five hours would be a really long day for me. I never work in the house. Sometimes I work in cafes, sometimes I work at the New York Public Library, but if I worked in the house I would just fall asleep, or start eating, or doing something else that wasn’t working.
And what’s next for Jonathan Safran Foer?
I haven’t the faintest clue. I want to do something very different. I don’t know if it’s going to be a book, or not a book, I really just don’t know. I don’t even have inklings of what it will be; I just know that it will be something different.
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