Came across an interview I did with Jonathan Safran Foer in November 2005. It is from ‘ibid’, a student magazine started by Tanu Patodia, Biljana Markovic and myself. Some questions are a bit jarring, and I would ask different questions now anyway, but there are some interesting bits all the same:

– How do you experience suddenly being a full time ‘writer’? It must be strange
– It is. It is extremely strange. Because I don’t feel anymore like one than I did before. It is just that, you know, let’s say if I hadn’t published any of my books, that nobody wanted to publish them, I would be doing the same thing and I would not have written anything different, I would not have felt any different about what I wrote. So just because the world responded differently, now my life is quite different, but you know you don’t want your life tied to what the world thinks, you want it to be tied to what you think.
– It must be fulfilling though that now you get response.
– Yeah it is extremely fulfilling. On the other hand it’s not necessarily good for your writing, you know, like I think part of what can be great about writing is exactly the thought that you might never get a response.
– Do you feel that, having been published, you are now writing more towards a certain public?
– I think the knowledge that people will read what I write isn’t helpful. Even trying to imagine a reader is a bad idea. You always just have to fall back on yourself, your own ideas of what is good.
– Just like Oskar (in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), you have so many ideas and plans, is he in this sense close to your own feeling of identity?
– Uhm, I think he is close to who I was when I wrote the book, but I feel a little differently now, you know, you just change with time. I think I was much more frantic when I wrote the book. Now maybe I would like to try to do something that is more linear. And it is not that one is better or worse, you change and you want your books to reflect that change.
– Were your collage technique and inserts of images something that came naturally or was it very planned and structured?
– they came out of myself. I mean there are sort of two stages when you write; the first is when things just come out of you, the second is when you look at what you have done. So it happened in two different ways, when I was writing it was like, oh I would like to use an image here, you know, it was very intuitive. It was not at all preconceived. But then when I was editing the book and looking over it I started to see how there could be a rhythm in the book and different images could speak to one another and then I changed it around according to that.
– Do you think the images complement or pull things out of the text and vice versa?
– I think it is like when you go to ballet. The way that music and dance interact with each other. Of course music does not need dancers and dance does not need music, but when you put the two together it is just a different kind of expression. it is not that it is better or worse, having just music or just dance, but it is a different kind of experience and I think I was interested in that different kind of experience that you have when a book takes on a more visual quality.
– Was this a one-time experiment or do you think you will take this further?
– I just do not know. I would never want to know because once you know, you just start to fulfill your own expectations and I like the idea of being open to surprise.

– Your subject matter (the WTC attacks) is still quite fresh in everyone’s memories. Were you afraid of how to tackle it or how your treatment of it would be received by the press?
– I was not really afraid. I am much more afraid of writing about something that is not risky than writing about something that is. If you write about something that is very difficult, very challenging, the worst thing that can happen is you won’t do it right. To my mind that is much better than trying to write about something that is not difficult enough. I think it is not that hard, if you just want to write a simple story, to write it pretty much perfectly, but those books do not really matter that much.
– So you feel you need a somewhat weighty subject-matter?
– No no, it does not have to be a heavy subject matter. It was in the first two books. I do not think it will be again. I do not think it has to be heavy, I think it has to be difficult. Important.

– Could you talk a little about your fascination with the work of Joseph Cornell?
– He was the first artist whose work I really loved. I think when I decided that I wanted to become a writer, I remember thinking, ‘If I could ever make someone feel, like Cornell’s work makes me feel, then that would be a good way. I would not question if that was important or not, because I never questioned whether Cornell’s work was important or not. I think in a way my definition of what good art is; good art is what makes other people want to make art, or make anything. Like, my favourite books are not the ones that I most appreciate, they are not even the ones that I most like, they are the ones that feel most contagious. After finishing them you want to just go out and do something. Maybe that is to write your own book, maybe it is to take a picture, or maybe it is to call a friend and have a conversation, but it is like the energy wants to transfer on to you. Cornell has that property very, very strongly.

– And what has influenced you in the area of literature?
– So many things. The classics, Shakespeare, Kafka, even the old testament. Many modern things, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip Roth, a lot of poetry actually and a lot of the visual arts.
– Right now I am working on a bunch of different things.
– And you also wrote a libretto.
– Yes I did, that was in Berlin.
– Have you ever thought of making artistic forays into other genres, areas?
– I would like to not know. I want to do whatever I do because it is the right thing to do at that moment, not because I have some expectation of myself, or somebody else has an expectation of me. I want to choose what I do, because it is the only thing to do at the moment.
– Must be great to have the option now
– I feel incredibly lucky. But you know the interesting thing is that you always have a choice. Everybody has a choice. You can not necessarily write a screenplay that will be made into a movie, but you could write a screenplay. If you want to. That is something about writing, unlike almost any other art form, there are no materials. You can make whatever you want to make.

– Do you feel that form is an integral part of the content? Do you feel that it precedes content in a way?
– I just think that it is integral, like you said. It is like, there are so many choices and a lot of writers just choose not to make them, but things like what font your book is printed in, what size the margins are, or how the words look on the page, they influence how somebody reads your work. Like a painter has to choose what size canvas to use, or whether to use oil paint or acrylic paint. Whether we like it or not, these things influence the way that somebody reads a book. With my first two books I did make a lot of these choices very consciously, very explicitly. But I do not think that one has to, someone like Kafka did not and he is probably my favorite writer so they are just different ways of approaching writing.
– I suppose you had some hefty discussions with your editor and printer concerning all this?
– Yeah, yeah, that was a problem. We definitely had to go through a lot of trials.
– It seems, especially with the book on Cornell and your second novel, that you have an incredible amount of fun writing? Is this true, or do you see it as hard work?
– I met a writer the other day who said, uh, you know the expression, ‘it’s like pulling teeth?’, he said writing is like pulling teeth, out of your penis. I think he is right. It is very difficult. It is just extremely painful. But, when it works and when it does feel good, nothing feels as good as it. I guess it is like love. Love basically sucks ninety-nine percent of the time, but when it is good there is nothing as good as it. So that is why people keep trying.
– So you have a lot of moments that you are sitting with your hands in your hair wondering how you will continue, or if you want to continue at all.
– Yeah, it is amazing that I still have hair at all.

– Have you been to Holland?
– Many times. Amsterdam is one of my favourite cities. I think it is the only city in the world that is quiet and loud at the same time. most cities have to choose. Well it is very intimate, you can walk through it you can know where you are, you can have your own mental space. But at the same time it offers everything that a big city offers, the hustle and bustle, different kinds if people, different kinds of experiences.
Brooklyn is actually not that different from Amsterdam. It is the part of New York that is most like it. it has a real neighbourhood kind of feel, it is both big and small, a lot of green, lot of nature. In that way it is similar.

– Your writing is extremely witty and funny and fast, but sometimes has an undertone of gravity or sadness. This congruence of opposing elements is striking. Is this something that you implement consciously, or is it natural way of writing for you.
– I think it is the way I write naturally. I think with writing usually the harder you try to do something the less successful you will be. Most good things happen when you find a way not to get in the way of yourself, not to over analyze things. That is how it is for me anyway.
– Of course you must be tired of being referred to as a young writer, but for us students, some also aspiring writers, do you have any advice?
– You know, any decent example I give, there is always someone who can give a counter example. There are writers who have taken classes and have had great success and there are writers who have never taken classes and have had great success. I think it comes back to what we were talking about in the beginning; you cannot imagine a reader and that is my only advice. You just always have to fall back on yourself. If you write a joke and you want to know if it’s funny, there is nobody you can ask. You cannot go find Woody Allen and ask him. Even if you could, you might be right and he might be wrong. You cannot pole the world and decide that if fifty-one percent thinks its funny, that it is funny. You just have to ask yourself, ‘does this make me laugh.’ And if it does, you have to think it is funny. You just have to go with that. You have to constantly trust yourself.
– So you listen to yourself and it happens that many people love reading your books. But is there nevertheless some kind of ideal reader that you have in mind to read your books?
– There is not. No there isn’t. Because my experience has been that I am always surprised. Like, you would think that the people that like to read your writing are people who are like you. But it is not true at all. Sometimes the people who are very, very different from you, respond most strongly. I think that is, at the end of the day, what books do. They remind us that the things that make us similar are not all of the surface things, like what language we speak, what religion we are, or what colour our skin is.
– Do you do much historical research for your writing?
– I do very little. I do so only when it feels to be absolutely necessary. I am not a realistic writer, really, and I think anybody who reads my books knows that immediately. I tend to write much more imaginatively than realistically. I find that sometimes research can inspire the imagination, but a lot of the time it can inhibit the imagination. Once you learn a fact it is hard to let it go.

2 thoughts on “‘Writing is like pulling teeth out of your penis.’

  1. the format of this blog post is really difficult to follow.
    but otherwise, sounds like a great interview

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