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Guest Host: John Donvan
The award-winning author of “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is out with a new book. It’s Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in eleven years. This time, he writes about a troubled marriage in an American Jewish family in Washington, D.C. Their personal crisis unfolds as a catastrophic earthquake in Israel leads to war in the Middle East, and Jacob confronts what it means to be a Jewish American, a father, a son and a husband. Guest host John Donvan talks with Safran Foer about characters struggling with the meaning of home and identity.
- Jonathan Safran Foer Author of the best-selling novels: "Everything Is Illuminated," and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
MR. JOHN DONVANThank you for joining us. I'm John Donvan, the moderator of The Intelligence Squared US Debate, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And listen to this opener. "When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish home." That is the first sentence in the latest novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of "Everything is Illuminated" and the author of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."
MR. JOHN DONVANHis new book is titled "Here I am." Author Jonathan Safran Foer joins me from an NPR studio in New York City. Thanks very much, Jonathan, for joining us.
MR. JONATHAN SAFRAN FOERThank you for having me.
DONVANI want to invite all of our listeners to take part in the conversation. The number to call is 1-800-433-8850. Our email address is email@example.com. And Jonathan, you make up stories for a living now. You also teach for a living. But I'm curious to get your thoughts on what it is about stories that are not real that connect to readers and to all of us as humans. And I say that in light of the fact that when you go to the movies, that little note at the beginning that says "based on a true story" kind of is the thing that gives it energy and that if you go back to the beginning of literature, "Homer," et cetera, it was stories that were based on wars that actually happened, supposedly, and were believed to be true.
DONVANBut you specialize and trade in made-up stories and do very successfully at it and are very noted for it. What is it about fiction that connects?
FOERWell, I guess, first, you'd have to tell me what exactly you meant by fiction or what's meant by true and untrue. Obviously, "Homer" wrote about wars that happened, but he wrote about people who didn't exist and he wrote about events that didn't happen. Things can be true in journalistic ways. They can be true in experiential or emotional ways. Most books, including all three books that I have written, traffic in different kinds of truth. So there are some largely and sort of gratuitously untrue events in this book, namely an earthquake in the Middle East which precipitates a war.
FOERBut I hope that there are other kinds of truth at play and at stake like what happens in relationships, whether they are spousal or parental, what happens when we're forced to confront the distance between the person that we wanted to be and the person that we are. So I'm not sure I draw quite as sharp a line as you do. One thing that I can say is that maybe there's a difference between reporting on the world and reporting on one's imagination. And...
DONVANYeah. I think that's probably where I would draw the line is that I think the deal that the reader has with the novelist, and maybe not, but I think the deal that the reader has with the novelist is that it's imagined, that at key, it's made up as opposed to reporting some -- you're not pretending to be a documentarian. And yet, people want to go for stories that are made up.
FOERI think people want both and it's kind of the confusion and magic of literature. You know, there's a reason they put that line at the beginning of films or sometimes the beginning of novels, "based on true events." They put it there not as legal disclaimer, but because it's exciting. It's kind of thrilling to believe that certain aspects have reference in real life. I was often asked, for some reason in my first book, "Everything is Illuminated," one of the heroes is this young Ukrainian who speaks in this sort of strange way using a thesaurus.
FOERAnd I was asked all the time if he was based on somebody in life that I'd met. And I would often return the question with the question, would you prefer it that way. And about half the people said, oh, I would strongly prefer it and half the people said I would strongly not prefer it. And those who preferred it wanted to believe that such things could exist in the world or do exist in the world and those who didn't want it to be the case thought, well, then you wouldn't be much of a writer. You know, 'cause I got a fiction in part to see, you know, something about the world and, in part, to have access to somebody's imagination.
FOERSo as I was saying before about imagination, one of my favorite lines about writing was by the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert who said the imagination is the instrument of compassion. So you know, our compassion can be awakened in all kinds of ways. It can be awakened with journalism. It can be awakened with science. It can be awakened with music. I think that there is some quality of the imagination of sharing not just the facts of life, but sharing the things that aren't constrained by facts.
FOERWhich aren't even necessarily the stories we tell, but how -- the ways we choose to tell stories, that awaken a kind of empathy that nothing else really does. And it's something that we confront all the time in the world now as we're exposed more -- to more and more things that should and ought to awaken our compassion, images of, you know, immigrants, for example.
DONVANWell, we are here to talk about your new novel, "Here I Am," but before I do that, and I will stop this line of questioning so as to not belabor the point, but you did, in between writing your last novel and this one, publish a nonfiction book, "Eating Animals," which was an exploration of eating animals, of eating meat and you're ultimately coming to the conclusion that you felt that it was morally wrong in today's world with the meat that's offered to us.
DONVANAnd that was a nonfiction story. And so the last touch I'll take at this is how is that different for your from the imagining that takes place for writing a novel?
FOERThat was different in many ways, but the most important was the book had a function and my novels don't have functions, per se. You know, I want to move readers. I don't mean emotionally. That word has sort of been hijacked to mean to move someone emotionally. I don't really mean emotionally. I want to change people. I want a book -- for a book to be necessary for me, it has to transport the reader. I feel that way when I'm reading books and I feel that way when I'm writing books.
FOERThe difference between "Eating Animals" and "Here I Am" is in "Eating Animals," I knew how I wanted to move the reader. I knew where I wanted to transport the reader to, which is to a different kind of consciousness about eating. Not necessarily vegetarianism, but an awareness of what factory farming is and the ways in which it might not correspond to the other values that we hold in life. In the case of "Here I Am," I also wanted to move a reader. I just didn't know to where.
FOERAnd to me, that not knowing is important and even essential in novel-writing. It keeps it free to -- for me, to follow intuitions and instincts and curiosities and not be constrained by an objective. When I was in college, I took a sculpture class where we made sculpture and I remember that in the first class, the teacher defined art as art is the thing that has no use. So once something starts to have a use, it's no longer a work of art.
FOERA bridge can never be a work of art because it's used to transport people from one land mass to another. Architecture can never be art because it's inhabited by people and it has all of these, you know, commercial implications. So I don't actually believe what he was saying and there are, you know, a million counter examples and, of course, even the most pure kinds of art also have certain kinds of use.
FOERBut it is an interesting way to think about it that maybe has something to do with your line of questioning.
DONVANWell, let's stop that line of questioning and get to "Here I Am." What's the story in "Here I Am."
FOERIt's a story of -- I'd actually be curious to hear you describe the story.
DONVANAll right. I'll tell you what I think it is.
DONVANThe problem I have with what I think it is, is I've read reviews and it comes to sort of the same conclusion. At its most basic, it's parallel intertwining narratives of a family and a marriage somewhat coming apart at the seams as the father of the family figures out who he is and who he isn't while simultaneously Israel, a country to which he has a complicated relationship as an American Jew, is -- hits a cataclysm. So these two things intertwine with each other. That's at its most basic.
DONVANBut I also found that the book talks a great deal about -- or explores a great deal about identity and, importantly to me, the passage of time and the meaning of time and many other things. But that's how I would describe the book. But I'd like to hear your take on it.
FOERWell, I wasn't asking you in a silly way. I was asking you because it's only now that I'm becoming a reader of my own book.
FOEROddly enough, in the process of writing, you don't really read or you read it as a writer, but not as a reader. And I wasn't looking for meaning, exactly. I was looking for coherency. I was looking for accessibility. I was looking for how to transport somebody, primarily myself, with the understanding or the belief that all writers have, which is other people are somehow like me. Somebody out there is going to be moved by the things that I'm moved by, will find funny the things that I find funny and so on.
FOERSo this book just came out about two days ago and I'm only now having my first conversations about the book and oftentimes when somebody asks me a question, my first response is, geez, I'd really like to know what you think because I don't feel like I'm the keeper of meaning in any sense. Your description of the book felt right to me, you know. On the explicit level, there's these two crises, fracturing marriage that seems to be inspired by this discovered cell phone with these inappropriate texts that the hero, Jacob, has been carrying on and then an earthquake in the Middle East.
FOERIt all really has to do with this one family, the Bloch family. They live in Washington D.C. in the present time. The husband and wife are Jacob and Julia, both in their early 40s. Jacob is a TV writer. Julia is an architect and we stay with them. As you were saying, they begin to question what home is to them, what identity is to them, the distance between themselves and their happiness and how they can either bring themselves closer to happiness or bring their definitions of happiness closer to their lives.
DONVANJonathan, I'm going to stop you there as we come to the break and we'll be back to explore the book in more detail. The book is called "Here I Am." I'm John Donvan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
DONVANWelcome back. I'm John Donvan, moderator of the Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we are speaking with the author Jonathan Safran Foer about his new book, "Here I Am." And I -- to give you a little bit more response from a reader of your book, I absolutely loved it. And it did make me laugh. I don't know if we laughed at the same things, but I laughed out loud many times. I'm a Washington resident who happens to have a number of intersections with the places that are in the book and a variety of actually I would say, in jokes, and I enjoyed them. I'm wondering how it is for the reader who's not a Washington resident. But there's a passage that almost made me cry, that I'd love to have you read, if you don't mind. It's on page 93.
DONVANAnd it begins with, "No baby knows..."
FOERSure. Just a little bit of context. This happens immediately after Jacob was confronted by his wife with this cell phone, and she discovers a cell phone that has these sexually-explicit texts to another woman. And it's the moment where she demands that he give her the password. And Jacob knows that this is one of these hinge moments in life. And he says -- or rather, he doesn't say but the narrator says...
FOER"No baby knows when the nipple is pulled from his mouth for the last time. No child knows when he last calls his mother, Mama. No small boy knows when the book is closed on the last bedtime story that will ever be read to him. No boy knows when the water drains from the last bath he'll ever take with his brother. No young man knows, as he first feels his greatest pleasure, that he will never again not be sexual. No brinking woman knows as she sleeps that it'll be four decades before she will again awake infertile. No mother knows she's hearing the word, Mama, for the last time. No father knows when the book is closed on the last bedtime story he'll ever read."
DONVANIt's incredibly powerful and strikes me as a sort of nostalgia in advance type of moment, that is not something that Jacob is actually at that moment experiencing himself, but he is experiencing it in light of other things that is happening in his life. So what -- as I said, for me, a lot of this was about the passage of time. Is that what you're getting at in this as well?
FOERWell, it's about the passage of time, for me, in the sense of measuring distance.
FOERYou know, one image that comes up a number of times in the book is the -- these horizontal lines on door posts. I don't know if you've ever had these yourselves in your life, or if you've ever witnessed them, but growth charts for kids, you know? I grew up with them. I remember leaving my -- we moved at a certain point in D.C. and that being the regret, leaving that -- those markings that were climbing the door post. And I have one in my current home and it comes up at various times in the book. But so does the idea of marking the passage of time and how we do it and what it's like to confront the passage of time.
FOERThere are these two visits that the couple Jacob and Julia make to an inn -- once when they are newly married and once 10 years later for their anniversary. And it traces all that used to be effortless and then becomes impossible or at least difficult, the things that were spontaneous and felt good, which become effortful and shaming. And also we're -- we witness the aging of the children and the ways that they both come into language and come into ideas, but also inherit their -- the things that are good and bad about their parents and grandparents.
DONVANWhen you -- forgive the cliché, but you did burst on to the scene. When you burst on to the scene with "Everything Is Illuminated," you were so young, it was 15, 16 years ago, first novel, kind of dream-come-true novelist thing. I mean, you were just lionized and made famous overnight, very, very successful. And now 15 years, 16 years have gone by. You're -- nobody's going to say boy wonder anymore. You're -- you've matured a great deal and the story you tell...
FOERGirl wonder. Transitioning.
DONVANYeah. There's a -- there is a sense of growth and regret and loss in the lives of actually some of the child characters in your book as well, but primarily in Jacob Bloch is what I would say is more or less your central character. How much of Jacob's pain have you had to live, yourself?
FOERWell, just to begin with the issue of age, you know, it actually wasn't my dream come true.
DONVANI didn't say it was your dream come true, but...
FOERA novelist, I suppose, yeah.
FOERI had a wonderful experience. It's funny how often now, when -- at readings, people will come up to me and say, I can't believe 15 years have passed for you.
FOERAnd I say 15 years have passed for you too, you know? It's very, very funny how people refer and how often it's come up in these reviews. Like, Jonathan Safran Foer grows up, you know?
FOERWell, so has the person writing the review. And it's remarkable the sort of, I don't know if it's a blindness or a -- it's the blindness -- the one, we are our own blind spots I suppose. In terms of, you know, the pain that comes with growing up, I think it's nothing particular to me. It's a universal thing that I tried my best to write about. And that can be experienced in so many different ways. If, you know, the greatest pain that I felt in growing up was maturing or changing as a novelist, I'd be the luckiest person alive. In fact, what most people mean when they talk about the pain of aging has to do with one's changing body, one's changing ambitions and ideals, witnessing the aging of people that one loves. And those are things that happen in this book.
FOERJacob has a cousin Tamir in Israel, who comes to visit for his -- for Jacob's son's bar mitzvah. And people who you don't see very often are -- can be really useful in terms of telling you how you've changed, you know? I have no real awareness of how I change on a day-to-day basis. I have no real awareness of changes in my children. But when there's somebody I haven't seen for a number of years and they say, oh, you have some gray hair. Or you've lost some weight. Or you never used to be so interested in this. It's a useful marker. And Tamir is a useful marker for Jacob, just as Jacob is a useful marker for Tamir.
FOERAnd having the context of this extremely dramatic global event, a war which, in the end, begs some, like, very immediate and urgent questions of identity, namely, am I going to Israel to fight or am I not going to Israel to fight? In that context, they're able to talk about who they used to be, who they wanted to be, who they became and the gratifications and disappointments.
DONVANSince it's something of a central drama, can you summarize what actually happens in Israel?
FOERIt's a central drama that is mentioned in the first sentence that you read.
FOERAnd then doesn't reoccur actually for about 250 pages. All of the book takes place in Washington, D.C., maybe with the exception of a couple of little flashbacks and flashforwards. But it's a very domestic book. It takes place mostly in bedrooms and in bathrooms and in kitchens and living rooms, and largely in dialog, you know, family conversations, choruses of voices. The drama that happens halfway across the world is an earthquake, which precipitates this chain of causes and effects, which leads to a war, which becomes increasingly desperate for really everybody involved, until the prime minister of Israel makes an appeal on television for all Jews between the ages of, like, I think, 16 and 55, to come to Israel to fight for its survival.
DONVANBecause Israel's enemies have taken -- have chosen to take advantage of the situation. In other words...
FOERYeah. Israel found itself in an unprecedentedly vulnerable position. Jordan unites with Saudi Arabia and the Mullah's in Iran get up and ask for their population to march on Israel.
FOERLebanon and Syria activate. And so it's looking pretty harrowing for Israel at that moment. It's scary. I mean, one of the things that the novel plays a little bit with is, you know, it's -- throughout, it's playing with the meaning of words and even when it gets to those dramatic moments, there seem to be some discrepancies between perhaps what Israeli leadership is telling the world and what they are telling themselves internally. But it's, you know, without a doubt, a very, very serious moment.
DONVANThere's interesting tension between -- within the family. As you mentioned, cousin Tamir comes from Israel for the bar mitzvah of Jacob's son, Sam. And Tamir is what I would call a classic Israeli, down to, as you describe him, his natural hairiness.
FOERYou might not want to call that to an actual Israeli.
DONVANWell, I'm married to an Israeli, so I'm giving myself a pass on this.
FOERAh, so you get free rein. You're lucky.
DONVANYeah. So much freedom. But -- and perhaps I was more sensitive to that for that reason, the tension that exists between American Jews and Israelis about what Israel means, what commitment to Israel means, who's there, who's here. Talk a little bit about that tension.
FOEROkay. Is your wife a classic Israeli in the way that Tamir is a classic Israeli?
FOEROkay. So the tension is played out in a lot of different ways. And one of the questions that's raised is how can only one -- they're only one generation removed from Europe. You know, how in that one generation could they have become so different? Different in terms of values, ideologies, physically different, having different priorities and yet also maintain this kind of -- these genealogical connections on pretty much every level. So, you know, if you call Tamir a classic Israeli or a type of Israeli -- he's interested in high tech, he's kind of puffed up, he's brash. He has a lot of qualities that Jacob will describe as being both sort of quintessentially frustrating but also enviable. You know, qualities that Jacob feels that he missed.
FOERJacob was -- is an American Jew, also a type. Somebody who, as I once -- as I describe it at some point in the book, you know, parses fugazi lyrics while pushing his glasses up his nose in his mother's Volvo's front seat, sort of enamored of muscle but a practitioner of argument.
FOERAnd when these two personalities clash, it's often I think very funny.
FOERBut gets at something that I think is true in the world, which is we now have these two quite different kinds of Jews, each of who's existence might depend on the other -- on the loyalty or devotion of the other. At one point in the book, the narrator says something like, if Jacob and Tamir could meet halfway, you'd have a reasonable Jew. But until then, you have these two people who are highly unreasonable in their own highly specific ways.
DONVANSo the term Jewish writer can be something of a cage. And I guess if you were writing about, you know, Bob Smith, an actuary living in Nebraska and he was Presbyterian, nobody would be calling you a Jewish writer, he would be calling you a writer who is Jewish. But the subject matter, I think, puts you in that -- maybe you don't accept the term cage, so I won't insist on it -- but it puts you in that -- it fits. Is it one that fits comfortably for you?
FOERI guess, like most cages, it's invisible. You know, I'm not terribly aware of it unless, in the context of a conversation like this, it's not the way that I think about myself.
FOERBut then, again, I don't think about myself as a writer. You know, I actually live a life rather than meditate on the life that -- the terminology of the life that I'm living. I know that this...
DONVANCan we stop with that point and then get to the other point? What do you mean by that?
FOERWhat do I mean by that? You know, writing is -- it's a cliché, but it really is a solitary act. It's something that I do in my home or in, occasionally in cafes or in libraries, with very little awareness of a connection to the outside world. I don't think about readers. I don't think about how what I'm writing is going to be read. I haven't been on a radio show to talk about a novel that I've written...
FOER...in about a decade.
FOERSo that's a long span of time without that specific kind of reflection or conversation. And I'm -- I have felt really lucky because of that. It's enabled me to repress a kind of questioning that I think is actually counterproductive, like both on the level of the book itself, like, is this good, is it bad, is it funny, is it boring, is it interesting, is it mundane, is it dumb, is it new, what does it mean, will anybody like it? Those aren't questions that are productive. They're very stifling. What's productive is to write in a way that is open to intuitions and instincts and go where I'm led. That's how it works best for me. But also as a person in a world.
FOERI mean, we live now in a world because of the Internet, because of social media, where there's a certain kind of, I think, lifestyle-interrogating that has begun to supplant life itself. And it's shallow and it's not something that -- I would rather be doing my living than parsing the terminology of my life.
DONVANI'm John Donvan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So does that blow up my question about your being a Jewish writer? Or would you vamp on it for a bit?
FOERNo, I'm -- no one loves to vamp like me. Here's maybe what I can say, that -- to that. A lot of -- I was talking about this, the way that I like to write and this kind of process that's more open, rather than predetermined. I don’t write with outlines. I don't have plans. In my life, I've probably sold three proposals for books and I've yet to turn in the book that I sold. I was in a -- writing something different. Because I end up being surprised. You know, I thought that this idea would interest me. I've never had a good idea become a good book. The good ideas just wither. The books that I end up writing are the products of interests and the curiosities that I pursue and continue to care about over the -- in the necessary ways over the necessary periods of time.
FOERSo nothing has surprised me more in that process than the way that Jewishness surfaces. I -- before I wrote my first book, I didn't feel that I had any strong Jewish identity. I am not a religious person. I'm not a believer. I'm not observant or ritualistic. I don't even know that I would have considered myself particularly curious about my Jewish identity. And my first book is a resolutely Jewish book. You know, you were sort of -- seemed a little bit anxious about, like, applying too much terminology and you referred to it as a cage. But sometimes something is true, whether or not it's uncomfortable or whether or not we feel like acknowledging it.
FOERYou know? I am a Jewish writer and that book has a lot of Jewish content. And the same is true of "Here I Am." So then the question is, to what extent is it intentional? To what extent is it like a deliberate exploration? Or to what extent is it irrepressible? As a writer, I am much more interested in what's irrepressible than what is a deliberate exploration. And nothing has been more irrepressible in my writing than two things, I would say -- one is Jewishness, and two is the subject of communication and the limits of communication.
DONVANOur guest is Jonathan Safran Foer. We'll be right back after the break. I'm John Donvan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
DONVANWelcome back. I'm John Donvan, moderator of the Intelligence Squared US Debate, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're speaking with Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the new novel, just out in the last few days as he's pointed out, called "Here I Am." And Jonathan, we've had an email from a listener named Arlene who is asking about the source of the title, "Here I Am."
FOERThe title refers to a passage in Genesis, the story of the binding of Isaac, when God approaches Abraham. He says, Abraham, Abraham says here I am, and God says I need you to do this thing for me, you know, I need you to go kill your kid. I'm paraphrasing, of course. And then later in the story when Abraham is taking Isaac up Mount Mariah for the sacrifice, and Isaac begins to catch wind that this is a weird situation, they have all the makings of a sacrifice without the sacrifice itself, Isaac says, father. In fact he says, my father. And Abraham responds, here I am.
FOERAnd these are the here I ams of a kind of unconditional presence, like I don't need to know what you're about to ask of me, I don't need five minutes to gather myself, tell me what it is, and I will tell you yes. And what I find moving about the story, there are many things that are moving about the story, but one particularly moving thing about the story is the impossibility of being present in that here-I-am sense both for a God who asks you to kill your son and for the son who doesn't want to be killed.
FOERAnd those paradoxes of identity first of all I think are universally true. Everyone has his own version, at least. Some people fear it as -- feel it as the paradox of being a parent and being a professional in the world. Some people feel a paradox of religious values and secular values or of being a spouse and of being an individual in a certain way. But the -- each character in this book certainly has those. And the crises that we talked about, this discovered cell phone in the earthquake, make those paradoxes, which are normally sustainable and normally something we don't even think about on a daily basis, make them suddenly urgent and compel choices.
FOERThey make it impossible to say here I am and here I am, but rather, you know, to stake your claim and which will involve a loss, which will involve saying no to something.
DONVANYou set the book, as you said, entirely in Washington, and Northwest Washington, a particular neighborhood. And it's a neighborhood that I think for people outside of Washington, they think of the city as entirely focused on government and the military-industrial complex and around the U.S. Capitol and the White House, but there actually is -- there are a number of different neighborhoods here that are actually communities that have very little reference to what happens nationally. What is that Washington -- you're not a New Yorker, but you chose to set it back here. How come?
FOERWell, I love Washington, and I often think of that as a great regret in my life, that I ever left Washington. I don't know about you, but whenever I tell somebody that I'm from Washington, they will always say, Washington, Washington, Washington, or Rockville, Potomac, you know, one of the suburbs. And there's almost kind of disbelief that you would actually live within the city and not be, I don't know, a senator or a congressman.
FOERI grew up having virtually no interaction with the political world. I don't think any of my friends' parents were particularly involved in politics. I lived in neighborhoods with a lot of greenery, with a lot of bicycle riding, with a lot of bookstores and culture, a lot of Chinese restaurants and an enormous amount of freedom that I don't know exists in very many other American cities, certainly not in New York.
FOERSo this is the first book I've written -- this book has no more autobiography than any of my other books, but it is the first book that I've written where I tried to remember things. With my other books, I never mined my experiences for details. In this book, for example, I wanted to remember my grandmother's apartment from when I was growing up, her home, excuse me, in an effort to describe the home of this grandfather in the book.
FOERAnd another occasion for mining memory was D.C. You know, what was it like to be at Dial Hill (sp?) to hear fugazi play every summer? What was it like to buy alcohol from -- I probably be saying this, but in any case to buy, you know, alcohol when I was, whatever, 11, from Tenleytown Liquor.
DONVANWhich is still there.
FOERWith -- with -- is it? And they're probably still accepting IDs of people with, like, different -- I think I had an ID with, like, a Filipino person's face on it. But in any case, they didn't care very much. It was just a wonderful place to grow up, and I don't know what it's like now. I have family -- all my family for the most part, lives there. My nieces live there, my brother lives there, my parents live there. And there is some sense -- I mean, maybe this goes back to what we were talking about in the very beginning about the difference between the imagination and reality, and, you know, where the place that you grow up is not exactly reality or imagination.
FOERAnd for those who don't stay, but leave and return, that act of returning and the experience, for me at least, of returning is also caught somewhere between reality and imagination.
DONVANI'm sure this is an imagined scene, but I'm about two miles from the National Zoo, where I'm sitting right now, and you have a spectacular scene that takes place at night in the National Zoo. Tell that story.
FOERThere's a scene where this -- these cousins, Tamir and Jacob, who reunite for the son's bar mitzvah, used to spend time together when they were kids, when there Israelis would come to America. And in fact when Tamir came for Sam's bar mitzvah, this is now 30 years before the action in this book, they went on a tour during the National Zoo during the day -- or not a tour, but they walked around, and the whole time, Tamir is kind of, like, looking around and taking note of things, and Jacob thought it a little bit weird, but a lot of things that Tamir did were a little bit weird.
FOERAbout 1:00 in the morning, 2:00 in the morning, Tamir shakes Jacob from wakefulness and says we've got to go back to the zoo, we're going to go break in. Jacob says why. Tamir basically says because we can. And they do.
DONVANThat was a very Israeli response, for those who can't hear it, yeah.
FOERBecause we can.
FOERAnd Tamir leads Jacob over the very low concrete wall. By the way, I have many friends who have snuck into the zoo, and I would discourage it, but in any case, they go to the lion enclosure, and Tamir says I want to touch the ground in there. And Jacob says what are you talking about. And Tamir says all day, it was all I could think about, and I'm going to do it. And he does. He climbs over, his feet touch the ground, and he jumps right back out.
FOERAnd they start laughing together, laughing until they cry, and then Tamir says, now you have to do it. And Jacob says no, I'm not going to do it, there's no way I'm going to do it. And Tamir ends up pushing him and really compelling him, physically compelling him to do it. And it becomes a very dramatic and funny and kind of surreal scene where I don't need to go too deeply into it, it's probably enough to say a lion wakes up.
FOERAnd it becomes a moment that they remember 30 years later, as one of those, like, horizontal lines on the door, you know, to mark, like, that was what one kind of feeling, that was what one kind of aliveness was like, and how do we compare it to an aliveness now.
DONVANYeah, and Jacob winds up being eternally grateful for the push, I think, as well.
FOERWell, it made him, and it ruined him. You know, it made him in the sense that it gave him just a truly indelible experience, and it ruined him in the sense that he measures everything else against it, which is foolish, which is childish. You know, Jacob -- Jacob is wrestling with his sense of scale and what is big and what is small and why is it that I'm spending so much time shopping for breakfast and cooking breakfast and cleaning up after breakfast when I once touched the floor of the lion's den.
DONVANWe have an email question from Nicole in Rockville, Maryland. She says, this sounds like an interesting book with universal experiences and emotions. However, she asks, who is the intended audience, and how do you think a Palestinian- or Syrian- or Lebanese-American could potentially receive this book?
FOERWell, I just can't think of any reason why they would receive it differently than an African-American, a Native American or an octogenarian Bulgarian, as long as we're going on -arians. Or an Aryan, for that matter. You know, books don't work like that, I don't think they do. It's interesting that we're having this conversation on the radio, and the first radio interview I ever did was in Philadelphia, and the first caller on that first radio interview said to me, about "Everything is Illuminated," I'm so grateful that you told my family's story, it's something that has been very, very difficult for us to share around our dinner table, and you gave it a language, and we felt relieved.
FOERAnd so I was, you know, in my mind imagining who was on the other end of this phone call, and I imagined myself, a 25-year-old guy with glasses, so-on, and Jewish. And then the caller went on, being a 65-year-old black man in Trenton, I often find..... And I looked at the interviewer, who was sitting across from me, and we exchanged a kind of -- one of those, like, winks where you don't really move your eyelids, it's like a subtle wink. And we both had a subtle chuckle. And I think we both felt ashamed afterwards for our response because it was based in this idea that of course, of course our stories really are only about the, you know, the surface details, the circumstances of our lives, like a Jewish person understands a Jewish person, a white person understands a white person, an African-American understands an African-American, women understand women, and books are the antidote to that, you know, they reveal the deep connections, the things that we can -- the sort of conversations that both come before the circumstances of our lives and matter more than the circumstances of our lives.
DONVANSo an argument against the cage.
FOERWell, yeah, I mean, some -- an interesting thing, though, is that sometimes the cage is helpful. You know, sometimes the, like, extreme cultural specificity can create not -- not -- can make a book not inaccessible but can actually force a kind of recognition if the specificity is suggestive of truthfulness. So if I were a quantum physicist right now that you were interviewing and not a schmuck writer, if all of your listeners understood what I was saying, then they would have to believe that I was condescending to them because quantum physicists have their own language, they've developed their own expertise, and in order to, like, exercise those expertise fully, there is a sense in which they have to be inaccessible.
FOERSo writers are experts of nothing except for their own imaginations. If I am going to convey the expertise that I have with my own imagination, there will have to be moments when it's inaccessible or when it's so either culturally specific or just sort of fetishistically specifically that another person is going to say, you know, I don't -- I don't exactly -- I don't get that.
FOERThose moments of not getting can be the moments of greatest trust because we know that those details are there. The word that we don't quite understand, the name brand that we've never heard of, the puzzling moment is there only because it's true. While we were on break, there was an ad for -- Terry Gross is going to be interviewing Wilco's guitarist, I happened to hear. My favorite Wilco lyrics are the lyrics that I don't understand. They're the moments in the song when something becomes so specific and so obviously personal to the songwriter that I have no access to it, and so that I know it's true.
FOERYou know, everything else could have been written for me. Everything else could have been written for the Billboard charts or whatever they're called these days. But the moment when you are not allowed in is actually, like, the most profound kind of invitation.
DONVANI'm John Donvan, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. One of the things that you do is teach writing. I won't call you a teacher because you're a guy who lives your life, so you're not an -- you don't deserve, and it's an -er. But you teach.
FOERI am the -er teacher, yeah.
DONVANHow do you teach? How do you teach writing? How does that work?
FOERIt's difficult. Different people have different strategies.
FOERAnd I have a lot of friends who are teachers. My strategy is not to focus so much on craft, not to focus on the perfection of a sentence or paragraph or story but instead get something about what it means to be a writer. I have been teaching for more than a decade. I've taught several hundred students, and of those several hundred students, fewer than 10 are still writing, which suggests that the most difficult thing about writing is not crafting a good sentence or creating a believable character or structuring a story in a way that will be suspenseful and engaging but rather just not stopping.
FOERYou know, there seem to be such incredibly strong incentives to stop, and almost everybody stops. I don't just mean that about, you know, writers who have yet to publish a book. I mean that about Nobel Prize-winning novelists. I don't know any writer at any stage in his or her career who isn't all the time tempted to stop because it is such a challenging act. It challenges one's self-confidence, it makes you feel vulnerable. Certainly for unpublished writers it's financially almost impossible to sustain yourself.
FOERSo I organize my classes sort of as arguments against stopping and talk about different kinds of resources one can go to within one's self or within a community when one has that inclination of I just don't want to do this anymore, I don't want to go on, it is no longer worth it, what I'm getting in return for what I am putting in is not a fair trade.
DONVANCan you share an example of going to an inner resource that gets a writer to keep writing that you might be sharing in the classroom?
FOERWell, one is patience. You know, it passes. I think the fragility, the self-doubt passes and is replaced by a sentence in which the words are where they belong. And for whatever puzzling, sort of magical reason, when there's a sentence that contains the right words in the right order, it's gratifying in a way that nothing else is, like a precise self-expression, saying it as you want it, having it as you believe it ought to be. There is nothing else like it in the world, and it doesn't take very many of those sentences to make up for weeks and months of wanting to stop.
FOERAnd then the feeling of having persisted itself, forget about the product but just the gratification of saying I reached this point. You know, something I felt so profoundly at the end of this book, more than I have with anything else that I've ever written, you were asking me about the Jewish cage earlier, well, there's a prayer that is sometimes in the Jewish cage called the Shehecheyanu, which is recited upon experiencing something for the first time, whether it's like a holiday for the first time that year or it's like seeing the Grand Canyon.
FOERAnd the gist of the prayer is, like, thank you for -- I am grateful for having made it to this moment. I think writers, whether they're in the Jewish cage or they're, you know, outside of it, I think every writer is aware of that -- that kind of moment of gratitude or gratification for having arrived at the moment of seeing a project through to its end. It has nothing to do with the quality of the project. It has only to do with the quality of one's persistence and devotion. And it's very, very special.
DONVANAnd in this case it's resulted in your new book, "Here I Am." I want to congratulate you on this. I've loved it. And I recommend it to everyone who's listening, and I want to thank you, Jonathan Safran Foer, for talking to us about writing, life in a cage that doesn't exist and for taking the time, sharing this story. Thank you so much for joining us.
FOERThank you. I really enjoyed that conversation.
DONVANThank you, and I'm John Donvan. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
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