Grant Deline

Here it is: The full Q&A of the Mercury's interview with Jonathan Safran Foer. (The shorter version is here.) It's long. And we're not very good at asking concise questions. But it's still interesting. (We hope so, anyway.)

MERCURY: You're doing all this publicity. Are you sick of hearing any specific questions?

JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: The only questions that I don't like are questions that begin, "I haven't read your book, but I did read an interview where you said...."

Yeah. Like, "You're supposed to be a big deal, right? Can we talk about that?"

Exactly. Um...

I mean, how do you even respond to that?

Um, you know, you just try to answer the best you can.

Yeah. All right, well, I have read your books.

Yeah, I really just put you on the spot there, didn't I? Quite unintentionally.

No, no. I've read them and I like them both a lot, so don't worry—I won't ask you to just summarize them. So, when Illuminated came out—as I'm sure you're more aware than anyone else—you were hailed as all sorts of stuff: the boy genius, and all that. How did it feel when reactions to Extremely Loud came out and they weren't as adoring as the first round of stuff was? How did that affect you, also how does that affect your writing?

It doesn't affect my writing at all. I guess it didn't affect me much either. I don't know if that sounds hard to believe, but I mean, it's not like I believed it the first time. I felt like I was really, really lucky. And I felt very grateful. But I didn't think I was a good writer because any particular person told me so. I think my first book, you know, which was successful out in the world was rejected by, I don't know, 10 agents before I found an agent and probably as many publishers. It's the exact same book. And so I learned from the beginning that you know, the same piece of writing will be met with dramatically different responses from different people. And it's not that—I don't mean you can't trust anybody's responses, I just mean you have to know they're part of a large puzzle. And a puzzle that really changes with time. I always prefer someone to like my book than to not like it, but—you know, there's an old saying that if I have to choose between a punch and a kiss, I would choose a kiss. But if I had to choose between a punch and nothing, I would choose a punch. I guess I'm really glad people responded strongly. That is the most important thing to me.

Right. Just strongly either way.

Yeah, you write a book to engage people, not for people to like.

Maybe this is getting into the same territory, but did the hype that preceded.... Well, not preceded, but was a reaction to Everything Is Illuminated—you said you didn't believe it or let it get to you, but...

It's not that I didn't believe it, it's that it was just so strange and funny to me. It was just really unanticipated is all I can say. You know, somebody said to me the other day... a friend of mine was over to dinner said, "Can you imagine if what you had in mind for your first book was to get a big audience? Like you certainly wouldn't have written your first book." You know, it's a book about a fucking shtettl.

You'd have written the opposite of your first book if you were trying to get a big audience.

Yeah, so I just found the whole thing really surprising and really great. You know, I was lucky. A lot of people aren't lucky who deserve to be lucky. I knew the second experience would be—just almost by definition—it couldn't be as good. I really had about as good of an experience as anyone could have. And I knew that it would probably be tough in a lot of ways. But I've just been happy with it. I feel every bit as lucky now as I did before. I mean, I feel more lucky now.

So this reminds me of your friend's question—that if you were trying to write something big that would get people talking, you wouldn't write a book about a shtettl. But, if you were—if you did want to capture what people were talking about—it seems like 9/11 with Extremely Loud is clearly a very loaded, big, subject that people were going to talk about. In terms of writing a book about 9/11, how did you approach that? When you saw that the book was starting to move in that direction and you knew that this would be something that people would talk about, how did that affect the writing of the book? And how did that affect your prepping for its reactions?

I was surprised by the way people talked about it. Or even that they talked about it so much. I mean, it's so entirely unnotable when a work of nonfiction comes out about September 11.

Oh yeah, they're a dime a dozen at this point.

Yeah, I guess to me all of the instincts that would make a nonfiction writer write about September 11 are the very same instincts that make a fiction writer... you know, it's an important event, sort of unavoidably enormous, that matters and you want to grapple with it, whether in an explicit way or in a very metaphorical way. I guess I didn't think the act of choosing to write about it would be considered noteworthy. I just thought it would be taken for granted, that a lot of people are going to be writing about it, as seems to be true. You know, in the years to come there are going to be a lot of novels about it. But, I don't know, I didn't sit down to write such a book. I was working on a very different kind of book. I mean, I had absolutely no relation whatsoever, and without realizing it—and very much without intending to do it—that book started to become this book. It started to veer toward September 11. To me, you know, I've met a lot of writers who have said, "I felt my writing veering toward September 11 and I just put it in check." I guess I find that decision noteworthy. You know, that's interesting to resist your impulses. To resist writing things that you're thinking about and having strong feelings about. Writing about it doesn't... I guess I don't find it even all that interesting.

So it sounds almost as if it was just very...I don't even know if "instinctual" is the right word, but just kind of following what you were interested and where it was taking you, and that's how you ended up with the subject matter.

Yeah.

It seems very strange that someone would feel the urge to write about 9/11 and then recoil from that, or pull back.

I guess a lot of people were afraid of, I don't know, invoking wrath or something. Or maybe they were afraid so many books about it would come out. That theirs just couldn't be unique. I'm not really sure. Again, I didn't have that inclination so I don't... I'm not sure I can relate to it.

Yeah, it just seems weird. But do you feel like with people talking about it more that you expected and people taking note of that decision, do you feel like you incurred wrath or do you feel like you were kind of in territory where you didn't expect?

No. I mean they don't talk about it anymore. I do lots of readings now and talk to lots of readers and it's just not—I don't think that people find it all that interesting anymore. Now a lot of conversations seem to be about characters or things that happened.

So they're actually talking about the book? What a novel concept.

Yeah! I think this kind of always happens with books. Of course there's this big splash initially and reviewers tend to imitate one another, I guess. It's no coincidence that my first book... once books break over a certain hill, like the consensus is reached. "The culture likes this. The culture doesn't like this." Look at what happened to James Frey? Like maybe he did something stupid; he did something wrong. But the way that everybody just like, [it's] the snowball effect. It's almost embarrassing, I think.

It turns away from being a discussion and turns into a kind of a mob mentality.

You know, when books stick around and they start spreading by word of mouth, rather than by reviews or advertising, people take them on their own terms and on the book's own terms. I think that's what I've been seeing more of recently and really loving.

Right, I can imagine that would be somewhat of a relief.

There's nothing about the experience that I needed a relief from. The whole thing felt perfectly nice and good. I mean, really good. Like getting to meet readers. I did a book tour and everything. It's better than my first book, I felt. Obviously, there were reviewers who were strongly negative, but there were those for my first book too. Memory may make it look more rosy than it was, but there were plenty of people who had nasty things to say, but you know, it's just life. It's just not a big deal.

I'm going to break topic a little bit. And the first thing that I read of yours was the short story in The New Yorker, "A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease." And the thing that stuck me—and probably everyone else who read it—was the visual look of it, with the iconography being almost equal level with the text. And one of my favorite things about Extremely Loud is that the visual things you do in the book seemed to play a bigger role than for most books. When do you sit down and decide like, "Here's the image I'm going to use on this page," or "Here's the tactic I'm going to use for the journal, when the letters get smaller and smaller." When does that happen in terms of you sitting down and saying, "Okay, I'm going to tell this part of the story in a fairly unconventional way."

I never do that. I never do that. I do it because... what I need is an analogy here. It's like if you were playing basketball...what kind of sport do you like?

Sure, basketball.

Yeah, and somebody says, "When did you decide to pass?" or "When did you decide to shoot?" You know, I guess there kind of are answers, but they're cheesy. They miss the point. When it's working, you're really not thinking very much. You know, it's quite intuitive and that's different from editing. I'm talking about the process of writing the book the first time. So, a picture came when a picture came. Sometimes what would happen... I mean, this might be a way to answer your question. Sometimes what would happen is I would write, and I would realize as I was writing that I want this image here. I just knew it. Sometimes I would see an image and say, "I want to write around this image." You know, it's not the case that the images illustrate the text. The text illustrates the images just as much. A good example is there's that two-page spread of birds. I really wrote that whole section around that image when I found it. I just knew it was so evocative to me, I knew I had to, it had to be part of this. You know, when you're in a book, you start noticing that a lot of things have to do with it. And you can't always just explain why. When I saw those birds, I knew they had to do with what I was thinking about. And I don't mean September 11. I just mean whatever it is, whatever characteristics the book has. That's how I figured it out.

Is that the direction that you're heading in terms of writing? Do you feel like the visual iconography and the use of visual media inside texts is something that is going to continue to be important to you?

I really don't know. I honestly don't know. I wouldn't be surprised. I mean, I guess nothing would surprise me. I never set out wanting to be a writer. You know, I set out wanting to make things that felt authentic to me, and if it one day takes the form of something purely visual, with no words, it wouldn't make me unhappy. I guess that would surprise me a little bit just because I do feel, you know, pretty invested in writing and in language. But I never want... I guess what I mean is I never want the form to in any way constrain the thing that's being expressed. So, if I write a book one day and somebody in Barnes & Noble says, "You know, we can't really sell this in the novel section; we need to sell this in the graphic novel section, or in the poetry section, or the young adult section." I don't care as long as I feel like the thing that was made was what I wanted to make. That it was, you know, that I can say... you know, the great thing about writing or art in general is that you're free. And you make and you do what you want and there's nobody as your boss. And one thing that can become your boss is the form that you're working in and you know, I want to, when I finish products, I want to say I was free. You know, "I did this only the way that I wanted to."

There's this saying about films never being finished, just abandoned. Like, "All right. Good enough. Get it out there." When you finish a book, is it something where it's like that? Or do you feel like you accomplished what you wanted?

I think it's like 51 percent relief, maybe. I don't even know if satisfaction is the right word. And 49 percent incredible disappointment. You know, that, "Man, this wasn't good. Again." You know? That I started out thinking I was going to express 100 percent of everything I wanted to express, and it turned out it was only 10. Then I said with the next book, maybe I can do 11—and it turned out you got two. It's like diminishing returns. It's like you care more and more about the returns. That two percent starts to feel really, really significant.

So that reminds me. I meant to ask you this when you were talking about Extremely Loud and the different things you said you started out with—that it was a whole different book that bore little or no resemblance to what the final product was. You don't need to sum it up for me in 100 words, but that makes me wonder what the original book was about.

It was a book that took place in a museum that was dedicated to this life of a man, a writer, who created an important diary and then he disappeared for like 50 years. And he reappears in this museum, you know, dedicated to his life.

Do you think that you'll ever—I mean, is that something that just morphed and changed enough that it's a completely different thing now, or is it the same book? And do you think you'll return to those ideas at some point?

I don't know, I've always been really, really... I've always wanted to write a book that takes place in a museum.

How come?

I just love museums. I love, you know, even more than what they show at the exhibit. I love what it is to exhibit things. Or to collect things. Or to put objects that might not have any value in an environment that gives them lots of value.

Now, when you talk about different ideas and different drafts and all this different stuff, was that the same case with Everything Is Illuminated too? Or did you set out to have that story? I'm wondering how many ideas you've got in your head that haven't seen the light of day yet, or that changed into something else.

We'll find out; I don't know. But, yeah, that book changed an incredible amount. There was a point where that book had a cow that was a muse. It was really, a lot of weird stuff. It's not a pretty process.

Now I'm going to be waiting to see a cow as a muse at pop up at some point.

I wouldn't hold your breath. [Laughter]

I'm going to be disappointed, aren't I?

Yeah, probably.

All right. And speaking of Illuminated, I read a bunch of stuff about your reactions to the film—and you saying that the film's so different from the book that there's no real answer you can give to what you thought of it. So I won't ask you what you thought of the movie.

Thank you.

But the one thing that I wanted to ask is reading about how Extremely Loud was optioned, I was wondering if you were going to be involved in it, or if you'll take the same course as Illuminated and treat it as something different?

That's what I want to do.

Is there a reason? Is it that you'd rather do the writing stuff and not worry about all this Hollywood bullshit?

That's definitely part of it. Also, it's just not who I am. Like, I would be bad at it. It takes me a long time to get good at something. Particularly any kind of art form. And I don't think that cellists should assume they can pick up a trumpet and play it well. And I guess I feel the same way about movies. I mean, I really love movies. And the idea of making a movie one day? I guess I like that. I don't think I will, though. Because I'm not sure how I would get to that point.

Right. It would be a whole other thing—learning to do something else.

Yeah.

We were talking earlier about museums and collecting and stuff. I read something where—I don't know if this is true or not—but I read that you collect blank pages from writers' desks. Is that true?

I used to. I guess I'm retired.

The first thing I was going to ask about that is whose pages you collected, and then the second question I was going to ask is what you did with them—and now my third follow up is why you retired from it.

I have a lot. I have maybe 60 or so. I put them in frames. They're hanging.

Which are your favorites?

I have one of Freud's that is pretty nifty. I guess the authors who have now passed away are some of my favorites, like Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller. I have a sheet of Isaac Bashevis Singer's that is pretty good. But yeah, I don't do it anymore. And I guess it's just not my thing.

What was the process of getting those? It's not just like you can show up on eBay or go to a yard sale or something.

Sometimes I just wrote to authors and asked. Sometimes I... like the Freud one, I went to the Feud Museum and talked to the director, and she took me into his old office, you know, like pushed the velvet ropes aside, and that was how it worked.

I wanted to ask about it because it was one of the coolest sounding collections I've heard of in awhile.

It's very nice looking. They're all in different frames. I tried to find different frames that captured something about the writer's character.

So they've got different frames based on how you felt about them?

Like, Haruki Murakami—

Oh, you're shitting me. You've got a Murakami page?!

Yeah.

All right, that's...

It's in a really nice silver metal frame.

Now I've turned from being impressed and liking the idea of your collection to just being flat-out jealous. So let's change the topic.

[Laughter]

The only other thing I wanted to tell you—and I was debating whether or not to tell you this, but I'm just going to go for it. Extremely Loud is the first book that I read that actually made me cry. And I just wanted to say thanks for making me feel like a big fat fuckin' crybaby. 'Cause, uh, that was great and I really appreciate it.

That's sweet. That's nice. Thank you. No, thank you that's really... it means more to me than you really think. I can promise you that.