15 Minutes with Jonathan Safran Foer
Foer was very pleased to see he had a sign language interpreter repeating his every word in sign, “not just because it’s the right thing to do,” he said, “but because there are certain things I’ve always wanted to see explained in sign language…” He then went on to comment on blow jobs, to the embarrassment of his interpreter and to howls of laughter and dismay as attendees watched the interpreter gesture according to Foer’s whimsy.
Before his speech, I had the privilege of sitting down with Foer for 15 minutes to discuss his recent book and his experiences as a writer:
Student Life: What was the most interesting or shocking part of your research for this book?
Jonathan Safran Foer: I think the most shocking thing for me was realizing that all of the harmful effects are actually known. It’s not really right to say that they’re accidental; they’re really built into the business model. With this kind of farming, people in the industry know it’s the worst thing they can do for the environment; they know that the animal cruelty is not because of sadistic workers or malfunctioning machines, it’s because of human choices. And it’s really pervasive in America. I was under the impression, before I began my research, that there were actually lots of different kinds of farming, but that’s not the case. This is it. Even the human health risks are just the way it is. They know that 8% of chickens will have salmonella. So what do you call that? It starts to look like evil, rather than just a mistake.
SL: What was it like writing non-fiction for the first time, after building such a career for yourself in fiction writing?
JSF: I didn’t like it. I love when I’m writing fiction and don’t really know what I’m writing about and have to stumble forward. There are accidents in fiction. Here I was always constrained by the world and by facts. Also by having a story that I was trying to tell. My novels don’t really have subjects, which is what I love about them.
SL: Ultimately do you think it’s realistic to think people will be vegetarians for moral reasons?
JSF: Well first of all, they don’t have to be vegetarians; they really just have to eat less meat. Unfortunately it’s often cast that you’re either a vegetarian or you don’t do anything, but in fact, there’s a huge gray area. It’s almost like asking do you think people will be environmentalists; they don’t have to be environmentalists, they just have to make different choices. But do I think there are collective morals that will move people? Yes, I do. Cage-free eggs is the fastest growing sector of the food industry. They don’t taste any better and aren’t any better for your health—people do it for moral reasons. Not just in Berkeley or New York, but across the whole country. So yes, I do think people will change.
SL: It seems difficult to fall into that middle ground, though. I feel it would take a lot of work to find out where your food comes from. It seems really hard to make that conscious decision on a daily basis…
JSF: I definitely agree—I think it is difficult. But apparently a lot of people don’t. There are also other options: instead of eating meat for lunch and dinner, you could limit it to just dinner. That’s another kind of middle ground, which I think is actually pretty powerful. People may dismiss that and think you’re just a hypocrite for doing that, which, I guess yeah—but it’s better to be a hypocrite half the time than all the time. I think that’s the direction things are moving in. There’s a greater consciousness, which really makes a big difference. It’s kind of like smoking—people still smoke, but they smoke a lot less. And there’s a taboo attached to that now. I think that’s the direction things are moving in, but I could be wrong.
SL: Since you said you didn’t enjoy working on this book as much, do you expect to produce any more non-fiction?
JSF: Maybe one day, but not anytime soon. The thing about this topic—it’s not that I care about it more than I care about other topics, but there’s a strange silence surrounding it that I found very appealing as a writer. There’s this thing that’s in front of us every day and it’s so important, and yet we haven’t found a good way to talk about it. So that’s what attracted me. And I can’t think of any other topics that are quiet like this. Maybe I’ll think of one somewhere down the line, or maybe one will come up over time. But for now, I think I’ll return to fiction.
SL: What was it like being named one of America’s top 20 fiction writers under 40 by the New Yorker?
JSF: I don’t know—it’s better than not being on the list, for sure. I remember they did the same list 10 years ago, and I remember when it came out. I thought it was amazing. I thought it would be so cool to be on that list, so yes, it’s an honor. The New Yorker has taste. It’s their taste, it’s not objective; there are a lot of great writers who weren’t on that list. And even some writers who are on it who I don’t really like all that much. I feel very honored, but I don’t feel that it means anything in any sort of objective sense. The wonderful thing about literature is that it’s subjective; what works for one person don’t work for somebody else, and so the danger of lists is making the suggestion that there are things we should all agree on or that there is a cannon that should be recognized, or just that it’s objective. And it’s not. If somebody hates something I write, I don’t try to argue with them—there’s really no argument to be had. The New Yorker has an amazing history of publishing fiction and I’m glad that I have their stamp of approval, but it’s only one stamp of approval.
SL: What about the criticism you’ve received? Your work can be rather polarizing—how do you respond to negative reviews?
JSF: I guess I don’t. I don’t read much criticism—positive or negative. There’s an old saying: if I could choose between a punch and a kiss, I’d choose a kiss, but if I had to choose between a punch and nothing, I’d choose a punch. Getting slammed is not the worst thing in the world—getting ignored is the worst thing in the world. When somebody really tears into me, there’s a part of me that feels some kind of satisfaction. It’s not what I want—I’d rather have someone like what I do. But the goal is to have a strong engagement with readers and so, inevitably, sometimes it will be negative.
SL: What is it like having brothers who are also involved in the literary world? Any sibling rivalries?
JSF: Well we really do quite different things. My older brother is an editor and my little brother is kind of a science writer. They’re both in different fields, and regardless—they’re my brothers. I want good things for them more than I want them for myself. I’ve never ever felt jealous or anything.
SL: Do the three of you ever help each other with your projects?
JSF: Yeah, all the time. I’ve read my brother’s book a hundred times and it hasn’t even come out yet.
SL: What’s harder—being a writer or being a father?
JSF: Wow. They’re hard in such different ways. Being what I think is a good writer or a good father, both of which I think I’m attempting—I’m always striving to be. I’m not the writer I want to be and I’m not the father I want to be. They’re really hard in such different ways. It’s just hard to say. But they’re both the hardest things I can imagine. I can’t think of anything more difficult.
SL: Any advice for aspiring writers? Or students in general?
JSF: Not really. When I was a student, I had Joyce Carol Oates as a teacher, and she once said that the most important writerly quality is energy. I think that was a really brilliant thing to say. You need energy on the sentence level and on the page level. But also, there are so many things in life that can sap you of your energy as a writer—like bad reviews or self-doubt or how difficult it is to face a blank page without an editor or a professor looking over your shoulder. It’s very hard to self-motivate. And I often find it hard to muster the energy. But if you can do that, I think you’re off to a good start.