Early in our meeting Jonathan Safran Foer reminds me that our interview is taking place on Yom Kippur, the holiest day within the Jewish calendar. "It's the time when you stand in front of the gates of heaven begging to be allowed in at some point."
The 39-year-old author described how he and his editor had marked it on their train journey that morning by discussing atonement, forgiveness and by writing letters to people in their lives on those themes. “Unless given some occasion, these issues of forgiveness and atonement never arise. They don’t arise spontaneously; they arise because there’s an occasion; usually when you get busted for something, which is not a very rich form of apology.
“The unconditional, unresponsive apology is beautiful. Both of us were really moved today, and it felt religious, even though neither of us are believers, or ritualistic, and he’s not Jewish.”
This disarming sincerity of tone when discussing ritual and religion is to be found everywhere in Foer's third novel, Here I Am, a book foregrounded with the breakdown of the marriage of TV writer Jacob Bloch and his architect wife, Julia. The 600-page book also takes in topics of Jewish identity, the preparations necessary for their eldest son's bar mitzvah, and the stresses inherent in running a premium-rate HBO show. A large part of the book also hinges on a crisis in the Middle East after which Israel calls on all American Jews to enlist in defence of the homeland.
“Israel is so politicised, people say that the book is political,” says Foer, sceptically. “They don’t go on to say what they think its politics are. Very often they say, ‘God you wrote such a political book’, but if I ask them to state what those politics are, they get all stuttery and weird. I don’t think the book reflects one political perspective or agenda. I don’t like novels like that and wouldn’t like to write one.”
So the reaction hasn’t deterred him from broaching the subject? “Frankly, I’ve yet to have anyone agree or disagree with the politics of the book, whatever they are.”
This attitude may be unsurprising from the author of Everything Is Illuminated, the lauded debut Foer wrote at 25, the story of a family riven by the Holocaust's ravages on eastern Europe. As if that had been an act of authorial timidity, his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was a literary exploration of trauma exacted by the World Trade Center attacks, released just four years after the towers fell.
“I think the question of what a writer should or shouldn’t write about is ridiculous,” he says. “I literally can conceive of nothing that a writer shouldn’t be able to do. I feel no anxiety about what I choose to write about, but I feel tremendous anxiety about the way I write about it.”
Despite the events depicted, Foer’s writing is mostly defined by smaller moments; tiny human gestures described with dark humour and pointillist acuity. More than the horrifying, rolling-news style updates the reader receives from the Middle Eastern warzone, the book’s most uncomfortable passages are those charting the death of Jacob and Julia’s marriage, as we watch the couple grow apart with a plangent inevitability that’s often hilariously rendered, but at times excruciating to read.
“What’s tragic is that this is the thing most often pointed out to me about the book; the familiarity of that feeling. The mystery of why that happens between two people.They grow apart when there’s no original sin, or any great crime that was committed. Good people, thoughtful people, who love each other, who are in love with each other. But they can’t bridge that distance.”
For Foer, salvation for such rifts can be found in ritual. “Sometimes having frameworks, whether they’re religious or not, can keep us on a path. For example, for Jewish people, it’s a mitzvah to screw on Shabbat; like you’re supposed to. That’s a great thing. Imagine it. You and your partner each knew the expectation to screw every Saturday, and you did. It could only be a good thing, right?”
I wonder if this would be workable between Poldark and Match of the Day but let the feeling go unexpressed.
“Another example is grieving; when somebody dies you have this thing called shiva, which makes you do exactly the opposite of what you would naturally want to do. You naturally want to curl up, cry in bed, maybe get a couple gallons of ice cream. But it asks that you invite your closest 150 friends to your house [and] to have food prepared for them.”
At the risk of lapsing into that person who judges all phenomena by comparison to something, anything Irish, I make the point that these descriptions of shiva are reminiscent of an Irish wake, and that several passages in Here I Am seem to resonate with the sardonic Irish psyche. There's one such moment in which a rabbi asks a child what "crying in Jewish" could possibly sound like. The child replies, "Maybe like laughing?"
“It’s not a coincidence that Joyce made Bloom a Jew,” agrees Foer. “We are almost one and the same. A lot of the old models are dying out. My old models would be holocaust survivors. Ireland’s old models may be people from that more authoritarian Catholic state. So there’s less to identify with, cling to, to keep you honest in the idiomatic sense.
“A lot of Irish identity or Jewish identity is things like the music you listen to, the literature that you produce and read. It’s not just religious rituals and cultural norms. But we now live in a world where everyone reads the same book at the same time or listens to the same music at the same time. So, the combination of losing that tether and also the way information moves so freely actually makes it hard to be particular.”
Quite recently, Foer was all set to be part of an even more global cultural conversation when he created All Talk, a serial drama for HBO with Ben Stiller and Alan Alda attached – "It was cast and ready to go" – but he had reservations at the eleventh hour and stepped away.
“I loved writing that show. Everything was good. It was moving forward. The only problem was actually making it. It would have been not good for me. I’d literally never heard the term showrunner. I’d never heard until I was about to become one. And then I just thought about it a lot and didn’t think I could do it. I don’t think I could have been happy doing it.”
Part of that process lives on in the novel’s protagonist Jacob, who is writing a successful TV show and an accompanying “bible”. Ordinarily a master document that contains all sorts of extraneous details pertaining to a drama’s characters, in the novel this is repurposed into a guidebook for living and suffering through everyday life that serves as one of the novel’s most satisfying chapters.
In the real world, HBO ultimately decided it didn't want to do the show without him – "I sort of wish they had, but they didn't want to, so that was that" – and Foer began writing Here I Am shortly afterwards. A full eight years after his second novel had been published, how difficult was it to get back into novel writing mode?
"I was visiting a friend in California and started writing [Jacob and Julia's eldest child] Sam. Not as a big character, just a sensibility that I wanted to be with. The way I usually work, I seek things that I'm drawn to and stay with them as long as I'm drawn to them. When I stop being drawn to them I stop writing them. People ask me about process a lot and people who go to readings are generally interested in process, for whatever reason. Do you write a certain number of pages a day? For a certain number of hours?
“Personally, I feel like if I ever get to the point of needing to rely on a structure then I’m screwed, because it suggests I’ll need to force myself back to the page which suggests I don’t want to be at that page and, if I don’t want to be there, there’s no way I can bring the necessary aliveness to it.”
I admit that I’m one of those types fascinated by process, and particularly the entirely contradictory rules of different authors. As an alternative, I proffer Philip Pullman’s stated preference for writing 1,000 words a day, no more or less. Foer appears genuinely baffled.
“Wouldn’t he go to 2,000 if he wanted? That’s so arbitrary,” he says.
Feeling the need to defend Pullman’s good name before the interview’s end, I counter that such rules are what we’ve been discussing all afternoon; the rituals and constraints by which we give ourselves space for self-expression. Couldn’t we just as easily say that Saturday was an arbitrary day for Shabbat?
“Yes,” he concedes with a shrug, “but at the same time, if you want to screw twice on Shabbat, you’d be welcome.”