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In 'Here I Am,' Jonathan Safran Foer explores family and the faces of Judaism

Nov 4, 2016

In 2002, Jonathan Safran Foer made his literary debut with the novel “Everything is Illuminated,” which quickly became a bestseller. His next novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” was also widely praised. Both books were made into Hollywood films. His new novel “Here I Am,” is a study of things falling apart: a marriage and a family, plans for a bar mitzvah and, on a more global scale, the nation of Israel. But it’s also an examination of how people hold it together as they struggle with the real, and imagined, pressures of everyday life.

Jonathan Foer's new book

Jonathan Safran Foer will be appearing at the Rackham Auditorium on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor on Friday, November 4.

Highlights from Doug's interview with Jonathan Safran Foer

Doug Tribou: "Here I Am" centers on a couple - Jacob and Julia - their three children, and Jacob's father and grandfather and some Israeli cousins. In the story, there is a strong sense of the push and pull between what people want to do and what they feel they ought to do. Julia takes care of the family dog she never wanted, for example.

Do you struggle with the balance of wants and obligations. And is that just a never ending struggle for human beings in general?

Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, the second part of your question sort of answers the first part of your question because it suggests the universality of that. I don't even think it's a problem it's just a condition. I assume you feel that and I assume everybody listening to this feels that. ... In a way, that's what the title is getting at. The title refers to this passage in Genesis, the binding of Isaac, when God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice his son and Abraham responds, "Here I am," unconditionally without reservation. I'll do what you need. And then a few sentences later when he's lead leading Isaac up Mt. Moriah for the sacrifice of Isaac and Isaac knows something weird is going on. And he says, "Father." Abraham says again, "Here I am."

The problem is he can't be "here I am" for both, for a God who wants him to kill his son and for a son who doesn't want to be killed. ... You know most people wrestle with the balance of instinct or intuition or kind of primitive desire or the things that one knows in one's heart. You know, with what is asked of us and what is asked of us because we need to make money to put food on the table or what's asked of us because we have signed up for these various roles like father or spouse or roles we didn't sign up for but have anyway like sibling or child.

DT: You mention instinct, and Jacob and Julia have three sons and how they parent and think about parenting is a big component of the story. Recently a friend of mine who has kids - and I also have kids - said to me that he's amazed at how professional parenting has seemed to become with people reading piles of magazines and books about parenting and relying on expert advice instead of gut instincts. Do you think your characters are better for all their thinking and maybe over thinking about it? And are we getting any better at parenting?

JSF: You know there's something Jacob loves to quote. He he often loves to quote his therapist and one of the things he loves to quote is the sentiment, "Why so binary?" Why does it have to be one or the other? It's not like we either have a choice of having a library of parenting books which we immerse ourselves in and you know, give ourselves over to or we just follow our instinct. There's another way of being which is we try to trust our sense of what's right. But we also are humble enough to know that we're not child psychologists. This is our first time through. 

DT: You write that "Jacob and Julia were never ones to resist convention on principle but neither could they have imagined becoming so conventional." And a bit later in the book, you run through their pre-bedtime rituals which involve a lengthy and hilarious list of creams and dental-hygiene products. Do you see the habits and routines, some might call them monotony, of everyday life as a sort of comfort or do they hold us back a bit?

JSF: Why so binary? [chuckles] It's both. It's both. Ritual is comforting and it establishes a sense of self and a sense of home. But you can also become trapped. So you know hopefully our rituals can change with us. That doesn't have to be an either or.

DT: Your first novel "Everything is Illuminated" came out in 2002 when you were just 25 and around that time, in an interview with Charlie Rose, you said, "I just like the idea of things being a bit elevated, of things being more." You were describing your mindset as a child, but at some level that also seems to me to describe what you do and here I am you hold up a mirror to modern life and it's not a crazy funhouse mirror but it's a mirror that alters things just enough beyond reality to get our attention. Does that seem accurate to you?

JSF: I think that what I said was more true than than it is now. I used to be more interested in the thing the bigness of things you know how could they be brighter how can they be more vivid. How could they be sharper. Young people are into big gestures. And as you get older, I think you're more -- at least  I am more -- into accuracy in getting something right. Precise.

When you're young, my idea of relationships was like the love poem [and] the huge gift that was elaborately wrapped. You get older and you grow to appreciate the second poured cup of coffee in the morning or the article that's pointed out in the newspaper because the person knows you'll find it interesting. It's not resignation. That's not a loss of ambition. I think it's just a shifting of focus away from appearances toward reality. And you know, this book ... definitely departs from reality in all kinds of ways, but it's a little bit less brightly lit and maybe a little more finely tuned.

DT: We often hear the expression, "You know, you you can't write this stuff." But then of course, it is [written and] the truth is stranger than fiction. But you're you're saying you're pursuing a reality that's got an honesty to it.

JSF: Not to get too metaphysical, but what is truth and what is fiction? Like when I'm writing, it feels awfully real to me. An idea that really runs through the book is, what's near and what's far. What is make-believe and what is actually happening? All of the characters live kind of make-believe lives. Jacob has an affair. He writes this secret TV show in his basement that he never shares with anybody. Julia, who's an architect, is designing homes, imaginary homes for herself, she'll never live in. Sam, the oldest child, hangs out in this virtual reality world called Other Life. You know, are those real or are they fiction? Whatever the case they're elsewhere they're like preventing that kind of presence. 

I think the characters that everybody seek the ability to have your mind where your body is and to have your heart where your body is, you know, closing that distance is probably closing the distance between oneself and one's happiness.

DT: Judaism plays a huge part in "Here I Am." And we see differing perspectives: an Israeli who's, at least on the surface, nonchalant about the danger facing his country, an older American Jew who's strident about Israel's place in the world, his son who's ambivalent about his Judaism, his son who's resisting his bar mitzvah. How did your own relationship with the Jewish faith contribute to your writing of "Here I Am"?

JSF: I think the book might just be an expression of that. You know, "What is it like to be Jewish?" This book is my best answer. It's not a book that's trying to advance any kind of argument or single perspective. The book isn't autobiographical or cathartic or therapeutic and I am not any one of the characters, but kind 

DT: Your grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and in the book, Jacob's grandfather is, as well. According to an article in Time over the summer, there are only about 100,000 Holocaust survivors who are still living today. Have you given any thought to what their eventual passing will mean and what changes that might bring for modern Jews?

JSF: There is a sermon that's delivered in the book that sort of thinks about that. What will happen when this tether is gone? You know, so much of American Jewry, and I think world Jewry, has been relating to the Holocaust and to the generation of survivors who are responsible for so many of the ways we think about contemporary Jewish identity. And what will happn when that line is cut? What will be be our central identity? I couldn't possibly know.

DT: This novel comes more than a decade after your last novel. You've written many things in between, but for the process of fiction, what was the timeline for you to come up with this story? And how do you begin to think about your next work, if there is a next one coming?

JSF: It had been about 11 years since my last novel was published. It didn't take me 11 years, but it took me two or three years which is about the same amount of time my other books took. It just took me longer to start it, to find material that I could care about enough. And there are a lot of reasons that might have been difficult. I had two kids. I wrote a non-fiction book which kind of took me out of the game of fiction for solid three years. But the truth is ... nothing moved me in the ways that I need to be moved to write to write a book.

I have a feeling that the next book will won't take me as long to get into. I've already I'm already into one, in fact. But who knows? I wouldn't have guessed that this much time would pass this time, so I'm in no rush. And things take as long as they need to take. But certainly doesn't make life easier when lots of time passes.