Jonathan Safran Foer
Photo by Emily Berl

Jonathan Safran Foer: “You have to waste a lot to have a little”

Short Profile

Name: Jonathan Safran Foer
DOB: 21 February 1977
Place of birth: Washington, DC, United States
Occupation: Author

Mr. Foer, is it true that you used to ask your favorite authors to send you one empty page from their new manuscripts?

That was more than 10 years ago, I haven’t done it for quite a long time. I still have those pages, though, on my wall in my house but I just haven’t actually asked for a new one for quite a long time. I don’t think I’ve done it since I became a writer myself. Actually, it’s interesting because since I did that collection, a lot of those authors that sent me pages have died. Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, David Foster Wallace… Quite a few have passed away.

Why did you ask for empty pages?

It just felt more magical to me because the paper at that moment before it’s been written on is the least valuable thing in the world. It’s hard to think of anything of less value than one piece of blank paper. And yet it’s hard to think of anything more valuable than that same piece of paper when just a little bit of ink has been applied to it in a certain way… And I like having it in that moment in between being of no value and being of ultimate value.

Did they sign them as well?

No, the papers are blank. But they would often write me letters as well, beautiful ones, and I still have those.

“It’s this perpetual balancing act of figuring out what makes life richer and what makes life impoverished.”

Given that pen and ink still carries a lot of importance for you, did it take you a long time to embrace the idea of writing a novel on your computer?

I do struggle with it, yeah. Where technology is concerned, you know, I probably look at YouTube less than anybody you’ve ever met under the age of 40. I think most people I know struggle with technology.

Woody Allen, for example, has used the same typewriter for most of his career…

Right, the struggle has become almost invisible because our lives are so woven through with it. It’s like the old joke about fish in water, where one fish says to the other, “The water’s kind of warm today.” And the other fish says, “What’s water?” You know? We are so surrounded by it that its presence has become unknown to us — which is scary.

How do you deal with that?

Well, my kids don’t have phones, but they use screens sometimes. But I think it’s as silly to be anti-technology as it is to be unquestioningly pro-technology. It doesn’t make any sense. There are things that are good, even great about it but there are also things that are challenging about it. It’s this perpetual balancing act of figuring out what makes life richer and what makes life impoverished. 

Would you say you’ve figured it out?

I happen to have a friend whose mother got a cancer diagnosis. And he was with her in the doctor’s office. And the doctor said, “I have some terrible news, the cancer has metastasized in your body and you have three weeks to live.” And first she said, “Why me?” But she continued, “Why I have been so lucky, why have I had so many blessings in my life? Why have I had such a good life?” That was the exact opposite of what you would think she would say after starting with, “Why me?” So, you know, I feel very lucky. There is luck behind me, there’s luck in front of me, there’s luck ahead of me. But that is a perspective that requires a lot of work. It doesn’t come naturally.

You once said that laziness is the quality you most deplore in yourself. Is that because you don’t want to look back on your life and wish you’d done more?

You know, I think about that all the time! I was thinking about that just this morning. (Laughs) What I often do, which is probably both wise and stupid, is exactly that: flash forward to the end, looking back, I think, “Gosh, should I spend so much time watching TV? Should I spend so much time sleeping in in the morning? Should I spend so much time walking around? Should I spend so much time not writing?” And sometimes I think that the way I spend my time was the good way to spend my time, or at least the necessary way to spend my time because you have to waste a lot in order to have even a little.

A clip from Everything is Illuminated, the 2005 film by Liev Schreiber based on Safran Foer's debut novel of the same name, published in 2002.

So you’re not in a rush to publish your next book, for example?

Well, other times I feel like the explanation I just gave you is really just being dishonest. I do wish that I were more rigorous about life. But I don’t think there’s any one reason that I often write books quite slowly, but it never feels like it’s taken 11 years, like it did with my book Here I Am. It feels like in that time, I had two children, life was very busy… It didn’t feel small. The truth is that if there had been something that I wanted to write, I would’ve had the time. 

The problem wasn’t time, it was just that you were waiting for the right time?

Exactly, the problem was not other responsibilities or commitments, it was that I didn’t always want to be a writer. I came to it a little later than a lot of other writers that I know. And even still, my ambition is not to have a great career as a writer. My ambition is to write things that I feel really proud of, that gratify me and that feel necessary… And nothing felt necessary back then. So, I waited.

Has patience been an important part of your success?

Yeah, really, you know… Here’s a great example: my first book Everything Is Illuminated, I sent it to maybe 13 agents and they all rejected it. And then I finally found an agent, and she took it on, she sent it to every publishing house in New York and they all rejected it. And then she fell ill and had to return to Denmark where she’s from… And then I had no agent. I almost gave up but I sent it out again and I got an agent and then she sent it out again to all these publishers and then suddenly everybody wanted it. It was exactly the same book. I hadn’t changed a word, everything was in the same place. I certainly don’t believe in religious miracles but I believe in things that feel like a blessing, you know?