Bestselling author of Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer, visited Amsterdam to talk about his latest novel Here I Am. The John Adams Institute hosted the event in a sold out Paradiso, and we were one of the lucky few who got our hands on tickets!
Moderator of the evening was Pieter van den Blink who also interviewed Jonathan Franzen, he gave a lengthy speech introducing Foer and Here I Am. After his introduction it was time for Jonathan Safran Foer to enter the stage, and by the sound of the applause, the audience was definitely ready for him.
Before Foer started to read an excerpt from Here I Am, he told us an anecdote from his visit to Milan a few days before. Since he had an afternoon off, his publisher asked him what he wanted to do. Foer answered that if possible, he would like to see The Last Supper by Da Vinci. When he got to his hotel room that evening he facetimed his kids and told them about the possibility of seeing this great work of art. The response he got from his kids was very funny, since they had no idea what it was, and when their father tried to explain it to them, they lost interest because they “didn’t care about Jesus”.
While listening to him it struck me that he isn’t only a writer who has written books that are both funny and heartbreaking at the same time, as a person he also has a great sense of humor. He likes to make jokes and he isn’t afraid to mock himself. You could tell the audience really loved him and there were many moments when we all had to laugh at his stories.
Jonathan Safran Foer also admitted that it wasn’t easy to pick a passage from Here I Am to read from. Since the novel is filled with a certain ‘muchness’ he was afraid that whatever he would pick would maybe misrepresent the book to everyone who hadn’t read it yet. Luckily for us was able to make up his mind and he read a passage about the uncircumcised penis of Steven Spielberg (or his lookalike). In typical Foer-fashion he alternated between reading and making funny comments on some of the sentences.
After this it was time for the interview to start, which really felt like the cherry on top of the cake, even though this was what the whole evening was actually about. Van den Blink and Foer talked about many themes that can be traced in Here I Am, such as marriage, divorce and relationships in general. However, since only the day before Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Van den Blink wanted to know Foer’s opinion on this. Foer responded by saying that he doesn’t have strong feelings about it. According to him twelve mysterious Swedish people decided that Bob Dylan writes literature and although he is a profound artist, Foer wonders whether Dylan is the kind of artist that should be awarded this kind of prize.
The conversation then moved to Here I Am and the meaning of the title, which is taken from Genesis, when Abraham is about to sacrifice his son Isaac to God. Foer explains that moment gives room to an ultimate choice for Abraham and that his novel is filled with these choices as well. An example of this is the crisis in Israel and the choice of fighting for this country or staying home in America. You can’t really give an answer to this ultimate choice until it actually happens.
Another thing that Foer described beautifully was the relationship between Jacob and Julia, the main characters in Here I Am. If you’ve read the novel, you might wonder why they get a divorce instead of fighting for their marriage. To explain this Foer gives an example of a friend of his who has been married for forty years. According to this friend her marriage works because there is a part of her husband that she can’t enter, a certain sense of mystery. The tragedy of Jacob and Julia is that they’ve developed a distance that has been born out of closeness. As Foer puts it: they didn’t leave room for a place of beckoning, a place of distance, leading to little tings that become too much to ask for.
When asked about his writing process Foer explained that he has no plan and that the process is very open. There’s no outcome that he need, and when he writes he tries not to worry so much about the things that are in front of him. He tries not to be too conscious in the process. As a writer he is limited, but the world isn’t. His subconscious for example is a way to start to write, but also random encounters with people.
It was an amazing Friday evening. Foer is a great storyteller who gives insightful and comprehensive answers that are a joy to listen to. Being a fan of him since I first read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close at the age of sixteen, this evening was a teenage dream come true. Although I wasn’t too enthusiastic about Here I Am when I finished it a few months ago, after hearing Foer talk about it, I will definitely reread it somewhere in the near future, giving it a second chance.
Special thanks to the John Adams Institute for allowing us to visit and to write about it. Images courtesy of the John Adams Institute.