The Drue Heinz Lecture Series brings novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and the recently adapted-to-film Everything is Illuminated, to Pittsburgh on Mon., Oct. 10. City Paper chats with Foer about work, being typecast as a young phenom, and opera.
Your latest novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, follows 9-year-old Oskar Schell on a quest for clues about his father's life before he died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Why hasn't there been more fiction set against Sept. 11? Will there be more as time goes on, as we begin to process that event?
I think there will be a groundswell; I think we're starting to see it, actually. I don't believe that there's anything that is too big for fiction to try to cover and I'm not sure I understand the notion of it being too soon any more than I would understand it for journalists. You know, was it too soon for Dan Rather to be down there 20 minutes after it happened? Well, yeah, of course you're going to make mistakes but we still needed him to try to tell us the information that he did knowing full well that some of that information isn't going to be correct, and it wasn't always correct.
I feel the same way about novels. I need what the good novelists can give me. It's different from what journalists can give me. People hold novelists up to extremely high standards, probably higher standards than they hold their politicians up to or journalists up to -- which is a shame but maybe it also says something about how seriously people do take novelists. It's increasingly common that people read novels as things other than novels. They read novels as histories, as works of psychology, when that's not what they are, they're works of the imagination. Sometimes they stay close to reality, sometimes they don't, but they have no responsibility to it.
You studied philosophy at Princeton. When did you jump to being a writer?
I wanted to be a doctor, actually. I had always wanted to be an obstetrician. It's one of those jobs where you don't go home and wonder if you did anything good that day -- it's so self-evident that delivering babies is a good thing and I guess that's always been important to me, wanting to do something that was meaningful, that felt right.
When I graduated college was when I really had to take action. I clearly didn't go to med school and I did start to write so I guess that was a moment. I still think about why I do what I do -- is it what I want to do, is it what I'm going to be doing, do I do it because of inertia, do I do it because of choice, is this the best thing ...
What can you say about your libretto, Seven Attempted Escapes from Silence, on stage in Germany now?
I got a call from a director at the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin asking if I'd be interested in writing a libretto. I had never really thought about it before and for whatever reason it struck me as a really great idea. It takes place in either a prison or a hospital, we're not really sure, and it's for people who don't have access to language. They can sing, they can make noises, but they can't speak. The whole thing is narrated by a guard who describes in seven chapters seven escapes from the place. It sounds a little bit strange and a little bit weird, and it is a little bit strange and a little bit weird but opera lends itself to things like that, to very dramatic and also very open, very abstract ideas.
The term "wunderkind" has followed you since your first novel, published when you were 25. Does it still?
I would assume it's not that interesting anymore. I would hope it's not that interesting anymore. I never found it interesting to begin with but I can understand why people would, I mean, I would find it interesting if there were a 120-year-old writer. So whatever you are, the hope is that you just keep writing, keep doing what you do, and any title that's applied to you will fall away. Philip Roth was called "wunderkind" when his first book came out, and then he was called a disappointment, and then he was called a great Jewish writer, and then he was called an anti-Semite, and then he was called a great American writer. He's gone through everything, and now he's just called Philip Roth. My goal would just be to be evaluated by no terms, on no terms other than the writing itself.