On the 10th of October, Bath United Reform Church and Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights hosted an event with American author Jonathan Safran Foer. The author was in the UK as part of his book tour for his latest novel, Here I Am. This latest story follows Jacob, Julia and their family as it begins to fracture in a time of private crisis. Meanwhile, a large natural catastrophe hits the Middle East. In this narrative, the author brings together private and public lives, with both global and domestic collapse.
Unlike most events hosted by Mr B’s bookshop, Safran Foer was not interviewed by Nic Bottomly himself, but instead by another shop employee, Jess. In Nic’s introduction, he explained that with employees who were such huge fans of the author he felt he couldn’t pass them over, so had instead ‘passed the baton’ onto Jessica.
To begin, Jess asked what it was like to be back on a book tour after such a long gap. Jonathan said that it was quite difficult because he’d spent a lot of time sat alone writing which is the opposite of talking to people about a book. Safran Foer explained that the hardest part about touring is actually thinking about his novel intellectually since he rarely does this during the writing process. He went on to say that he tries to suppress questions about deeper meaning while he writes because he finds it stifles him – he prefers to focus on his own thoughts and feelings. Jonathan also believes that fiction doesn’t need to purposely make sense of the world, instead, it should just come through from natural writing.
In discussing what comes first plot or characters the author answered neither – the premise for his books come from all angles, some of this sticks together and some does not. When talking more about his writing process Jonathan told us; when he or really anyone writes, and an idea comes to them they have a choice whether to get out of their warm bed and write it down or try and remember it. The author joked saying, “in the history of time, I don’t think anyone has ever just remembered.” Part of being a writer, therefore, is making that effort to get up and do it.
Later the conversation returned to the functionality and meaning of literature. Safran Foer said he prefers to write literature that is liberated from utility and therefore doesn’t need a function or meaning. He continued by saying, books are one of the last refuges of “doing something just for its own sake.”
Part way through the discussion of Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer was asked to read an extract from his novel. Before reading, the author told us he took some time trying to choose an extract to read because one area of the book could represent it in a very different way to another. In the end, he chose a moving and emotive wedding speech from Jacob and Julia’s wedding, made by Jacob’s mother.
Before the audience were given an opportunity to ask their own questions, Jess ended her interview segment by talking to Jonathan about the idea of empathy which she found popped up a lot, not only in Here I Am, but also in Safran Foer’s other work. Jonathan said “Empathy is what books and novels travel in”. He went on to say “Everybody reads and writes a book alone, but there is an empathetic connection between reader and writer”.