Author Jonathan Safran Foer values quiet, silence, and the power of a blank page.
Jonathan Safran Foer, who makes his living putting words into the world, is absolutely fascinated with the power of a blank page. His words have won multiple awards (2000 Zoetrope All-Story Award, 2003 New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award, 2007 Granta Best Young American Novelist, and 2007 Holtzbrinck fellowship, to name just a few), inspired two major motion pictures (Everything Is Illuminated, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), and even changed actress Natalie Portman "from a twenty-year vegetarian to a vegan activist." But start reading about him, and you'll realize he's really not your typical author in any way. He won a $70,000 grant from PEN and promptly returned the money to the organization. The movie remake of his book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close moved him to tears–and he didn't protest the changes that were made ("It was a really moving movie. Do I regret that some material got left out? It would be really inappropriate to go into that. I gave it away... I gave away my right to complain.") He shies away from the lifestyle of a Manhattan celebrity and prefers being in bed in his Park Slope home by nine or ten o'clock "at the latest". A friend of his recalls seeing him immediately after his first novel was sold: "All he told me was, good news! Someone likes the book. Then he went out to celebrate by buying a new pair of Converse sneakers." Any sign of an ego, which easily could have developed after catapulting to literary stardom with the release of his very first novel, is non-existent. Perhaps that is the reason why he's able to embrace the value of quiet in a world that simply cannot get enough of his words.
Jonathan Safran Foer was born and raised in Washington DC, the middle son in a traditional Jewish family. His mother was a child of Polish Holocaust survivors, and he grew up with a strong sense of family, tradition, and heritage. His family history–particularly that of his maternal grandparents–is very important to him and has great significance in his work, but he doesn't remember being told about it specifically. "There should be a name for those things that one feels one has always known without ever having learned. And a name for those things that are central to one's life without ever being thought about or felt," he says. He cites Nietzche's idea that everything we have words for is "dead in our hearts." The fact that he can highlight the importance of the unsaid in a medium that says everything–a novel–shows the depth of his talent. His first two novels, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, are littered with characters who are bound by silences, both literal and figurative. "Every relationship in [Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close] is built around silence and distance," he explains. "Extremely loud and incredibly close is what no two people are to one another." Some of the pages in the book are left entirely blank, but even the ones that aren't sing of emptiness.
"I write because I want to end my loneliness. Books make people less alone. That, before and after everything else, is what books do. They show us that conversations are possible across distances."
In a more recent project, his novel Tree of Codes, Foer explores the idea of of physical textual redaction. To create the novel, he took his favorite book, Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles, and sliced out chunks of text from each page, crafting a new novel entirely. The result is a delicate sculpture of a book (the publisher discovered that the book could not be printed in hardcover or it would collapse on itself), each page containing six or more holes. It's a physical experience as much as a literary one: Foer himself admits it may be more accurate to describe it as art than as literature. "I love the notion that 'this is a book that remembers it has a body'," he says. "When a book remembers, we remember. It reminds you that you have a body. So many of the things we may think of as burdensome are actually the things that make us more human."
It doesn't surprise us that Foer finds beauty in something the rest of us routeinly toss out–blank paper. He has a sizable collection that started when a friend of his was going through Isaac Bashevis Singer's possessions for a university archiving project. The friend handed Foer a piece of paper from the top of a stack of Singer's unused typing paper. "A relationship developed," Foer recalls. "I found myself thinking about the piece of paper, being moved by it, taking it out of its envelope several times a day, wanting to see it. I had the page framed and put it on my living room wall. Many of the breaks I took from looking at my own empty paper were spent looking at Singer's." Foer began writing to other artists and authors requesting that they send him a piece of paper they had yet to write on: Paul Aster and Susan Sontag, among others ("You can get anybody's addresses if you really want to," he says).
Jonathan Safran Foer is chasing all that is left to be said in the world. As lovers of notebooks, we are inspired by that. We could never say it anywhere near as eloquently, but looking at a blank page in our notebook sometimes feels very similar to the way Foer describes looking at the first page in his collection of blank paper:
"Looking at what? There were too many things to look at. There were the phantom words that Singer hadn't actually written and would never write, the arrangements of ink that would have turned the most common of all objects--the empty page--into the most valuable: a great work of art. The blank sheet of paper was at once empty and infinite. [...]
And it was also a mirror. As a young writer--I was then contemplating how to move forward after my first effort--I felt so enthusiastically and agonizingly aware of the blank pages in front of me. How could I fill them? Did I even want to fill them? Was I becoming a writer because I wanted to become a writer or because I was becoming a writer? I stared into the empty pages day after day, looking, like Narcissus, for myself."
Look for Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, Escape From Children's Hospital, due for publication in 2014.