By Tova Norman
Best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer will speak about his long-anticipated third novel, “Here I Am,” with Greg Changnon, former book columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center.
The book, which focuses on a Jewish family, gives insight into the Jewish world. But Foer said it’s about more than that.
“Since the book came out, I’ve been to a number of different countries to give readings, and there is absolutely no correlation between the Jewishness of a place and the strength of the response. I think people can read books in lots of different ways,” he said. “It’s not surprising that a certain kind of Jewish person would read the book with an eye on the Jewishness; another kind of person would read the book with an eye on the silences that open up in relationships and the distances or why a certain kind of expressiveness becomes difficult over time.”
In a recent interview with the AJT, Foer reflected on the themes of his novel and how readers relate to it.
AJT: There is a lot of background that a Jewish person comes to this novel with — words like shiva and bima — and Jewish experiences. Did you expect readers to come to the novel with that background knowledge of being Jewish? And what do you want non-Jewish readers to know about being Jewish?
Foer: Books don’t and can’t and shouldn’t depend on the background of the reader. Judaism is definitely a context in the book, and there is a lot of cultural specificity. But I don’t think that a Jewish person would have a deeper relationship to the book. Some of my favorite contemporary novels are “Song of Solomon” or “Midnight’s Children,” and I don’t have any direct cultural relationship to the atmospheres or contexts of those book.
AJT: “Song of Solomon,” for example, gives readers a deeper understanding of their connection with a culture that may be different from theirs. Are you intending to give a reader a deeper connection with the life of Jewish people and the struggle of what it means to be Jewish?
Foer: There is nothing I’m trying to give a reader. I think there are things I’m trying to express, but in a way that really predates the reader. I don’t think about the reader when I write, just simply because I don’t. … I think it’s good not to think about the reader because who would you be thinking about, and how would you be thinking about that person without making all kinds of generalizations or assumptions that probably shouldn’t be made?
AJT: Why Israel? In creating the earthquake and the “destruction of Israel,” was there a desire for you to explore that issue of Israel and the American Jewish relationship with Israel?
Foer: I guess the answer must be yes because I did it. But I don’t remember being quite so deliberate about it or conscious of it. I certainly didn’t set out to write a book that explores Israel and the Jewish American and Israeli dynamic, and I guess I don’t think of it as a book about those things. It’s a book that includes those things, but it’s more broadly about home and what home is and how a homeland can be a home, how a culture can be a home, how a familial unit can be a home and what it is to be homeless.
AJT: In my review of the novel, I said the primary theme is from Sam’s first bar mitzvah speech: “I think it is primarily about who we are wholly there for, and how that, more than anything, defines our identity.” Do you agree with this characterization of the novel?
Foer: I think that is definitely what the novel is about, and it’s certainly what the title alludes to. The problems of being elsewhere: Each of the characters has their own way of being elsewhere rather than being present. And then the questions of devotion: real devotion, not just conversational or convenient devotion, but devotion that comes at a price.
AJT: People have written about similarities between you and main character Jacob Bloch — going through a divorce, being a writer. Do you consider yourself to be like him? If so, how?
Foer: There are certainly ways in which I am, but I don’t think I am more like him than I am like Julia or like Sam for that matter. The book itself feels very personal to me — not autobiographical, not therapeutic or cathartic. The events in the book don’t correspond to events in my life. There is some overlap, but it’s pretty hazy. But the sensibility of the book feels closer to my own sensibility than other books that I’ve written. Maybe because it’s more in the third person, so it allowed me to talk instead of ventriloquize through a character.
AJT: As a reader, I felt a strong connection with the way that you perceived the Jewish world and the relationship and how you express them both. Do you think there is sense of loss with the Jewishness of the past that is similar to the loss of connection between Jacob and Julia?
Foer: Yes. It’s not a loss. It’s a question: When we are no longer tethered to this thing, what will we be tethered to? Where will we locate our identity? And I think it’s an open question.
AJT: What should attendees expect from being able to hear you and see you in person?
Foer: I don’t really love the reading, per se, but I really do like being in conversation with readers. I can’t tell you how often it is that somebody will tell me something about the book I didn’t know, make me rethink something. … That’s definitely what I’m hoping for.
Who: Jonathan Safran Foer
What: Book Festival conversation with Greg Changnon
Where: Marcus JCC, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9
Tickets: $13 JCC members, $18 others; www.atlantajcc.org/bookfestival or 678-812-4005.