“So now I know what the inside of a Hillel looks like,” quipped Jonathan Safran Foer, who was at Penn April 4 as a guest of the Fox Leadership Program’s Speaker’s Forms. Foer, who made big literary news with his first novel, “Everything is Illuminated,” published in 2002 when he was just 25, has kept the book world buzzing with his latest, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” which shot straight to the top of bestseller lists when it came out last spring.
Speaking in a bursting-at-the-seams-chairs-out-in-the-lobby Steinhardt Hall library (somebody evidently miscalculated the novelist’s appeal), Foer eschewed the traditional “writer’s talk” format, just as he has played fast and loose with the conventional form of the novel, embracing ambiguity and even including drawings and photos in his most recent book.
His presentation, a scant 15 minutes long, comprised three loosely connected anecdotes involving, in various ways, the dust jacket for “Extremely Loud,” a striking design featuring a red hand against a tan background. At a New York book signing, Foer recalled for his first story, he worked his way through an impressively large pile of books only to notice that the last one had a white background.
Intrigued, Foer set out to find out why this single book was different from the rest. On a hunch he took 16 copies of the book from his own stash and propped them against the windows of his Brooklyn home. Every day he removed one book to find out if exposure to sunlight gradually faded the background color. Several days into the experiment he discovered his theory was correct. Thus was the mystery solved.
Audience questions prompted Foer to talk more explicitly about his creative process. Asked how he got into the mind of a 9-year-old boy, the protagonist of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” Foer was quick to point out that he didn’t go to a playground with a notebook. “I’m not that sort of writer,” he said. “Plus, can you imagine how creepy that would be? I want to be a person who interacts with the world, not be an eyeball in the world.”
In response to a question about the visual elements in the book, Foer challenged the expectations we have about novels. “I don’t love novels,” he said, “but I love what they do. They’re good vehicles for getting to other places.” September 11, which provides the context for this novel, was such a visual event, he said, that it felt right to include pictures and photographs in the book.
Foer also told the audience that writing is, for him, an act of faith and an act of liberation. He starts out with no intention, no story to tell or point to get across. “It’s like those people who see Jesus in the mold on bread. When I write it’s like that. The page is the bread. I’m planting seeds on it and I see what comes up … it’s not that I’m particularly original, but I’m attentive.”
Foer drew the biggest laugh of the afternoon with his response to a question on whether he liked the movie adaptation of his first novel, which was released last summer, with Elijah Wood as himself. “It’s like asking a father if his daughter looks sexy on prom night. There’s no answer that won’t be wrong.”
For information on upcoming speakers in the Fox Leadership series, go to www.foxleadership.com.
Originally published on April 13, 2006