“I’m just tired. Like, really tired. What’s the expression, to leave nothing on the table? Is that what it is? It’s good in the sense that I’ve left nothing on the table. But now I have this hunger to do more, and I don’t know what it would be.”
Jonathan Safran Foer is trying to describe what it felt like when he finished Here I Am, his passionately anticipated latest novel, set to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on September 6th. At nearly 600 pages, the book spans four weeks in the lives of the Bloch family at the intersection of a private crisis (the dissolution of their marriage) and a public one (the destruction of Israel). As Julia and Jacob, the parents of three sons, struggle with the question of divorce, a catastrophic earthquake surges through Israel and the Middle East, forcing Jews worldwide to confront their faith.
It’s Foer's biggest novel yet, ambitious and sprawling and emotional. "When I finished the book, I had this incredibly strong feeling of wanting to do it again,” Foer says. “But I don’t know where it would come from.”
We’re at a café across the street from Foer’s Brooklyn brownstone, where he says he spends a lot of time. At Foer’s request, the waitress, after a flicker of indecision, opens up the empty back room so we can talk in relative privacy. The expression on her face makes it clear that she knows who he is. Foer is slight and not very tall and looks like he was grown in Brooklyn—stylish, round-rimmed glasses, button-down shirt, scruffy facial hair—though he's actually from D.C., where Here I Am is set. He was 25 when Houghton Mifflin published his debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated; an international bestseller, it won the National Jewish Book Award and was adapted into a film starring Elijah Wood.
His second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, was published to similar fanfare three years later. Other projects followed: Eating Animals, a work of nonfiction that famously convinced Natalie Portman to go vegan; Tree of Codes, a book Foer shaped by carefully cutting words out of the text of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles; New American Haggadah, a revised Passover service co-edited with Nathan Englander; a teaching position in NYU's creative writing program, where I was his student; an HBO show, which Foer put on hold, whose inciting incident would become a major plot point in Here I Am.
Add in two sons, a divorce from author Nicole Krauss, and Foer’s biography contains enough back flap fodder to pad the bios of a dozen writers. Foer is not yet 40, and already that most anachronistic of things—a writer who has reached household-name recognition (at least in readerly households), reviled and beloved by the media at equal turns for, it seems, simply being himself. He politely orders a veggie burger with cheddar and fries; the waitress is thrilled.
Though it’s been over a decade since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer hasn’t spent the last 10 years in agony over his forthcoming novel. “If anything, I oddly wrote this more quickly than my other two books. Towards the end I was writing really fast, not because of a schedule, just because it was there.”
Most of the writing happened over the course of roughly a year, Foer says, some of it a collision of other projects that he came to realize were connected. “That’s often how it works for me." In Here I Am, Jacob and Julia’s split is triggered by the discovery of a secret phone that Jacob uses to send sexually explicit text messages to a woman who is not his wife but who is also, at least for the phone’s purposes, named Julia—this event found its first expression in Foer’s HBO show. The idea for an earthquake in Israel also leaked in from another project.
One of the novel’s most distinctive stylistic features—a series of interruptive and often deeply moving director’s notes (by Jacob, a TV writer) on how to play precise and complex emotional states (i.e., How to Play Love, How to Play Prayer)—originated in a short story Foer has since abandoned. The novel is full of hilariously real, rapid-fire scenes of domestic rapport that have a decidedly dialogue-y, made-for-TV feeling; sometimes the book even breaks into screenplay format, as if the voices are demanding a bigger stage and less context.
As we talk, Foer often interrupts himself, or pauses to consider whether he is articulating what he means. “I love that effort, which is maybe always a failed effort, to find the right way to say to somebody something you need to communicate,” he says. In the novel, characters are always blundering in and overhearing, saying and re-saying the same thing in different ways; the text itself buzzes with the friction of different perspectives and modes rubbing up against each other. “I was trying to create a kind of atmosphere. To be extremely specific about a certain experience—like the chorus of voices inside one person’s head or life—not to advance any one perspective or voice but just to say this is all the noise that one could be subjected to.”
Within its four-week framework, the narration moves back and forth inside the collective mind and lifespan of the family, opening with great-grandfather Isaac Bloch’s contemplation of suicide versus banishment to a Jewish nursing home, and later flashing forward to Jacob at Julia’s second wedding. In conjunction with the story of the earthquake in Israel, the effect is book-as-universe—a portrait that’s somehow both from inside and from an all-knowing distance. Jewish references abound, many of them highly specific. “I wanted to be precise in a way that opened the book up to a kind of universality,” Foer says, describing one of his favorite scenes: Jacob and Julia preparing for bed, written in a hyper-detailed manner. “It just goes on and on. She applied this kind of moisturizer, she stretched her neck like this—the hope is that in a way there’s a point at which the inaccessibility makes it trustworthy. When we’re in the context of something that feels true and accessible, and we encounter something that feels inaccessible, it moves us. Like the writer had to write it that way. Feeling an author’s irrepressible need to express something—even if and maybe especially if it can’t be understood by somebody else, becomes something beautiful.”
The waitress brings the check. “I loved Everything Is Illuminated,” she says, a little nervous. Foer smiles, thanks her. I ask him if that happens a lot, and if he still gets letters from fans.“When it happens it's wonderful," he says. “That kind of connection or communion or camaraderie is singularly special.”
Does it bother him when readers assume autobiography? This novel, arriving in the world on the heels of his divorce, has been called his most personal work yet. “I’d probably be curious also,” Foer says. “It’s the kind of question that’s like putting the quarter into the jukebox. It’s not the song or the dancing, you almost need to do it to get started. It would be disingenuous to sneer at it.”
He points out that the book is called Here I Am, after all, a title that he initially resisted. But there were no autobiographical concerns motivating Foer in the writing. “There’s a point where Jacob is imagining what would happen if his TV show were made, and somebody asks him that question. He says, ‘I would say, it’s not my life, but it’s me.’ That’s how I feel about this book. I don’t have a life like Jacob’s. There’s probably frankly more I have in common with Julia than Jacob, in terms of my perspective and interests—but the sum of the characters feels very expressive. The book itself feels like a personal expression. It did feel closer to me than books I’ve written in the past.”
He checks his phone, concerned about the babysitter. I ask if his sons ever read his work, how his family influences his writing. “There were points in my first book when I was editing, when some idea dawned on me that I really liked… I remember this little voice saying, shouldn’t you save something? What else would there be after this, because you’ve now said everything you have. That’s it. You don’t have anything else. And I’d think, well it’ll come from somewhere. Now I feel like, what the fuck else will I write about? What else is there? I wrote about family. That’s all there is.”