Jonathan Safran Foer at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021: A (near) faithful transcription, and some (scattered) notes
The author on his quest for the worthwhile in a finite life.
So there I was on a Sunday — my second consecutive working Sunday — making furious notes from the 10th and final day of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021. This 14th edition of the festival, conducted virtually, had meant hours and hours of staring at my laptop screen while a range of conversations, varying widely in quality, played out.
I forgot to save the screenshot I took during the session, so here’s a description of what the setting looked like:
Jonathan Safran Foer — literary wunderkind of Everything Is Illuminated (2002) fame; unwitting star of the Reply All podcast episode ‘Fool’s Trade’ [Aside: Goodbye, Reply All; you’ll be missed.]; writer of such imperative non-fiction works as Eating Animals (2009) and We Are The Weather (2019); and pen email pal of Natalie Portman — is visible, chest up, in a rectangular frame to the left of my screen. The room he’s in is devoid of any details, it’s a perfect white blankness, except for a door that comes briefly into view when he shifts his camera. He’s got on thick-rimmed glasses and a dark-hued t-shirt, and he’s sporting a significant growth of salt-and-pepper beard.
Jeffrey Gettleman — Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, South Asia bureau chief for the New York Times, and moderator for this session — shows up in a frame to the right. There’s a painted canvas and a full, unpretentious bookcase some distance behind his unruly head of surfer dude curls.
Around these two rectangular frames are the paraphernalia of this online JLF edition: symbols that invite you to applaud, blow a deafening megaphone (which a colleague made me play, while my laptop volume was set to high and earphones securely plugged in), share a comment, as well as pivot to other ongoing sessions.
Gettleman, expectedly, had some pretty thoughtful questions, to which Safran Foer had some suitably thoughtful (if rambling) answers.
Anyway, this is what you’d have seen, had you been watching this late Sunday morning session.
And this is what you’d have had heard:
Safran Foer on writing non-fiction with Eating Animals and We Are The Weather —
I think of myself as a novelist. I have never loved the process of writing non-fiction, and I don’t feel I’m particularly good at it. It doesn’t feel like where my passion or talents lie.
There’s an old saying: “Once upon a time there was a person whose life was so good, there’s no story to tell about it.” Stories are always born out of a problem. That’s the case with both fiction and non-fiction. With fiction, I don’t always know what the problem is. I can’t easily articulate it. [It’s just that] something is sitting uneasily inside of me or it’s unresolved. Fiction is not meant to solve any problem, it is meant to maybe give it words, to share it. Non-fiction for me has been about problems I can name. At the beginning of the book, I know what’s eating away at me.
Eating Animals was the first non-fiction book I wrote and it’s been one of the oldest problems in my life, which is, how do I feel about eating meat?
We Are The Weather was also born out of a problem I could articulate: how is an individual to live in this moment of climate change? I knew what the science was — I think most people do, by this point. I knew what the rhetoric was… I knew what kind of posters I should make for marches. But at the level of daily life, the choices I make for myself and my family — I felt I wasn't doing a whole lot. That was a problem I found easy to ignore, but it was there all the time. And 2-3 years ago, there was a little window where climate change was at the forefront of the news, and it brought this question to the forefront of my mind too.
I’m lucky to be a writer because I can set time aside to think things through. So I decided to set time aside to think of how to live as an individual in this moment of climate change.
Safran Foer on why people find it so hard to ‘believe’ in climate change —
Climate change is in no way unique, in that it’s something we know but can’t believe. The most obvious [phenomenon in this regard] is death: We’re all going to die. We all know this but we stop believing that it’s going to happen. Who, if they were aware that they had a finite life, would spend four hours on Netflix, or three on social media? [The transcriber wishes to note at this point that she feels personally attacked. And that, maybe, a Netflix binge can be a most effective way to not think about the finiteness of one’s life. And how it’s slipping away. And how it may be entirely meaningless. Transcriber will stop now.]
We would all live differently if we could know in our hearts — just as do in our minds — that we have finite lives.
Safran Foer on how the reaction to climate change has a mirror in the Holocaust —
[In 1943], a young Polish Catholic, Jan Karski, fled to America with stories from the Warsaw ghetto and [Nazi] extermination camps, hoping to convince Western leaders to take action. He met with Felix Frankfurter, a Supreme Court Justice considered one of the finest minds of the time, who was Jewish. Karski shared testimonies, photographs and Frankfurter peppered him with questions: how high were the walls, how many guards were posted at the extermination camps. At the end, he told Karski, “I can’t believe what you’ve told me!” [Poland’s ambassador to the US, who was also present at the meeting] asked Frankfurter: “How can you say he’s lying?” Frankfurter replied: “I’m not saying he’s lying. I’m saying my mind and my heart are made in such a way that I cannot believe it.”
At this point, very few people are under the impression that scientists are lying about climate change. About 77 percent Americans wanted the US to stay in the Paris Accord [Transcriber’s note: News articles mention seven out of 10, around 65 percent of respondents]. But even knowing what we know — I myself find it something difficult to believe.
Safran Foer on whether the magnitude of the climate change problem paralyses action —
It [the immense magnitude of climate change] is a huge impediment to action.
It’s interesting to compare our response to climate change with our response to COVID. Why — by and large — people stuck to quarantines, wore masks, countries shut down their economies and changed travel policies, I think, is because we were afraid. Not for other people or people in the future, not afraid in the abstract, but actually fearful for our own wellbeing.
One way to understand that is to say people are evil or they’re so narcissistic that they can’t make that leap of empathy for helping other people. Or we can say that this is what humans are like; it’s not that we’re incapable of acts of compassion and generosity but it’s hard to make that empathetic leap. It’s hard to mobilise change when it is in doubt of self-interest. So what are we going to do? Because climate change does require that leap of empathy. There are people right now who are suffering because of climate change who aren’t the worst perpetrators of it. So how do we convince leaders [to take action]?
[In We Are The Weather] I look at it from the lens or perspective of individual change — overcoming our own psychologies to do what is necessary. It has to do with norms and routines… For instance, if you walk into a store and see something you like, how do you prevent yourself from stealing it? (Maybe the thought of stealing never occurs to you because in your mind, you’re not the kind of person who steals.) We need to turn ourselves into people who don’t steal from the planet. How we shape our habits — these may be among the most important choices we make for the planet.
[Gettleman notes that time is running out, and segues into a question about how to better one’s writing, while also complimenting Safran Foer on the impactfulness of his. This is…]
Safran Foer’s advice on how to be a better writer —
I think it’s pretty easy to be an impactful writer. Like if you throw on a Celine Dion track over a movie, then you can easily make people cry at the right moments. I think the question is how you can create an impact over time.
Mark Twain said, “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it hundreds of times.”
Change is easy. Feeling big emotion is easy. Having a crush on someone is easy. Marriage is hard. Change over time is hard. That’s something I wrestle with a lot.
As I’ve gone deeper into my career and my craft and I’ve read more, I’ve become more aware of tools for manipulation — and they can be tempting but they’re not gratifying for a writer, or a reader.
Also, in a way that [how does one become a better writer] is a tricky question because my self is changing, the context of my life is changing. So there are different things I have to express, and the writing itself changes one.
WH Auden said, “I write so I can see what I think.” I try to be as open as possible to surprises and to my subconscious.
I do an exercise with my students at NYU, where I ask someone to tell the class what they’re thinking of, and then I ask the next person what that object makes them think of and so on.
When I was a very young writer, I thought I had it all figured out. Then I realised I didn’t. Writing for me is not dissimilar to the exercise I described. When I write, I will often start off the day with: “What’s on my mind right now?” I live in a very old house, where the windows have this wavy glass. So as I look out through the window, the wavy glass might remind me of the air above a campfire, which bends and warps in a way. It might make me think of roasting marshmallows as a child, or when one fell off my stick and into the fire. And then I might think of my mother comforting me, and what was good or bad about that. And that kind of process might lead me to a place I never imagined.
[Transcriber’s note: Perplexed about how the process described above may have led to this piece of writing by Safran Foer — “It’s almost 6 in the morning. The boys are still asleep. I can hear the guinea pigs stirring, but that might be the residue of a nightmare. People often refer to aloneness and writer’s block as the two great challenges of being a novelist. In fact, the hardest part is having to care for guinea pigs.”]
[Gettleman interjects with a far more helpful: “How do you reconcile that with plot?”]
Safran Foer continues —
I’m not that worried about plot. I didn’t become a writer because I love storytelling. I became a writer because I love something about the experience or atmosphere a work of art can create. And plot may be necessary, but it’s not the point.
The second thing I’d like to say is, I think our minds crave structure and I’ve found that when I write, some part of my brain is taking care of organisation even when I’m not conscious of doing so or when I’m not making it my priority. I also then become an editor at some point.
So there are two things: the creation of material and the organisation of material; I find the organisation — even though it is difficult and frustrating — to be simpler than the creating.
What I find hard is getting things on the page that are actually interesting to me… Then there’s the question of readers, which is something different. Ninety-nine percent of what I put on the page, I do not find interesting, or merely interesting. Not worth it. And when you know your life is finite, it puts a lot of pressure on how you spend your time and as a writer… it’s very difficult to look at anything and say, “This was worth it”. What happens far more often is that I look at it and say, “What’s the point?” Wouldn’t I be better and wouldn’t the world be better if I was out there making sandwiches for homeless people, or doing any number of things whose impact is obviously good. So it’s really difficult to find that one percent.
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