Jonathan Safran Foer explains that he came to writing through a back door. (He was interviewed by Mark Medley at the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library, on September 9, 2106.)

Foer Here I Am

Hamish Hamilton – PRH, 2016

He didn’t always want to be a writer. ‘Novelist’ is the most ambitious identity for him for it’s also the one which is the most difficult. Even when he was in college, establishing habits and ambitions, and even when he was actually writing a novel, he didn’t feel like he was fully immersed in the process of it.

There are, he explains, so many incentives to stop writing. Everyone can write a good sentence, can create good characters and establish an engaging structure.

But how to maintain the level of care required to complete a book? That’s what separates the 10 people who are still writing out of the creative-writing class of 200 students.

In some ways, Here I Am feels like his first book, he states  It may have been the quickest writing process for him yet, but it took a long time getting to the beginning of it. Meantime, there were other projects, which unfolded in the intervening years without filtering directly into the novel.

He discusses feeling more aware, more present for the experience of writing this book, and simultaneously less embedded in all of it, as though he could witness himself living the life of a writer.

At one point, when interviewer Mark Medley poses a question, Foer asks him to make a distinction as to whether the question is directed to the person or to the writer in him.

There is talk of a thinness or a shadowness in identity, and one has the sense that questions often lead to questions in this not-exactly-novelist’s mind.

He wasn’t trying to create meaning or share a voice; that’s not what he imagines writing to be. He tried to suppress – rather than exercise – intention, to allow space for reflexes and intuition.

Writing is about allowing something to move from the inside to the outside; eventually a book does become a vessel of meaning, but it still surprises him whenever a reader ascribes a particular meaning to an event in the novel. He does not seek specificity in story, is not trying to reach a niche reader: “If that’s what books are about, then I’m not interested in books.”

Often there is an unpleasantness to the process. “I don’t want to go back into it, but I have to go back into it,” he explains. There are so many other things one could do. “There’s no way around it, you just have to go through it.”

Things you’re not aware of seeing or thinking, things in the periphery, give writers ideas. It’s like something on the back of a T-shirt that the world is wearing. These are the ideas he is most proud of exploring. It’s important to pursue ideas because you think they might have meaning. They arrive unexpectedly, as in the form of misunderstood lyrics in a song (which are sometimes his favourite parts of music).

The title of the novel comes from the Isaac and Abraham story in the Bible, in which Abraham answers God by declaring himself present, stating an unconditional “yes”: “Here I am.” But he has made the same unconditional statement to his son Isaac. And, of course, he cannot be unconditionally present in both instances, for each of the questioners.

This kind of paradox does not always ruin lives, Foer explains. Often it is simply unnoticed. But in this novel there are two situations like this, very particular but familiar-sounding paradoxes.

In one instance, a cell phone is discovered which leads to knowledge of a spouse’s betrayal. In the other instance, there is an earthquake, which leads to a war in which Jews are instructed to return from homes overseas to their ancestral homeland to fight. In both instances, an individual is pulled in more than one direction. One cannot be wholly and completely faithful in two different places.

Faith is at the heart of the novel, but Foer does not consider himself a religious person. He refers to a scene in the novel in which two characters are whispering beneath the night sky, and it is this kind of humility in the presence of something larger which illuminates his sense of the sacred.

Here I Am is just the kind of novel that one would expect after attending this talk. It’s all about questions and offers no answers. It’s about searching, not ascribing. (More about Here I Am tomorrow.)

Many readers will be looking for the back door in order to make a quick exit. But this talk was sold out; many readers were also trying to sneak in that back door.

Have you read any of Jonathan Safran Foer’s projects, novels or otherwise?

Which author would you sneak through a back door to observe?