If Jonathan Safran Foer was a stock, and you had purchased him back in 2002, you’d be rich now. That was the year the Princeton grad, at the ripe old age of 25, published his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated (Houghton Mifflin), to great acclaim. In 2005 he followed it with a second, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Houghton Mifflin), narrated by a 9-year-old boy whose father died on September 11. His most recent book, a work of non-fiction titled Eating Animals (Little, Brown and Co.), will be released in paperback this month. In it, Safran Foer turns his gimlet eye to commercial fishing and factory farming, which the vegetarian author takes to task through a mixture of reporting and personal memoir. He comes to town this month, appearing in several venues, including a benefit for 826 Valencia at Herbst Theatre on September 22nd. We reached him in Israel, where he spent the summer.
Tell me about the moment when you
found out you had sold your first book, Everything Is Illuminated.
I was in my agent’s office, chatting about how the Mets were going to win the pennant that year and how peace in the Middle East had become inevitable. The phone rang. [After hanging up], she told me a publishing house had made an offer to publish the book. I thought, “Today is the last day I sell my sperm.” Although I was wrong about that.
What is the greatest misconception about you?
I don’t know what the conceptions are, and I’m sure I’m not the best judge of me anyway.
Well, you’ve been described as “holier than thou,” “a self-important douche” and a “Park Slope stroller dad,” among other things.
I’m pretty sure I’m the person who called me a self-important douche. And I know “holier than thou” is mine. The Park Slope stroller dad probably came from another Park Slope stroller dad. At the end of the day, most people with opinions in print are pushing a stroller around Park Slope. I cut off other Park Slope stroller dads all the time, and being one of them, I know what an impatient and vengeful lot we are. We are petty, angry people. We loathe the good fortune of others and revel in public embarrassment. But the public school is amazing, so we stay.
What book(s) are you reading, and what’s on heavy musical rotation?
I’m currently reading some histories of Jerusalem and some science fiction. Sometimes they’re the same book. I’m not listening to any music, except for the obvious things—like strings while on hold and steel drums in the subway.
What are you working on right now?
A novel. Or two. Or none. I never know what I’m working on until it’s too late. Auden once said, “I look at what I write so I can see what I think.” That’s how it works for me.
What trait do you most wish you possessed?
More patience. The ability to dunk a basketball without a trampoline. Or to act naturally at parties. Or concentrate.
Do you read reviews of your own work?
Exceedingly rarely, but not never.
You once gave a speech to your graduating class. If you were asked to give a speech to graduates today, what would you tell them?
Were you in my class? If not, how did you know that? I’m more interested in how you know I gave a speech to my graduating class than you are in what I would tell them. But if I were to give a speech again, I’d probably say some version of what I said back then, which was basically that my dad is a great guy.
What is your greatest hope for your children?
A long, happy life. And the ability to dunk a basketball without a trampoline, act naturally at parties and concentrate.
Since Eating Animals was published last year, you’ve been at the center of heated debates about meat consumption.
I’m not aware of any heated debates. My book is against factory farming. I’ve yet to meet the person who wants to defend it. The industry doesn’t even defend itself. Of course, there are people out there—a lot of them—who defend eating animals as a practice, rather than the ways in which we’re doing it. Anthony Bourdain is a good example. He’s a smart guy who makes smart arguments, and I respect him. The issues we disagree about are actually philosophical and ultimately irrelevant. In terms of how meat is actually produced—99 percent of animals we eat are raised on factory farms—he and I agree. That is, we both think people should eat as little factory-farmed meat as possible, ideally none. Just don’t use the word “vegetarian” around him.
Do you hold yourself to a higher standard than you hold others?
I don’t hold others to any standard. And these days, I don’t seem to hold myself to one either.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years of your life?
Let’s just make it another 10 years. I don’t have any literary ambitions beyond, perhaps, feeling good about what I write. Having been a professional writer for almost 10 years now, I can say that feeling good about what I write is as ambitious as it gets.