Jonathan Safran Foer on writing and literature

Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer

Last night I clumped over to Bath on my crutches to see Jonathan Safran Foer. Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights were hosting the author interview in the austerely grand setting of a methodist church on Argyle Street. (cream painted pews, gilded organ, lofty ceiling).

Whilst I haven’t read any of his books I wanted to find out more from the author who can produce such beautiful titles – Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and of course, his latest novel, Here I am.

One of the joys of beginning my MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa is the reading list and he’s on it. The second joy is to have your writing pre-conceptions turn upside down. I was delighted that the interview style gave Jonathan the opportunity to talk about his writing methods.

He began by talking about book tours and how often an audience will ask questions about his work that he’s never considered before.

He explains, “writing is not intellectualising, it’s being open to intuition.” Whilst writing, Here I am,  he didn’t talk to anyone about what he was doing; he sat in a room and let the writing emerge. He continued, “I try and repress questions – I’m not even thinking about what what I think about something. I couldn’t say I’d put something in the book intentionally.”

“The shallowest type of fiction is when you try and make sense of the world. I don’t think about the function of literature. I try and write for its own sake and liberate writing from utility – books are one of the last refuges where you can do something for it’s own sake.”

What I would have loved to have found out is how many drafts his work goes through. He went onto say that once he has the manuscript he sits down with his editor to go through it. At this point, “editing is intellectual – we shape it to be accessible and to conform to the form of the novel – but that’s the last 5% of the work. I’m just steering the ship beforehand.”

I found this staggering – all those ‘how to write novels’ book I’ve been devouring over the years where you lay out plot and theme and  write endless drafts and redrafts. Authors I know who say that when pitching ideas within a two book deal within genre fiction you have to pitch three or four story ideas which have to conform rigidly to that genre. But perhaps that is the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction.

Writing in this way must be liberating – but how does he achieve it? Scribbled in my notebook I’ve added these words from him.

“Submerge yourself in the writing – allow your sub-conscious to surface.”

“Ask yourself, is the character good company in the book?”

and,  “I like books that are primary. Books have to be perfect unto themselves and a book has speak for itself with nothing left out.” He gave, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison as an example.

and finally I’ve written, “Let the book go where it wants to go.”


Further reading: Guardian interview 

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights for events and to purchase the book

 

On starting an MA in Creative Writing

Decades after my first degree I have the freedom to study an MA. Both children graduated; one with a job and the other just setting out on finding a path in the world

Corsham Court

Corsham Court, Bath Spa Unviersity

Corsham Court Campus at Bath Spa University is very Jane Austen. Hobbling on crutches up the long driveway as peacocks squawked and sheep gazed beyond the ha-ha I felt as antique as the surroundings.

As a mature student I wasn’t in the minority; there is a great mix of ages though with any gathering of writers there are egos and anxieties to be managed. I was surprised at the distance students were travelling to the campus; London, Taunton and someone from Moscow – who suggested that I should have Gucci crutches or at least decorate them. I said I’d think about it.

We met in ‘the Barn’ around the back of the building, and to my delight Fay Weldon was there – one of the first writers who challenged and gripped me as a reader.

The grand piano was full of lecturer’s books – I was in the right place. These academics are writers who have grafted and worked and lived their craft combining this with teaching others. One by one they spoke about their first memory of writing and read from current work. We heard extracts from Fay Weldon, Gerard Woodward, Richard Kerridge, Nathan Filer, Gavin Cologne-Brooks and Tim Liardet.

I’ve written down scraps of insights/ discussions which I won’t attribute as my notes aren’t good enough to be accurate.

  • Keep your reader in mind at all times. Surprise them. Keep them hooked (Fay Weldon)
  • In your novel have a cosmic statement. What is it really about?
  • Are you writing about your father or your mother?
  •  It’s important to read aloud, to pace your novel, and to hear that (Nathan Filer)
  • What do you need to say in your novel?
  • (When thinking about subject matter for a novel) What do you care about ?
  • When writing get’s hard that when the work starts – and you need a great deal of hard work and application (Tim Liardet)

On re-writing: The essence of re-writing is being able to see why and clarify again and again and again.

On poetry: When poets try and put a collection together sometimes they have enough poems to fill a book, but that doesn’t make a great collection. ‘Poems need to hear one another, to run as a smooth sequence. Be aware of silence and how it is used in a book of poems. (Tim Liardet)

Favourite quote of the day; When Flaubert was asked where he got his ideas for Madame Bovary he said: “I thought of a woman in a dress the colour of a woodlouse” He didn’t think of the great sweep of things. But I think writer’s work in different ways and that’s allowed.

This quote led our seminar group to a discussion of observing precise objects and how we could use these in our writing. In our group we looked at black and white photographs from August Sander. Everyone spotted something different but the quality of the observation marked some students out. My old anxieties returned. The students who had just come from the BA course being good at this game.

Overall a very satisfactory first day, despite the hobbling up the myriad staircase.