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