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


Review of September Novel Nights


Nick Rawlinson, Sarah Hilary,

Nick Rawlinson, Sarah Hilary, Aaron Anthony and Abigail Moore


Bristol Players read an extract from Sarah Hilary’s gripping debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin  at September Novel Nights followed bynovelist,  Dr Sanjida O’Connell, having a Q and A with Sarah.


Sarah Hilary with Dr Sanjida O' Connell at Novel Nights

Sarah Hilary with Dr Sanjida O’ Connell at Novel Nights

During the second half of Novel Nights we were treated to local writers performing extracts from their work: Anne Corlett, was a criminal lawyer for 13 years, but is in the process of switching to freelance writing.  Anne read  from Fallen, her second novel. She is represented by the Richford Beklow Agency, recently won the HE Bates prize and was placed third in the Bristol Short Story Prize. She is starting an MA in writing at Bath Spa University

Kate Simants moved from London six years ago, but she still finds herself writing about the capital because it suits her style of bleak noir better than Keynsham. She is currently working on a second novel, and shared an extract from her first novel The Blanks, which was inspired in part by her work as an undercover TV journalist.

 Trevor Coombs writes historical fiction and performs monologues around Bristol and read from his latest work.

And lastly, Sanjida O’Connell had an extract of Bone by Bone, the thriller she is working on, read by Nick Rawlinson. Sanjida is a novelist and non-fiction writer with four novels and four non-fiction works published.

 Next Novel Nights: 9th October with guest speaker Anna Freeman presenting her debut novel A Fairfight.

20th November with Jane Shemilt, author of Daughter, a Richard and Judy Book Club Choice, and currently No 2 in the Sunday Times Bestseller Charts. Don’t miss!


Review of Lucy English’s Prayer to Imperfection

Novelist and performance poet, Lucy English entered her first Bristol Poetry Slam in 1996 wearing a multi-coloured jumpsuit and won. Since then she has performed poetry world-wide, written three novels, and is a Reader at Bath Spa University where she teaches performance poetry as well as studying for a PhD in digital writing.

Lucy’s poetry, however, has never been in print before, despite her international reputation. Designed to be performed, much of performance poetry tends to be ethereal, existing for the audience, the next gig, living on the stage rather than the page.
Now Lucy’s collected performance poems from the last 20 years have been brought together by local indie publisher Burning Eye Books. Editor, Clive Birnie said: “There’s a vibrant live poetry scene but poets aren’t getting published by mainstream publishers and that’s where Burning Eye comes in. We’re on a mission to publish poets like Lucy English to deal with the under-representation of performance poetry by mainstream publishers.”

At the book launch of ‘Prayer to Imperfection Poems 1996 – 2014’, organised by Novel Nights, Lucy took the audience on a journey through the changing landscape, not just of Bristol, but also of Slam Poetry itself.
“Bristol’s quite an inspiring place – first in terms of the way it looks and how smart and scrubbed up it’d become.” Many of Lucy’s poems feature local landscapes such as ‘The Telephone Box up Ashley Hill,’ or ‘Temple Cloud.’ Totterdown also features on the book cover from a painting of the familiar pastel Victorian terraces by artist, Emily Ketteringham.
In ‘Take Me To The City’, we journey through different cityscapes, ‘I walked to Tescos where the motorway meets the river. Above my head, one stream flowing on concrete pillars, and ‘I wore nothing but my fear of forgotten places.’ The narrative voice becomes Bristol – ‘my hair is Leigh Woods, and, ‘my knees must be Totterdown.
Using place in this way is of course hugely popular with a local audience, but it was her compelling performance of her work and understated lyricism that had the Novel Nights audience quietly appreciative of her work.
‘Liar’ plays with the audience’s expectation. Given a strong narrative voice spoken with conviction, the lines, ‘I take smart drugs every ten minutes’ or ‘I can speak Croatian’, are believable but the line quickly follows, ‘No I don’t. I’m a liar.’ The simple assertions of truth and untruth throughout the poem kept us intrigued as Lucy produced ever more fantastical versions of a ‘self’. The point here perhaps is that all writers create fictions, and playing with that idea is part of the fun of creation.
Her poem about taking her children to Cemetery Road referenced Arnos Vale Cemetery in the days when it was a wilderness without lottery funding. Pork pie, coke and crisps as a treat captured life as a single parent just as vividly as her son’s scuffed shoe.

The joy of the evening was hearing a superb performance by Lucy with an audience who were intently listening. So much meaning is communicated via tone so poems like ‘Send me a Man’ would be multi-layered when read by the poet as opposed to being read on the page.

This is a poet who is directly accessible who writes about love, motherhood and relationships and who defies us to think the poems are autobiographical. In ‘You are the one for me,’ the poem states,
‘I want your babies.
I want all your babies, even the ones you’ve already got.
In fact, I could be your mother.’

Lucy ended the evening with a tribute to her sister and mother in ‘Family Prayers.’ The narrative structure introduced the different family members and builds from a family saying prayers, to the poem itself becoming a prayer, ending on a poignant but quiet, understated note.

Prayer to Imperfection Poems 1996 – 2014 is available in bookshops, via Amazon and directly from Burning Eye Books. Novel Nights hold regular events for writers. For details see or email