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Jonathan Safran Foer: "I'm not so interested in the comforting kind of religion"

Jonathan Safran Foer spoke on God, prayer, writing, and film adaptations at Calvin College's Festival on Faith & Writing.

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“It's an ongoing question for me. It's one I think about a lot more now than I used to. I used to dismiss the question. … [But] not in a contemptuous way. That's not how I grew up – I went to Hebrew school twice a week – my family had an immense respect for religion."

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On editing the “New American Haggadah,” which came out in March and offers a new translation by Nathan Englander and commentary from Jewish writers including Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket:

Passover is one of the oldest continually told stories and one of the most widely told stories.... The Haggadah is a user's manual for that night.... There are 7,000 published versions. No book has been revised more than the Haggadah.

[In it, it says that] in every generation, each person has to feel like he himself has to be liberated from Egypt. It's so weird, most people gloss over [the passage]. No other book makes such a strong demand. What kind of book could inspire that really radical leap of empathy?”

On writing:

“I never wanted to write a novel that was merely read. Or merely liked or appreciated. Ideally, I want the reader to feel complicit in authorship of the book. There's a certain kind of book where reader sits here [points to audience] and the author sits here. I hate those books....”

What he calls the “11th and 12th Commandments” – “Don't ever change,” and “Change”:

“Kids are a great analogy. You want your kids to grow up, and you don't want your kids to grow up. You want your kids to become independent of you, but it's also a parent's worst nightmare: That they won't need you. It's like the real tragedy of parenting.”

On silence:

“I don't know if I have any interest in preserving silence. I don't know that silence is a very good thing. I think quiet is a very good thing. In my books, silence is not the silence of reflection, serenity, or peace. It's the silence of not being able to communicate. A lot of my writing is about not being able to communicate things in my life.

“When I was young, I thought [writing] was this romantic thing.” Safran Foer went on to say he thought it would be like creating a mountain, by laboring every day to create sentences and “dump off all these sentences into the pile … and everyone would come and see and point to the top of it.

“Instead, I would encounter these holes ... I was [pouring] these sentences into the hole until it was level. Then I would move onto the next hole.

“As I've grown older, I've grown more convinced there's nothing that shouldn't be talked about. If we think we're protecting each other, we're not. … Families pay a huge price by dancing around the subject.”

On having his books turned into movies:

“Would you believe me if I said no?” [When asked if he'd seen the movie versions of his books] “Of course I've seen them! I thought that 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' was a really moving movie. The last third is really powerful. Do I regret that some material got left out? It would be really miserly and inappropriate to go into that. I gave it away. I didn't give it away [chuckles from audience] but I gave away my right to complain. To split hairs is not in the spirit of what was done.”

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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