VH Describe Jacob and Julia … JSF The kind of literature I enjoy as a reader, and the kind I want to produce as an author, eludes description. Personally, I write very few descriptions. My most enriching experience as a reader is to sympathise with the characters. That the book you’re reading makes you feel exposed ; that you identify with it. VH Is this an autobiographical novel ? JSF It has something to do with me as a person, but I can’t say it’s autobiographical in terms of what happens. It’s the first book I’ve written where the people close to me have said, “It’s really you ”. It has my sensitivity. I wrote my first two novels in the first person. This one is in the third person, and this third person’s sense of humour and charisma are like mine. In the dialogues, for example. which I’ve tried to push to the point of absurdity. When I’m writing, I always try and push an idea as far as possible.
VH Is it fair to say that the main theme of Here I Am is how hard it is to be there for the ones we love ? Family, for example ?
JSF Each character has to deal with that question, yes. But I wanted to consider the wider problem of identity, particularly when we have several going on at the same time: can we be both a parent and a spouse ? Have secular and religious values ? Be married and remain an individual? Most of the time, it’s not a huge problem, just slightly uncomfortable to experience. Sometimes, though, a crisis comes along and you have to make a choice. Say, “here I am ”. I wanted to build my book around these various forces which ultimately oblige Julia and Jacob to ask whether they ought to stay together or not.
VH They’re surrounded by technology ( e – mail, texts, etc. ), objects, everyday items … Is this also what distances us from what really matters ?
JSF I wanted to show life in the twenty–first century. And, once again, the identity crises we all experience. The choices and, sometimes, sacrifices we have to make. I wanted to work on multiple scales, from the smallest to the largest. What’s incidental and what’s important in your life ? People can find it incredibly difficult to make the smallest choices. We see a picture of a Syrian child dying and there’s nothing we can do about it. At the same time, in our daily lives, we endure these tiny humiliations and micro–aggressions that we never mention, but which can destroy a marriage. VH Is it a satire of family life? JSF I think so, yes, but a loving, empathetic satire. I wanted to bring about a tragedy in a very subtle way that would be almost impossible to detect. Another theme is to make language and words the things that enable us to feel at home. Because the other question going through my mind is, what is “at home ”? Our body? Where we live? Or do we feel most at home in front of a screen ?
VH Do you still feel at home in Trump’s America?
JSF I’m not sure how to answer that, as I still can’t believe he’s actually in office [ laughs ]! Maybe he’ll be impeached? Given that I’ve been wrong from the start, I can’t answer that, either. The more interesting question is whether that would be such a good thing. Maybe his replacement would be even worse.
“People find it hard to make the smallest choices.”
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER