The Books Interview: Jonathan Safran Foer

You're a respected novelist, one of your brothers [Franklin] edits the New Republic, and the other [Joshua] is a successful science writer. What was conversation like around the Foer family dinner table?
It was all fart jokes. Um, it was very exuberant. We didn't talk about politics very much, and we never talked about literature. There's so much not to talk about in Jewish history of the past 50 to 100 years - or 5,000 years, for that matter. One use of humour is as a sacrificial substitute for things that we won't talk about otherwise. Jews didn't become very funny until after the Holocaust.

Why did you choose non-fiction as the mode in which to write about factory farming?
I guess a couple of reasons. Making a novel that had a point would feel like constraining it. When I wrote my first two books, I didn't have any idea where I would end up until I was quite far into them, and I value that. Also, I wanted the reader to know I was being truthful in a journalistic way. In this case, that really matters - it's not like with the 11 September attacks [the subject of Foer's last novel], where the images really convey the scale of what has happened.

Is it more difficult to make your case here in Britain, when your statistics are so specific to America?
There is a defensiveness. It is better here, but Britain is not good. In America, 99 per cent of chickens are factory-farmed; here I think it's 95 per cent. Merely that Americans eat as they do should cause Europeans a lot of distress. The ramifications are global.

In the book, the primary reason for your own vegetarianism seems to be animal welfare.
That's part of it. But there are farms where they kill animals, but don't hurt them. However, I can't get excited about endorsing a farm system that is so exceptional. And having been to lots of good farms, I know that mistakes do happen. The idea of an animal being accidentally tortured for a meal just doesn't justify it for me.

Is vegetarianism sentimental?
I think that meat eaters are sentimental. To say this is the worst thing we do to the environment, it's bad to animals, it's bad for us, it's bad for poverty, for world communities, for economies - those are facts. Typically, people who eat meat don't engage with those facts, but say meat
is extremely pleasurable.

Are there other issues that would lure you away from fiction?
That's the funny thing. People ask me, “Why do you care so much more about this than other things?" I do care about other things; I just wrote a book about this. There are books about food but they stop short on meat, and meat is the most important kind of food that we eat. I don't really love non-fiction and I don't really see myself doing it again. Maybe one day. But I am a novelist - that's what I want to be.

Are you writing a novel now?
I'm trying, slowly.

Who are your literary heroes?
I feel like I'm lying when I answer this, like my answer wouldn't be true if I weren't asked. I think Kafka. Bruno Schulz - he wrote a book called The Street of Crocodiles. Charlotte Salomon, who created the Life? or Theatre? project. Yehuda Amichai, the poet, meant a lot to me.

Your writing is highly stylised - critics argue that the tricksier passages undermine the straighter ones. How do you face those criticisms?
I don't think this book is very stylistic, although certain things aren't just straight telling. My last novel was very stylistic. And for people who hate that, I don't have a counter-argument. Was it gimmicky? I guess one could see it that way, but it didn't feel like that when I wrote it. The point of a novel is not to appeal to as many people as you can, but to find readers who will say, "This is my favourite book that was ever written."

Does having those readers make it easier to handle criticism?
Criticism doesn't bother me - I think I'm being honest when I say that. I've never fumed over a bad review. The thing I really don't like is reviews that say, "This is a nice book." I would much prefer: "Who the fuck does this asshole think he is?"

“Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer is published by Hamish Hamilton (£20)