Jonathan Safran Foer, the critically acclaimed author of “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” has turned his creative eye to a radically different subject—vegetarianism. Safran Foer has said that his interest in the topic was sparked by the birth of his child, and being confronted with how he wanted to raise him. Safran Foer visited Harvard on Tuesday to give a speech about his new book, “Eating Animals.” The author spoke with FM about his influences, the meat dish he misses most, and the most important lesson he learned from Joyce Carol Oates.
Fifteen Minutes: Your newest book is a work of nonfiction. What do you think it has in common with your first two novels, if anything?
Jonathan Safran Foer: They have similar concerns in a certain way, like what is passed along, what we do with where we come from. But in more ways they’re different. The novels have nowhere to go, they are done for their own sake. I just felt like I was pursuing my imagination. With this book, I was referring to the world, and I was always concerned by a certain kind of story that I was telling. I knew what I was going to be working on.
FM: Your books tend to be highly personal and emotional. How would you describe the experience of writing the book?
JSF: Not emotional. It was very personal, but to me it was more analytical. It was trying to find a way to take a huge amount of information and make it accessible, digestible, and persuasive.
FM: Could you imagine “Eating Animals” being turned into a movie à la “An Inconvenient Truth”?
JSF: I guess so. I don’t know. It seems like it lends itself in a lot of ways. In certain ways, images can be more powerful than words. They can also be almost impossible to look at.
FM: What do you view as the biggest challenge facing vegetarians?
JSF: I guess I would say its consistency, which I don’t even think is necessarily the greatest goal. We’d be much better to think of ourselves as people who try to reduce meat as much as possible, and maybe down to zero.
FM: Your concerns about eating meat seem to be primarily environmental. However, many vegetarians forgo meat for ethical reasons. Do you think the two are mutually exclusive or not?
JSF: There are a lot of different reasons not to eat meat. I’ve never heard of a reason to eat it. I’ve never heard anyone say here’s why you should eat more factory-farmed meat. You can approach it from environmental reasons, from animal rights reasons...and all of those lead to the same conclusion—that this is a very destructive and broken system.
FM: What cultural factors do you think are working in favor of vegetarianism?
JSF: 18 percent of college students describe themselves as vegetarians. There are more vegetarians than Catholics in college. In college campuses, it is so unremarkable to be a vegetarian. It’s a kind of aspirational identity. That’s the reason to be most hopeful.
FM: Which type of meat or non-vegetarian dish do you miss the most?
JSF: Sushi. That’s pretty easy to answer.
FM: What is your favorite meat substitute or meat-free dish?
JSF: I don’t really get into meat substitutes all that much. In terms of a meat-free dish, there are a million things. It depends on what kind of mood I’m in. There are certain times I would trade everything for a bowl of popcorn. Food requires context. My favorite food when I’m eating with my son is different than my favorite food when I’m eating in a hotel room, which is different than my favorite food when I’m celebrating the Fourth of July with friends. It’s very difficult to remove food from context.
FM: One of the reasons you thought seriously about vegetarianism was the birth of your children. How would you feel if 15 years from now your children decided to begin eating meat?
JSF: It depends on what kind of world we’re living in at that point. Maybe the world will have changed, and there will be no factory farming and it will all be small farms. My goal is not to have them reach the same conclusions that I have, but to act on their values. They will be their own people. I’m not going to impose my ideas on them.
FM: You’ve spoken out about the Kosher Certification process. What was your biggest objection, and how has your criticism been received?
JSF: Who disagrees that we need a better system? It’s been very well-documented, and Agriproccessors, the biggest company, has gone out of business, though for other reasons. I did a video, “If This Is Kosher,” and it’s on YouTube, and I can’t imagine anyone thinking it’s wrong. I have heard from a lot of rabbis asking how we can find an alternative.
FM: Being Jewish has had a profound influence on your writing. In what way do you think Judaism influences your position on vegetarianism?
JSF: I think not much actually. Maybe not at all. I think they are values that most Americans share. 96 percent of Americans think that animals deserve legal protection. And it’s hard to think of anything that 96 percent of Americans would agree on. I don’t think being Jewish or Christian or atheist, black or white, old or young, matters.
FM: You’re only 33, but your career has already been incredibly successful. Where do you see yourself in another 15 years? Will you still be writing?
JSF: I have no idea. I don’t think I would have known I would be writing 15 years ago. Really, I just don’t know, and I don’t like making predictions because it’s nice to be surprised.
FM: While you were an undergrad at Princeton, you took your first creative writing class. What was the most valuable lesson you learned?
JSF: Joyce Carol Oates was a professor of mine and she had said that the most important quality for a writer was “energy,” and I thought that that turned out to be very true. Energy on the sentence level, the paragraph level, the book level, between books...It’s an exhausting thing to face a blank page day after day. More than any technical thing or question of craft, I think that was the most important thing.
FM: What advice would you have for aspiring Harvard authors?
JSF: I don’t think I would offer any. Everyone does it his own way or her own way. I don’t know anything that they don’t know.
FM: Any chance you could be convinced to teach a creative writing course at Harvard, as you have at Yale and NYU?
JSF: They wouldn’t even take me as a student. It’s true!