Interview: Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals, published in the UK this month by Hamish Hamilton, is an uncompromising tour of ‘factory farming’ practices in America, and the sick-making lengths that some companies have gone to drive up profits and satisfy a gigantic market. (A preface to the UK edition states that a ‘remarkably similar story’ could be told about practices there though – British readers should not rest easy.) Online Editor Ollie Brock caught up with Foer on his London book tour, to find out about this surprising new vocation for a novelist.

OB: With two hugely successful novels under your belt, what made you turn to non-fiction?

JSF: I did it because I felt compelled to do it. I’m not the kind of writer who has books he wants to fill or novels he wants to write… I find it very difficult to stumble on a subject that’s interesting. So when something comes along, I don’t question too much whether I should be doing it. Eating Animals was a product of that same following of my instincts and my curiosity.

The discussion around modern farming practices is already quite well developed. What did you feel you were adding to the debate?

A couple of things really. To my knowledge there isn’t a book that just deals with the bullseye of the target. Eric Schlosser sort of touches on it in Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan does it to a certain extent, but I don’t know if any book really gets the full scope of this. There has to be a sense in which writers always write the book they want to read… which implies that it hadn’t been written yet. This is the sort of book I wanted to read, wanted to have, regretted not having.

What do you mean by that?

Well there’s a lot of story-telling connected with this. It’s nostalgic, it reminds us of our families, it’s celebratory. We tell stories about what farming is, about what animals are… and the food production industry tells us stories about the where food comes from.

But you don’t feel that that’s any excuse, do you? You deconstruct the story-telling aspect as a ‘justification’ very effectively.

I don’t think it’s a very strong justification – I think it’s a justification we use. And that I use! Readily. For eating certain foods, and for doing other things… But sometimes the absence of those stories, or asking why we aren’t telling them, might be just as valuable. It might turn out that other stories bring us just as much happiness.

Your grandmother’s story of being a Holocaust survivor – for a long time living off scraps found on the ground; the chicken she was so proud to serve to her family – are very important to you. How has she reacted to your being vegetarian?

Well, she probably would prefer me to eat meat, but I don’t think she actually finds my vegetarianism puzzling at all. I was at her house not long ago, and I said to her, ‘Do you think animals feel pain?’ She gave me a look like I’d just asked her the dumbest question in the history of questions. And I had no idea what she was going to say. She said, ‘Of course they do!’ And of course they do! Would any reasonable person deny that? I think she respects the choice that I’ve made.

What was the singly worst practice you discovered in your research?

I think more shocking than any single instance was the rule. I mean, yes – I saw slaughter that wasn’t perfect; yes, I saw dead animals on farms; yes I saw animals that are so genetically modified – so bred – that they are physically incapable of walking. And that’s very sad, but I think to dwell on any instance is to ignore something much worse, which is, that this is it – this is our system. This is 99 percent or 93 percent of what’s available [in the US and UK respectively]. Animals as a rule are confined; as a rule, they are genetically modified. They are fed antibiotics, they have appendages removed without anaesthetic… Look, I’m not actually an animal lover! I’d be very surprised if I like animals any more than you do. I have no desire to pet a cow. I just think they should be treated like animals, that’s all – not like hunks of wood.

I do like animals, and I do pet a cow when I see one – but I also love eating them, and I think this goes for a lot of people. What is the reason for that contradiction, do you think? Why are we choosing to look the other way?

Well, my guess is that you just don’t think about it. It’s useful not to think about it, because it smells good and tastes good. And it’s what we ate yesterday, it’s what our parents ate. There’s an awful lot of inertia in our choices to eat meat. In fact, the ‘choice’ to eat meat really isn’t a choice. It’s the absence of a choice.

A lot of people are simply avoiding your book, for fear of becoming vegetarian, or for fear of too much guilt if they continue to look the other way. What does this say about our feelings on eating animals?

It’s just what people are like. It’s what I’m like! Life is just very complicated, and it’s difficult to be pulled in lots of different directions by persuasive humanitarian or ethical concerns. If I were to really think about it, is my time best spent giving an interview about my book, or should I devote my life to making sure there aren’t hungry people in my community? My only point is, we cannot remove any one of these ethical decisions from the context of our lives.

We just have loads of choices in front of us, and we try and make better ones. The whole conversation has been done a terrible disservice by the word ‘vegetarian’. People end up feeling like they can’t respond ultimately, hence the total rejection. But if you look at what it is we actually want, it’s a food production system that involves less destruction, less violence. Who would disagree with that?

But about the cause of that violence … You suggest in the book that the meat mass production business is what’s to blame. But you also write that ‘No one fired a pistol to start the race to the bottom. The earth just tilted and everyone slid into the hole.’ This refers to the economics of the situation, which you otherwise hardly talked about. Are the consumers or the corporations to blame? Or is it government regulations? Isn’t everyone just responding to a much larger, intractable system?

Well you can’t blame consumers for wanting to buy cheap products when they don’t know what those products are. Especially when the picture on the package is antithetical to the thing they’re actually buying. I think the government could do a much better job of regulating it, but so much of this happens out of sight. We still don’t know for sure what the effects of this are going to be. Women who drink factory-farmed milk are three times as likely to have twins as women who don’t; girls are going through puberty years earlier than they ever have before. Is there a direct link between the way we’re raising the animals and those facts? Probably, almost certainly – but we don’t know for sure.

What’s the outlook, though? You also suggest that a lot about this is inevitable. Do you think we’re just going to carry down the slippery slope?

There are reasons to be hopeful, there are reasons to be depressed. It’s depressing that people are eating more meat than ever before, and it’s depressing that China is slowly taking on the eating habits of America. It’s hopeful that 18 % of college students in America are vegetarian. And I imagine in five years or so, that those 18 % – a figure that’s growing every year – will become culture-makers, will become writers and journalists; they’ll become lawyers and politicians and nutritionists. The kind of people who are going to be guiding the conversation, I imagine, will be thinking about this quite differently.

You will have attracted a lot of activists to your cause. If you go back to writing fiction – which I hear you’re keen to do – will you be leaving them behind, a sort of Bob Dylan going electric?

Bob Dylan going Christian! Look, I’m not an activist. Despite appearances maybe, it’s not what I am and it’s not what I will be. There are going to be people who are much better than I am at pushing for necessary legislation, for pounding the pavements, for making sure that the conversation is sustained and broadened. I hope I contributed something to the mainstreaming of the conversation. At the end of the day, it’s a part of who I am, but it’s not who I am. And I can’t wait to get back to writing novels.

Jonathan Safran Foer was selected as one of Granta’s ‘Best of Young American Novelists’ with his story ‘Room After Room’.
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