When a collapsing marriage and a global crisis converge, Jonathan Safran Foer’s characters are forced to look at their commitment to each other, to their faith and to their country in his latest novel, 'Here I Am'.

Foer stopped by Boston Public Radio to chat with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. The following is a slightly edited transcript:

MARGERY: The new book, 'Here I am', is a sprawling book. Give people an idea of what you’re talking about here … what’s this about?

JSF: It takes place in Washington D.C., where I grew up, over the course of about six weeks in the contemporary moment. We follow a family — Jacob and Julia Block are husband and wife for most of the book, in any case. They’re in their quite early forties. Jacob works on a TV show that he doesn’t care all too much about, despite it being very successful. Julia is an architect. She was once quite ambitious, dreamt of making war memorials and museums, and now she does kitchen and bathroom renovations — almost always for friends. They have three kids, Sam, Max and Benji, who are 12, 10 and six. We follow this family through two crises, the first of which is a cellphone that’s discovered that reveals an affair of some kind, some pretty explicit sexting, and then the second crises is an earthquake in the Middle East, which inspires a war that becomes so extreme that the Prime Minister of Israel asks all Jews around the world of fighting age to come to Israel to fight for its survival.

MARGERY: The whole Jewishness thing is a big theme in your books …

JIM: The whole “Jewishness” thing?

MARGERY: My co-host here is fairly neurotic—

JIM: I was number one in my Bar Mitzvah class, which we’ve discussed many a time …

JSF: Number one at what?

JIM: The only criteria — you’re the only person who has ever asked that when I’ve said it — the only criterion was how fast you could read Hebrew. Comprehension was not an issue…

JSF: Not competitive interest rates, or … I can say this, because I am me.

MARGERY: The whole issue of what it is to be Jewish, especially if you’re a secular Jew or you’re culturally Jewish … where does the theme of secular vs. religious Judaism fit in this book?

JSF: I think that question is in the book, but I think it’s subsidiary to what it is to be a person. Every book has a certain context, a cultural specificity. Every book takes place in a certain time … but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the book is about those things. Nobody ever asks me, 'Hey, why did you write your book in English? So interesting, what an unusual choice, and what do you think are the effects of having written it, were you making a comment about the English language, are you afraid that people who don’t speak English won’t understand the book in translation?' I wrote the book in English because it’s my language, and it’s the best means that I have of expressing the things that I care most about. I also wrote the book in Jewish, and I also wrote the book in American, and I also wrote the book in 2016ish, because those are my material.

JIM: You have been asked 10,000 times whether or not it’s autobiographical … you’ve said it’s not, but it is a piece of you, no?

JSF: Well, 10,001, apparently. It’s funny, whenever somebody asks that question they always preface it with an apology of some sort … it’s a question that would require a very long conversation about what is even meant by ‘autobiography’ — most people mean do the events in the book correspond with the events in your life. And, in that sense, a kind of journalistic sense, it’s not autobiographical, even though there’s some overlap. But there’s another sense, and I think a deeper sense, of how similar is the sensibility of the book, or the perspective of the book to your own. In that way, it’s quite autobiographical, much more than my previous books.

JIM: Is it easier when the perspective is yours?

JSF: I don’t know if it’s easier or harder … it’s different. I found it to be more joyful. I took more pleasure in writing this book, even though in many ways it’s a more tragic book than my other books. There’s a lot of material in the book that is anything but joyful. Forget about tragedy, parts that are violent, parts that are kind of apocalyptic, parts that are really gravely serious. Even those, I enjoyed the writing process more because it felt more expressive.

JIM: Is the sexting thing a function at all of your fellow New Yorker’s travails, Anthony Weiner? Or is that independent?

JSF: I think I beat him to the punch. I think I wrote that before … my character’s fall predated his actual fall.

MARGERY: You have this great stuff about the dog, especially this scene at the vet, where Jacob is explaining the problems that the dog has. The poor dog is getting old and having a tough time, and Jacob is there with his son.

JSF: They have a debate about whether it is the right thing to put this dog down and the kind of roles that you would imagine of the father saying, ‘This dog is suffering, we need to do the merciful thing,’ and the kid saying, ‘No no no, don’t do it,’ is reversed. The kids are saying to the dad, ‘We’ve got to put this thing out of its misery.’ Jacob is a kind of person who finds it very difficult to make a certain kind of choice, to make a painful choice, where you are choosing not only in favor of something, but against, or at the expense of something that he cares about.

MARGERY: You also have a great scene a little while after that with these two kids on the bus. It’s hard to put yourself in that teen or pre-teen talk, but you’ve done this.

JSF: Well, how would you know? How would I know? I’ve put myself into whatever you imagine to be authentic pre-teen talk, and I obviously imagine it to be like that as well. Whether it is or not, I obviously don’t know. I can say I’d rather imagine myself into that perspective than have to go back and be at that age, it’s a very very painful age, being 12, being 10. That’s something I thought about quite a lot, both because I do have a son who is 11, but also writing these characters, I was reminded of how the stakes of all of the emotions. I’m envious, in a way, of people that age, being able to access that kind of aliveness, you know? But on the other hand, I’m grateful not to have to.

JIM: I assume I’m not the only one who has noticed this, but I found this particularly Philip Roth-ian, and I wondered if you would be offended by that comparison. Are you offended?

JSF: No, it’s said sometimes. No, I’m not offended at all. I would be offended if it felt derivative, if it felt like some kind of continuation of something he has been up to, an echo of something he’s been up to, or just resonant with, and that is as high a compliment as I can imagine.

To hear Jonathan Safran Foer’s full interview with Boston Public Radio, including his reading of an excerpt from Here I Am, click on the audio link above.