Recent grad's first novel attracts attention

Regina Tan


Jonathan Safran Foer


Princeton NJ -- Since graduating from Princeton in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, Jonathan Safran Foer has juggled several different jobs -- math tutor, archivist, ghost writer, farm sitter, advertising consultant and receptionist.

All the while, he's continued to nurture his strong interest in creative writing. His perseverance is paying off with the publication of an anthology he edited this spring and of his first novel next spring.

The novel, "Everything Is Illuminated," grew out of his creative writing thesis project advised by Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides. It recently garnered international attention when a dozen publishers were vying for the North American rights to the work. Houghton Mifflin reportedly closed the deal for between $400,000 and $500,000.

Foer says that Oates was one of several Princeton faculty members with whom he developed strong relationships.

"Joyce Carol Oates was something of a mentor while I was at Princeton, always encouraging me to be more ambitious, more energetic," writes Foer in an e-mail interview.

During Foer's sophomore year, Professor James Seawright introduced him to the work of sculptor Joseph Cornell and his highly distinctive glassed-in box constructions.

"In my junior year, I began to assemble 'A Convergence of Birds,' an anthology of writing inspired by Cornell's bird boxes," Foer writes. Russell Banks, who taught Foer in his senior year, helped Foer gather work for the anthology, which will include writing by Oates, Bradford Morrow, Rick Moody, Robert Pinsky, Lydia Davis, Joanna Scott, Howard Norman, Diane Ackerman, Barry Lopez and Ann Lauterbach.

"The poems and stories will appear beside tipped-in plates of the boxes," Foer writes. "It will be a very beautiful book." The anthology will be published by Distributed Art Publishers in May.

Foer's novel will be the lead title on Houghton Mifflin's list next spring. It is loosely autobiographical, describing a trip he made to the Ukraine in the summer after his junior year.

"The protagonist is a young man named Jonathan Safran Foer -- Princeton student, vegetarian, glasses, etc.," Foer writes. "He makes a trip that I, the other JSF, actually made.... For five days, he searches the Polish/Ukrainian border for a woman who might be a link to a grandfather he never knew.

"After that, though, the similarities end," he writes, "and the novel becomes pure fiction. The narrator is not based on a real person. The nothing that I found was entirely unlike the nothing that JSF finds in the book. Reality was a springboard, but that's all."

Eric Chinski, the editor of "Everything Is Illuminated," writes, "What most distinguishes the book is its deep humanity and empathy -- all the stylistic innovation and daring are in the service of this larger purpose. The blend of high comedy and deep tragedy quite simply awed me and my colleagues here at Houghton Mifflin."

Foer, who also has written and edited for journals such as Conjunctions and The Review of Contemporary Fiction, says he believes very strongly in non-mainstream fiction.

"It's what I tend to like to read," he writes. "It's where 'the action' is. The kind of work published in alternative journals ... is what excites me the most."

Foer currently is working on another novel, set in a museum.


May 21, 2001
Vol. 90, No. 28
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New president
Professor named 19th president
Time is right for Tilghman
Reaction enthusiastic for new leader
Family comes first for new president
Shirley Tilghman bio

Life sciences
Search is on for genomics institute head
Silver: Doubling not necessarily troubling
Landweber tracks changes in genetic code
Virus leaves trail in brain for researchers

Students and alumni
Thesis sparks thriving teacher corps
Recent grad's first novel attracts attention
Student teaching builds bridges
New program preps local students for success

Other news
Merck funds professorship to honor alumnus
Hair colors literary, artistic representations
Class size makes a difference

Remaining discretionary funds to increase staff salaries
Doig announces retirement
Barron is new women's hoops coach
Thirteen faculty members transfer to emeritus status

By the numbers: Reunions
Nassau Notes
Calendar of events

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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Contributing writers: Jennifer Greenstein, Pam Hersh, Marilyn Marks, Steven Schultz, Regina Tan
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett