Debut novelist creates literary stir Philosophy major Jonathan Foer '99
mines his ancestors' past and his own
Safran Foer 99 recently published his first novel, Everything
Is Illuminated. The work which weaves together three
strands based to varying degrees on Foers own life
caused something of a literary stir when it was excerpted in
The New Yorker in 2001. One strand is the tale of a college-aged
protagonist, Jonathan Safran Foer, who travels to Ukraine in search
of a woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The
second is the fictional Foers attempts to imagine Trachimbrod,
the Polish shtetl where his ancestors lived. The third is the correspondence
between Foer and his syntactically challenged Ukranian guide, Alex.
In sentiments echoed by other critics, Kirkus Reviews called Everything
Is Illuminated "extraordinary" and "a haun ting
debut." Previously, Foer edited The Convergence of Birds,
a collection of essays by writers who were influenced by the artwork
of Joseph Cornell (1903-72).
Foer sat down with PAW contributor Louis Jacobson 92 during
an April 4 visit to his hometown of Washington, D.C. The following
is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.
PAW:Lets start with some of the basics your age,
and a bit of background about yourself. Foer: I turned 25 a couple weeks ago, and grew up in D.C.
My dad started something called the American Antitrust Organization,
a one-man think tank. He runs it out of our house. My mom does public
relations. I have an older and a younger brother.
Is there anything significant in your youth that shaped your
future career path?
No, actually. I think I was just in an environment that was very
At Princeton, you were in the Class of 1999. What were some of your
experiences on campus, both in academics and outside the classroom?
I was a philosophy major. I took some writing classes, which is
where I met Joyce Carol Oates, who became a real mentor.
Were you pretty familiar with her stuff before you met her?
Yeah, I was. Familiar enough to be nervous when I met her.
What especially attracted you to her style of fiction?
Her energy. And by that, I dont mean her prolific-ness, but
rather the energy within each book, and the desire to see something
else, be somewhere else, do something else.
Was thereanything else you did at Princeton outside the
Not in any organized way. I had a radio show on WPRB. I did a lot
of sculpture, and did my writing.
From some of the published accounts Ive seen, you seem
to have been fairly blase about Jewish practice and culture while
growing up, yet you took to it as a topic for your fiction. Reconcile
that for me.
Well, I think what I realized is not that I was blase, exactly,
but that my relationship was more literary than what most people
think of as "religious." So while I was not observant
at all, I was obviously soaking up the stories and the culture,
and they were wrung out of me, like a sponge, when I wrote this
And youre still not especially observant today.
what extent do you owe Princeton your success so far, both in terms
of the professional contacts and the writing skills you learned?
An enormous extent. A profound extent. Particularly with Joyce Carol
Oates, but I also studied with some other really great teachers,
and not only in writing. All of them were encouraging. This may
sound like an understated compliment, but theres nothing more
that a teacher could ever do than encourage a student, and more
specifically to encourage a student in a direction that the student
might not even have thought about beforehand. That was the case
with Joyce and me and writing. I had no particular expectation of
being a writer, or intention of being a writer. But she gave me
a reason to think that I should. And I know Im not the only
person who feels that way Ive talked to other writers
who have graduated and said, "Joyce is amazing; the program
Is there any particular anecdote that crystallizes how she teaches?
She is one of the most matter-of-fact people Ive ever met,
but also one of the most effusive. My papers would come back marked
up, and at the top they would say, "This is really great. This
is brilliant. Keep doing it." And the next week she might mark
it up and say, "This is confusing, distracting and a waste
of everyones time." I came to have this really great
trust in her, because that seeming inconsistency betrayed a genuine
consistency, which is that she was consistent about telling you
what she thought.
About your book on Joseph Cornell book tell me how you
first encountered his art.
It was in a sculpture class at Princeton, taught by Professor James
Seawright. He almost singlehandedly made me enthusiastic about the
visual arts. I had been interested before, but never so actively
curious. Previously, I had been only passively curious. He also
introduced me to Cornell, and I became more and more interested
in him and his work over time. I decided to do the book because
of the environment I was in. Teachers like Joyce were saying, "You
know, its not enough to be interested in it. Do it right
do something, make something." So I started sending letters
to writers who I wanted to participate in this book.
Describe Cornells art.
Hes an assemblage artist. He made constructions about the
size of cereal boxes. They might be described as surrealist dioramas,
and they frequently included birds. He was doing something nobody
else was doing, so in that sense he was ahead of his time. And ahead
of our time, too, because nobody now does what he did, either.
Why did his art capture your attention?
This might sound like a roundabout answer, but what captured my
attention was the way my attention was captured. I was in love with
the way that I loved his art. I loved the way it inspired me to
go to the art library and look at all the images of his works, or
to read his biography when it came out. It was something no one
had done for me before. I could give you answers about what it is
in his art that made me feel that way, but I think theyd be
a lot less interesting, and almost impossible to describe. If you
could describe better what he did, then that itself would be a better
piece of art than the art youre describing.
Is visual art a vein you might mine further?
I think it is, though not necessarily editing an anthology. Im
working on something now about a photographer named Hiroshi Sugimoto.
It will probably be an exhibit, and maybe a book too, about the
work hes done with dioramas in natural history museums.
I saw somewhere a list of odd jobs youd done. Tell me about
them, and when and why you took them.
All of them were just about the money. I had no money when I graduated,
so anything that came my way I would do, particularly if it wasnt
very time-demanding. So I was a receptionist, I was a tutor, I was
a ghostwriter. I cared for a farm about six months, just because
it was somewhere to go, something to do. It was wonderful. It was
in Pottersville, N.J.
So you were taking care of the pigs and the cows?
As it turns out, none of the animals were there when I was there.
I was just watching over the land.
Did these jobs give you decent material for your fiction?
No, but they gave me good time and space to write my fiction.
Tell me more about the trip you took that led to Everything Is Illuminated.
I made the trip to the town where my grandfather came from. Its
no longer extant. Its just a field with a stone marker in
the middle of it. I was searching the area for a woman that I was
told had saved my grandfather during World War II. That part stays
pretty close to the book. But then the book diverges completely.
There was no character like Alex, and none of the experiences that
happened in the book actually happened to me.
When did you write it?
I wrote it immediately after my trip. I made the trip in the summer
after my sophomore year, then I went to Prague immediately after
for 10 weeks. I wrote almost the whole book in those 10 weeks. Then
I spent the next two and a half years editing it. And in the process
of editing, I changed it completely. You couldnt even recognize
it. But I still consider all of that work to be editing, rather
The protagonists name is the same as yours. How much overlap
is there between you two?
Circumstantially theres a lot of overlap. But I pretty much
liberated the character from my own psychology, so that we dont
act alike. I didnt paint him all that favorably, actually.
Could you have told the story as nonfiction?
The answer is that I realized thats not the way I write. Im
not a nonfiction writer. Doing that would be as foolhardy as saying,
"Could I have done the book as a modern dance routine, or as
a piece for the harpsichord?" No, I couldnt have.
Yet you did decide to give the character your name. You could have
easily decided to change it to a fictional name. Why did you decide
to keep it?
I didnt even decide it was what I was going to do,
just a way to tell the story. Again, for me, it was the way that
I felt could do it and feel the urgency and vulnerability. Anything
else would have felt too much like I was writing a novel, even though
thats what I was doing.
So you were trying to write a novel, yet at the same time, you also
were not trying to write a novel?
I wasnt trying to write a novel I was trying to make
something that would fulfill a need that Id had. And it came
pretty darn close to a novel form.
How do you feel about the reactions youve gotten from readers
Theyre very strong reactions, and thats something I
like. I dont need the reactions to be good. I just want them
to be strong. We just learned were going to be on the cover
of The New York Times book review section, and we hear its
going to be a good review. That surprised me, to tell you the truth.
Good reviews surprise me. Bad reviews dont surprise me.
Because Im an expect-the-worst kind of guy. Its also
impossible to believe that anyone can sympathize with me, frankly.
Writing is a funny thing. Theres this duality. One half of
it is that I am an esoteric person expressing esoteric things. Theres
some worth in that. But the other half is when someone encounters
this and they say, "Oh yeah me too. I recognize that."
I cant quite get my hands around that second part.
Did the major strands of the novel come together at the beginning
of the writing process?
Well, you know, they didnt really come together at once. They
came in a roundabout manner, a lot of it under the auspices of Joyce.
I cannot overstate the amount of help she gave me.
You have said that the novel was predicated on the failure of
your mission on your original trip. What would have happened if
youd had more success on that trip?
I think it would have been a very different book. Exactly what,
I cant say.
Youve probably been asked this a lot before, but are you concerned
about having achieved too much too soon?
Actually, I havent been asked that before.
Im not concerned with achieving, period. I feel very, very
lucky. I just do what I do. Thats it. I want people to have
a connection with what I write, and Im glad Ive had
the opportunity to at least reach a large audience to have
the potential for a connection, which is not to say Ill get
it. Other than that, I dont care about anything. For me, everything
is in the service of that, and everything else is completely incidental.
Do you focus on one project at a time, or take up several at
I tend to take on a lot of things at once. Im an eleventh-hour
kind of worker. A lot happens at the end, I guess, in bursts.
You live in Queens, right?
Its the best neighborhood in New York.
Its the most diverse neighborhood, probably in the world.
I went there out of economic necessityit was the cheapest
place I could findbut Ive stayed there because theres
nowhere else Id want to live. The people are friendly, the
streets are clean, the food is good.
What about D.C.?
I love D.C., and I would not be at all surprised if I came back
here one day. Its just that right now I have a good thing
Do you see yourself as a writer for the long haul, or do you have
other interests youd like to pursue at some point?
I dont know. There are certain kinds of feelings Id
like to pursue. Right now, the best way I can do that is through
books. I find it a bit hard to believe that will always be the case,
but I wouldnt swear to it. I just dont know.
Do you sometimes look at the earlier drafts of your novel and
say, "What was I thinking?"
I still look back at the final draft and say that. I do. I wrote
the book years ago, and since then, Ive been working on other
stuff that I like much better now. Which is not to say that I would
change anything. I like the way that the novel represents a certain
person. It so happens that person isnt me any more.
Were you fairly familiar with the canon of Holocuast literature
before you wrote this novel?
I was familiar with the canon, but I dont think I was particularly
concerned about it. It wasnt something I was thinking about
as I wrote. The canon I was thinking about much more actually stretches
back far far beyond this century. Some of my most important influences
were very old texts. So, yes, I had read Elie Wiesel and Cynthia
Ozick, but they werent really at the forefront of my mind.
Do you feel any connection to your generation of young writers,
or do you kind of go your own way?
I go my own way. Which isnt to say theres no connection
at all. Its easy to believe that people growing up in the
same kind of environment will think about the same kinds of things.
I just dont think about that connection.
Your next novel takes place in a museum, right?
Its about a number of different stories that converge there.
The museum is the setting and its also the thematic skeleton.
The meat consists of the stories of these people who happen to be
there at the same time, through coincidence. It takes place in contemporary
New York, but the stories stretch back further. Some of the stories
are set in Europe.
I almost forgot to ask you about the auction of your first novel.
What were your feelings about how that went.
I was very surprised. I didnt think I would sell the book
at all. For me, it was the kind of thing that happened, it was surprising,
and then it was over. I really havent thought about it much
since. I think its really not a big deal. But it was great
I was lucky.
What did your book sell for $400,000?
Something like that.
Louis Jacobson 92 is a staff correspondent at National
Journal magazine in Washington. He writes frequently about books
and arts for Washington City Paper.