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Debut novelist creates literary stir
Philosophy major Jonathan Foer '99 mines his ancestors' past — and his own

Jonathan Safran Foer ’99 recently published his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated. The work — which weaves together three strands based to varying degrees on Foer’s 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 Foer’s 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 open.

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 don’t 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 there
anything else you did at Princeton outside the academic realm?
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 I’ve 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 book.

And you’re still not especially observant today.

To 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 there’s 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 I’m not the only person who feels that way — I’ve talked to other writers who have graduated and said, "Joyce is amazing; the program is amazing."

Is there any particular anecdote that crystallizes how she teaches?
She is one of the most matter-of-fact people I’ve 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 everyone’s 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, it’s 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 Cornell’s art.

He’s 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 they’d 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 you’re describing.

Is visual art a vein you might mine further?

I think it is, though not necessarily editing an anthology. I’m working on something now about a photographer named Hiroshi Sugimoto. It will probably be an exhibit, and maybe a book too, about the work he’s done with dioramas in natural history museums.

I saw somewhere a list of odd jobs you’d 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 wasn’t 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. It’s no longer extant. It’s 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 couldn’t even recognize it. But I still consider all of that work to be editing, rather than composing.

The protagonist’s name is the same as yours. How much overlap is there between you two?
Circumstantially there’s a lot of overlap. But I pretty much liberated the character from my own psychology, so that we don’t act alike. I didn’t paint him all that favorably, actually.

Could you have told the story as nonfiction?


Why not?
The answer is that I realized that’s not the way I write. I’m 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 that’s 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 wasn’t trying to write a novel — I was trying to make something that would fulfill a need that I’d had. And it came pretty darn close to a novel form.

How do you feel about the reactions you’ve gotten from readers and critics?
They’re very strong reactions, and that’s something I like. I don’t need the reactions to be good. I just want them to be strong. We just learned we’re going to be on the cover of The New York Times book review section, and we hear it’s going to be a good review. That surprised me, to tell you the truth. Good reviews surprise me. Bad reviews don’t surprise me.

Because I’m an expect-the-worst kind of guy. It’s also impossible to believe that anyone can sympathize with me, frankly.

Again, why?

Writing is a funny thing. There’s this duality. One half of it is that I am an esoteric person expressing esoteric things. There’s some worth in that. But the other half is when someone encounters this and they say, "Oh yeah — me too. I recognize that." I can’t 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 didn’t 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 you’d had more success on that trip?
I think it would have been a very different book. Exactly what, I can’t say.

You’ve probably been asked this a lot before, but are you concerned about having achieved too much too soon?

Actually, I haven’t been asked that before.

I’m not concerned with achieving, period. I feel very, very lucky. I just do what I do. That’s it. I want people to have a connection with what I write, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to at least reach a large audience — to have the potential for a connection, which is not to say I’ll get it. Other than that, I don’t 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 once?
I tend to take on a lot of things at once. I’m an eleventh-hour kind of worker. A lot happens at the end, I guess, in bursts.

You live in Queens, right?

It’s the best neighborhood in New York.


It’s the most diverse neighborhood, probably in the world. I went there out of economic necessity—it was the cheapest place I could find—but I’ve stayed there because there’s nowhere else I’d 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. It’s just that right now I have a good thing going.

Do you see yourself as a writer for the long haul, or do you have other interests you’d like to pursue at some point?

I don’t know. There are certain kinds of feelings I’d 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 wouldn’t swear to it. I just don’t 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, I’ve 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 isn’t 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 don’t think I was particularly concerned about it. It wasn’t 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 weren’t 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 isn’t to say there’s no connection at all. It’s easy to believe that people growing up in the same kind of environment will think about the same kinds of things. I just don’t think about that connection.

Your next novel takes place in a museum, right?
It’s about a number of different stories that converge there. The museum is the setting and it’s 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 didn’t 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 haven’t thought about it much since. I think it’s 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.