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All Jonathan Safran Foer needed to write Everything Is Illuminated was a photograph, a plane ticket, and a whole lotta chutzpah.
Strolling down 4th Street NW on a brisk day in April, Jonathan Safran Foer thinks he might want a hot dog. The D.C. native arrived in his hometown about 24 hours ago, riding in on the groundswell of his newfound literary acclaim for an interview with National Public Radio, and he needs a snack before he returns to his apartment in New York. So he casts a bun-seeking eye in the direction of the street vendors hawking their goodies outside the Judiciary Square Metro station.
Anyone who has read Foer’s newly published first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, might be surprised at the sight of the 25-year-old author considering a big bite of processed pork. After all, the character Jonathan Safran Foer, the book’s protagonist, is a vegetarian. He’s also Jewish—very, very, Jewish.
But Jonathan Safran Foer, the author, eats meat. And he doesn’t keep kosher.
Foer eventually decides to forgo the wiener, perhaps because he has spent much of the morning sitting at a cafe near Judiciary Square, huffing down a monstrous cup of coffee (“What is this, a Big Gulp?” he asks) and ruminating about his novel.
In the summer of 1997, after his sophomore year at Princeton University, Foer set out to solve a family riddle, to shed light on a time in his deceased grandfather’s life that had nearly vanished from his family’s collective memory. Only a photograph remained, a black-and-white picture of a girl with a beautiful, haunting face and an unknown identity. It wasn’t kept in a family photo album. “It was more of a shoe-box type of thing,” says Foer, who first heard about the relic from his mother. “It only came out on rare occasions.”
Foer’s grandfather, who was born in Poland and fled the country during World War II, took the secret of the photograph to his grave. “We knew the photograph had something to do with the mystery period in my grandfather’s life,” Foer recalls. “That’s all we knew.”
At Foer’s prompting, his mother sent him a copy of the picture, and a few days later, Foer bought a plane ticket to Europe. “I thought I might write some sort of nonfiction account of what I did,” he says. “Or maybe I wouldn’t write at all. In part, I just wanted to go away. I don’t mean on vacation. I wanted to go away from my life. It’s kind of funny that I tried to escape my life by going deeper into it—or, at least, into what came before me.”
In Everything Is Illuminated, the Foer character makes a similar trip to Ukraine, clutching an analogous photograph. But, says Foer, “That’s where the fiction and the fact start to diverge.”
In reality, Foer spent three discombobulated days trekking around small towns in the region of his grandfather’s childhood, looking for the woman in the photograph. “I did no research whatsoever ahead of time,” he says. “All I had was the photograph. It was ill-conceived and very naive.
“I didn’t find anything,” he adds. “There was nothing. And it wasn’t the kind of nothing that is interesting. It was the kind of nothing that is devastating. But also, it was the kind of nothing that inspires creation. There are these things in life that want to be filled. And this was one of them. It wanted to be filled with a story.”
At the end of his search, Foer hopped on a train to Prague. Over the next few months, he dreamed up and wrote down a story that several years later would set off a bidding war among American publishers and have critics declaring Foer a literary prodigy.
In Everything Is Illuminated, Foer, the character, finds the woman in the photograph. She turns out to be the last survivor of Trachimbrod, a fictitious shtetl that was wiped out in the Holocaust.
The novel is rich with the folklore of the made-up town, a place populated not only with a long line of Foer’s ancestors but also by an impressive panoply of rabbis: the Well-Regarded Rabbi, the Venerable Rabbi, the Garden-Variety Rabbi, the Tolerable Rabbi, the Innocuous Rabbi. Much of the book’s lyrical zetz arises from the flurry of Yiddish expressions and jokes that Foer hurls at his readers’ funny bones. “The Eskimos have four hundred words for snow,” he writes, “and the Jews have four hundred for schmuck.”
Foer says that writing the novel uncovered his inner Jewish schtick: “People often say to me, ‘Do you see yourself as really Jewish? And I’ll answer, ‘No.’ Except the evidence obviously speaks otherwise. The book is insanely Jewish. And so that’s a curious, funny thing to me. And it’s one of the nice things about writing a book. You have evidence. You can pick it up and say, ‘Well, apparently this is what I was thinking about.’ Whereas, if I hadn’t written the book, I would never have known. It would never have occurred to me.”
“I had a pretty typical D.C. experience,” says Foer, who attended Georgetown Day School from fifth grade through high school. “I went to free concerts at Fort Reno, I walked around Adams Morgan, and I drove around in my parents’ Volvo, listening to Fugazi.” Foer also racked up Metro expenses exploring the District’s museums and parks, particularly the area around Hains Point. An early draft of Everything Is Illuminated included a chapter revolving around The Awakening, although all references to the sculpture were eventually cut.
But of all the Washington hangouts that helped shape Foer’s consciousness, the Adas Israel synagogue on Quebec Street NW remains the most significant, even if its effect was rather belated. “I went to Hebrew school forever,” says Foer. “I went twice a week on Wednesday afternoons and again on Sundays. It was like a circus. Me and all my dumb Jewish friends would go right from GDS to Hebrew school and chew entire packs of gum in the course of an afternoon.
“I was absolutely convinced that I never learned anything, that it was a huge waste of time,” Foer adds. “But, in fact, there is probably nothing more influential on the way I think. I certainly didn’t get this
stuff from anywhere else. It’s not like my parents put me to bed with stories of Abraham’s circumcision.
“What I realized is that my relationship to Judaism is literary,” he adds. “It’s not observant; it’s not sentimental; it’s not even cultural, really. What I love about Judaism is the stories. I didn’t realize that until I wrote the book.”
During his summer in Prague, Foer wrote the bulk of Everything Is Illuminated in a single burst. The following fall, he returned to Princeton to continue his undergraduate studies. In his free time, he edited the book.
After graduating in the spring of 1999 with a major in philosophy, Foer moved to New York and embarked on a series of what he calls “crappy jobs.” He worked as a receptionist, a ghostwriter, an archivist, and a math tutor. All the while, he kept tinkering with his manuscript.
Finally, Foer felt ready to show off his work. He gave a copy to Dale Peck, a friend and author. The composition impressed Peck, who encouraged Foer to find an agent.
Last year, Houghton Mifflin reportedly outbid a pack of other publishing companies and bought Everything Is Illuminated for approximately $500,000—a whopping amount of mazuma for a first novel. Shortly thereafter, a portion of the book appeared in the New Yorker’s Summer Fiction Issue.
In recent weeks, critics have been falling in line—and to their knees—to praise Foer’s fiction. Entertainment Weekly dedicated two pages to Foer in its Summer Book Preview. In the New York Times, Francine Prose wrote, “It’s hard to get through the first chapters of Everything Is Illuminated. The problem is, you keep laughing out loud, losing your place, starting again, then stopping because you’re tempted to call your friends and read them long sections of Jonathan Safran Foer’s assured, hilarious prose.”
Which means that Foer can probably expect plenty of folks to read his yet-to-be-published second novel, which takes place in a museum. It’s a significant setting for Foer: In the year prior to his adventures in Ukraine, the author took a sculpting class with Professor James Seawright, whose work appears in the permanent collections of such places as the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. “At the beginning of each class there was a quick and dirty tour of the history of sculpture,” recalls Foer. “There were slides by Rodin, Michelangelo, Joseph Cornell, Joseph Cornell, Joseph Cornell. [Seawright] kept showing them. He was obviously obsessed.”
Before long, Seawright’s preoccupation had rubbed off on Foer. Outside of class, Foer began trolling the school library in search of Cornell-related stories. The following year, he wrote letters to several notable authors asking if he could include their work in an anthology. “It was as simple as writing them letters,” says Foer. “To tell you the truth, I was pretty amazed at the response. People were very generous and trusting. I think they were responding to Cornell more than they were responding to me.”
Foer edited the resulting collection of Cornell-inspired fiction and poetry, which was published as A Convergence of Birds in 2001. The book includes pieces by Paul West, Rick Moody, and former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, as well as a contribution from Joyce Carol Oates, who taught Foer creative writing after his return from Ukraine.
Foer continues to feed his literary muse by seeking out paintings, sculptures, and photographs for inspiration. He even puts his sculpting skills to work once in a while, making Cornell-like boxes he calls “portable novels” to hand out to friends. “They’re almost like party-favor-type things that I make for people I really like,” says Foer. “I call them portable novels because most of them involve a text that tells a story, and they’re in little suitcases.”
“Mostly, I’m influenced by visual artists,” Foer notes. “I really like looking at art. I like buying art books more than I like buying novels. As strange as it sounds, I don’t have any interest in writing good books. It’s not something that means anything to me. Frida Kahlo has this great line: ‘I paint my reality.’
“That’s what I’m interested in doing,” he concludes, “painting my reality.” CP