Archive for Sunday, June 30, 2002

Young writer concocts best seller

Trip to Ukraine inspires ‘Everything Is Illuminated’

June 30, 2002


— The walls of Jonathan Safran Foer's apartment are covered with everything from a framed piece of blank paper from Susan Sontag to random sketches made by his friends. There is even an enormous canvas of a huge hand that the author himself painted.

"Pretty much everything up there is an accident things I've picked up along long the way," he says.

Author Jonathan Safran Foer, 25, sits in his apartment in the
Queens borough of New York. His book, "Everything Is Illuminated,"
quickly made the New York Times&squot; best-seller list.

Author Jonathan Safran Foer, 25, sits in his apartment in the Queens borough of New York. His book, "Everything Is Illuminated," quickly made the New York Times' best-seller list.

So goes the story of Foer's life: Things just sort of ... happen.

A native of Washington, D.C., he found himself at Princeton University, where he majored in philosophy, and took some writing classes "for fun." He wound up winning the freshman, sophomore, junior and senior creative writing awards.

One summer, Foer hopped on a plane and headed out to the Ukraine for four days, in search of the woman who hid his grandmother from the Nazis during World War II.

He did little research before his trip and never found the woman. So, he made up a lot of things and wrote a novel, "Everything Is Illuminated." The book just happened to make the 25-year-old Foer the hottest young writer in publishing.

Houghton Mifflin paid nearly $500,000 to acquire the manuscript and HarperCollins purchased the paperback for $925,000. Actor Leiv Schreiber is hoping to direct a film version of "Everything Is Illuminated," which quickly made The New York Times' best-seller list in May.

However, Foer (pronounced FOH-er) finds the attention somewhat disconcerting.

"It becomes very frustrating when other people think that you are successful or happy," he says. "It's almost as if they don't take me seriously. Because, if you really took me seriously you would know that the things that are important to me are a lot bigger than money or getting good reviews."

Three-pronged novel

"Everything Is Illuminated" is a three-pronged novel.

It begins with correspondence between Alex, a Ukrainian, and the main character, coincidentally named Jonathan Safran Foer. Alex is to be Foer's guide as they search for his grandmother's old shtetl.

Then there's the story of Alex and Jonathan as they travel through the Ukraine with Alex's nearly blind grandfather and Alex's dog, Sammy Davis Junior Junior.

Foer then weaves in a historical narrative of life in the shtetl from 1791 until 1942.

He is a slight man with a mop of dark, curly hair and soft black eyes. He speaks quietly but eloquently, choosing his words carefully as if savoring delicate morsels of food.

"I can be very hard on myself," he says. "I convince myself that I'm fooling people. Or, I convince myself that people like the book for the wrong reasons."

Others are eager to praise him. Houghton Mifflin editor Eric Chinski says that the book had an "amazing blend of energy and wisdom."

"It was that rare combination of being stylistically risky but the acrobatics served a purpose," Chinski says.

The structure and the voice were solid, and Chinski and Foer just worked on making the connections between the three story lines in the book.

Author grateful

Chinski says that Foer is fascinating to watch because he thinks the author has many great books in him and Foer just seems grateful for the opportunity to churn them out.

"His imagination can be a bit too wild at times, but his instincts are right on," Chinski said.

His reviewers feel the same way. Francine Prose said of Foer's novel in the New York Times Book Review, "Not Since Anthony Burgess' novel 'A Clockwork Orange' has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio."

Another reviewer from Jane magazine gushed about the novel in a short blurb and added, "The only thing sexier than a 25-year-old wordsmith is a dorky Jewish guy in glasses."

Foer says that while the book tours and interviews are great, he would much rather stay in one place for a while like the Jackson Heights section of Queens, a quiet neighborhood that's treated him well.

He says that when he's on the road he misses his sunny, spacious apartment with its slow, old fashioned elevator that creaks up five flights before reaching Foer's floor.

His living room is lined with everything from the Encyclopedia Judaica to stacks of thick art books. He's not just a writer, but a fan of other writers Sontag sent him the paper after he contacted her and asked her for the next sheet of paper she was going to use.

In his own way, Foer just wants to keep things simple: Write the books and maintain good relationships with people.

"I like domestic life," he says. "It's hard to make anything like a book or a good friendship when you move around a lot."

His friends say relationships are important to him and may actually aid in his writing. One friend, Alex Laskey, said Foer called him one night so they could brainstorm filthy limericks that an 11-year-old boy might know all for the sake of art, naturally.

"Jonathan knows how to make people feel like children with infinite possibilities and infinite potential," Laskey said.

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