Jonathan Safran Foer walks out of the elevator and up to the door of his Queens apartment, bearing malt liquor and ice cream sandwiches, the makings of an afternoon snack. He juggles his keys, his grocery bag, and the day’s mail—bills, a magazine, a big envelope from his publisher.
It is two weeks before the publication date of Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, but he’s been the envy of Quality Lit Land since this time last year. In March 2001, Houghton Mifflin outbid 15 other publishing houses to acquire the book, ponying up roughly half a million dollars. An excerpt in The New Yorker — accompanied by a photo of the author cuddling a pug in a kitschy nightspot — promised a formally playful work in which historical inquiry mingles with jokes about dog drool. His agent made translation deals for languages ranging from Finnish to Catalan.
And now, opening the envelope, he discovers the latest review, another rave. It’s spring again, early April, and Foer has just turned 25. As he unlocks his door, he sings in the style of a certain toy-store jingle, ”Wel-come to my world. Wel-come to my world.”
Everything started while Foer was an undergraduate at Princeton, where he majored in philosophy, took a shine to art history, and racked up creative writing prizes. The summer after his junior year, he took a trip through the Ukraine searching for the woman who, family lore had it, rescued his maternal grandfather from the Nazis. (His mother, who works in PR, and his father, who runs a think tank, raised him in Washington, D.C.) He’d hoped to write an account of his findings. ”I found nothing,” he says. He’s sitting on a sofa in his Jackson Heights living room, a 40-ounce bottle of Colt 45 in hand. ”The nothing that I found was absolute and complete. There was no question, really, of what I could do with it. Either I could imagine something, or it would be nothing.”
He wrote for two months, and rewrote for more than two years, devising a tale which interweaves a fantastical history of his grandfather’s shtetl with the often slapstick quest of one Jonathan Safran Foer and his young, English-butchering Ukrainian translator. The choice to insert a fictional self in the story was not a choice at all. ”It was never something I thought about,” he says. ”It’s like when we were walking into my apartment: If you were to say to me, ‘Why did you choose that key?’ I didn’t choose. This is the key that gets me in the apartment.”
In the two-bedroom Foer shares with a roommate, fat stacks of art books abound. He sits between a wall of classics-crammed bookshelves and a wall crowded with friends’ art and a dozen framed sheets of blank paper. As Foer explains, gesturing with his Chipwich, he lucked into possession of a sheet of typewriter paper from the desk of the late writer Isaac Bashevis Singer: ”In our most romantic world, we think it’s what he would have used had he written another page. I got very into this, so I wrote to writers asking them for their next sheet.” The graph paper is from Paul Auster. The folded scrap is from Joyce Carol Oates.