| 'Everything is Illuminated' |
With Jonathan Safran Foer
Monday, April 14, 2002; 11 a.m. ET
Twenty-six year old Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel, "Everything is Illuminated," follows a young man who sets out to find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The book, released last year in hardcover, quickly became a bestseller and won the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction.
Foer was online Monday, April 14 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss the novel, his youth in Washington, D.C. and his signing at Politics & Prose.
Foer will be signing copies of his book Monday, April 14 at 7 p.m. ET at Politics & Prose book store.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Jonathan Safran Foer: Hi everyone. Thanks for showing up to this and I hope it is worth your time. For anyone who can make it, there is a reading tonight at 7 p.m. at Politics & Prose which should be fun!
The Plains, Va.: Can you speak more about your position on MFA programs. I read something you said in an interview with Esquire's "Most Influential People" issue that mentioned that you thought that MFA programs did not deserve the credit they received.
What is the basis of your position, besides your own success as a writer?
Does it truly matter when or where in a writer's life he or she demonstrates or hones that writing ability? Is writing always about the origin, or the literary destination?
Jonathan Safran Foer: It's a case of different strokes for different folks. There are obviously examples of writers for whom such programs worked wonderfully. And others, it didn't seem to be necessary. I don't think it would have benefitted me because I fear that I would have fallen prey to wanting to stand out or adjusting to meet expectations. For others it may be different. There is certainly a lot to be said to have the time and space that MFAs have to offer.
Washington, D.C.: "Everything is Illuminated" seems to play with autobiography a bit more than
other fiction I've read. Given that authors regularly draw upon their own
lives to make fiction, how close does "Everything is Illuminated" come to
recreating experiences in your life?
Brilliant book. Thanks very much. I look forward to your next.
Jonathan Safran Foer: Thanks so much for the generous words. They mean much more to me than you could know. As for the autobiographical content, I did make a trip to the Ukraine when I was 19 and I was looking for the woman who saved my grandfather from the Nazis. But the trip in the book didn't at all resemble the trip that I made. I never met anyone like Alex and never had the encounters that Jonathan had in the book. My novel is much more a response to my trip than a recounting of it.
Arlington, Va.: When are you moving back to D.C.? We need you.
Jonathan Safran Foer: D.C. needs a lot of things much more urgently than me like statehood. As for moving, I wouldn't rule it out but not in the next year... and there's always the Jewish holidays...
Rockville, Md.: Hi Jonathan! I am an English teacher and was so impressed with your book. Keep writing!
My friends and I have argued whether Alex has feelings for JSF. Thanks for any ideas!
Jonathan Safran Foer: The argument is much more interesting, productive and more important than any answer I can give. I want the novel to be as open to interpretation as possible. And I'm so glad to hear that you are participating in the interpretation. I wouldn't dare end that now.
West Orange, N.J.: Hi and congratulations on your well-deserved success. Our book group is discussing "Illuminated" next month (would you like to join us?)and I'm thrilled. I couldn't put the book down, and it remains in my mind weeks after I've finished it. As my kids can tell you, the phrase "Stop spleening me" has become part of my vocabulary!
I must say that as the story progressed I kept thinking that I was missing vital plot info. Did you have a reason for not articulating the actual details of their discovery about the grandfather? We see how Sasha (and his writing) matured as the adventure unfolded. Why did he recount the story so obliquely? It left me feeling disturbed about what happened without knowing exactly what happened.
Jonathan Safran Foer: Being disturbed about what happened without knowing exactly what happened is precisely the way that I experienced the story. And I think it is the way we experience history. I wonder if everything had been clear and digestible, would the book still be alive in your mind so many weeks later?
Long Beach, Calif.: Your grandfather was a lucky man, for sure. The Ukraine changed hands 5 times during WWII, with collaborators being killed
after each takeover. A friend of mine is from the Ukraine, is jewish, and his father was the sole survivor out of a large family of 14 people. Do you feel lucky?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Yes my grandfather was exceedingly lucky. Not only was his village destroyed, he also lost a wife and baby daughter. My being continuation of his good fortune comes with great responsibilities. This book felt like the first step in the fulfillment of those responsibilities.
Jonathan Safran Foer: By the way, for those who out there who don't know anything about my book, it tells two stories. The first of which is the quest a young American makes to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The second is a magical history of the village the young American goes to. The two stories weave back and forth and ultimately meet at the books climax when the Nazis invade the village. If it sounds confusing, it isn't confusing.
Bethesda, Md,: My young son keeps me from reading anywhere as much as I'd like...but I did use my limited time to read your book and it touched me in a way that I didn't expect.
So, the standard author question -- what are you reading these days that qualifies as great contemporary fiction?
Jonathan Safran Foer: My favorite book of late has been "The Last Samarai" by Helen DeWitt. I couldn't recommend that more highly!
Vienna, Va.: For someone who is interested in writing about their family history. What is your advice and how hard was it for you to write about your grandfather? Is he still alive?
Jonathan Safran Foer: My grandfather is not alive. In fact he died long before I was born. That no doubt made it easier to write about him. I was always writing from a position of loving my family so I knew I couldn't betray them. The worst that could happen was that the execution of my writing wouldn't be as good as my intentions. So if you have good intentions -- to be forthright and honest -- you can't really fail.
Washington: I think that one of the most bizarre and enjoyable parts of your book is the translated character, who you have translated into this English speaker that speaks a huffley-buffley type of English.
Can you talk about how the question of interpretation is literally embedded in the character Alex?
I guess what I'm trying to say is, we interpret and analyze when we read, and here is a character that apparently, in the midst of history, has translated his experiences, and then translated them into English, and then we have to translate them, back into an English that we can understand, if, of course, we don't just stand back, and out of disinterest, just enjoy his higgledly-piggedly English.
I like it. Johnathan, you are a rock star! Will you ever come to a literary event in D.C. with a t-shirt that says, "I AM ROCK STAR" on it?
Jonathan Safran Foer: No but I will give away an extra special "Everything is Illumnated" t-shirt tonight if you come to the reading.
As for your question, it would be tempting to say that Alex is an unreliable narrator but I don't think that is what you are getting and I don't think that is right. Alex is extremely reliable in the sense that he makes clear immediately that the story is going through him. Everything is subject to his "translation" -- both his literal translation into English and also the translation through the peculiar lenses through which he views the world. The novel is much more about storytelling than any one story. And in his own weird way, Alex is a really great storyteller.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you have another book or writing project underway and, if so, how far along are you?
Jonathan Safran Foer: I'm working on another novel and getting farther from the end with each passing day. The hope is that it will come out next year.
Washington, D.C.: Why is that every Jewish author must write a book about the Holocaust once?
Jonathan Safran Foer: First of all, it's just not true. I don't think you need me to give examples of Jewish authors who don't write about it and have never written about it. The fact of the matter is though, the Holocaust was the single most important event of the 20th century, certainly for Jews. Being a Jew and a product of the 20th century, it was frankly impossible to ignore. Do I think that I will address it again? No probably not. Am I embarrassed that I did? Certainly not.
Silver Spring, Md.: If it is acceptable to group you with other writers, it seems to me that you are one of a generation of younger Jewish writers (Melvin Julies Bukiet, Nathan Englander, Joseph Skibell) who represent a departure from what "Jewish-American writer" used to mean (i.e., Bellow, Roth, Ozick, etc.). This younger generation seems very interested in examining observance and orthodoxy; the Holocaust and its aftermath; and also also absorbs folkloric/magical realist elements into its fiction. How'd you counter the argument that especially the latter could represent an inadmissible slippage of the historical event of the Holocaust into mere literary trope?
Jonathan Safran Foer: I think that talking about groups of writers is a relatively useless practice unless you have fifty years of hindsight. Nothing is proven by one book and Englander and I have only written one book. I would say to each reader to evaluate a book on its own terms and let the critics sort everything out a long time for now (let's face it, a few if any of these books will survive that long).
As for applying literary techniques to writing about history, well that is what distinguishes a novelist from a historian. In the interest of expressing emotional rather than historical truths, all means are acceptable.
Bethesda, Md.: Hi Jonathan. Would you mind speaking about the steps you took to write this novel? Did you write each of the narrations separately, or did you write the chapters in the order in which they are printed? How long did it take for you to complete this book? Also, since I am unable to come tonight, do you have plans to speak again in the DC area in the near future?
Jonathan Safran Foer: I didn't write them separately but I didn't write them together either. It was a very organic precise -- hard to describe now and more or less torture then. I suppose you could say it took me two and a half years to write this book. But to give the project any sort of definitive beginning or end feels somewhat false. It's hard to draw clear lines between writing and life and I don't think it is necessary to or necessarily good to. Ideally, everything goes into the book.
I don't have any immediate plans to be in D.C. in the near future but it feels like I'm always coming back.
Tampa, Fla.: Jonathan (or JSF as many of my literary friends have taken to calling you). Question about the editing process for Everything Is Illuminated. If I recall, you've said it took you a week (two weeks maybe?) to write the first sentence of the book, and a month to write the rest. How long did the editing process take and could you describe a bit about what didn't make it to publication.
Thanks and looking forward to your next creation.
Jonathan Safran Foer: Thanks so much, I hope the next creation doesn't disappoint. As for writing process, it wasn't nearly as romantic as it might sound. I didn't really write the book in a month. I had a draft of the book in about two months but that draft didn't resemble the final product. Editing was rigorous and often excruciating. The book fluctuated in length from 150 pages to almost 1000. I constantly had to remind myself of my goal to say very fundamental things as simply as possible. Thankfully, I had some help from a few friends and ultimately my editor.
Springfield, Va.: I would love to write a book (full-time, not in my after work time). How do you finance such an endeavour?
Jonathan Safran Foer: I couldn't until very very recently. I had a full-time job as a receptionist and moonlighted as a tutor and ghost writer. Very fortunately, this book has allowed me to be a full-time writer for now. There is no greater gift than time.
Washington, D.C.: Who's your agent? I had one for a couple of years but he never actually sold any of my work. What's your advice for someone in my position, trying to find representation and sell work that's funny and true?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well if it is funny and true, it will ultimately see the light of day. It is incredibly hard to be commercially successful, particularly if your book is anyway challenging or ambitious. I've faced numerous rejections from publishers and agents before I ended up with my current agent, Nicole Aragi. She is the greatest thing that has ever happened to my writing life.
Dallas, Tex.: Your novel has some of the funniest passages I've ever read- eclipsing even A Confederacy of Dunces. I was wondering if you are a vegetarian like your protagonist. Thanks.
Jonathan Safran Foer: Thanks so much. A Confederacy of Dunces is a very stiff competition -- not that this is a competition -- so, thanks. I am an on and off vegetarian. Sometimes on, mostly off. I think it is better to be a vegetarian but occasionally, the call of the hotdog overpowers my ethics.
Winston-Salem, N.C.: Jonathan, your book blew me away. Your imagination is unparalleled. Congratulations.
When writing Alex's dialogue, did you study Ukrainians' speaking, or did it come to you intuitively? (In other words, how much actual studying went into creating his way of speaking?)
Thanks, and keep writing!
Jonathan Safran Foer: Thank YOU! Absolutely no research went into creating Alex. It was entirely, as you say, intuitive. In fact, I don't think someone in Alex's position would really sound like Alex as I wrote him. But that is not what matters. What matters is that Alex is believable within the world of the book. And that he is the recipient of our trust and our sympathy. Very often, the best way to show something is not simply to recreate it as it exists in the world but to create it as we feel that it exists in the world.
Bethesda, Md.: In your novel you were very careful to describe the differences among the cultures of the characters, and I think fairly successfully. Would you ever consider writing about the cultural differences found here in America?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Yes I would try to do that. I am now trying to do that and my experience has been the closer the home the subject matter is, the harder it is to write about.
Washington, D.C.: Have to say, I loved your book, found it a real eye-opener in so many ways. I do hope you'll come back to DC again soon because, like the earlier poster, I can't come tonight and I also missed your appearance at the JCC last year!
Jonathan Safran Foer: Thanks so much. I hope that my thanks never sound repetitive because they absolutely don't feel that way. I can't express how wonderful and necessary all of this feedback is -- both positive and negative. It feels so wonderful to be part of this community of readers and writers which is, for my money, the best community around. Can you think of a community more committed to exploring and expressing humanity?
Washington, DC: What will be the format of tonight's reading at Politics and Prose? How long do you plan to be there?
Jonathan Safran Foer: I'm hoping to do very little reading and a lot of talking. Or rather, I'm hoping that there will be a lot of talking and I will be just one of the participants in the conversation. I assume it will last about an hour. I'm certainly looking forward to it.
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