onathan Safran Foer’s debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, combines a bit of the epic familial sweep of Michael Cunningham’s Flesh and Blood with the tangy black comedy of The Corrections, and it’s easily one of the best debut novels of the year.
The book has two plot threads: in the first, a college student (named Jonathan Safran Foer), takes a trip abroad seeking information about his ancestors and endures the English-impaired assistance of his Ukranian cousin. The second deliniates the mythical history of an ancient town called Trachimbrod. Safran Foer, 25, wrote the book — which he calls “almost entirely fictional” — when he was in college, after a fact-finding journey to the Ukraine failed miserably.
A few other things to know about the author:
- He edited a fiction and essay collection inspired by the artist Joseph Cornell.
- He distributes postcards to everyone who attends his readings, asking them to mail back self-portraits.
- According to his official press bio, he has held jobs including receptionist, farm sitter and ghost writer.
What did you ghost-write?
I worked for a prostate health journal, actually. And, uh, I basically wrote a book for them.
What was it called?
It’s not something you can buy. Well, maybe you can buy it. It’s The ABCs of Something. And it had the word “prostate” in it. You could probably find it on Amazon.
What is the trick to prostate writing?
I can’t help but be fascinated by this.
Really, what I did it’s a little bit less glamorous than it’s sounding right now was rewrite a series of PowerPoint presentations called The 1-2-3 of Prostate Cancer. Basically, what these doctors were trying to do was sell a book with identical contents but a slightly different name. So I was transcribing this book they had already published into another book, but changing it so there weren’t going to be any copyright infringements.
Did you do more after that?
I worked in a gynecologist’s office one summer, and I did a lot of writing for them. I got all the holes covered, more or less.
What made you take the trip to the Ukraine?
I’m not sure. It wasn’t what you’d think. It wasn’t an interest in geneology, geography, or my family’s history. As deflating as it sounds, it was something to do. I thought, at that point in my life, that I was ready to make something, but I didn’t know what it was going to be. I thought it was going to be a book, but I didn’t know for sure.
How much of the book is fictional?
Well, there are two halves to the book. One is a contemporary half; these two guys go to the Ukraine. That I wrote, more or less, from what I saw. The other half is this imagined history of the ancient town, which couldn’t be further from realistic. It’s totally anachronistic; it’s totally whimsical. In certain ways it was as important to me to get it wrong as it was to get it right. Absolutely nothing. But the nothing I found was so complete that it inspired imagination. I was given a kind of imaginative get-out-of-jail-free pass.
You tried to write this as nonfiction?
I wrote one sentence of nonfiction. “It was March 18, 1791, when the double-axel wagon went into the Brod River.” And then I thought, wouldn’t it be kind of neat if it didn’t go into the river? So I wrote, “It either did or didn’t go into the river.” Then I erased it and I changed it, and I did it literally for days. No sentence has taken me more than five minutes since.
Did writing the book come easily?
The writing was fine. The editing came hard.
You rarely hear writers talk about the editing process.
Editing is everything. It’s like the difference between having a crush and a marriage. Crushes come easily, they’re intense, and you want to have them as much as you can. And they feel like nothing could be better. But then, with a marriage, it’s like, ok, what does this person’s farts smell like? Do I have to run out and buy food? And dealing with snoring and stuff like that. The writing itself is no big deal. The editing, and even more than that, the self-doubt, is excruciatingly impossible. Profound, bottomless self-doubt: it has no value, what’s the point? In a way, that takes up as much time as anything else.
Just preparing for this interview, I spent more time fretting about the questions than actually preparing them. So expanding that process to a novel . . .
Right. Well, a novel is just a different form of the same thing. That’s one of the things that frustrates me, when people think of a novel as being as once removed, like, sitting on top of the mountain, a wonderful achievement. But so is an interview. And so is a good conversation. Everything has substance and meaning.
Who are your influences?
Most of them are visual artists.
What do you dig about Joseph Cornell?
This could seem like a bit of a cop-out answer, but the thing I love about his art is the way that I love it. And sometimes I think you can feel that way about a person what I love about this person is the way that I love this person.
What are two books that changed your life?
Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Love in the Time of Cholera. I tried to re-read it the other day, and it was the worst fuckin’ thing I’d ever seen so stupid, so over-the-top, but so help me God, it changed my life. It was the first book I’d ever read, and the only book where I just was palpably sad because I just didn’t want it to end. The Kafka stories were the biggest influence on the book.
What was it about Kafka?
It reminded me of the level of emotion one should aspire to evoke. “The Hunger Artist” is so unbelievably sad. As a writer, you feel like if you’re not going to write anything that’s at that pitch, then someone should read Kafka instead. One can’t really get to Kafka. That’s out of reach. But it’s a good whip to hit yourself with.
Did you have a philosophy about writing the sex in the book?
I wanted to do what aroused me intellectually, emotionally, viscerally. It was the same thing with the whole book. I just did whatever felt right. I remember reading the Ellman biography of James Joyce. It described that when he was writing, I think, Finnegan’s Wake, he would keep his wife awake at night because he was laughing so hard at what he was doing. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. When I wrote the sex, I was like, what’s going to get me off? What’s fun here?
The sex scene is unabashedly romantic.
The whole book is really romantic. It’s to a fault, probably. But I was like, 19 or something when I wrote it. And one should be very romantic then. And it’s what I want to do now express myself now. In a way, I’m much more interested in that than writing a good book. Maybe that’s my definition of a good book.
Is there a book you’re embarrassed to love?
Love in the Time of Cholera, probably. No. I’m past being embarrassed about things that I like. I used to not admit to watching as much TV as I do, or to liking dumb movies. But that’s just bullshit; it kills you. It’s a pretty awesome thing to like something. And it’s a rare thing. You should be honest about it. I have a feeling I’d like the Britney Spears movie. I mean, I haven’t seen it, but I have the feeling that it’d be pretty great.
What’s the best/worst piece of advice or criticism someone gave you?
I think it might have been the same piece of advice. Joyce Carol Oates, my advisor at Princeton, told me “the secret of art is to be interesting.” I was so repulsed I was like, are you out of your mind? The point of art is not to be interesting it’s to be moving, or alive. It’s incidentally interesting. And I just kept thinking about it. And I’ve noticed how often I use the word. And I think she’s right. It’s the most amazingly wonderful thing to be interested in something. That’s what it means to be moved by something. To want to know more about it.
What’s the new book about?
It takes place in a museum. It takes place in New York. It’s a series of stories that are kind of interweaving, and in between them, the exhibits in the museum, The main storyline is about this guy who knew the diarist when he was growing up. They were lovers. The diarist is gay. When the diaries were published, after the diarist’s ostensible suicide somehow all the hes were changed to shes. And it came to be known as this great heterosexual love story. There’s this poor guy floating around New York who knows the truth. The story takes place in the museum where this protagonist goes to meet his boyhood love, and it’s a confrontation of all these different realities.
A professor told me that the best writers are the best liars. Do you agree?
I would be a very good writer if that was true. There are lots of different kinds of lies. Some people lie because it’s the only way they can express what they need, it’s what they are. Some lies advance a greater truth. I think people who tell the latter kind probably make very good writers.
To read an excerpt from Everything Is Illuminated, click here.
To buy Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, click here.
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