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Who in the world is JSF?

A conversation with the young author of Everything is Illuminated sheds light on who Jonathan Safran Foer might be - or might not be.

JOHN BALZ
Published May 5, 2003

Jonathan Safran Foer is a bespectacled Washington D.C. native who, on his first stab at a novel, wrote a story about a bespectacled Washington D.C. native named Jonathan Safran Foer.

Critics loved it. They also, naturally, thought he wrote about himself.

Foer's book, Everything is Illuminated, about a young man's journey to the Ukraine in search of his grandmother's lost history, sparked a bidding war among publishers. Foer walked away some $500,000 richer. The paperback rights earned him another $925,000.

Demure about his new-found wealth and his wunderkind status, Foer, 26, lives in a fifth floor walk-up apartment in Queens, writes at the public library and spends his money on sweets.

During a recent book tour to promote the paperback, Foer chatted by phone with the Times about reluctant talent, flirting and other JSFs.

Question: You've said it's useless to try and find points of convergence and divergence between Jonathan who wrote Everything is Illuminated and Jonathan who is in Everything is Illuminated. The Jonathan who wrote the story would not even be the Jonathan on the phone today? That must drive people crazy who want to say you wrote a pseudo-autobiography.

Answer: It's not just that I feel that I've changed since I finished the book. It's that the blur is kind of exciting to me. It makes the book exciting to me and it makes my life more exciting to me. Ultimately those are the two things I was trying to create. I wasn't just trying to write a book. I was trying to do something for my life. I wanted to invest myself personally in the story.

Q: How many JSFs are there?

A: It's not clear where one being begins and one lets off. Am I the same person that I was yesterday? Probably. Am I the same person as the person five years ago who wrote the book? Sort of, not exactly. Am I the same person as the person in the book? Well, clearly no.

Q: A lot of young writers out there are jealous of you. How do you handle that?

A: I've never met them. It's not an issue in my life. I don't think writers should be jealous of me.

Q: Wait, let me stop you for a second. I want to read a quote from you, and I know you don't like quotes, but it's you from the New York Observer: "I think there are two kinds of writers. Those who read a lot as kids and those that didn't. Usually the ones who read a lot as kids felt they wanted to be writers and had written a story that they were proud of by the time they were 8 years old. The other kind of writer, which I am, is someone who didn't read a lot as a kid, wasn't interested in writing and probably still really isn't interested in writing in any way other than as a vehicle to do other things." Wouldn't people be jealous of the reluctant talent?

A: Only if someone wants to be reluctant. If someone wants to be a writer I don't think they would want to be like me. It wasn't an easy, beautiful path. My book was rejected by numerous book publishers. I was a receptionist for many years and had numerous jobs that only allowed me to pay the rent. I need to write more good books. One book isn't the end of the road; it isn't even that great an accomplishment. People should be jealous of Philip Roth. He has been able to write a dozen really good books.

Q: Are you worried about peaking too early?

A: No, it's not something I worry about.

Q: The title Everything is Illuminated plays off a number of themes of revelation, inexperience, knowledge, but it refers explicitly to a pseudo-scientific theory about the act of making love as a tiny speck of light. What do the people who know you well think of this theory?

A: It's never come up in that way. I don't talk to people I know about my book all that much. You know, like how often do you talk about your job with your friends when you're out? A little bit, maybe. But people wouldn't dissect the way you did an interview. I doubt that they would. We talk about the things we used to talk about. Hey, what did you see, what's going on, done anything cool recently?

Q: What were you like in high school?

A: In a way you'd have to ask somebody else. I would say I wasn't the coolest kid in the school but neither was I the biggest loser. I didn't know what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. And I think that was frustrating to me. I felt like I hadn't figured out where I belonged. I still don't know where I belong, but it was much more traumatic then. How do I relate to the world? What is my place in the world?

Q: On the subject of your short stories . . . In A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease, published last summer, you used symbols to represent unspeakable moments in a conversation. Did you use wingdings?

A: They're all essentially wingdings. They are all from different places in Microsoft Word.

Q: You have another short story, called Cravings, about the cravings of mothers of famous people during their pregnancies. ("Emmy Hitler ate lamp shades in her third trimester" is the first line.) Tell me where that one grew out of.

A: That's just a weird one. That's really old. I was a freshman in college. I was 18, I guess. Who knows where that came from?

Q: According to your own analysis, your writing is about feeling and sensibility rather than the documentation of events and actions. Do you think feeling is acquired or is it an innate quality?

A: For everyone it's different.

I don't think that writers are inherently different from other people. They just have a different mode of expression from everyone else.

Q: Are you different?

A: Everyone is different.

Q: To an extent, sure, but there are people who are an order of magnitude different from different, if you see where I'm going.

A: I'm just not sure. I think it's for other people to say.

Q: Are you shy?

A: Sometimes. I don't do well at parties. I don't do well with meeting people. I'm pretty shy. Not to a fault, though. I'm probably more of a flirt. I'm one of those guys who's great with e-mail but not with parties. I have a girlfriend now.

Q: Did you write to girls?

A: Sure.

Q: E-mails, letters, stories? Poems?

A: No, poems.

Q: Were you successful?

A: Somewhat.

Q: If I were to look at your e-mails, would they share a similar style with your novel and short stories?

A: Probably. I think in a certain way they all share a sensibility.

Q: Do you write by hand or on a laptop?

A: Laptop.

Q: At the New York Public Library?

A: Right.

Q: Which branch? Or will I revealing your hiding place?

A: The main branch. 42nd Street.

Q: When the New Yorker photographed you for the debut fiction issue back in 2000, you were holding a dog. What was up with that?

A: They just put the dog in my hands. That was their idea.

Q: Whose blank paper have you added to the walls of your apartment? (Foer asks famous writers for blank pieces of paper, which he then frames and hangs in his Jackson Heights apartment. Susan Sontag, I.B. Singer and Howard Norman have sent him paper.)

A: I got one from Arthur Miller recently. I got one from the Freud museum. I visited and asked the museum's director for one. It's plain. It says Sig. Freud on it.

Q: You used to sleep with a picture of the 1984 Olympic gymnastics team under your pillow?

A: (laughing) That was from this interview with this girl where we were sitting and schmoozing and making jokes about when we were kids. I don't remember making that joke. It sounds like something I would say. I don't remember it being true, but why not?

Q: Everything is Illuminated is a young person's book, some would say, in the sense that it's about being on the verge of things, on the verge of figuring it out, being able to articulate it all. And yet, many were astonished a person as young as yourself could write such a book. Do you think it's difficult for a young writer to capture the voice of a young person? That to do so accurately requires some amount of time or space?

A: I think we can only know from the proof that we have. There have been really good books by young people in the past. F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing when he was 25. I don't think there are any rules about what people can do or what people are capable of. My readings are filled with a lot of people younger than 25 and older than 65. I seem to get both ends of the spectrum.

Q: Consider the many JSFs currently out there. Will you all know each other completely in twenty years? Or will you be strangers?

A: I'm so far past predicting things at this point. My life has taken so many astonishing turns.

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