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Young NY writer ‘ended up’ with a best-selling novel

By Pauline M. Millard, The Associated Press
Saturday June 29, 2002

NEW YORK — 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. 

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.” 

“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.