Jonathan Safran Foer doesn't leave Brooklyn much. Ever since his son Sasha was born in January, getting out to speak about writing is a rarity for this internationally renowned author. The story of his wild success as a writer is both as unlikely and as inevitable as his imminent trip to Richmond, where he'll speak for the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond about the impact Judaism has had on his writing.
Despite how difficult it was for Foer to find an agent, and then for that agent to find a publisher, Foer's first novel, "Everything Is Illuminated," hit national and international best-seller lists, won numerous prestigious awards and was sold as a Hollywood film shortly after its release in 2002. The mixed reviews for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" did little to keep Foer's second novel from receiving similar attention in 2005.
He has several qualities that have made him a media darling: His youth (he's now 29) and his marriage to critically acclaimed author Nicole Krauss ("Man Walks Into a Room" and "The History of Love"). But these factors alone did not skyrocket Foer's career into a six-digit dimension that pervades both pop and subculture.
Perhaps it's that Foer serenades the elephant in the room instead of tip-toeing around it. His novels, finding focus in the aftermath of the Holocaust and 9/11, are told from the perspectives of brilliant but scarred young Jewish males, trying to make sense of unspeakable tragedy. With grandparents who survived concentration camps, Foer says that within his family, "the Holocaust was very, very present, but also very absent. We knew it was there, but we knew it was something we wouldn't talk about. I think my writing in many ways has been a response to that silence."
As for 9/11, Foer says he was "very, very lucky" not to lose anyone that day, and although a New Yorker, he thinks he must have experienced the tragedy in very much the same way as any other thinking, feeling person in the world with a television or a newspaper. Although his novels are fiction, they resonate with shadows of both his family's history and universal experience.
"I wouldn't write it unless I thought it was a true story," he says. "It's an emotional or experiential truth."
Perhaps another element that has helped shape Foer's success is the varied shapes that his own writing takes. Explosions of language, photographs, graffiti, unusual typography and a jumping point of view typify Foer's atypical style. Foer, however, does not see this as either strange or experimental.
"It's actually telling the story in as simple and as straightforward a way as I can," he says. "Maybe it's because of who I am. The ways to tell a story can actually be quite convoluted. I want the form to serve the experience."
Perhaps for these reasons, the film based on "Everything is Illuminated" was only able to capture a partial dimension of the book. To watch the film, Foer says he had to remove himself and become a moviegoer. "It was sort of awkward," he says, "like hearing your own voice on the answering machine."
Surprisingly, writing has not always been paramount for this Washington, D.C., native. While majoring in philosophy at Princeton, Foer happened to take a creative writing class in the same fashion that he happened to take a sculpture class. But as far as he is aware, none of his sculptures has won awards such as the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award and the National Jewish Book Award.
"Writing is not the entirety of my life," Foer says. "It is something I really value, that I sometimes like, that I sometimes don't like. It's a piece of the puzzle. It's not the be-all, end-all. It's more than a profession and less than my life."
Although he's working on several different projects, Foer says he is waiting until most of the ideas die away, hoping that one will live, before embarking on his next book. Whatever form it takes, his readers can at least expect to be surprised. S
Foer will speak at the Young Adult Division of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond's campaign night to help raise money for the United Jewish Appeal Welfare Fund. This event will be held at the Jewish Community Center Thursday, Oct. 26, after a 7 p.m. reception. Admission is free.