The Foer questions: Literary wunderkind turns 35

Story highlights

Jonathan Safran Foer wrote "Everything is Illuminated," "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"

He edited the "New American Haggadah," releasing March 5

He is collaborating on an HBO show called "All Talk"

When he's not writing he also collaborates on collages

New York CNN  — 

There’s a magical time in the morning between 4 and 6:30 when Jonathan Safran Foer works in quiet. It’s before his sons wake up, before he takes them to school, before he goes shopping for milk and diapers – errands in which he takes a certain pleasure.

A few days before his birthday, a recent Tuesday, the internationally acclaimed writer almost forgot he would be turning 35. The milestone doesn’t put more pressure on Foer, but he does feel a different sense of urgency.

“I’m less worried about accomplishment – as younger people always can’t help but be – and more concerned with spending my time well,” he says, “spending time with my family, and reading, learning things.”

With wavy hair, an unshaven face and round tortoise-shell glasses, he’s easy to miss on the streets of Brooklyn or the West Village. But adoring fans will sometimes blog about possible “JSF” sightings at his local library or park. And Foer’s literary and artistic endeavors are getting harder and harder not to notice.

Foer became widely known as the author of the novels “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” both of which have been adapted into major motion pictures. “Extremely Loud,” starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor this year.

Actress Natalie Portman credited Foer’s 2009 nonfiction book about vegetarianism, “Eating Animals,” with turning her into a vegan activist (although she returned to being vegetarian when she became pregnant last year).

Ben Stiller is set to star in a new HBO comedy, “All Talk,” about a Jewish family in Washington. Foer, who comes from a Jewish family in Washington, wrote the pilot, and will write the full series if it gets picked up.

Foer also conceptualized and edited a new guidebook to the Jewish holiday of Passover called the “New American Haggadah,” which Little, Brown and Company will release Monday.

But Foer, wearing a gray sweater over a plaid shirt, a fraying hole in his jeans in the shape of an inverted pyramid over the knee, doesn’t come across as pompous or proud in any way. Friends describe him as humble, caring and devoted – and shy around everyone except his close friends. Foer himself dismisses the popular accolade that he’s the next Philip Roth, and doesn’t see himself as filling any gap in contemporary writing.

“If the hole is anywhere it’s with me,” Foer said in his New York University office. “You write to please yourself, you write to move yourself, to engage yourself in the asking of questions that are important to you.”

That engagement with questions is central to Passover, the holiday that has always been most important to Foer’s parents and siblings and the reason Foer wanted to create “The New American Haggadah.”

During the festive evening meal that opens the weeklong holiday, participants answer four central questions to illuminate some of the rituals of the holiday and explain why that night is special and integral to Jewish people.

So perhaps it makes the most sense to also use four questions to illuminate the career of Jonathan Safran Foer.

I. Why is this author different from all other authors?

Foer seeks answers through more than just writing. He has a talent for reinventing things – such as books, sketches and found objects – by juxtaposing them in new ways, with things he either creates or happens upon.

He frequently collaborates with his friend Sam Messer on collages.

Messer, associate dean of the Yale School of Art, first drew a portrait of Foer when they met about 12 years ago after a film screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and they’ve been friends ever since. They share a passion for the arts, and Foer’s visual sensibility is part of what makes him a unique writer, Messer says. He’s also like great collectors, who are most interested in the very things they don’t have.

They’ve made several collages together in which Messer draws Foer and then Foer pastes, paints or writes on top of the image to create something entirely different. He’ll do stream-of-consciousness writing all over Messer’s portraits, turning them into a chaotic expression. Messer is also working on a clay model of Foer’s head.

What is it about Foer that Messer finds so worthy of capturing artistically? It’s not his face per se – Messer was recently annoyed when Foer grew a full beard – but Foer’s energy.

The "New American Haggadah" features colorful, abstract designs with Hebrew letters by artist Oded Ezer.

Energy is exactly the word Joyce Carol Oates, one of Foer’s advisers at Princeton University, used in a letter she wrote Foer when he was a student in the late 1990s.

“She said, ‘You appear to have the most important of writerly qualities: energy,” Foer recalls. “I wouldn’t have thought of energy. But she’s right. It’s just a way of life that is constantly challenging your energy supply.”

Despite Oates’ own success, Foer never asked her for publishing advice – he respected her too much, he says. “We had such a kind of pure mentoring relationship just about how the writing worked that I didn’t want to confuse it,” he says.

Nonetheless, the novel he began while still Oates’ student later became his first bestseller, “Everything is Illuminated,” making his success an inspiration and target of envy for later generations of Princeton students.

In fact, Oates has said so many nice things about Foer in the press that she declined to be interviewed for this piece, saying it was time for someone else to speak.

Gideon Rosen, who advised Foer on his philosophy thesis at Princeton, remembers being struck by his student’s sophisticated taste in art, music and film.

In many ways, the student taught the teacher. Foer gave Rosen books such as “The Bird Artist” by Howard Norman. And the student thought his professor’s taste in music was a little too 1980s, so he gave him CDs by artists such as popular indie rockers Belle & Sebastian, Cat Power and Bettie Serveert.

“I had never had a student who took an interest in my cultural life,” Rosen recalls. “He did it in this non-presumptuous, easy sort of way. He was uncannily mature with grown-ups for a student.”

Foer’s influence continues. Because of “Eating Animals” and conversations he’s had with Foer about cruelty to livestock, Rosen has mostly stopped buying chicken.

“The man has managed to acquire, given how young he is, incredible moral authority with me,” Rosen said recently on a Washington Square park bench during a visit to NYU. “He’s very serious about the things that matter, and very thoughtful about them, and maybe philosophy helped him with that.

“Some people are just wise,” Rosen adds.

Rosen remembers that at Princeton, Foer became captivated with the work of Joseph Cornell, who was famous for assembling found objects into collages and sculptures. Foer was particularly struck by Cornell’s bird boxes, consisting of images of colorful birds mounted in box structures that Foer has compared to “museum spaces” unto themselves.

When Foer deeply admires something, he’s not passive about it. While still a college student, he contacted dozens of famous writers and artists, asking them to send him pieces influenced in some way by Cornell’s bird boxes. The result is a book called “A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by Joseph Cornell,” published in 2001.

The “New American Haggadah” is another example of how Foer has tapped other talented people to help him turn an existing work into something totally new and imaginative.

On Passover, Jews get together for a dinner to celebrate Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, where they were slaves. They engage in a ritual called the “seder,” meaning “order,” where they eat specific foods, say prayers and tell the story of Passover before starting the main meal. The haggadah is a guidebook for the practices and stories that go along with this meal, a tradition that began nearly 2,000 years ago.

“The purpose of the seder to my mind is to inspire conversations with your family about the human drama and hopefully transmit values to the next generation,” says Foer. “I’ve always felt like this could be better.”

Foer found modern Jewish thinkers to explain some of the rituals and stories from a variety of perspectives . A timeline running across the top of the book’s pages puts the start of the Exodus in historical context, and talks about haggadahs throughout the ages. Nathan Englander, author of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” translated Passover prayers and stories from Hebrew.

Another more literal collage of Foer’s is “Tree of Codes,” which, in a way, questions the very definition of “book.” Foer took his favorite book –“The Street of Crocodiles” by Bruno Schulz – removed various words and phrases so that the pages literally have die-cut holes in them. The resulting work is an entirely different tale from Schulz’s short story; the remaining words describe a man’s last day of life. Most printers told the London-based publisher Visual Editions that the book “just cannot be made,” but eventually it was, and it came out in the fall of 2010.

Foer conceptualized "Tree of Codes," in which he took a short story by Bruno Schulz and cut words out of it.

In the way that Cornell’s art gives ordinary objects great value, Foer told The New York Times in 2010, “I think there’s something about the format of ‘Tree of Codes’ that does that for words.”

Foer’s youth is also something that has distinguished him – he was only 24 when The New Yorker introduced him to a mass audience in its June 2001 fiction issue with a portion of “Everything is Illuminated.” While the magazine edited the excerpt, Foer sold his book to Houghton Mifflin, which first published it in 2002.

“He has this wonderful combination of bald humor with a sense of wonder,” says Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker.

One medium of expression that Foer hasn’t fully latched onto is the Web. In college, he once went into the room of a friend who was using the Internet and asked, “What do you do on that thing? What are you doing? What is there?”

“I had no idea,” Foer says.

Today, Foer doesn’t own an e-book reader, preferring the way it feels to hold books and browse around a bookstore. He’s not on Twitter, even though both his brothers have accounts and a devoted fan, @FoerLovers, spouts news about him regularly. Foer abandoned his fictionalized website “Project Museum” five years ago when he realized “I don’t know how use computers.” (He does use computers for writing, but edits by hand). He finds the term “Web browser” funny because the Internet constantly guides users to different places, whereas bookstores offer totally open perusal.

“Books are slow, books are quiet,” he says. “The Internet is fast and loud.”

His hobbies have an old-fashioned quality to them: He’ll write “three-dimensional letters” to friends. Englander has an “origami book” that Foer made. He’ll have periods of interest in oddities such as old cases meant for watch parts. Flea markets, before they mostly got replaced by condominiums in New York, were a pastime.

“He’s always more curious about what he’s not doing than what he’s doing,” says Messer.

II. He writes so much about Jewish families; where did his own come from?

Foer grew up in Washington as the middle child of three boys, and all have become professional writers. Franklin, the oldest at 37, is editor-at-large at the New Republic. Joshua, 27, is a science writer and author of “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.”

“I never would have believed as a kid that we wouldn’t live in the same place, because we were very, very close,” Foer says.

Their father, Albert Foer, is the founder of the nonprofit think tank American Antitrust Institute, which Ralph Nader helped him start.

The elder Foer also has been in a book group for about 35 years, Franklin said.

“The image of my father that I think any of us would conjure would be him sitting in his big chair underlining a book as he read along,” Franklin said. “He may not be a novelist but he definitely endowed us with love of the book.”

Their mother, Esther Safran Foer, is the director of the Sixth & I historic synagogue in Washington, which hosts both religious services and public events featuring music, literature and speakers.

Foer e-mails and phones them regularly. “I don’t know very many people who have such uncomplicated relationships with their parents,” he says.

Foer also married a novelist – Nicole Krauss. They have two sons and live in Brooklyn.

Foer sought out writer Nathan Englander to translate from the original Hebrew for the Passover hagaddah.

And then there’s Foer’s maternal grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, who still lives in Washington and has been a huge inspiration for much of Foer’s work. He included part of her life story in “Everything is Illuminated,” and she figures prominently in “Eating Animals.”

“She’s certainly been the central family repository of observance of tradition,” Franklin says.

You might say his maternal grandfather Louis Safran has also been a big inspiration, but it’s because of his absence and the mystery surrounding his past. He wasn’t really talked about at home, but would make sporadic appearances in conversations, always with a bit of discomfort on the part of family members, Franklin says.

Safran was one of a few survivors from the Ukrainian town of Trochenbrod. He happened to be away for work one day in 1942 when most of the residents, including his wife and daughter, were killed at the hands of the Nazis.

He later married Foer’s grandmother, and they had a daughter together, Esther. The family immigrated to the United States in 1949, but Safran died soon after.

How did Safran survive the war? Foer wanted to know more. At age 20, he went to Ukraine to find out, armed with an old photograph of his grandfather with three other people.

Foer came back without learning anything about his grandfather, but his curiosity didn’t stop there. He reinvented the journey, and his grandfather’s life story, in “Everything is Illuminated.”

“Jonathan rushed to fill in the blanks,” Franklin recalls. “Not relying on any historical record, but doing what novelists do.”

In the book, a writer named Jonathan Safran Foer – not the same man as the author, Foer says – meets a translator named Alex and has all kinds of adventures and discoveries, interwoven with fantastical descriptions of how the town used to be.

“It was the kind of experience that inspires a book, precisely because it was so flat,” Foer says. “All of the burden was on my imagination.”

After the 2005 movie release of “Everything is Illuminated” – in which Elijah Wood played the Foer character (and Foer himself had a brief cameo as a leaf-blower) – Foer’s mother still had a fierce desire to solve the mystery of her father’s life. Franklin and Esther in 2010 went back to the same region of Ukraine that Jonathan had visited, with the same photograph, to see if they could find out anything else. Even in remote places, they encountered people who had read or seen “Everything is Illuminated,” and realized mother and son were re-enacting Foer’s original quest.

“It was at once very emotional and real, but also strangely meta and bizarre,” Franklin said.

They ended up meeting members of a family that saved Louis Safran during the war, Franklin said; it turned out they were descendants of people in the photograph. They didn’t know about “Everything is Illuminated,” but Franklin’s translator did (it didn’t help him connect Franklin and Esther to the people they sought, however).

Franklin and his mother even met a woman in Ukraine who had played with Louis Safran’s daughter by his first marriage.

The woman was able to tell Esther Safran Foer the name of the half-sister she never knew: Asya.

“It was one of those moments that you never think will actually happen,” Franklin reflected. “But this little girl ended up salvaged from the dustbin of history.”

Jonathan didn’t go with them because he felt he had “exhausted the experience.” But he wishes he had and considers it amazing that they did make this connection.

“One of the wonderful things about writing has been the surprise of confronting myself,” Foer says. “Before I wrote ‘Everything is Illuminated,’ if someone had said, ‘Are you really interested in your Jewish identity?’ I probably would have said, ‘No, not more than most Jewish people.’ ‘Do you have a very close relationship with your grandmother?’ I’d have said, ‘I guess; I don’t know.’

“But then I wrote the book of somebody who seemed to be deeply engaged with Jewish identity and seemed to have a strong relationship with his grandmother,” he continues.

Elijah Wood played Jonathan Safran Foer in the Hollywood adaptation of "Everything Is Illuminated."

Acknowledging the disconnect between his professed lack of interest and his literary masterpieces, he compares himself to someone who pleads innocent at a murder trial despite hard evidence to the contrary.

“I wouldn’t have made this thing if I had cared about this,” he said of his first novel.

And he began using Safran as part of his identity when he became a writer.

“It’s a name I’m proud of. It’s my grandfather’s last name,” Foer says. “There’s something to having a slightly different, almost like a stage name, for writing.”

III. Why did he write about 9/11?

Foer declared in many interviews that his next novel after “Everything is Illuminated” would take place in a museum. But by 2003 there had been a lot of change in the world, and in Foer’s life. He had changed neighborhoods and entered into a serious relationship. And he’d written a draft of a novel about a young boy who had lost his father to a heart attack.

Foer’s younger brother Joshua told him it sounded like he was writing about September 11. This had not occurred to Foer before, but when he read over the manuscript again with that in mind, he had a feeling his brother was right.

In the resulting book that inspired the Oscar-nominated film “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” the boy’s father, played by Tom Hanks in the film, dies in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The boy, Oskar Schell, is obsessed with a key he finds in his father’s closet. Oskar’s chapters are interwoven with reflections from his mute grandfather.

And while not as physically revolutionary as “Tree of Codes,” this book, published in 2005, also uses unconventional visual elements. Some pages have only one sentence. There are photographs of objects and places, children’s scribblings, typing overlapped with typing until it becomes illegible, and – in a finale controversial among critics – a flip-book of a falling man.

Foer sees 9/11 as a backdrop to the book and not the focal point. The author himself was in Jackson Heights, Queens that fateful day and slept late. A friend called and told him to turn on the television, and Foer watched the second plane hit the South Tower. No one in the Foer family was killed or injured; they didn’t have any direct link to the tragedy.

“That event affected people so strongly,” Foer says, “because of ageless things like fear, like grief, like anxiety about a changing world. A sensitivity to loss. I think all books are writing to those ageless things.”

Themes of an absent grandfather and seeking connections to a lost family member both come back in this book. And while Foer insists that he is not Oskar, friends and family do see connections in the character’s mannerisms, curiosity and imagination.

“That kid reminds me of him,” Messer says. “His weirdness, his paranoia, everything about it. Just being both incredibly bold and extremely shy.”

There’s one event in Foer’s life that he points to as traumatic, although he didn’t consciously think about it while writing “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” In 1985 he was 8, about the same age as the boy in that book, when a chemistry experiment went awry at a summer program near his home.

An attempt to create sparklers resulted in an explosion – flashes of light and screaming remain in Foer’s memory. And he saw skin peeling off the face of his then-best friend Stewart’s face. Foer himself suffered second-degree burns on his hands and face.

“I had something like a nervous breakdown drawn out over the next three years,” he wrote in an essay in the British newspaper The Observer. “I developed an intense fear of having to speak in public, which I have almost completely gotten over. I had an extremely difficult time separating from my parents, and only attended half of my classes. The other half of the time I spent in the principal’s office, unable to explain anything. I frequently went to the bathroom in my pants.”

Is there a connection between this and Foer’s book?

“I don’t know that one reminds me of the other at all. That having been said, it probably did have something to do with it,” Foer reflects. “‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’ would have been a great title for a book about the explosion.”

The movie version of “Extremely Loud” has received mixed criticism, splattering at 47% on’s “Tomatometer.” But those reviews don’t concern Foer – he’s just proud of the life his book continues to have.

Scott Rudin, the movie’s producer, approached Foer about making the film after reading the novel. Rudin will also produce “All Talk.”

“He’s a wonderful collaborator, he’s very generous and very open and was very interested in learning what the difference between a book and a movie was in terms of what the style would be, and not in the slightest precious about preserving stuff from the book,” Rudin said.

IV. How does he stay grounded when he achieves so much?

At the beginning of his success, Foer spent a lot of energy trying to deny things were different. He didn’t want to admit it was easier to write knowing his book would be published (at least, he has more time for writing now), that he would care what readers said, or that he would rather someone like his books than dislike them.

He just wanted to be the same quiet student at Princeton who would close the door to his womb-ish library carrel – “like getting hugged by metal,” he recalls – and work at whatever hour of the day.

“I’m sure all of this has really seriously changed me,” Foer says.

But Yale’s Messer and others maintain that fame hasn’t altered their humble, devoted friend at all.

Messer recalls chatting with Foer after he sold his “Everything is Illuminated” manuscript, asking him what the $500,000 deal would mean. At the time Foer was working as a receptionist at a public relations firm in Midtown Manhattan; he said he wouldn’t immediately quit his job and that the sale didn’t mean much.

“It means I bought a new pair of sneakers,” Foer told Messer.

“He hasn’t changed at all,” Messer said. “He’s not interested in the worldly things that you get from being successful.”

And Nathan Englander, who translated the haggadah that Foer edited, says, “If there wasn’t billboards every three feet around my whole city, he certainly wouldn’t have said to me, ‘My movie’s out.’”

Aleksandar Hemon met Foer in 2005 during the “Extremely Loud” book tour. A prominent Bosnian writer and author of “The Lazarus Project” who shares an agent with Foer, Hemon asked him to autograph a copy of “Extremely Loud” to impress his future wife.

“He’s one of the warmest and kindest people I know,” says Hemon. “You never have a sense that he’s distant from you because of the brilliance.”

In 2010, Hemon and his wife found out their daughter Isabel had a brain tumor. She died that November at age 1. Foer took an interest in their older child, Ella, who is now 4. He knew there would be a lot of attention paid to her parents, Hemon said. Foer also flew to Chicago for Isabel’s memorial services.

“[Ella] has a huge plush shark which he sent to her around that time, which she calls Jonathan, and sleeps with the shark,” he said.

Jonathan the shark stayed in Chicago while the Hemon family moved to Brooklyn for a semester so Hemon could teach at New York University. Hemon agreed to come to NYU partly to spend time with friends, including Foer and his family. Hemon’s office is on the same floor as Foer’s in the narrow brownstone that houses the Creative Writing Department.

“His relationship with people is marked by loyalty,” Hemon said of Foer. “He keeps friends around.”

And Foer by all accounts is devoted to his family. He dedicated “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” to “Nicole, my idea of beautiful.” So far he hasn’t had any inclination to write about parenthood, although his sons Sasha, 6, and Cy, 2, are a big part of his life. He usually takes them to school.

“They are the beginning and end of my day,” he said. “Almost all of my thoughts are directed toward them.”

Foer can do all that he does partly because he likes to work in a variety of places, Messer said.

There’s a cafe in Brooklyn where he writes, and he’ll sometimes write at home or a library or the NYU office he shares with other teachers (not a single book on the shelves is his). He doesn’t do well writing in the same place for more than a couple of weeks.

“I’m like the classic wandering Jew,” Foer said.

This year in Jerusalem

Coincidentally, Foer will fulfill the final call of the Passover seder – “Next year in Jerusalem” – this April by spending the holiday in Israel with his wife and children, because his wife’s brother’s family is expecting a child.

It’s not Foer’s first visit to Israel – Franklin remembers Jonathan going there in high school and meeting the poet Yehuda Amichai – but it will be his first Passover there.

The haggadah includes a timeline of events in Jewish history, including the beginning of the observance of Passover.

Judaism is something Foer thinks about a lot. A “huge” percentage of the books he reads have some Jewish tie. At his NYU office, Foer excitedly pulled out of his backpack a collection of essays called “Israel: The Ever-Dying People,” which he says is the best thing he’s read in a long time. He and his wife are taking Bible study classes.

Despite being both Jewish and a writer, Foer doesn’t like being pigeon-holed that way. “A bird is not an ornithologist,” he says. “Just because you are something doesn’t mean you are a student of something. I don’t … [analyze] myself. I only write.”

His novels don’t directly confront anti-Semitism or deal with spirituality per se, and he’s written plenty about subjects other than Judaism. Still, Rosen remembers Foer once joked that when re-entering the United States after international travel, he would put “Jewish writer” as his occupation.

Foer and his brothers have different takes on Judaism. Foer says he’s not “a believer,” but has a deep interest in the culture, history, values, rituals and questions of identity that come with being Jewish. Joshua is Modern Orthodox, while Franklin belongs to a conservative synagogue.

“Even if we have our doubts I think that we have a devotion to the tradition and curiosity about it and in all of our lives,” Franklin said. “The story of the Jewish people is something that’s always on the brain.”

And because the main character of his HBO show “All Talk” is a rabbi, Foer started talking with rabbis recently. But it soon became more than just about the show – it’s a “curiosity or a thrill.”

Foer is interested in how the small clan of the Jewish people survived for so long, and how the familiar images of the religious culture have endured for millennia.

“So, it’s very important to me, but not in a, I’m not a …”

He taps his fingers on the desk. Tap. Tap.Tap. Tap tap tap tap.

“Devout is exactly what I’m not,” he says, ending with a laugh.

It’s that self-conscious humor combined with awareness of identity that makes Foer’s works so enjoyable and thought-provoking. Perhaps he’s still figuring out what Judaism means to him, and how he will next address the view that he is “a Jewish writer.”

But there are plenty of fans patiently awaiting his next insights, in whatever unconventional and imaginative form they might take, whether objects are glued down or holes are cut out.

Yes, he’s writing another novel.