Jonathan Safran Foer: Illuminating Everything
The best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer writes to interrogate his own past and all of our futures.
Jonathan Safran Foer is a bestselling author of fiction and nonfiction, known for his modernist literary techniques and weighty subject matter.
Foer was born in Washington, DC, in 1977. His mother was the child of Polish Jewish holocaust survivors. While studying philosophy at Princeton University he wrote a creative writing thesis on his maternal grandfather under the guidance of novelist Joyce Carol Oates. He expanded this thesis into Everything Is Illuminated (2002), a metafictional novel about “Jonathan Safran Foer” traveling to Poland in search of the woman who saved his grandfather. Elijah Wood starred in the 2005 film version. Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005), set in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, was also a popular success adapted into a motion picture.
His bestselling 2009 nonfiction book, Eating Animals, details the ethical implications of industrialized meat. He has since written two more novels and another nonfiction book. Foer teaches creative writing at New York University.
Jonathan Safran Foer has found his own unique ways to understand the world. He’s the celebrated author of six acclaimed books, four fiction, two nonfiction, all of which capture and process the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that would otherwise be impossible for him to express.
Jonathan Safran Foer: I only feel lost most of the time, and through writing, I feel less confused, and less alienated from others, from myself, from my own weird stew of contradictory thoughts and feelings. Writing clarifies me to me.
Foer was just 25 when he exploded onto the literary scene with the international bestseller, and later critically acclaimed movie, Everything is Illuminated. It recounts his own real-life journey to Ukraine where he searched for details of his grandfather’s early life and his survival of the Holocaust. All this told through a fictional local guide, Alex Perchov.
(Excerpt from Everything is Illuminated):
It appeared that a part of him wanted “to write everything, every word of what occurred” into his diary, and a part of him refused “to write even one word.” He opened the diary and closed it. “Opened it and closed it,” and it looked as if it wanted to fly away from his hands.
The story was personal, insightful, and original, but it could easily have gone nowhere. After being rejected by more than a dozen agents, destiny made her long-awaited entrance.
Safran Foer: I finally found an agent. She sent the book to every publishing house in New York, and I mean the same book. Word for word, the same book that got published. And everybody rejected it. Then she fell ill, and I found a different agent who then sent it to many of the same editors who had rejected it, and suddenly there was a bidding war.
Safran Foer grew up in Washington DC with a lawyer father, a corporate VP mother, and two brothers. He was the middle child, sensitive and flamboyant, but at age eight he was changed during a summer program, a classroom experiment went badly wrong. There was an explosion, and Foer and three others were injured.
Safran Foer: So, one of the things that was difficult about that experience is that I was lucky. Of course, I was incredibly unlucky. I spent three days in the ICU, I had burns on various parts of my body, but I was relatively, relative to the two kids who were really severely injured, as lucky as lucky could be.
The explosion split Foer’s childhood in two, the before and the after, and for the next three years, he suffered what he’s described as a drawn-out nervous breakdown. It became difficult for him to speak in public or to ever be away from his parents. He frequently missed classes to take refuge in the principal’s office.
Safran Foer: I think what happened to me was that I learned a false lesson, which is that if somebody else has it worse, if there’s a pain greater than yours, then your pain doesn’t exist. That, unfortunately, is something that I really carried through my life.
AJC: Even now?
Safran Foer: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Being the descendant of Holocaust survivors, I was always—
AJC: Puts it into context, right?
Safran Foer: Yeah, even before this explosion, very much aware that one shouldn’t really complain. That you should feel lucky and feel grateful, which by the way are good lessons. That’s not a bad lesson. The bad lesson, the problematic side of that is—
AJC: To dismiss your own pain?
Safran Foer: Yeah, when there isn’t room for that’s much worse than this, but this is still something that’s worth mentioning.
AJC: But that’s the right balance, right? It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing.
Safran Foer: Well, getting older. You know? Trying to learn. It’s been humbling to figure out how wrong I’ve been about how many things.
But Jonathan Safran Foer isn’t preoccupied with what he’s gotten wrong. He’s just trying to untangle the mysteries and contradictions of life.
Safran Foer: I think that a misunderstanding about writing, that it’s an intellectual activity. A book is not the outcome of a thought process. A book is a record of a thought process, so I don’t have ideas that I want to share. I don’t have ideas that are waiting to be put down on paper and codified.
Foer’s nonfiction explores that which most preoccupies him, how human behavior will determine the fate of the world. His 2009 book, Eating Animals, grapples with what it means to consume factory-farmed meat. 2019’s We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, expands on the subject, exploring how our dietary habits contribute to climate change. And though Foer has described himself as a vegetarian since age nine, he admits he does still enjoy a hamburger every few years.
Safran Foer: I am in complete agreement with militant vegetarians, that we need to stop doing this. But I don’t necessarily see it as a question of identity, and I don’t see it as something with a religious certainty. We’ve become too used to measuring our distance from some sort of totally unattainable ethical perfection, instead of saying, this matters to me, I’m gonna try and I’m gonna try knowing that I won’t succeed perfectly, there’s not a vegan in the world who is completely removed from animal suffering. And I won’t let my fear of hypocrisy, either my fear of seeing myself as a hypocrite or as being seen as a hypocrite, stop me from doing what I know is right, which is making this effort by carrying on this argument.
AJC: The argument between you and yourself?
Safran Foer: Yeah. And it doesn’t work that you say “the environment matters to me, so I’m never gonna eat this, or I’m never gonna travel in this way, or I’m never gonna own a house like this.” In my experience, and in the experience of everyone I’ve ever spoken to about this, it has to be a perpetual conversation until norms change, at which point it doesn’t, and then we don’t have to talk about it all the time.
For now, these conversations must continue between Jonathan Safran Foer and himself, and all of us.