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Speaking with The Jerusalem Post by telephone from his Brooklyn home, Jonathan Safran Foer apologizes profusely for keeping me on hold. "I'm just putting my son to bed," he explains.
Safran Foer is married to novelist Nicole Krauss and is still learning the ropes of fatherhood. Eventually nine-month-old Sasha gets tucked in and Safran Foer settles down to muse on his winning the 2006 People's Choice Award for his debut novel, Everything is Illuminated, as part of the Koret Jewish Book Awards, which will be presented at a ceremony on November 15.
He seems somewhat surprised at his win, particularly for a book that was published four years ago. At the time it was published, Everything is Illuminated, which tells the story of Safran Foer's trek through Ukraine to discover his grandfather's roots, won the 24-year-old author both the National Jewish Book Award and a Guardian First Book Award. The book was eventually made into a film in 2005, directed by Liev Schreiber and starring Elijah Wood.
Since then, Safran Foer has written Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close set against the backdrop of 9/11. Both books have seen critics divided, with some calling him a genius, while others simply find his work little more than a gimmick. Safran Foer is nothing if not controversial, but this latest People's Choice Award certainly cements Safran Foer's place in Jewish literature.
"I'm not sure what a Jewish novel really is, and I don't necessarily believe that [Everything is Illuminated] is the best Jewish book," he says. "I don't know if I would have voted that way."
He cites Phillip Roth, whom he considers an incredible Jewish writer, as just as worthy, if not more so, for the award.
"You have to put it in perspective," he says. "But it's really nice [that I won] and [it] means a lot to me."
A writer who has achieved incredible mainstream success, with authors such as John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates and Salman Rushdie praising his talents, Safran Foer says he's finally come to terms with the idea of being considered a "Jewish writer."
"Regardless of how I think of the book or whether or not I identify as a Jew or whether I'm proud or ashamed of the [Jewish] literary heritage, they're all interesting questions, but it's my readers, not I, who decide what it is.
"I think when I first published [Everything is Illuminated], I thought I was being put in a box [as a Jewish writer] and that was somehow limiting and I didn't want anything that could potentially limit what I wrote and how it was read."
Despite his reservations, Safran Foer states that the Jewish tradition is "incredible" and that he is fortunate to be a part of it, despite the fact that he never set out to write the novel with it in mind. "I didn't write towards it or away from it. I just wrote what I wanted and needed to write."
SPEAKING OF his writing technique, Safran Foer says he doesn't have a pre-conceived notion of where his inspiration will take him. (Prior to his first novel, Safran Foer had published several short stories in The New Yorker, one of which, The Very Rigid Search, became the basis for Everything is Illuminated.)
"But with this novel," he says of Everything is Illuminated, "I felt I came out of it with a very different relationship to my Jewish identity."
Safran Foer won't be able to attend the Koret Jewish Book Awards ceremony in San Francisco on November 15, but he plans to send some taped remarks, although he hasn't yet figured out what he's going to say.
"I guess I'm going to thank my mom for having voted 400 times," he quips, adding, "Most people thank Jesus Christ, but that's certainly not appropriate for this event."
He pauses. "I will say that I take this award very seriously and that it really does mean a lot to me."
Those thoughts lead him into talking about fellow novelist David Grossman, who won the Fiction Award for Her Body Knows but who will not be attending the ceremony either.
"I think there's a very strong argument to be made for [Grossman] being the greatest living writer - at least my favorite writer," he says softly.
Safran Foer has only met Grossman once, two years ago, at a dinner where Safran Foer had the privilege of driving Grossman home afterwards.
"I think he's certainly a hero. When I think about the effect I want my writing to have I think about his writing," he says.
And with a newborn son, Safran Foer says being a new father, "and knowing how I feel about my son, [the death of Grossman's son] has upset me as much as anything has, and it's a reminder [of] how lucky I am and how grateful I need to be."
From a literary standpoint, Safran Foer comments that the hope as a writer is "that you're never out of fashion, that people continue to be engaged in your work."
And while he says it means a lot to him that Everything is Illuminated is still on people's radars, he says the real test is whether people think the book matters 20 years from now.
But from a personal standpoint, he concludes, once again referring to Grossman, "I need to be a father to Sasha. That's my job."
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