NEW YORK • "I consider this my first book," says Jonathan Safran Foer (above), a statement that, taken at face value, is nonsense.
Here I Am is his fourth book, a brick, twice the length of the others, four generations of fathers and sons, his first novel in more than a decade and the first set in his native Washington, D.C..
"I also think of this as a short book, a fast book, page-turning," he says. Here I Am is about divorce, Israel, upper north-west Washington and sexting, and took "either 10 months or 25 years to write", he says, suggesting that it required possibly a lifetime of experience or less than a year at his computer.
He is one of Washington's foremost novelists, who happens to live in Brooklyn. Sitting in a cafe near his Boerum Hill home, he looks far younger than his 39 years, but acts considerably older. He is gracious, answers every question, even those he may not want to, but often in koans, as though the long route might prove more interesting.
"I consider my first book to be an experience," he says, recalling how stunned he was to have written the critically acclaimed Everything Is Illuminated, the story of a young man's trip to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
Foer recalls how amazed he was watching his manuscript spitting out of a communal printer as an undergrad at Princeton, where writer Joyce Carol Oates served as his mentor.
"The second book was a response to the first," he says, referring to Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, about a nine-year-old's quest for answers following his father's death in the World Trade Center attacks.
After his first novel was initially rejected by a slew of agents and publishers, finally to be published in the spring of 2002, Foer scored the golden ticket in the literary lottery. His works became critical hits, bestsellers and movies. Eating Animals, a 2009 investigation into American food production and his struggle with vegetarianism, also earned praise and sales.
He lives in a US$5.4-million (S$7.3-million) brownstone. He is in a relationship with a famous actress (Michelle Williams) while exchanging e-mails, which were recently published in a New York Times fashion supplement, with another (Natalie Portman).
He is famously one of the Jonathans (the other two being Lethem and Franzen, the latter a close friend) and also one of the Foers (the middle brother between Franklin and Joshua, also writers).
Yet he considers himself a writer by accident. He had planned to become a doctor.
Here I Am is Foer's first work since he became the father of two sons (now 10 and seven) and since his divorce from novelist Nicole Krauss (The History Of Love). The novel, to be published in 25 countries, centres on the divorce of a couple with three sons that's ignited by the discovery of a secret cellphone loaded with a torrent of sexts. Krauss read the manuscript, he says. Writing about divorce was not difficult.
"It would be if Nicole was upset. She wasn't," he says. "We are very close. There's nothing to recognise, actually, in the book."
Yet the book may be parsed for biography. Protagonist Jacob Bloch works on an HBO miniseries, as Foer did on All Talk - Ben Stiller and Alan Alda were attached - before aborting the project and transforming aspects of it into this novel. Jacob is a recovering novelist who won the National Jewish Book Award at age 24. Which also happens to be true of Foer.
The Washington of Here I Am is Foer's Washington: Cleveland Park (specifically Newark Street; Foer grew up in Reno Road), Georgetown Day School (his alma mater), Adas Israel synagogue (the family's temple, where Foer had his bar mitzvah), the Uptown Theatre. Writing about his roots allowed him the freedom to explore larger issues.
"Once I feel okay at home, then the rest is the rest. It's just the world. If I worried about what people thought, I would never get anywhere. I would be stifled," says Foer, who teaches creative writing at New York University.
"You don't want to ask, 'Is it good or is it bad? Is it funny or not funny? Is it smart or is it useful or not useful?' If you ask those questions, you start to deviate from the freedom to make something that is true."
He is that rare author who looks forward to the book tour and appears content to talk about his work. "It's super-pleasurable, wonderful," he says.
"Readers multiply the richness of the book, the experience. Obviously, I put a lot of thought into the book, try to produce the best book possible, but the meaning of the book is not something that is mine."