Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, “Here I Am,” explores some weighty family issues, ranging from a fractured marriage to a son readying for a Jewish ritual he finds meaningless to a great-grandfather approaching the end of his life.
Sounds like material from everyday life, right?
But that’s not the case, says Foer, who is approaching 40 and who became a literary sensation in his mid-20s with the 2002 debut of his first novel, “Everything Is Illuminated,” which showcased his inventive and irreverent writing style. And while the writer, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Brooklyn, has married, divorced and had children, that life is not the genesis for “Here I Am: A Novel” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).
“It’s from my imagination, mostly,” Foer explains during a phone interview. “Sometimes there are explicit references to places where my family has been, experiences that I have lived that often times find a way into the book, but not in a literal form, not even in ways that I’m intending or aware of.”
In “Here I Am,” Foer chronicles four generations of a Jewish family living in the nation’s capital. During a four-week period, the Blochs confront a host of family issues, including infidelity (discovered on a cell phone) and what it means to be Jewish. These questions come in focus as a catastrophic earthquake strikes Israel, escalating conflict in the Middle East. At stake is the meaning of home and the fundamental question of how authentic our lives are.
Foer is in the midst of a national tour to promote “Here I Am,” his third novel (the best-selling “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” followed his debut). He’ll read from “Here I Am” Thursday at the Berman Center in West Bloomfield as part of the Jewish Book Fair. The reading follows a showing of “Everything Is Illuminated,” the film adaption of his novel. On Friday, he’ll read at Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor, followed by a conversation with Douglas Trevor, director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan.
“I never really have things like starting points or single sources of inspiration,” says Foer, who spent about three years writing “Here I Am.” “They’re never really obvious for me. Lots of ideas germinate at the same time. There are a couple of concrete examples. I worked on a TV show for a while for HBO, a show I created, and there’s (an instance) where a cell phone reveals an affair. That’s one starting point I brought over to the book.”
The use of an earthquake to shake up the lives of the Blochs resulted from a trip to Israel. While Foer was in Jericho, someone mentioned the biblical story of Joshua and how some have speculated that city’s wall crumbled because of an earthquake.
“Something like that will tickle my brain. Ninety-nine times out of 100 nothing comes out of it. Sometimes it grows and it starts to take shape,” he says.
His first novel, “Everything Is Illuminated,” was far more autobiographical, he says. In it, the protagonist journeys to the Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather during the Nazi invasion of Poland and the liquidation of a fictional village.
“I did take that journey. My family did come from there. There is no such shared story in ‘Here I Am,’ ” Foer says.
Foer, who writes when he can while juggling family duties and publicity obligations, strives to cultivate a writing process that is intuitive and “often almost subconscious.”
“I try to be open to whatever wants to come,” he says. “I don’t have ideas or arguments that are coded in a novel, waiting for a reader to decode. The book is its own meaning. I was thinking a lot about home, a lot about choice, the power of choice. Those things are there and when readers find them, it’s not the case that I consciously put them there.”
During his public readings, Foer often chooses different sections of the 571-page novel “to keep myself interested.”
“I find reading from a book to be hard. There are a lot of different voices and tones in the book,” he says. “I don’t like the feeling of people hearing one part of the book and thinking it’s a political book. I switch around what I do.”
The interaction with readers, however, is meaningful.
“I wrote the book alone. Readers read the book alone. Between those two intimate moments, there’s this infrastructure — reviews are part of that, readings are part of that. When I get the chance to meet readers and sign books afterward, it’s a real-world connection. For both of us, it’s special.”
Greg Tasker is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.
Jonathan Safran Foer
6 p.m. Thursday
6600 W. Maple, West Bloomfield
Tickets $12 (movie and author talk)
7 p.m. Friday
915 E. Washington, Ann Arbor