By Jonathan Safran Foer
I was very close to my grandfather, who was from Ukraine, and his death raised a number of questions: What is a person of substance? I believe very much that he was a substantial man, but how did he become one? What does it mean to be of Eastern European descent? What does it mean to be Jewish?
I started working on a screenplay to explore some of my family history. Then Bill Buford, the former fiction editor at The New Yorker, asked me to read a piece called "The Very Rigid Search," by Jonathan [which would become part of this novel]. It's about a young American who goes to Ukraine to trace his family's history and is taken around by this Ukrainian kid, his grandfather, and the grandfather's dog. The parallel narrative is a whimsical chronology of the village where the American's ancestors once lived. Two images from the book have stuck with me: The first is of a wagon falling into a river and trinkets floating to the surface. I thought that was such a beautiful moment, and full of so many ideas about how things keep coming back in our lives, things that have been buried at the bottom of rivers, lakes, and ponds, how they have information and life and illumination in them. Then there is this other scene with a man who takes an orphan baby into his home. To keep her warm, he puts her in the oven in a roasting pan filled with newspaper—and when he takes her out, he reads the news off her naked body. It's such an extraordinary image, filled with such love and tenderness. I was very moved by that. I thought Jonathan's book was hilarious and wonderful—and that it had done all that I was trying to do but with such humor and compassion. I met him, and he agreed to give me the rights to the book. I wrote an adaptation of it and filmed it last year.