First-time novelist Jonathan Safran Foer based "Everything Is Illuminated" on a trip he took to the Ukraine during college to search for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. Winner of the National Jewish Book Award and the Guardian First Book Award, the funny and moving novel chronicles a similar, fictional search by the protagonist, also named Jonathan Safran Foer. Interwoven in the narrative is correspondence with his Ukranian tourguide and a vivid, often fantastic, history of the shtetl where his grandfather grew up. Foer spoke with Beliefnet's Rebecca Phillips about how the Holocaust shaped his life, and the surprising ways his book has been received.

Your book has been nominated for Beliefnet's list of Best Spiritual Books of the Year. How is your book a spiritual book?
I think it depends on what you mean by spiritual. I would take it to mean that there's something going on in addition to that which can be explained by the laws of physics and biology and chemistry. That can take so many different forms. That could take the form of something emotional, as we think of nurturing things as being spiritual. It could take the form of something magical, in which the laws of science don't' seem to apply. Or it could take the form of what appeared to be designed. I'll discuss those three as they apply to my book.

In terms of design, the book is filled with all kinds of different symmetries and things that recur, such that it almost looks as if the world is organized. But I would dismiss that and say that's not really spiritual, in that it could all be explained by the laws of physics. So if we look at the second part, the magical stuff, yes the book has all sorts of magical scenes that aren't things that would happen in the physical world. But I would also dismiss that as being spiritual because the point I think is to draw one's attention to something in the real world. Those are only analogies. In terms of emotional, it's not a nurturing book. I don't think that's the point of good novels, to nurture anybody. It's to make a case for something.

So what does your book make a case for?
I think the case that's being made is the case for will, to will things. Those are the last words of the book -- "I will." That expression "I will" comes up a dozen or more times in the course of the book. It's funny, in a way it's the least spiritual thing in the world because it's just a physical pronouncement: "I will do this." I am person who exists in this world, and this is what I'm going to do in order to move forward. But it's funny how similar that is to the kinds of things we consider spiritual talk.

Like what?
Like the kinds of things people hear in synagogues or churches. Or even a lot of the self-help stuff boils down to, "Who are you and what are you going to do with that knowledge?" I think that's the point of the book--all these characters are trying to figure out where they came from, how that influences who they are, and what they're going to do about it. Maybe that's what makes it spiritual.

Was that the point of writing the book for you, to figure out who you are and what you're going to do with it?
Absolutely. No question about it.

Was the Holocaust a big part of your identity growing up?
It was virtually no part of my identity. It was not something I thought about a lot. In a way, I took it for granted. It had so much to do with how I was raised. It's not like I had to learn about it, I just knew about it. It was always there, but it's like saying, "Is oxygen a big part of your life?" Well, yes in the sense that it's always there and I need it. No in the sense that I never think about it. That's how it was for me.

So what inspired you to go on this trip if it was never such a big deal?
I don't really know. Before I made the trip, if someone had asked me, "Do you consider yourself someone who is interested in Judaism or is interested in the Holocaust or is interested in history or geneaology?" I would have said no. But then after I made the trip and wrote the book, I look at these things as pieces of evidence that regardless of how I would have answered the question, the answer is yes. I think we can be wrong about who we think we are. And we can't really know until we have these encounters. I think we're determined by our actions, not by our feelings.

A major theme of the book is memory, the importance of remembering. Would you say that these are particularly Jewish themes?
Yes, I would say they are particularly Jewish themes, but I would also say they are particularly non-Jewish themes. I was doing a radio show the other day, and somebody called in and said, "I just wanted to thank you for telling my family's story." I said, "That means so much to me." And then he said, "I'm a 35-year-old black man on the outskirts of Philadelphia." That wasn't what I was expecting. I was expecting a 25-year-old Jewish guy.