Jennifer Egan has range â whether doing journalism for the New Yorker, Harperâs,
or the New York Times
(âWanted: A Few Good Spermâ being one example) â or crafting fascinating fiction in longhand. A finalist for the National Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellow and recently a Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Egan lays claim to a praised and diverse body of work. âThe Invisible Circus,â âLook at Me,â
and her latest novel, âThe Keep,â
highlight a career built on creativity; each article and book standing alone with original characters and oftentimes dark yet hilarious results. Jennifer and I spoke about her work and life, how she arrived in Fort Greene, and the tribulations of being an author on the edge.
To start, I keep hearing the voice of Ray [fromâThe Keepâ] everywhere I go, should I be nervous?
I donât know (laughs). I should ask you!
Maybe itâs my own psychological problem...
I have certainly heard his voice for about three years. I hope it means his voice is compelling and offers up some worldview that you want to hang on to. Iâve been trying to get rid of his voice because it has absolutely no bearing on what Iâm working on now. My books are really different from one another and that means I cannot use the voice of the prior work moving forward and, in fact, I almost certainly cannot do the next thing Iâm trying to do unless I can exorcise that prior voice.
Range and diversity seem to be your hallmarks; each book and article is totally different. From âThe Invisible Circusâ about a woman trying to comprehend her sisterâs death, to âLook At Me,â about the fashion industry, to âThe Keep,â which is one of the finest yet most hilarious gothic novels in recent memory. Youâre a great writer but you must drive your publisher insane with such range â Do you have multiple editors?
Well, my fiction and nonfiction are obviously separate. But I did actually change editors with âThe Keep.â There was a leap there that we could make aesthetically, my editor and I. But I think at this point anyone who has been watching my work over the years knows to expect that each new thing is, in some way, going to work against the thing before it, and hopefully not overlap much with anything else. So by now thatâs pretty much established and I certainly intend to continue in that vain â Itâs my own entertainment that Iâm most concerned with. Thatâs being flip, but I donât want to feel that Iâm repeating myself.
Nothingâs worse than a bored writer...
Or a bored reader (laughs).
âReading Lucyâ â your contribution to the compilation âBrooklyn Was Mineâ â is about a woman working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, a story told through her letters to her husband. Talk about how that story came to you.
The truth is, I wrote that to support Develop Donât Destroy Brooklyn [www.developdontdestroy.org] which profits from all of the book sales. I donât know if I have to go into what that is.
Basically to spare Atlantic Yards and Boerum Hill from Bruce Ratner.
Yes, the group opposing the Ratner development. I donât really like writing personal essays; itâs an area that Iâm very weak in. I donât tend to write about myself â My books have very little overlap with my life. So when I was asked to write some kind of personal essay about Brooklyn I immediately said, âDo I really have to do that?â But I did really want to support this group and Iâve been pretty active in supporting them.
Actually the âReading Lucyâ research was already done for a novel Iâm about to start working on, hopefully a year from now â Iâm working on something else right now. I was thrilled by that research, I loved it and got very caught up in it. Although it was very interesting in terms of preparing me to make up characters that worked at the Navy Yard, it was nice to have occasion to talk about Lucy in a nonfiction format. I guess I used the necessity of writing this essay as an excuse to write about someone I wouldnât have written about otherwise. Unexpectedly, her writing voice was so alive and so exciting, and I felt so swept-up in her letters, transported by them.
You have two different approaches â When writing a journalistic piece you use a computer and when writing fiction itâs longhand. How did that start?
That has pretty much always been the case. I started writing fiction before I had a computer, which dates me in a way. There was a period when I did write fiction on a computer, when I first got one in college. There came a point when I realized my fiction written on a computer was inferior to what I was writing by hand â The choices I made on a screen were always wrong, and I would have to fix them by hand. It wasnât a timesaving measure but a time-wasting measure because it required another step.
So you transcribe from longhand to electronic format?
Yes. Itâs brutal work. I have illegible handwriting. Every time I have to deal with transcribing myself I think, âPlease write more neatly! Please make clear what all the symbols and arrows and page annotations mean!â But when Iâm back in the writing mode I continue to write in the nutty way.
Whatever your methods, each new and utterly different book still gets praise and awards â How have you succeeded in pushing the literary envelope while still keeping critics and readers in step?
Iâm glad you think I have. How I feel about my level of achievement really varies day by day. Mainly one just has to satisfy oneself. Once you start worrying about that external stuff youâve headed in the wrong direction. I try to write stuff that feels like itâs working, and satisfy the creative goals I have at that time, and hope that the rest will take care of itself. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesnât, but itâs out of my control.
Many give you an aura of mystery because your books are oftentimes so dark.
(laughs) Oh, thatâs nice!
You do tend to have a prophetic ability â talking about a terrorist in the Midwest pre-9-11, the rise of reality television, YouTube. Do you have a crystal ball?
No, I think anyone whoâs writing satirically about the future of America and life often looks prophetic â Often before the book is done, which is equally painful. I think weâre all part of a zeitgeist and weâre all listening to and absorbing the same things, consciously or unconsciously, so I think whenever a writer tries to look forward, weâre reflecting and manifesting whatâs around us, thatâs all. Everything I talked about in âLook at Meâ was in the air, as it were, a little more viscerally than probably any of us expected, myself included.
You were born in Chicago and also lived in San Francisco, attended U Penn and St. Johnâs College, Cambridge â How did you and your husband and sons end up in Brooklyn?
I moved to New York 21 years ago, so itâs not like New York is anything new for me. I left for all of the usual clichĂ© reasons â we were having a kid, there were no trees in the neighborhood, we were living in one room basically â and my husband was already working in Fort Greene and doing the reverse-commute. He was looking around and saying, âWow, this neighborhood seems really great!â I came to pick him up once or twice and agreed so we now live a few blocks from his office.
So youâre now in Fort Greene â Whatâs your sense for Brooklyn and writers being drawn here?
Itâs impossible to speak for others but I just like urban life. I love cities, I love urban life, and I love the abrasion with other people. But I also really like quiet. And all those nice urban things were happening when I was living in Manhattan but I feel like I never had a minute of quiet. Cars and trucks honking horns, car alarms, and ambulances, but for me, Brooklyn is really about the quiet. Itâs urban life but not as noisy and I think thatâs a large part of it... There is a strangely peaceful feeling here for an urban environment.
Dare I ask about your next novel â maybe a tease on the tale?
Itâs looking a bit into the future, which is slightly scary after my prior works (laughs). Itâs a book set in New York, so thatâs kind of interesting, over a fairly long period of time, and itâs something between a story collection and a novel. Iâm not quite sure where it will end-up falling along that spectrum but itâs the direction Iâm heading already, so it feels like a natural progression. Iâm pretty interested in the spaces between things and the ways in which things donât line up in a narrative, so Iâm actually writing this one in pieces.
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