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December 16, 2018

Borough of Writers:
Q&A: Jennifer Egan
by Brad Lockwood (, published online 02-08-2008
Jennifer Egan has range — whether doing journalism for the New Yorker, Harper’s, or the New York Times (“Wanted: A Few Good Sperm” being one example) — 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. “The Invisible Circus,” “Look at Me,” and her latest novel, “The Keep,” 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 [from“The Keep”] everywhere I go, should I be nervous?
I don’t know (laughs). I should ask you!

Maybe it’s 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. I’ve been trying to get rid of his voice because it has absolutely no bearing on what I’m 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 I’m 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 “The Invisible Circus” about a woman trying to comprehend her sister’s death, to “Look At Me,” about the fashion industry, to “The Keep,” which is one of the finest yet most hilarious gothic novels in recent memory. You’re a great writer but you must drive your publisher insane with such range — Do you have multiple editors?
Well, my fiction and nonfiction are obviously separate. But I did actually change editors with “The Keep.” 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 that’s pretty much established and I certainly intend to continue in that vain — It’s my own entertainment that I’m most concerned with. That’s being flip, but I don’t want to feel that I’m repeating myself.

Nothing’s worse than a bored writer...
Or a bored reader (laughs).

“Reading Lucy” — your contribution to the compilation “Brooklyn Was Mine” — 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 Don’t Destroy Brooklyn [] which profits from all of the book sales. I don’t 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 don’t really like writing personal essays; it’s an area that I’m very weak in. I don’t tend to write about myself — 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, ‘Do I really have to do that?’ But I did really want to support this group and I’ve been pretty active in supporting them.
Actually the “Reading Lucy” research was already done for a novel I’m about to start working on, hopefully a year from now — I’m 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 wouldn’t 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 — When writing a journalistic piece you use a computer and when writing fiction it’s 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 — The choices I made on a screen were always wrong, and I would have to fix them by hand. It wasn’t a timesaving measure but a time-wasting measure because it required another step.

So you transcribe from longhand to electronic format?
Yes. It’s brutal work. I have illegible handwriting. Every time I have to deal with transcribing myself I think, ‘Please write more neatly! Please make clear what all the symbols and arrows and page annotations mean!’ But when I’m 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 — How have you succeeded in pushing the literary envelope while still keeping critics and readers in step?
I’m 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 you’ve headed in the wrong direction. I try to write stuff that feels like it’s 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 doesn’t, but it’s out of my control.

Many give you an aura of mystery because your books are oftentimes so dark.
(laughs) Oh, that’s nice!

You do tend to have a prophetic ability — 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 who’s writing satirically about the future of America and life often looks prophetic – Often before the book is done, which is equally painful. I think we’re all part of a zeitgeist and we’re all listening to and absorbing the same things, consciously or unconsciously, so I think whenever a writer tries to look forward, we’re reflecting and manifesting what’s around us, that’s all. Everything I talked about in “Look at Me” 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. John’s College, Cambridge — How did you and your husband and sons end up in Brooklyn?
I moved to New York 21 years ago, so it’s not like New York is anything new for me. I left for all of the usual cliché reasons — we were having a kid, there were no trees in the neighborhood, we were living in one room basically — and my husband was already working in Fort Greene and doing the reverse-commute. He was looking around and saying, ‘Wow, this neighborhood seems really great!’ I came to pick him up once or twice and agreed so we now live a few blocks from his office.

So you’re now in Fort Greene — What’s your sense for Brooklyn and writers being drawn here?
It’s 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. It’s urban life but not as noisy and I think that’s a large part of it... There is a strangely peaceful feeling here for an urban environment.

Dare I ask about your next novel – maybe a tease on the tale?
It’s looking a bit into the future, which is slightly scary after my prior works (laughs). It’s a book set in New York, so that’s kind of interesting, over a fairly long period of time, and it’s something between a story collection and a novel. I’m not quite sure where it will end-up falling along that spectrum but it’s the direction I’m heading already, so it feels like a natural progression. I’m pretty interested in the spaces between things and the ways in which things don’t line up in a narrative, so I’m actually writing this one in pieces.

© Brooklyn Daily Eagle 2008
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