The Lark Episode 14: Jennifer Egan
This month, we talked with novelist and journalist Jennifer Egan about developing as a writer, symbolic archeology, and her “one ghastly memory” from serving as head editor of The Penn Review.
INTERVIEWER: Welcome back to The Lark. We’re joined by Jennifer Egan. A Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, she’s the author of numerous books including Manhattan Beach, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and The Keep. She’s also president of the PEN American Center, and during her undergraduate years at Penn she served as head editor of The Penn Review. Today we’ll be talking about her development as a writer.
JENNIFER EGAN [Excerpt]: I mean, I was . . . incredibly depressed about my book that no one could read. I had no real prospects of any sort, and was kind of that desperate person who just has no plans and can’t figure out why everyone else is so busy. So, I was not the most appealing character when I arrived in New York.
INTERVIEWER: So, Professor Egan, thank you so much for joining us.
JENNIFER EGAN: It’s a pleasure.
INTERVIEWER: At Penn you were head editor of The Penn Review. I was wondering if you could take us through your journey, starting with your arrival at Penn and your first encounters with the magazine?
JENNIFER EGAN: Well, let’s see. I got to Penn having taken a gap year. And during that gap year I basically decided I wanted to become a writer, so I kind of arrived at Penn rearing for action. And in a way it was a sort of odd place to be, wanting to be a writer. I think that there was less of a focus on the liberal arts (or it felt that way) then there is now. There was no Writer’s House for example. So I was kind of looking for ways to develop as a writer, and I actually found Penn to be a fantastic place for me that way. I did a long independent study with the playwright Romulus Linney who taught here for many years, and that was incredibly helpful.
It’s funny . . . I don’t quite remember how I became aware of The Penn Review. I must have just seen it on campus. Maybe I submitted work. I think I must have submitted work to it before I became the editor. I think I’m actually remembering writing my very first short story ever and submitting it to The Penn Review, and I remember writing it on a trip to Sarasota Florida with my roommates from Penn. We went and stayed in the home of one of the girl’s parents, and while I was there—we were all swimming and having a great time—but every morning I would work on this story because I was absolutely determined to write a short story. It was called “Amazon.” So it was published in The Penn Review and I guess that’s how I first became aware of the magazine or had some involvement with it.
As I recall there was kind of no one who wanted to edit it, so it wasn’t like it was a very competitive position. But I actually have a specific memory that there was a faculty member associated with the magazine, and I’m not quite sure what her name was, and so during the summer break I wrote her this very long letter. And I basically said, “I have a number of questions about The Penn Review,” and then I listed like 18 questions, single-space, and I can’t even remember what they were, but it was a little bit of an onslaught. So when I got to campus after the summer I showed up in her office and I remember the first thing she said was “Well, I was a little put off by your letter.” [Laughter]
So I think I came on a little too strong, but I was very eager, and I don’t remember having any more contact with her, but Daniel Hoffman who taught here for many, many years and I think was the head of the department at various points—a poet who actually just passed away in the last couple of years—was very kind and seemed to be more understanding that I was just being a lunatic over-eager undergrad and was not trying to put pressure on him.
So I remember being the editor and having meetings with a pretty eclectic group of people, and many of the people who helped to create the magazine were also publishing in it. There wasn’t really a writing community on campus in the way that there is now. So we had . . . I remember there was a guy from the medical school who was really good. There was a woman who was a poet who was excellent. I have to dig up these old issues and remember.
I think I published myself, which you really shouldn’t do. I guess I was just desperate to be published. And it was—it was, you know, a delight. My best friend, who I met at Penn like my first day here and is still a dear, dear friend, was also on the board and she’s a great reader. She was never in the writing realm, but she was just a great kind of partner in the undertaking.
And so we would have these meetings, and I do have one ghastly memory, which was that we found a story that we really, really liked—or maybe it was a poem—and there was some reason I needed to talk to the writer on the phone. We must have wanted to change something or we were doing something under pressure so I was speaking to him and he said to me, “Oh, yeah, I think you were in my Italian class at one point.” And he referenced the class and I said, “Oh yeah, I dropped that immediately. I couldn’t stand the teacher.” And it was the teacher. [Laughter]. So, that haunts me to this day. I felt so bad. He was a good writer though!
INTERVIEWER: So, going back to what you were saying at the beginning, you mentioned you decided to become a writer in that gap year before Penn. What were some of the things that influenced you in that decision?
JENNIFER EGAN: Well, I think the first thing was that the plan that I had had, which was to be an archaeologist . . . and I actually had applied in anthropology to Penn and that was a lot of what drew me to Penn was the amazing anthropology department, the museum which I had already visited . . . but the first thing I did during my gap year . . . well, I had very grand plans, which consisted of my being flown to exotic locales around the world by anthropology departments of some university or other, and then paid to help them dig. So this was my plan. And I wrote to a bunch of places and said, “I’m a high school graduate, and I’d be willing to work for you . . .” [laughter] “. . . for the right price.”
And of course this was an absurd idea. As one professor . . . I only got one answer . . . and this guy was from Berkeley and he wrote back and said, “Dear Miss Egan, thank you so much for your letter, but what you need to understand is that our graduate students, who have had two years of coursework already, pay us to take them on digs, so this is never going to happen.” And he suggested that I pay to go on a dig. And he sent me a newsletter that had . . . of course, this is all pre-Internet, so we needed newsletters then . . . that listed a number of digs that you could pay to go on.
So I actually did that. I paid to go on a little dig in Southern Illinois, which was not where I was trying to get, believe me. And what I quickly realized was that I didn’t really like it very much. What I had imagined being an archaeologist to be like had very little to do with the reality, which was hot, dull, limited to a square meter of Earth, and involving a lot of use of a scalpel. So that, in a way, was one of the most efficient three-week undertakings I’ve ever had, because I emerged from it realizing, like, “Not only have I not been invited to go on an archaeological dig, I don’t even want to be an archaeologist.”
So, I then spent the next many months just working . . . basically, I was a barista . . . and finally earned money to buy a backpack and a plane ticket and go to Europe where I traveled around with a Eurail Pass for a couple of months. It took me a long time to earn the money. And what I found on that trip was that I was in some ways very alienated and very solitary, because again when you went away from home at that time, you were really gone. There was no contact. It’s so hard to imagine . . . it’s even hard for me to imagine now, and I grew up that way. So, for me to have any contact with my family, which was back in California, I had to wait in line at an international calling center, make my call, and then either the phone rang and rang and rang, or I got a busy signal, or if I was lucky someone answered. So that’s how it used to be.
And it just became . . . it was difficult . . . it was hard, I mean, I was eighteen years old, and I felt really alone and kind of anxious. Now, we would say I was very anxious and I was having panic attacks. But what it seemed like then was I was losing it . . . I was losing my mind . . . possibly going crazy, and maybe headed for a non-mainstream life. That’s the way I saw it. And yet it was also thrilling. I mean, I had never been to Europe, I was seeing amazing things and meeting all kinds of other kids in youth hostels. So there were a lot of highs and a lot of lows.
And what I discovered is that writing was the thing that really tethered me to a kind of structure of meaning, whether things were going well or going badly, and so I guess in that stripped-down raw state, I saw what I was made of and what I really needed. And it just was clear to me that I was going to be spending my life writing. And so, somehow, by the time I got to Penn, I knew that very, very clearly.
INTERVIEWER: That’s so interesting about encountering yourself through writing, because I know in an interview with The Paris Review you talked about how when you were young, you felt you were ashamed of your unreality. So I was wondering if that was something that carried through during your time at Penn?
JENNIFER EGAN: That’s a great question, and I think about that . . . that unreality problem, because I think that in a way it must be very hard for young people nowadays because we’re all awash in this world of images and the nature of images is that they seem somehow more real than reality. That’s the deep and terrible lie at the heart of images. And they seem to reflect badly upon us, as if they contain a world that were somehow better than our own world. And yet it’s not real.
So, that feeling of unreality which I had profoundly in high school . . . I think to some degree it did continue through Penn and even into my twenties. I’m not sure what finally made that go away. I feel like it eased up gradually and I can still have it sometimes although its expression changes over time. I mean I sort of know better now, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still fall prey to that same problem—which can be described using various terms—but somehow this idea that one’s own life is just not enough, that somehow other people are always doing more and being more and getting more and accomplishing more and being happier.
The fact that there’s really no basis for believing that doesn’t seem to change the nature of the belief or the fact of the belief. But I think it did . . . I think once I was in the “real world” and beginning to have even the smallest amount of accomplishment as a writer, it helped a bit.
The other thing is, in a way being a writer is in a certain sense giving oneself over to the wish to live in another world and making it one’s profession. So, in a certain sense, maybe what I’ve done is found a way to use that weird sense of always being in two worlds—one of which is my own life and another of which is some notion of what my life should be. I’ve found a way to turn that into a job, because writing gives me a kind of transcendence out of my own life and the possibility of living a second purely imaginary one, and I really enjoy that.
INTERVIEWER: So did you feel like the process of editing The Penn Review helped your writing, or was it separate?
JENNIFER EGAN: Well, first of all, I think I was a terrible editor, I should just say. I think what I did well (if anything, and it may not have been anything) was gather people together enthusiastically and champion work that I was excited about, but I was a terrible proofreader and actually another anecdote I remember was some local writer—who I think I had published—writing me a letter that had a list of every single typo and mistake he found in The Penn Review, and it was a grotesque quantity. Again, this is before the days of Spell Check or any of that. So I’m not sure really if I was an editor except in the sense that being an editor is partly about creating a community around writing—that, I think I did a little bit.
I had a sort of writing workshop when I was a junior. My roommate and I—she was a poet—had a workshop and we would get people together and share work. So I was trying to do some of that stuff that now is done at the Writer’s House, which I am so happy about. I mean, in general, though—and I’ve had other experiences editing or also running workshops at writing programs and things like that—I think it does help for sure. To help someone else problem-solve is always useful in returning to one’s own work, and especially if your process relies on trial-and-error and revision as much as mine does. I mean, I do a ridiculous number of drafts—easily as many as fifty to seventy drafts of certain chapters.
For me, it’s all about fixing it. Fixing it and making it better. It always starts out really badly. And so, in a way as a writer I’m as much an editor as anything else.
INTERVIEWER: I know you’ve also talked about how you feel that characters just come to you—like you can’t plan for a character. So, do you feel like there’s a way you have to fix a character in subsequent drafts or do you leave the character alone and focus on everything else?
JENNIFER EGAN: No, they have to be fixed too. They do kind of come to me, and by that I just mean that it feels like the most mysterious part of the process. I work very intuitively because the ideas that I have consciously are honestly not as good as the ones that I seem to come to if I rely on my intuition. The most mysterious part of that is characters because it’s very strange to find oneself hearing and feeling like you know someone, but they’re not someone you’ve ever met.
So, I often feel a sense of amazement as I’m writing first drafts and characters who seem potentially interesting come along, but I make tons of mistakes with them too. And the feeling of having made a mistake is basically a sense of nausea as I read what I’ve written. And I have to kind of get over my horror at just feeling that it’s really crappy, which somehow is worse in the case of a character not working than anything else. The feeling of a character just being dead at the root, and dialogue not going anywhere, it’s just such agony. But when I can sort of get through my self-flagellation and say, “Okay, what am I hating about this?” The minute you’ve identified the thing that you hate, you’re also suggesting a way to fix it. The nature of stating a problem is suggesting a solution. That’s the nature of it.
For example, in my most recent novel, Manhattan Beach, there’s a gangster named Dexter Styles and he’s a pretty . . . he’s definitely my favorite character. He’s a fairly compelling guy in certain ways. I mean, just as he functions narratively, he’s a guy who sort of makes a lot of things happen. But there was a long period where he did not work very well in the novel and what was really . . . there was a sort of mopey phase in my working on him where he’s experiencing a lot of discontent, which was suggested to me by my research, in that gangsters achieved a lot of cultural prominence during Prohibition. So, from 1919 to 1933, so-called gangsters took over the liquor business, and everyone wanted liquor still, so they became much more mainstream cultural figures. Then Prohibition ended and organized crime had to find other businesses to make up that gigantic income stream that it lost.
So there was this population of so-called gangsters, meaning liquor dealers basically, who had to find other ways of making money, and who still had a kind of mainstream acceptability that’s a little hard for us to imagine. A lot of them hoped to kind of go straight and enter into mainstream society, but that was actually very hard to do because they were perceived as gangsters and it was hard to leave that behind. So that struggle was really interesting to me about Dexter Styles, and there’s a kind of chafing against his position that we feel right from the beginning of the book and a kind of frustration when he’s not able to propel himself out of his gangster role, and he tries various things.
The way that he responded in some of my middle drafts was with this kind of lugubrious moping, this kind of depressed inaction, and that was incredibly unsuccessful. I mean, I felt like I was going to jump out a window when I had to reread those passages. And I realized that the reason I was hating it so much was that one of the basic things about this guy was that he doesn’t mope, he doesn’t brood, he has to take action even if it’s the wrong action. So, brooding is the one thing he would never do. So, once I had realized that, that was the key to solving it. And, in fact, his inability . . . I mean, he probably would have been better off if he had brooded a little more, instead of taking all kinds of actions, some of them not the right ones, to solve his problem. So that’s a case of a character who really wasn’t working for quite a while, but I couldn’t figure out why and once I did, I fixed him.
INTERVIEWER: It’s interesting because it seems to relate back to what you were saying about archaeology. There seems to be a connection to just focusing on one patch of earth and using a scalpel.
JENNIFER EGAN: [Laughs]. Well, it’s really funny, because I think in a way I would have loved archaeology. Because it is so much like being on one square meter of earth and using a scalpel. I mean, it can be incredibly uncomfortable to edit and re-edit and re-edit and re-edit but what keeps me going is this absolutely dogged wish to solve the problems. And even though I did realize in those three weeks in Southern Illinois that archaeology might not be for me, I have to confess that I got pretty into my square meter, and I would sometimes dream about it, and I would dream about the projectiles that I knew I would be getting to when I scraped away however many layers I was able to scrape the next day. So, I think what you’re saying is exactly right, which is that my interest in archaeology was more metaphorical than literal.
That feeling of peeling away the layers on some kind of deep human narrative is incredibly exciting to me, but I guess I like to do it in a different way [laughter].
INTERVIEWER: So, something else I wanted to ask about is, after Penn, you left wanting to become a writer, so how did you make that happen?
JENNIFER EGAN: Well, the first thing that was really lucky was that I won a Thouron Scholarship, so that was another way that Penn just helped me incredibly. So, I went to Cambridge for two years and I read English literature, so I got what would be considered here a Masters. And first of all, just doing all that reading was really, really fantastic, not to mention travel that I’ve drawn on in my writing really ever since. I mean, I went to the Soviet Union when it was still the Soviet Union. I traveled through China in 1986 when I think it probably was a virtually different place in every way then it is now. And as a writer who’s so driven by place, the opportunity for me to experience so many different places was just invaluable. So that was an amazing two years.
During those two years I wrote a novel that I had the inspiration for while I was still at Penn, and the basic idea there was I was interested in someone who had missed the 1960s but yearned toward it with basically a belief that her present-day life is unreal—back to an earlier conversation we were having—compared to a kind of intensity and reality that her older sister experienced as part of the counter-culture in the late 1960s and right around 1970. Her older sister has committed suicide at the end of that period in Europe. That kind of basic setup was clear to me even at Penn. So I started writing this novel during those Thouron years, and I wrote frenetically and the book was very long. It was called Inland Souls, a pretty bad title that turned out to be kind of a sign of things to come.
So, anyways, I thought this book would be fantastic and I would become famous and that would be it. My career would be underway. And I really knew I wanted to live in New York. I had visited a couple of times and had actually lived there for two summers while I was at Penn. I had various kinds of jobs. So I moved to New York with this manuscript and I found that it was basically unreadable. No one could get through it. And so I found myself with, you know . . . far from any kind of career, it seemed like actually I had lost the ability to write altogether. And now I was working as a temp and living on someone’s couch basically and it was not a great situation with no support system in New York because my family was all back in California. So, I guess this is all to say that my writing career began very slowly.
I think the most crucial choice that I made . . . actually, there were two. One was to stay in New York, because really there was nothing holding me there. I mean, my friends from Penn were now two years into jobs, so we could not have been further apart at that moment. I mean I was deeply disappointed . . . first of all, used to receiving cushy scholarship checks every month. Incredibly depressed about my book that no one could read. No real prospects of any sort, and kind of that desperate person who just has no plans and can’t figure out why everyone else is so busy, so I was not the most appealing character when I arrived in New York. And I was pretty miserable. So it would have been pretty easy to leave, because there was nothing keeping me there. But I stayed.
And the second big decision that I made, which was very instinctive, was not to get a “real job,” because I’m such a pleaser. I mean, for example, I’m teaching in the English Department at Penn right now. I basically have not written fiction since I started teaching this course, because I so want to do a good job, and it takes so much time to write a really thoughtful lecture of an hour-and-a-half length that synthesizes pretty challenging reading and tries to use the text both as a source of critical analysis and also cultural comprehension that I’m giving it everything I’ve got. So, that’s my nature, and I think I knew that if I got a “real job” like in publishing or PR or who knows what it would have been, I would never have written any fiction, so I did not do that.
I did pretty menial work. I worked in the word-processing pool at a law firm for a little awhile, and ultimately I got a job as a private secretary for a fairly maniacal person who was not great to work for but I only had to work from 1 until 6pm, and she paid me enough to live on, so I had every morning to write.
So, the first couple of years passed with me scrambling to earn money, trying to reconnect with whatever it was that I had been doing right as a writer when I was at Penn, because I had had some success here. So I took writing workshops out of people’s living rooms, which was very easy to do in New York and honestly probably in most cities. And I just kind of quietly started to get a little better, or kind of reconnect with just the basic things about writing that are essential, like people have to want to read it. It has to have some emotional power. And I didn’t give up. I hung in there.
And then very gradually I began having little bits of success. I mean, it started with just writing a story that people in my workshop liked. That felt like . . . I think that was one of the happiest days of my career, honestly.
And then little by little . . . selling a story here and there. Finally going back to this atrocious book I had written in England and throwing it out but starting it over with the same idea. It was very incremental, I would say, pretty much the whole way until I published A Visit From the Goon Squad. I mean, I definitely was . . . things were getting better and better, but they were never explosively successful. They were never exponentially changing.
Of course, we live in a culture that reveres overnight success, hungers for it. And I think I was incredibly frustrated. I felt like, “God, other people just do something and it’s huge, and I have to struggle for every little thing.” But, in retrospect, I am so glad it went that way, because first of all I grew up somewhere along the way. I mean, I became sort of a grownup, as much as I ever will I guess. And so when success did finally come in a big way, I felt like it didn’t change me very much. I guess I kind of understood by that time that a lot of this stuff is about luck.
I was lucky to get lucky. I mean, it’s hard to get good luck . . . it’s so random. So I feel very grateful for it, but I also feel like I really understand how rare it is and was able to appreciate it and not to think that somehow I deserved it, because that’s a huge mistake. So, I’ve tried to keep things in perspective. And I also really recognize that any success in the arts is fleeting, it always is. It just never, never lasts. At the very best, you remain successful but ultimately you’re just irrelevant. I mean, there are younger people coming up and they’re going to be doing things that are more relevant to the general culture.
So, I’m just trying to stay relevant as long as I can, not because oh, I have to try to stay relevant but because what is exciting to me about writing is doing something that feels somehow alive in the culture at this moment. That’s what makes it fun for me. And so I just want to string that along as long as I can. But it’s been a very relatively slow, gradual process.
INTERVIEWER: Do you feel like that experience of being a young writer and not really knowing what to do next gave you ultimately a kind of critical mass where you were finally able to write what you wanted to write? I feel like I’ve heard many stories about great writers struggling, and I’ve always wondered if there’s a degree of suffering that you have to go through in order to be able to write something really extraordinary.
JENNIFER EGAN: You know, that’s a great question. I don’t know. I tend to feel that it’s not necessary. I mean, in a way there’s a danger with that cultural myth because some other facets of that are, like, writers struggling always with addiction of some kind. The alcoholic, tortured artist. You know, I tend to think that someone who’s an alcoholic tortured artist is doing good work in spite of the pressure of that addiction.
One thing I feel extremely lucky about in my life is just having good health, honestly—I mean, it’s not to be taken lightly. And one aspect of that is not having mental illness, which my brother had very severely, or addiction, and my father had a terrible drinking problem, which he ultimately beat, which was wonderful, but I feel like I escaped some of these real . . . I kind of threaded my way through a minefield, in terms of that stuff.
I think that in my case—and I can only speak for myself—what really made it possible for me to be successful was not that I struggled and suffered at times but just that I didn’t give up in the midst of that. I honestly have a pretty pedestrian view of this stuff, and I think sheer doggedness and stubbornness and determination to give it another try is probably more than anything else the reason that I’ve had any success. And I would go further and say that often the way that you know you’re doing something that is really meaningful for you is the fact that even though things don’t seem to be going well, you have this will to keep coming back to it.
I think ideally we want to all find that thing that just has its own center of gravity and pulls you toward it even when you’re not having fun.
INTERVIEWER: Professor Egan, thank you so much, it’s been so wonderful to speak with you.
JENNIFER EGAN: Thank you for inviting me.
INTERVIEWER: From the Wexler Studio in Kelly Writers House, I’m Daniel Finkel. Thank you so much for listening and see you next month.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.