December 2006

Donna Seaman


An Interview with Jennifer Egan

Egan is both a captivating storyteller and an incisive social observer. Creative and venturesome, she has taken a different approach in each of her fictional works, and all are shaped by her beautifully calibrated lyricism, precise psychology, uncanny insights into cultural trends, and keen satire. Egan is fascinated by the interplay between the world of appearances and the inner realm of feeling and thought, and considers with open-mindedness our longing for transcendence.

This preoccupation with the Wizard-of-Oz-like aspect of existence and our spiritual impulse shaped her accomplished first novel, The Invisible Circus, a haunting tale about the toll of grief and the distortion of nostalgia. Phoebe grew up in the shadow of her daredevil and dazzling older sister, Faith, then worshipped her after Faith’s mysterious demise on the coast of Italy. Believing that her sister's era, the 1960s, was somehow more real and important then her own miasmic teenage years, Phoebe goes to Europe to trace her sister's footsteps and try to comprehend Faith’s death. Egan attains a similarly captivating, if more concentrated, level of emotional intensity and social perception in Emerald City and Other Stories, an outstanding collection of elegant and poignant short stories about quests abroad, at home, and within the psyche. Dreams, naivete, unexpected connections, and secrets are all sharply rendered and resonant.

The novel Look at Me was a seven-leagues leap for Egan in terms of structure, characters, and themes. Her interest in the allure of images led her to scrutinize the fashion industry and the brief and intense careers of top models. The ultimate embodiment of society's obsession with looks and fame, the model is at once supremely powerful and blatantly exploited, a paradox Egan's heroine, Charlotte Swenson, experiences the hard way after a car crash destroys her face. But Egan is also interested in the shift from the industrial age to the information age, and in the way resistance to social mores and the manufactured world can engender rage and even violence. Writing before 9/11, Egan anticipated the reality TV craze, web cams and YouTube, and rather presciently imagined a Muslim terrorist in a Midwestern town.

In The Keep, a cleverly constructed and many valenced take on gothic novels, Egan carries her intriguing investigation forward in a riddling tale featuring exceptionally charismatic characters, narrative tightrope-walking, and bold interpretations of archetypal fears. The complex plot is anchored to two long-estranged cousins who reconnect at a castle somewhere in Europe. Howard dreams of turning the castle into a luxurious retreat, cut off literally and electronically from the rest of the world. Danny has been a “front man” for cutting edge clubs and restaurants in downtown Manhattan. He knows everyone and everything in his hotspot universe, and being connected and “in the know” is so essential to his existence, he has lugged a satellite dish all the way from New York to the isolated castle. Cyberspace creature that he is, his skin tingles in the presence of wireless Internet access, but at the keep other forces will make Danny’s skin crawl.

Jennifer Egan spoke about her work in the WLUW studios in Chicago in September 2006.

You’re visiting the place of your birth.

Yes, I was born in Chicago. My mom grew up in Rockford, Illinois. My father, Donald Egan, was from the Southside, and my grandfather, Edward Egan, was a police commander here, and a sometime bodyguard of President Truman’s when he came to town. So we have lots of pictures of President Truman with a corner of my grandfather’s face, or my grandfather’s chin, or my grandfather’s nose over in the side of the picture. I grew up in San Francisco because my parents divorced when I was little and my mother and stepfather moved there. But I have to say when I come here, it really does feels like I’m coming home.  

I’ve wondered about the Rockford connection. In Emerald City, the story “The Stylist” features a young model from Rockford, and much of Look at Me takes place there. How does Rockford function in your imagination?

Rockford was the place where my grandparents lived. They had a big house, the same house my mother grew up in, and I would go there in the summer and swim in the country club pool. It wasn’t a place I gave a lot of thought to, and after my grandparents passed away I presumed I would never go back there. My mother had left pretty much as soon as she was able to and had a pretty dour view of Rockford. But then I found that Rockford was coming back to me in my imagination. The reference to Rockford in “The Stylist” actually made the Rockford paper, which was so sweet. So then I repaid that rather cruelly by placing a character in Rockford who really dislikes it.

Yes, in Look at Me, Charlotte has a schoolgirl epiphany and suddenly sees Rockford, Illinois, as “a city of losers.”

The funny thing is that that’s not my view. Some people who live in Rockford were rather offended, and I understand why. But Charlotte is nothing like me. What I really did was place my mother’s scorn for Rockford in Charlotte. In fact, what drew me back there was a longing to be there. I found that I was thinking about it a lot. I wanted the feeling of being there. And so I started going there alone after my grandparents passed away. I would come to O’Hare, rent a car, and drive to Rockford. And I really don’t know what I was looking for. I would stay in motels, watch Unsolved Mysteries at night, and I eat a lot of fast food and pancakes -- great pancakes in Rockford -- and little by little my sense of the story, and the characters began to come to me as I made these trips.

In The Keep you are playing with the conventions of the gothic novel. One of the main characters, Danny King, is a bit of a goth, to name just one of the many funny details.

One of the questions I had as I worked on this novel was, could a book be funny and scary? Is that possible? I couldn’t think of any models. Gothic novels are sometimes kind of hilarious, but not intentionally so.

You see the funny/scary combination more often in movies. What inspired The Keep’s gothic setting and mood?

The whole idea of writing a gothic novel came from visiting a castle, which I found to be a very electrifying experience. Not that I’d never been to a castle before. But I had just finished Look at Me, and I was just trying to think about what to do next and I went to this castle in Belgium that belonged to Godfrey de Bouillon who led the first crusade. And I thought, “Ahh, this is amazing,” but I didn’t know what to do with that feeling. I really thought, “I want to write about this.” And it took me a while to figure out what “this” was. At first I thought “this” might be a novel set in medieval times, but, it’s going to sound weird, but I felt like I wanted something cheesier than that. I wanted something artificial. I wanted an artificial realm that was moody and intense and had all kinds of dramatic possibilities and could let me walk that line between humor and scariness or the uncanny. And then I began reading a lot of gothic fiction and the plot sort of unfolded naturally with a lot of those elements.

And the funny part is those gothic elements are largely responsible for the seeming complications of the book. For example, text-inside-text is a very common gothic convention. I mean, if you think of The Turn of the Screw, what we don’t often remember is the long preamble to the story itself, which is all about this group in a house telling ghost stories and one guy says, “Oh, I have an incredible story but it’s written in a manuscript and someone has to go get the manuscript.” There’s a lot of hemming and hawing and throat clearing before we actually get to the tale itself and that’s pretty common for the genre.

You’re rather sly about it. At first, the reader is concentrating on Danny’s struggles. We don’t know who is telling the story until further along, when an unidentified voice suddenly intrudes and we think, who is that?

And that voice is fairly distinct and not like voices I’ve used before. In fact, finding that voice was a critical part in getting this novel going. Because when I first began working on it, I was writing it pretty much in the voice of Look at Me, which is sort of a knowing, ironic, urban, sophisticated voice, and I found that it was meshing very badly with this gothic other-worldliness. I felt like I was beating my head against that. I was reduced to writing five lousy pages a day. I always write by hand, and I had titled the book A Short Bad Novel because I was so discouraged. I thought, “Well if I set the bar really low maybe I can hack my way through this.” Then one day I found myself writing, “I’m trying to write a novel,” and I knew that it was actually another speaker talking. The minute I heard that, I felt my excitement about the material rise immediately. I pushed a little further. I had known that I wanted a prison in the novel, another very common gothic convention. I had thought the prison would be near the castle, or Danny might somehow end up in the prison. But in that moment I realized, “No, no, no, the prison is around the castle.” This story is being told by a prisoner.

Once I began to get a sense of how he spoke, I knew Ray, the prisoner, wouldn’t write the way I would. He’s not a lyricist. He is not interested in metaphor or simile. For him it is a struggle just to say what he’s trying to say, to force language into a shape that can get his meaning across. And I found that very appealing. I felt freed from the need to make it pretty, which I think I had always felt as a writer. It has to be beautiful. It has to surprise people. It has to amaze them with its beauty. And I think in a way that’s a little bit of a trap. Why exactly? There should be strength, but does it need to be beautiful? Should it always be beautiful? I found that very freeing.

Much of the story in The Keep is about the role of the imagination in our lives. For Ray, the guy in prison, it’s a means to survive. For Danny, who is pretty much addicted to constant contact with others, it’s more problematic.

Well in a way Danny’s imagination is his own worst enemy because he is someone who has chosen not to do a lot of self-scrutiny in the course of his life. One thing about gothic novels that I really love, is that people are isolated. Again, if you think of The Turn of the Screw, the governess gets to this old house and she’s very cut off, and lo and behold, she starts seeing strange things. And we the reader, along with the people around her, wonder whether she’s imagining them for all kinds of personal reasons. It really does predate Freudian thinking, this kind of projection of one’s inner life on the external world. And that begins to happen to Danny.

I found that it was fun to explore the way in which his connectedness has been protecting him from a conversation with himself. He’s very busy talking to a lot of people all the time. But the one person he is unfamiliar with is himself. And so when he’s alone in this castle, there is this sense that he’s being set upon by some dark presence, which may be his cousin’s anger, or Danny’s paranoia. That’s a question you see a lot in gothic novels, “Is it real or not?” I really wanted, first of all, not to answer that question, and second of all, to make the question irrelevant because I wanted to make the reader wonder what we mean when we say, “Is it real or not?” How do we define “real” exactly? Especially when so much experience is virtual now. Does that change our definition of “reality”?

In your fiction, you’ve been trying to gauge how and to what degree our machines are affecting us.

Yes. I’m interested in the relationship between internal and external. In Look at Me, I was wondering if image culture, the tendency to look at ourselves from the outside in -- a kind of reversal of what I think would have been the original way of conceiving of ourselves and of human beings -- ultimately impacted our inner lives. Did it change who we were to ourselves? I headed into that book thinking, “Absolutely. We are monsters compared to people a hundred years ago. We’re these strange distorted creatures.” But what I ended up feeling was exactly the opposite. I thought, “No. There is something that is human and private and it actually can’t be exposed no matter how hard we might try.”

In The Keep, the question is not so much attached to the idea of image and self-image, but to our connectedness technology, and how that, again, changes who we are to ourselves and who we are to each other. So often we are dealing with ephemera, and not actual people, and our measure of what it means to communicate is very different as well. And so my question was, “How has that changed us and also how has that changed the way we see the world?” It’s funny to me, thinking about it as we’re talking, why I went into a gothic realm to answer those questions, I’m not quite sure. Because as I say, I was just enjoying an almost sensory pleasure in the idea of the cut-offness of the gothic colliding with the hyper-connectedness of modern telecommunications. I wasn’t thinking about a kind of echoing quality or a link between so-called supernatural experience and virtual experience. But that’s what I got.

So everything becomes nothing, and that axis between everything and nothing links to the technology question. We hear about the amazing connections people make on the Internet, and they are real. I mean people use online dating to find each other, and to find products as sellers and buyers make their way to each other. It’s amazing. And yet, there’s always the shadow story, because an individual never actually sees another person. I was thinking about the odd paradox of this particular kind of linkage and connection as I worked on The Keep.

How does your journalism feed your fiction writing? What the exchange like between your investigative and imaginative work?

There’s a huge exchange there. I don’t fully understand it. I do the journalism very differently. I do tons of research and then I tend to write the piece pretty quickly, and I do it on the computer completely. Whereas fiction, I write only by hand. And in fact, my instincts are so poor, fictionally, that I have a rule: I never edit looking at the screen because the decisions are so often wrong.

So it’s obviously some different writing part of my brain. And I often resent the journalism in the moment because I feel like, “Oh, this is taking me away from my writing. What am I doing? This is a goose chase.” And those New York Times cover stories do take an enormous amount of work. I mean, you really do feel like you have book-length amount of knowledge by the time you start to write and so that can be exhausting. Sometimes I have to transcribe forty or fifty hours of tape because I tape all my interviews. It can be a lot, but there is a deep connection with the fiction, and I think that’s true in part because I don’t accept very many stories. I usually do one cover story a year. And I’m pretty careful about what I take on because I know that I’m going to have to live with it for months. So it seems that the very fact that a topic interests me is a sign that it is in some deep way connected with fictional things that I’m thinking about or working on.

So for example, as I was finishing Look at Me, I did a story that I think was important for my thinking about The Keep. It was about closeted gay teenagers and the secret “out” lives that they live online. These absolutely bifurcated lives. Kids who are in the Deep South, absolutely not free to express their sexuality, pretending to be heterosexual, and then online, having fully fledged relationships, breakups, jealousy, communion, all of that. I didn’t grow up with a computer. I didn’t really use a computer until I was in college. So this was really revelatory to me.

I went to the castle about three months after finishing this article, and part of what made that experience so strange and interesting was the sense of its distance from this world I had just been learning about with these teens. There were two interesting notions working together in my mind and that was really the beginning of The Keep. So I owe a lot to journalism. I would rather stay home in sweat pants -- I don’t want to do anything, I just want to think -- but I am forced out into the world. And I discover a lot of stuff while I’m out there. That’s very helpful to me when I go back into my little cocoon of thinking about the world because in the end, you know, you need to respond to experience as a writer. Or I do.