Arts, Culture & Media

Acclaimed author Jennifer Egan says her books help her lead a 'double life'

Egan home LA Times.jpg

Writer Jennifer Egan at her Brooklyn home.

Credit:

Jennifer S. Altman /For the LA Times

While backpacking through Europe as an 18 year-old, Jennifer Egan began to have inexplicable bouts of terror.

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“I didn't know what was wrong with me," says the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. "I really thought I was losing my mind. I would dread the arrival of this state and I never knew when it would come. It was awful.”

It was those frightening panic attacks that launched her life as a writer. “What I found was that it was writing that seemed to ... anchor me," Egan recalls. "It couldn't solve the terror, but somehow narrating it made it feel like I was somehow ultimately in control of it rather than the other way around.”

Taming terror by writing has been a success for Egan. Her novel, A Vist from the Good Squad, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

Her most recent book is Black Box, which was published 140 characters at a time through The New Yorker’s Twitter feed. It’s a sci-fi thriller about a rookie spy who has been dropped into a dangerous situation she doesn’t understand at all.

Before this venture, Egan says she had been a “pretty unsuccessful tweeter." She felt self-conscious when she tried to tweet — and then someone hacked into her account and started sending out vitamin advertisements.

But Egan got the idea for writing via Twitter from a list she had been making on her iPhone of lessons learned from things she’d done wrong. For example: Don't buy a Christmas tree that’s too wide, because it blocks all the light from the window.

“I thought, if you just say, ‘Don’t buy a Christmas tree that’s too wide,’ we can sort of infer what the problem might have been. So it becomes this kind of interesting way to tell a story — through the reflection of the action rather than the action itself.”

Once she decided to write the novel via Twitter, Egan says she began to wonder, "What kind of story could live in this form?" She was especially interested in the serialization and the “real-time emergence” of one short iteration after another.

“It took a while to hear a voice that could live in that kind of space,” she says. 
“The key to it was the idea that the voice never really addresses the reader directly and never really describes action. The voice only reflects on what she's learned from each thing that happens."

Egan has described being a fiction writer as “living a double life.”

“I am living a fairly conventional life in my real life, but I feel like I have this alternate world that I'm visiting all the time,” she says. “It’s something I really thrive on.”

“For me, it's the feeling of being lifted out of my life into another world that is the thrill of writing fiction,” she continues. “When I have to write about myself, I feel really bored and stymied.”

Egan is currently working on a new novel set in the 1940’s. Like many writers, she finds the thing she most loves — writing — to be often the thing she most fears.

“I always feel very afraid to work on books, at least for part of the time ... It's just so hard to really write a decent book,” she says with a laugh. “Even if you think you came close to doing it once or twice, it doesn't really help.”

Egan says she is learning something new from writing a book set in a different time than her own.

“[W]hile I don't use my own life, I'm very reliant on my own memory of times and places,” she explains. “I feel very cut off from that, since [this book] is set outside of my lifetime — and that is actually very scary to me. I feel sort of unmoored. It's a huge challenge and I'm not quite sure I can pull it off.”

“But then I think, ‘Well, if I’m doing something I know I can pull off, that’s not the book I should be writing.’”

This story is based on an interview by PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, where you'll find other coverage of popular culture, design and the arts.