An Interview with Jennifer Egan

Strange things that fascinate Jennifer Egan:
Medieval architecture
Online dating
Vampire soap operas

An Interview with Jennifer Egan

Strange things that fascinate Jennifer Egan:
Medieval architecture
Online dating
Vampire soap operas

An Interview with Jennifer Egan

Vendela Vida
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

There’s no such thing as a typical Jennifer Egan novel. Her first, The Invisible Circus, is set in the ’70s and follows a young woman’s quest to piece together her older sister’s travels across Europe and make sense of her untimely death. Her second novel, Look At Me, takes place in New York and Illinois around the year 2000, and addresses issues of terrorism before 9/11. It was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award.

Egan’s new book, The Keep, is being published this month. A contemporary Gothic novel, it alternates between a castle setting in Eastern Europe and a U.S. prison. It’s unclear how the various stories are going to connect until they do. Maybe that’s one thing Egan’s novels—and her short stories—have in common: they’re all thrillers in their own way. The plots take you in a direction you didn’t foresee and you find yourself racing to the surprising conclusion.

This interview took place in May in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where Egan lives with her husband and sons.

—Vendela Vida


THE BELIEVER: You’re not a twin, are you? Your books all have twins in them, or people whose lives are mirrored by other characters, or other selves. In The Keep, two of the central characters, Danny and his cousin Howard, are almost like twins—they’re bound together by a childhood trauma. And when we get to the primary setting of the novel, an ancient castle in Eastern Europe that Danny is helping Howard convert into a hotel, we learn that a pair of twins once drowned in the castle pool.

JENNIFER EGAN: Isn’t that funny? I don’t have a twin. I don’t even have a full sibling or a half sibling close to my age. But twins do come up again and again. In The Keep, I felt like I’d finally arrived at the perfect place to exploit my twin fixation, because twins are very gothic. Intellectually, my interest in twins comes from a deeper interest in identity and doubling and doppelgängers, but I think there’s more to it than that.

BLVR: In Look at Me, you talk about people’s shadow selves. The main character, Charlotte, is convinced everyone has a shadow self, which is the self you see when someone’s not looking, when they’re not trying to present themselves a certain way. A shadow self is the true self, according to Charlotte.

JE: Exactly. In Look at Me, I was exploring twinning or doubling in the context of image culture, asking how reflections of us affect our inner visions of ourselves. But I think on a fundamental level, I’m just fascinated by this idea of a double person. In The Invisible Circus, the two sisters, Phoebe and Faith, are essentially twins. The older sister is dead, and people who see the younger one are confused, because she looks so much the same.

As a kid, when I would go to Chicago to visit my father in the summer, I volunteered at a day camp where there was a set of identical redheaded twin girls. I feel like those girls are always cropping up in my work. They’re obviously adults by now. I would love to know who they are and what they’re doing. I don’t know why they’re of such interest to me. I was asked to write a story about “vanishing twin syndrome,” which is the phenomenon of pregnancies that begin with two fetal sacs and then one is flushed away in the first trimester. There are people out there who feel that having had a “vanished” twin with them in the womb explains a lot of things about their personalities—they’ve been longing for their lost twin. My article never ended up getting printed, but it was fascinating research. Personally, I don’t think you can remember that, as a five-week-old fetus, you lost your twin in utero. But I do think it addresses that feeling of longing that so many people have for some other self—some version of us that can offer a kind of total sympathy and comprehension. That’s the longing for the doppelgänger, the other you, which is so gothic.

When I was a kid, I would come home from school and watch Dark Shadows—which my mother abhorred. I mean it was a soap opera! Who wants a kid coming home and watching a soap opera? But I was electrified by it. One scene I remember vividly: there were twin sisters and one was evil and she was dead and buried in a coffin and there was this hokey scene where she comes out of her coffin and confronts her live twin—of course it’s the same actress playing both—and she says, in this whispery voice, something like, “One of us is going to die. But it won’t be me.… it will be you!” It’s totally corny, but I’ve remembered it all these years. Another corny gothic classic is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which is all about twinning: the two Mrs. De Winters. I wouldn’t even want to try and reread that now, it’s probably badly written. But when I was eleven, reading Rebecca—I couldn’t even think about or discuss anything else. Other cheesy gothic novels… John Fowles’s The Magus features identical women playing with the mind of the protagonist. I wonder if my twin preoccupation will continue after this. I have a sense that The Keep might have exhausted it.

BLVR: Most of the characters in The Keep are male. Was this something you set out to do—write a book with very few females after writing a number of stories and two novels with female protagonists?

JE: It felt like something I’d been moving toward for a while. I’ve always been interested in writing about men. And not only do I not like to write about my own life, but I’m terrible at it—my biggest problem is trying to use material that actually has some root in reality. What better solution than to simply exit from my gender altogether! It felt very natural in that way. I was a little concerned and surprised by how few women there were in the book. It wasn’t a plan, although I wanted it to be a streamlined story without a lot of peripheral characters. The crux of the story is a relationship between two men. But I was relieved as I moved through the book to find that a woman is finally the bearer of the story, if not exactly the writer. She’s there as a gaze more than a speaker. Also, I really feel like the novel is a love story between Ray and Holly [two characters that start out as minor figures]—she is very present in that way as sort of a destination for him. And then later he becomes the same thing for her.

BLVR: Where did the idea of the baroness come from? In the book, she’s this old woman who’s been at the castle for a long time—she’s the tie to the castle’s past. It’s unclear whether she’s real or a figment of Danny’s imagination. It’s also unclear how old she is—from a distance, Danny thinks she’s young and alluring, and as he gets closer to her he sees that she’s closer to a hundred years old—though this doesn’t stop him from having sex with her.

JE: That actually does have a basis in reality. When I first came to New York, I worked as a temp and a word processor at a law firm. It was a nightmare—I had so much trouble making enough money to support myself and still having time to write. And I had no credentials whatsoever. So I got this strange job. I became a private secretary for a woman named the Countess of Romanones—and she was actually a writer. She had been a spy during World War II for the OSS. She was American-born and very beautiful, had been a model for Hattie Carnegie. How much spying she actually did is a matter of some debate, but she did some work for the OSS and then married a Spanish count and lived in Madrid in great finery and grandeur and had three sons and then after her husband died—by then she was in her ’60s—she wrote a book about her experiences called The Spy Wore Red. It was a surprise bestseller. And after that she suddenly had a career and a complicated publishing life, so she needed a secretary.

And I, meanwhile, was tired of working every holiday and a lot of nights at this word processing pool, feeling like I just had to find some other way, so we wended our way together. I worked for her from one to six p.m. for two years and she was a maniac. God love her, she was a genuine character. She was a difficult person to work with—to work for. She used to complain I reeked of garlic, for example, which she thought was very low-class. If I’d had garlic three days earlier, she would complain that it was coming out of my skin. She could smell it. So I stopped eating garlic— it wasn’t worth it. She was a really complicated and really difficult person. Ever since, I’ve been wondering, “How am I going to use the Countess?” and this ended up being the way. I thought, “Come on, if I’ve got a castle.…”

I originally imagined a doddering old count, but then I thought, “This book is full of men—why am I putting in another man?” and as soon as I realized that the ancient aristocrat was female, I thought, “Wait, I know who it should be!” That was really fun because it gave me a chance to dream up an extreme version of her, which I have to say is less fictionalized than you would probably think.


BLVR: You often write for the New York Times Magazine. Do you ever find that your journalism assignments influence your fiction writing?

JE: There’s a strange symbiosis between the two. I only pick assignments that really interest me, and often at the time I don’t feel any connection between those topics and the fiction I’m working on. I used to actually do both at once, but now that I have kids, that doesn’t happen as much. I don’t work anything like the hours I used to work. But often the same interests that make me take on an assignment are also fueling my fiction, so they do end up intersecting in funny ways. Years ago I did a story for the Times Magazine about self-injury. I had known someone in college who had that problem, and I’d written a short story touching on it, “Sacred Heart,” which is in my collection. So I was interested in the fundamentals of that disorder, and it was great to then learn about the science of it in all this detail, writing for the Times. A few of my assignments over the last few years worked their way into The Keep, most of them having to do with online culture.

BLVR: In The Keep, one of the main characters, Danny, is addicted to the internet, to being connected. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a compulsion to email, to text-message, so well described. And it’s so funny. How did the decision to detail this kind of obsession come about?

JE: That started with a piece for the Times Magazine about the secret online lives of closeted gay teens. I was almost done with Look at Me—I had sold it and everything—and I was just starting to think about what would come next. The editors and I had no idea how to approach this online story. We thought I was somehow going to hang around with these closeted gay teens and watch them living their secret out lives online [laughter], which was really just a case of old thinking trying to address a new phenomenon. Of course I got nowhere with that strategy. I couldn’t even find a way to suggest meeting one of these kids, they were so anxious and freaked out. And then I realized that this was what the story was about: online relationships. It was not going to be a story about following people physically—forget physicality. And I think having to forget about physicality and conducting journalism in this new way was important for me in terms of my thinking about the internet and its impact.

Oddly, a number of my pieces after that involved the same discovery. I did a cover story about online dating where I never even spoke on the phone with my two main subjects. Early on in that story I tried meeting up with one person I’d been interviewing by email, but it felt weird—I knew all about his sex life and suddenly we were sitting together in a bar. It had the feeling of a date. I was like, “Ahh! Get me out of here! Let’s get back online!” Again, I had this dutiful journalistic sense that I should meet my subject, but it wasn’t appropriate to the situation, it wasn’t helpful. So I think some of those discoveries found their way into The Keep. I knew I wanted to write a gothic novel, and I was very interested in injecting modern communications technology into a gothic world, which is usually atechnological. It’s all about being cut off. If you think about classics like The Turn of the Screw, there’s always a kind of immersion in which the protagonist, who is usually female, goes into a world and can’t get out of it, or at least can’t communicate beyond it. So I loved the idea of those remote conditions colliding with modern-day telecommunication.

BLVR: So how did you know you wanted to write a gothic novel?

JE: It came about very specifically. After my first son, Emmanuel, was born—this would have been two or three months after the article about the online lives of closeted gay teens was published—we went to France. My husband [David Herskovits] had a directing job in Charleville, so we scooped up our eight-week-old and headed over there. David was really busy, but we had one day of leisure and we drove to Belgium to a castle in Bouillon where, it turns out, the First Crusade began, led by Godfrey de Bouillon. We went to see Godfrey’s castle, which was in ruins. I’ve gone to European castles before, but for some reason, this visit was entirely different for me. I walked in and thought, “I have to do something with this.” It was this really strong fictional impulse, and I had no idea where it would lead. I thought,“Do I want to write a novel set in medieval times?” But the logistics of that were mind-boggling; I had a newborn baby, and even just trying to fathom the research was overwhelming.And then I realized that what I really liked was the nostalgic feeling of this decayed medieval past, which is a very gothic sensibility. And so it came to me that really I just wanted to be in that state and write in that state. I’d read gothic novels over the years, but I wasn’t extremely well versed in them, so I began to do a lot of reading.

BLVR: Where did Howard’s vision to transform the castle into a hotel originate? Sometimes it strikes me that writers put business or money-generating plans into their fiction in lieu of pursuing them in real life. Is the idea of a castle-cum-hotel a business-plan idea that you might have pursued if you weren’t a writer?

JE: No, no. Actually, I struggled with the question of what kind of enterprise would bring these characters together. I knew there was some sort of building, some old moldering structure, as there so often is in gothic fiction. A castle, an old house, there’s almost always a structure at the heart of it. Gothic literary theory talks about what these structures represent: Is it the body? The past? It seems overtly symbolic in an almost goofy way, which is another thing I love about the gothic: it’s sort of inherently goofy. But trying to figure out what occasion would bring a bunch of people to an old castle today was a challenge. I knew that my protagonist was male—I loved that idea because it reverses the classic gothic setup, which is basically: helpless female, trapped, strange circumstances.… is she imagining it or is it real? So I loved the idea of it being a guy—

BLVR: A goth guy.

JE: [Laughs] Exactly. But then the question was: Who is he visiting and why? And somehow the idea of the hotel renovation just came to me. It seemed like a good meeting point of past and present. Because I really wanted to make a contemporary novel, I didn’t want to set it in the past.And in fact Europe is full of these old castles that have been renovated into hotels. Although the one we were visiting, in Bouillon, had not. It was still a ruin.

BLVR: I love the title. How did you come up with the idea of the castle in your book having a keep?

JE:The idea of castle architecture preoccupied me for a while. I read books about it. I thought that I might draw—or have someone draw for me, because I draw really badly—an exact floor plan of the castle I was inventing. Later, I gave that up because I felt like what I wanted was for the castle to be unfathomable in some way, so nailing down every room and hallway seemed like a poor idea. Anyway, most castles have a keep of some kind, meaning a tower, although that term “keep” seems to have fallen out of use in recent discussions of castle architecture. But as soon as I read those words— “the keep”—I felt this great excitement. I loved the name and I loved the fact that people don’t use the term anymore and I loved the purpose of the keep, which was to serve as a last stronghold inside the castle, a core place where the owner’s family could hide if the walls were breached. When I first read the term I felt a sort of shiver that seemed to be, you know, a sign that I was going to use it.

BLVR: Because of the shiver? [Laughter]

JE: It’s not an especially cerebral or analytical approach, although I do get very cerebral and analytical later on in the writing process. But my big decisions in fiction happen instinctively. I seem to need that gut feeling of excitement. And oddly enough, it also turns out to be my best guide toward what’s going to really interest me on those brainier levels.


BLVR: There are a lot of accidents in your work. Have you ever been in a car crash like Charlotte in Look at Me or a bad accident like Danny in The Keep?

JE: Well, I was in a bad car accident. I was eighteen or nineteen. It happened in San Francisco, driving with my mother down Pine Street, coming back from downtown. Someone ran a red light coming down a hill and just smashed into us. We basically did a 360 and then flipped onto our side. It was bad. I was driving, and my mother ended up hanging in the air from her seatbelt. I didn’t even have a seatbelt on, but my side was on the ground.We were intact, we were completely fine, but the car was totaled and we never drove it again. The gas tank burst, but it didn’t catch on fire. I remember we walked out the back window, and that smell of gasoline, it was almost nauseating. My mother had dry cleaning in the back and all these clothes were scattered around the street and it really looked like a wreck where people had died, yet we just walked out. I wouldn’t call it a traumatic event, but it certainly was an event that I remember—especially the feeling of the car spinning around, completely out of my control.

One question I have is why people are always falling from heights in my books. There’s a suicidal dive in The Invisible Circus, a comically failed suicide jump in Look at Me, and then in The Keep there’s an absurd fall out a window. I have no idea why that keeps happening. I’m not aware of having any sort of preoccupation with falling in real life.

BLVR: There’s also a lot of addiction described in your work. As I mentioned, in The Keep, there’s Danny’s addiction to being connected. Charlotte in Look at Me has a drinking problem that you use to comic effect. But in the same novel, Detective Halliday loses his wife and kids (redheaded twin girls, if I’m not mistaken) as a result of his drinking.

JE: I’ve certainly known people who were addicted to things. My father was an alcoholic. But none of that quite explains the reaction I had when Christopher on The Sopranos shot up again last Sunday. It made me incredibly uncomfortable. And maybe that was because of my father, who finally did get sober and whose life was really much better after that, although he died in an accident not too many years later, and I wish his life could have been better for longer. So seeing an alcoholic fall off the wagon has some personal resonance for me. But when I saw Christopher shooting up I felt extremely distressed. I found myself thinking, “I’m not going to watch this show anymore. I can’t take it.” Never mind the people getting bumped off left and right—it was the heroin abuse that got to me.

I think what’s interesting to me about addiction is the way it opens the door for this other presence to enter into someone’s life and personality. Suddenly a whole different set of priorities and needs that are in direct opposition to all the things you know are good for you blows in and just dismantles your life. Even when I was a kid, I was fascinated by drugs—just theoretically. I’d had no exposure to them. I would read books about junkies. I remember being like ten years old and going to the library looking for books about barbiturates, and the librarian saying, “Uh, why?” I still don’t know, but I think it’s something about the way drugs can obscure a personality and replace it with something else. I find that so wrenching and tragic. I seem to come back to it again and again, but—thank God—I don’t seem to have the addict gene.

BLVR: I was looking at it more in terms of a cautionary tale or a dreaded alternative. Fiction writers can explore what would happen if, say, we took a left at the fork in the road instead of a right. So in a way, the addiction path is not so different from the twin obsession.

JE: In a way, addiction is the inversion of the twin fantasy: it’s two different people inside one person. That’s deeply uncomfortable to me. It’s grotesque, and I think I’m sort of mesmerized by the grotesqueness. And it’s also an embodiment of the way in which all of us are different people fighting it out inside one person. And I’m interested in the ways people lose control, and how the threat that they might lose control can affect a fictional environment. Like with the character of Anthony Halliday in Look at Me, the question is always on the table: Will he relapse? It keeps the stakes around him very high. And when Charlotte tries to make him relapse by spitting booze into his mouth when she kisses him, it’s such a horrible abuse of intimacy. So in fiction, an addict is a little like the gun in the living room. The question is always there: if and when and how it will finally go off.

BLVR: Addiction definitely raises the stakes for a character. Something I think about a lot is how hard it is to raise the stakes when writing a contemporary novel. In nineteenth-century novels, adultery and falling in love with someone outside of one’s social class were huge obstacles. I’m thinking of Anna Karenina and Jude the Obscure. But put these same challenges in a contemporary novel and, well, leaving a spouse for another person can be the stuff of chick lit.

JE: I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of what’s at stake in contemporary fiction. I’ve been rereading Jane Austen, and I find myself marveling at the fact that she could wrest so much drama and tension from the very short period in a girl’s life between the point when she came out into society and her marriage. Everything comes into play in that space of time: power, money, social class, the status of women—it’s all there. Can you imagine trying to bring that kind of gravitas to a novel about a girl looking for a husband today? There’s just nothing there. [Laughter]

But in Austen’s time, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. It was literally almost of life or death: here’s your chance, and either you make this work and find a tolerable husband to support you, or you’ll spend the rest of your life in a marginal existence, with no prospect for change. Outside the realm of poverty, there’s very little in modern American life that can create those high stakes.

BLVR: The Keep is incredibly different from Look at Me, and Look at Me was fundamentally different from The Invisible Circus. I’m talking about plot, point of view, setting—everything. I’m wondering how you break away from the blueprint. I think once a writer has found a structure that works for them, they have to make a very conscious decision to not abide by that structure. It’s hard because the blueprint is almost embedded in your subconscious.

JE: My books are all pretty different from each other— to the point where I’m sometimes told that people are surprised that one person wrote them. One reason is that each book has taken a long time to write, so they’ve happened pretty far apart from each other in my life. Also, because I don’t like to write about myself or even about lives like mine, there isn’t a throughline of my own biography or experience holding them together. I don’t really know the story when I begin. And frankly, what gives me the impetus to go forward is partly a sense that I’m discovering something unknown to me, exploring a new set of ideas. And what makes that discovery possible is almost consciously throwing away the books I’ve already written before I begin.

For me, so long as the world of the books feels really different in terms of voice, point of view, time, and place, I’m intrigued enough to go on. Look at Me doesn’t have a gothic feeling at all. It wasn’t even remotely in my mind until I went to that castle after it was finished.The revelation was:This is something new to me, something different. I just want to be here for a while, I want this feeling. And for me, that sense of time and place—of atmosphere—predates a character, a story, everything else except a few abstract notions that I want to explore.And those conditions have been so different for each of my three novels that I guess it was inevitable that the stories would unfold in different ways. There are definitely similarities, and I start to see them as soon as the books are finished. But I need to feel as I work that there are no overlaps, or I’m just not interested in going forward.


BLVR: Where is your next novel set? Can you say?

JE: It’s going to be set in New York right after World War II. I’m really interested in the women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the war. They did all these amazing things. They would build and repair ships—all the jobs that men had done. Then they were fired the minute the war ended. Not a lot was written about these navy yard women. I’ve actually partnered with the corporation that runs the Brooklyn Navy Yard now, and we’re going to do an oral-history project and try to find some of the remaining women who worked at the yard during the war, who of course are very old now. I’ll interview whomever is willing, which I want to do for my own research, but which I also think will be a useful record to have in the world before these people die.

So… very little overlap with The Keep, atmospherically. There’s no gothic feeling in this new one. It doesn’t feel campy at all, it feels more genuinely romantic. I’m really interested in that immediately postwar period in New York—I’m not even quite sure why. I want to know how it felt to be here then. So I’ve put my stake down there, in that time and place, and they’ll definitely require an entirely different voice, story, and everything else than what I’ve written before. What I have right now is very little: an aesthetic and some ideas. That ain’t much, but, you know, I’m trusting that the rest will evolve for me because it always has in the past. And I think that the research is going to be what renders up a lot in my specific plans. It’s going to make my mind start working.

BLVR: Did you ever work in a prison, teaching writing like Holly in The Keep?

JE: I thought about teaching writing in a prison, but I decided to wing it instead. I almost didn’t want to have too much personal experience with it. I felt like that could possibly complicate the situation. I interviewed several people who had taught in prisons. I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on about prison life in the past twenty-five years. I also spent a day at a high-security prison in Ohio with a female corrections officer who’s pretty high up in the hierarchy, whom I’d found through one of the teachers I interviewed. She was generous enough to spend one of her vacation days taking me around her workplace. I saw everything, and I talked to lots of prisoners. Basically, I used that prison in The Keep in terms of the architecture and atmosphere and all the rules and regulations. And also various other things I touch on, like the reptile program.

BLVR: You mentioned that you worked as a private detective at one point.

JE: That was for Look at Me. At one point, I thought that the private detective component in that novel would be bigger, and I worked for a brilliant, crazy detective for a few months. What I was mostly doing was transcribing— trying to transcribe—tapes made by hidden recorders placed inside cars of people who were suspected to be mobsters. It was incredibly hard to be accurate. There was car noise, honking, tunnels—you couldn’t understand most of what they were saying. Then it would get fantastically quiet just in time for them to have a long discussion of what they should order for lunch. I had zero qualifications for that job, but I loved it.

My father’s side of the family has generally gravitated toward law enforcement. My grandfather was a commander in the Chicago police force and my sister is a U.S. attorney right now, doing a lot of work on gangs, and my uncle was a criminal defense lawyer, and my father was a lawyer, too.… I’ve always been fascinated by cops and all that stuff. So the job satisfied that yen in me. I actually still have a business card that says, “Jennifer Egan, Private Investigator.” [Laughs]

BLVR: When was this?

JE: That was about ten years ago. There was a second detective I interviewed a few times, and he was nothing like the one I worked for, but they were both real mavericks. The whole stereotype of this iconoclastic, lonely, slightly outsider-ish detective seems to be completely right in my observation. And they were both working on detective novels. I’m not kidding. There seemed to be an assumption that if you were making your living this way you should obviously be working on a novel. Just like now: if you’re a mobster, there’s probably an assumption that you should also be an actor. So it was research and also something else—I mean, I got paid to do it. It was a paying job.

BLVR: What books did you read when you were researching The Keep?

JE: Well, prison books, as I mentioned. My two favorites were Ted Conover’s Newjack and You Got Nothing Coming, by Jimmy Lerner. That one is a little controversial, because after it was published it emerged that Lerner had bent the facts surrounding the murder he committed, trying to make himself sound like the victim. But the book is incredibly lively and colorful in terms of prison life. As far as gothic fiction goes, I read the usual suspects: Poe, James, Hawthorne, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King. But I especially loved the crazy old gothic novels people don’t read much anymore: Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, by Matthew Lewis— these are all eighteenth-century novels. My two favorites, other than The Turn of the Screw, are from the nineteenth century: Melmoth the Wanderer, which is an absolutely wacky book inside a book inside a book, and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, which is one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read.

I’ve sort of moved away from all that now, but I had a great time with it—I was happy just to live in that world for a while. And the genre is going strong—you know, the gothic is alive and well and it’s happening now.

More Reads

An Interview with Jamie Lidell

Jamie Lidell is a Brighton-born Berliner whose Motown-style vocals and modern production made Multiply (Warp) one of the most critically acclaimed albums of this past year: ...


An Interview with Bun B

Jon Caramanica

Wayne Coyne in conversation with Ben Gibbard

Ben Gibbard