Jennifer Egan is one of the finest American writers working today. Her most recent book, A Visit From the Goon Squad, won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the 2011 LA Times Book Prize for fiction. It was also a finalist for the Pen Faulkner Award. Her other works of fiction are: The Invisible Circus, which was made into a feature film starring Cameron Diaz in 2001; Look At Me, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction in 2001; Emerald City and Other Stories; and The Keep, which was a national bestseller.
Egan’s fiction has appeared in publications like The New Yorker, Harpers, Granta, and McSweeney’s, and she regularly contributes nonfiction to the New York Times Magazine. She received the Carroll Kowal Journalism Award in 2002 and the NAMI Outstanding Media Award for Science and Health Reporting from the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2009. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library.
Egan is as disarmingly forthcoming as she is disconcertingly smart. She also has one of the best author’s web sites out there.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was little, I wanted to be a doctor. I was really interested in gore. My grandfather was an orthopedic surgeon and he had a lot of books in his library that I would just pore over. A lot of them had really horrible pictures of deformities.
It attracted you?
It did, kind of. I was interested in corporeal strangeness. I wish I could tell you it was about making people well, but I think it was more about wanting to cut them open!
But you lost that interest?
I did. I would just add that I was deeply interested in biology and physiology. I would read about that on my own time. I felt like it wasn’t covered enough at school— I went to this girls’ school and I was like, “I want to hear more about the human body!!”
This was probably nine to thirteen, fourteen. When I became a teenager I got very squeamish, and that interest totally disappeared. That squeamishness— and I’m sure you could read lots of interpretations into that— was almost a fear of the body. Just a fear of seeing what was in the body. I remember being really afraid of seeing blood. I’m not really like that anymore, but I don’t feel neutral about it. I look away if I’m getting a shot.
No more doctor. Then what?
At that point I became really interested in anthropology and I really wanted to be an archeologist. I thought that was a for-real goal, actually. I applied to Penn. I got into the anthropology department, but I specifically wanted archeology. It was the seventies and a lot of exciting things were happening, discoveries in archeology. It was a moment when that felt more present in the culture than it is now.
I took a year off between high school and college and it was kind of funny— I had this idea that I could hire myself out as a person to go on archeological digs and dig, without any training! I actually wrote to a number of archeology departments and offered up my services. I think none of them answered me except for one, who said, “You know, our graduate students actually pay us to go on digs. So, obviously, this is not appropriate.” It was a nice note, but basically saying: “This is never going to happen.”
Then I actually paid to go on a little dig, which was in Southern Illinois. They were digging up Indian remains. It was essentially the kind of thing the professor was describing to me only it was open to the public. So I went, and what I discovered was that what I had imagined archeology to be bore little resemblance to the actual experience.
In my imagination, it was kind of digging up big chunky urns with a shovel! [Laughs.] But what one so often neglects to account for from the outside of any job is the tedium— and I include writing in that. It was a square meter of earth, it was 99 degrees, it was the end of summer in Illinois. We used a scalpel. We couldn’t unearth— that was the thing that really bugged me. You had to lower the earth until the object was sitting on top of it! You couldn’t dig it out! It’s called a dig, but you couldn’t dig!
By October I knew that I probably didn’t want to be an archeologist.
So I had to save up money since I really wanted to travel— now that I wasn’t going to Greece or Italy to dig! It took me a long time to save up the money. When I finally did have enough money, I got a backpack and went to Europe and bought a Eurail pass. I was eighteen.
I would recommend that to anybody. Although it would be different now because no one is really ever cut off from anybody anymore. To do that then was really to be severed from your ties. To make a phone call I had to wait in line at a phone place and it was not easy.
Were you alone?
Yes. It was actually really hard. Of course you met people along the way, it was a freewheeling summer, lots of European kids— it’s normal for European kids to do that. It was kind of incredible to be so isolated, and in a way to be thrown into this very old and different world. But what I found was that it was actually very tough. I started to kind of flip out to some degree. In retrospect, I think I was having panic attacks, but I had never heard that term. I think now people would know, but then I thought: “Drug flashbacks, insanity, Go Ask Alice!” It was the summer of 1981.
When would these panic attacks come on?
It was usually when I was alone. The nature of a panic attack is that you’re just terrified and you don’t know why. Anyway, that became very tough. They would strike and I wouldn’t know when they would. And I was desperate to be with people, and that’s not a great way to be traveling.
But anyway, in the course of all of that it became very clear to me— and I’m not quite sure how— that writing was the thing that I needed to do. How that revelation wormed itself through the chaos of my mind at that time, I am not quite sure. I was writing a lot in a journal— which was very helpful to me later because I’ve used a lot of that material. Maybe if I read through the journal I would understand how I came to realize that. Anyway, I know that when I came back, I was positive that I wanted to be a writer. If I was going to be sane— which I wasn’t sure of!
Well, luckily, you’d probably heard about all the crazy writers in history…
I literally thought: “Can I write in an insane asylum?” [Laughs.]
It is very uncomfortable to be alone, and I think that is why we, as a globe, have fetishized connection the way that we have. But I think that we are losing a lot by losing the experience of solitude. Many people have said that, but I feel that very viscerally. That was not the only time that I traveled that way. I went to China later, the former Soviet Union. I remember my birthday in China, I couldn’t make a phone call. I couldn’t speak to a single person I knew on my birthday.
I will always remember those times because they were so extreme. I was lucky to have had those experiences. They made me know myself in certain ways that I might not have otherwise.
And so, then you knew you wanted to be a writer.
From that point on, I can say that I did not waver. That is not to say that I had any great hopes of success. I really didn’t. I always feel, and at this point I kind of hope that I always will feel, that I have no idea how things will work out. Because I think that is actually the fact. The minute you start thinking you have it made, you’re in big trouble. Everything is in flux, always.
If you’ve been around as long as I have, watching the literary scene, then you know that who’s in and who’s out changes by the year. It’s really a very fluid situation that requires that the person who is having the good luck now isn’t having it a year or two from now.
Did you have a vision of what it meant to be a writer?
No. I hoped it would mean publishing books one day. But that almost seemed like an impossible hope because I felt like the steps between me and that goal seemed so many.
I think I knew that I wasn’t really that good. I knew that when I read books, I couldn’t actually imagine how people could write them. I was not one of those people who thought, “I can do better than that.” That’s probably one of the ways that you can divide people. Are they motivated by the thought that they can do better, or are they motivated by the thought that there is so much quality out there and, “How can I ever do it?” For some reason, that motivates me. I respond well to adversity. [Laughs.]
When did you begin writing more seriously?
I went to college and switched out of anthropology immediately. Sophomore year, I went into a writing workshop with the playwright Romulus Linney, who was a wonderful teacher. I became a fictiony type. I edited the literary magazine for two years. I won some contests at school…you know, that was my thing! I was also writing for the daily paper on and off, other newspapery things. I did a creative thesis, a short story collection. Actually, one of those stories ended up in my first published short story collection. It had to be re-worked a lot, but there was a germ that went all the way back to college.
I was really on a path. In my senior year, I had an idea for a novel that I got really excited about. It had a lot to do with the idea of having missed the sixties. I had grand aims: the longing for transcendence, what is the religious impulse in humans…and I have to tell you, I think my first novel has all that in it.
Anyway, I had a scholarship to study in England for two years, at Cambridge. To study English literature. So I went to Cambridge and I had a great time. I did a lot of traveling. That is when I went to China and the former Soviet Union.
What was Cambridge like?
I am really glad I went there because when I was in college at Penn it was that moment of great fixation on literary theory— this was the early to mid-eighties— and I read way too much theory and way too little literature. I read about reading instead of reading. It was ridiculous! I would read about books I hadn’t read and feel no compulsion to read the books. It was just insane. Though, I have to say that some of that has stayed with me— the excitement about the meta.
Anyway, I actually read a lot of books at Cambridge, which was great. I also wrote. I took a crack at this [novel] idea that I had had. And I wasn’t showing that to anyone, just writing voluminously on my own, every day. I was very routinized. I was like a machine. I was really dedicated. I got up and did it every day. That was the best I could say of that book. It was so bad!
I have a tendency to just ridicule that first effort because it was just so bad, but the routine was good. In fact, I wish I were so disciplined now.
What did you do after Cambridge?
Then came the hardest point. If I were going to turn off my path, the next phase is when it would have happened. I moved to New York where I knew basically no one. Not only did I not have a job, I was so deluded about what it took to live in New York. I had done some cursory research into temping, but I just wasn’t thinking straight.
I started out getting slightly boondoggled into taking the second room of an apartment that I was supposedly sharing with someone who would never be home. And she was told the same of me. And we were both home all the time.
Because you worked from home?
No, because we sort of had no lives. She had a serious boyfriend who was actually Swedish, so he was obviously not in New York. So, unless she was physically in Sweden, she was in the apartment! My boyfriend was in Boston, but we were so broke that it might as well have been Sweden. It was terrible. It was very dark, and I am very light-oriented. It faced an air shaft. It was really gloomy. It was on West 69th Street, right near the park. But who has time to go to the park? I was frantically trying to figure out how to pay the rent, which I think was $400.
Anyway, I knew I could not stay there. I was sleeping on this foam couch, it was dreadful. And if I worked full-time as a temp, then I could support myself. But when was I going to write?
And in the midst of all that, I had this manuscript. I had figured that it was just going to be a matter of a couple of months of temping before I was raised aloft! [Laughs.] You know, published with great honors! Of course, it was nothing like that. I sent it to agents and it would immediately come back to me— it was like a boomerang. And then I would send it to friends, and they really did not know what to say to me.
Because they didn’t want to offend you?
Yeah! People would sort of drop out of sight after they’d received it. Technology comes into it again— that sort of couldn’t happen now, there’s no way to drop out of sight. But then, I just sort of couldn’t reach people. I never seemed to be home when they would call, and they were never home when I called. And that includes my mother! [Laughs.]
The truth was evident within three weeks: It was totally untenable. Then I just felt so ashamed. I had spent all this time on this book. What I started to understand, though I didn’t look at the book again for another year or so, was that not only was it unsuccessful, it was sort of unreadable! Sentence by sentence, I had really lost my way. Whereas I had taken these classes at college, I had done work that had been acknowledged to be fine on a college level, but this was below that level.
Why do you think that was?
I think because I was in a vacuum. All I had was the routine of putting words on a page, but what I had lost track of was what makes something interesting to read. And since I wasn’t getting any feedback, I had no occasion to realize that I was failing to meet that very basic standard. There were plenty of dramatic possibilities in the story that I had thought of, but I had availed myself of none of that.
Writing is cheap to do. Anyone can say that they’re a writer and fill up pages with words and it looks terrific— you see a nice chunky manuscript and you think, “Hey! Who knows what’s in there?” And then you read it and you think, “Oh my God! How can this person think that he or she is a writer?!” Well, I understand exactly how. In their inner world, it is terrific. But they are not liaising with an outside perspective on whether or not it’s alive.
That’s a pretty big insight. How much of that do you think you realized at the time, and how much is looking back with your current perspective?
At the time, I knew it was bad. All I felt was shame over how bad it was and terror over what I was going to do. I would love to understand more clearly what kept me going at that point. I don’t know. I had very little encouragement, I had very little reason to think that I was going to be successful as a writer, I was frantic for money, my parents were wondering what the hell was going on.
Another thing I remember from that period was that it was so hard to make a date with people. I would ask when someone could get together and they would say in, like, three weeks.
That’s New York.
I know! Now I understand. But then I would be flipping ahead in my calendar through weeks of empty pages and I would think, “Really? Not for three weeks?!” I found myself sort of begging people to hang out with me. And, of course, New Yorkers get a whiff of that desperation and they’re out! “Don’t cling to me!” I was that clinging, drowning, frantic person.
How did your family feel about all this?
My father was very concerned. He came from a very working class background, his dad was a cop, he became a lawyer. I think his thought was, really: “How are you going to make your way in the world?” My mother was pretty indulgent of my fantasies.
How did you turn this dark cycle around?
One of the biggest turning points, honestly, was just getting an apartment. Getting out of that bad roommate situation. I found a studio. It’s funny, New Yorkers always remember real estate details— it was $650 a month, fifth floor walk up, one room, facing south, on East 27th. I tell you, in a way, it was the best place I’ve lived in New York. The sun set into my apartment! It was unbelievable. It was so flooded with light. It was one room, but I was in heaven. I had a desk right by the window.
Another thing I did, I started taking a class right away. The first thing I did when I realized the book was really bad was that I thought, “I know I used to be able to write in a way that was at least readable, so I need help.” I actually applied to the MFA program at Columbia, and they turned me down! Anyway, in a way a MFA didn’t make sense. My parents weren’t going to pay for it and how was I going to pay for it— I was hardly able to pay for an apartment!
I realized that people were teaching out of their houses. One of those people was Philip Schultz, who now runs The Writers’ Studio. He was just teaching out of his living room.
The other thing is, I had a very slender connection at The Paris Review, through a friend of my parents. I remember that I went to a party right away, at the Carlisle, and I thought: “This is exactly where I want to be!” Of course, I was a temp, so pretty far away… but I agreed to read their slush, and then I got to go to their parties. I think it was through that that I found Phil [Schultz]— someone knew someone.
So I took a class with him. That was actually really helpful. We met every week, so I had a plan every week— which was a good thing!
What was the experience in the class like?
My work was really poorly received at first because I had all of these really weirdly bad habits. I was writing badly. It just wasn’t alive. It was dead on arrival. The way Phil ran his class was this: There were fourteen or fifteen people and anyone who wanted to read could read. But, he would stop them when he felt that the room had heard enough. The first story I read, I got maybe two pages in. But I would keep bringing in work.
When were you writing?
I would go to my temp jobs and bring my own floppy disks with me that would have my work on them. I was able to switch back and forth between the work I was doing for the temp job and my own stuff that I was writing. I remember one time I was printing out a story and my boss walked over to the printer, assuming it had something to do with him since I was working for him. He picked it up and looked at it. I thought, “Okay, I am ready to pack up and leave.” But it made so little sense to him that he just looked at it and put it back down and walked away.
Then, I had a great break. I got a different job. I became a private secretary for this woman, the Countess of Romanones. She had been a spy during WWII. She was American born but married a Spaniard and lived a very glamorous life in Spain. She moved back here and wrote a book called, The Spy Wore Red. It was about her adventures as a spy. It had been a surprise mega-seller. She now had a HUGE contract to write two more books and, you know, her life was spiraling out of control, so I was her private secretary. I worked from 1-6 only and she paid enough to live on. She was very difficult to work for, but I had from 8-noon to write.
So I was in Phil’s class, I was getting some feedback that was helping me, I had solid hours to write at a time of day to work that was reasonable, I was not temping at all. Things had sort of shaped up.
Time seemed to go much more slowly then. Time now goes very quickly. I’m forty-eight, it’s freaky how little a year seems to be. But back then I think all of that was sealed up within a year! But it felt like it took a really long time.
I would say that there was a year there where a reasonable person could have been excused for bailing.
You don’t know what it was that made you stick it out?
I think I just realized that [writing] was the thing that made life meaningful to me. But also, when I got to New York it was so hard that I think it was a dogged sense that I just wasn’t going to accept this level of failure. I had to come back swinging, in some way.
The other thing is that I started sending work out, right away. And that, I think, was actually really good for me. I would multiple submit. Of course, this was pre-Internet, so this was all snail mail. I would send to eight or nine places at once. I kept very careful logs of where I had sent things. And as soon as something came back, I would immediately send it back out, the same day. So I would sort of convert disappointment into hope, right away. And then I would feel very hopeful about the stuff that I had sent out.
There was always something in the ether.
There was always stuff out there. I entered contests, everything. Little things started to happen. I would be a quarter finalist in some small thing. I’d get those little handwritten notes saying, “I really enjoyed this…” I lived for that stuff.
It became a kind of secret life. The Countess was quite abusive, but I was doing these things and I felt like in some little ways, I was scraping my way back.
And then an amazing thing happened. I brought a story into Phil’s class and he let me read all the way to the end.
I cried. I cried before I could even go on, because I couldn’t even believe that he was letting me go on. It was very moving. Really, it was just incredible.
A feeling that, “Okay, I’ve reached somewhere new.”
Yes. And then that story I sold to the North American Review. It was the first story I sold. I remember getting that letter and thinking, “Oh my GOD!!! I can’t believe I actually sold a story!!”
Do you remember what it felt like to see it in print?
Well, this is the funny thing. Before it came out, I started working with someone else: Tom Jenks, who was at that time also teaching out of his living room. I think I met him at a party or something. In his class, I had a kind of breakthrough. He told me, “I want you to write a story that has no kids in it,” because I was writing a lot about kids, adolescence, and memories. He said, “No kids, and nothing about the past.” And I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding, what is there then?” But I found it very freeing. Because these habits that I had were now closed to me. So I wrote this story called “The Stylist.” Tom— who was the literary editor at GQ then— said, because I brought in the first half, “If the second half is as good as the first half, I’ll publish it in GQ.” And I was like: “Oh My god!!!” I wrote the second half, and GQ turned it down. He wanted it, but the powers-of-be weren’t into it.
Meanwhile, I had actually sent something to Dan Menaker at The New Yorker in the course of my extremely complex sending out of stories, and he had written a nice note back. So I sent this story to him, and he took it three days later! I remember he left me a message on my answering machine. That I will really never forget. Coming in and hearing that message… I mean, it’s The New Yorker!
Did you have The New Yorker as a sort of Holy Grail?
Oh, very much so. I talked about the stories that were in The New Yorker every week with my friends. It was an incredible experience to find out that they were taking it. It was incredible. And so fast! From mailing to phone call— I remember this vividly— it was three days.
I am interested in the shift from that initial shame over the first attempts in New York, to this hugely triumphant thing.
In a way, there was something not totally legit about it in that this one story that The New Yorker took was good, but I had nothing else that was at the same level or even close. I had made a leap, and I got an instant reward for it, but what I think I felt was almost a sick feeling of knowing that I didn’t have anything else at that level and that there would be a desire and expectation that I would, and there was, and that I would disappoint, and I did.
It was great to get in there, and it certainly pleased my father very much, it was a definite sign of legitimacy. It ended up being my first published story because the North American Review was on such a long cycle that they hadn’t published it yet. So, that was a blazing way to appear. But the immediate question was, “Show us what you’ve got.” And when I showed people what I had, it was like, “Oh, well keep in touch…” [Laughs.]
Yes, agents must have been in touch with you. That whole machinery must have been set in motion.
Yes, I did kind of get an agent out of that. I started working with Virginia Barber. But again, I don’t really know if I needed an agent at that point. There is no reason to re-write history, but I think we crave this sort of meteoric rise, you want to be touched from above. But the fact is that it is better to wait until you have a lot of good material.
So it was a great thing, but that story literally hung over me for years. I thought, “I will never top it.” So, it was hard in a funny way.
What happened after that?
That story came out in January of 1989. It was literally a year and a half after I arrived [in New York]. Again, talk about time! It felt like it was an era!
Somewhere along the way, I went back to the novel. I sat down and read through the monstrosity. I knew already that it was bad, but now I realized from the inside, not just why it had not worked— because that implies that I had taken on something serious and not pulled it off when, in fact, I had never really quite undertaken it. At that point, I decided to toss it and start the whole thing again with the idea, which I thought was a really good idea.
It was very much about the sixties. Specifically what I was interested in was the explosion of mass media and the way that had played into the counterculture experience and the reception of the counterculture experience. A lot of interesting books were just starting to come out about that that hadn’t been available before, specifically Todd Gitlin wrote this fantastic book called The Sixties, which was so helpful to me. I felt like the moment to write that book was really cresting.
So, I just went back to it with a vengeance and with a notion of what I was doing, finally. Still with this stable job and this stable living situation and these hours to write. I wrote it, it took me maybe three years. But then I sensed that I was more on the right track.
It is very difficult to trash anything.
It was a relief, though. I think we all have that sense when we are flushing away stuff that is really no good. There is a reluctance followed by immense relief. The sense of being free of it.
During those three years when you were writing the book, what was the living like for you?
I was living in the apartment that I loved. My boyfriend had moved from Boston to New York. Having done a lot of wandering around in my life, I would say that from that point on my life has been somewhat routinized. Because I was very goal-oriented.
At the end of finishing the book, I didn’t have that job anymore. The Countess was getting really difficult to deal with and I got a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a couple of other things. I always did lots of little things to get money, but I didn’t have any hourly job at that point.
What were you eating?
I remember that when I lived on East 27th I would go down to this diner and get a huge cup of coffee and a corn muffin every morning and bring it back. For lunch, I did sandwiches and salads; I’m a salad type. I cooked a lot in that apartment. I remember that vividly because it was one room and it would get really hot in the summer— I had no air conditioning. Cooking on the fifth floor with the stove in the same room as where people would be eating…led to some painful evenings.
I was going to the theater a lot because my husband, who was then my boyfriend, was in the theater. The same boyfriend the whole way through. I left East 27th street in 1990 and we moved in together in the East Village. We ate out a lot there. It was pretty cheap. We also entertained quite a lot in our minute apartment. We would have cast parties! We would pack, like, fifty people in. I don’t know how we did it.
I think I drank a lot. I think it was just that moment in life when you’re having a drink a lot at night. I was more social than I am now. We had brunch a lot. Brunch is one of those things that you really stop doing when you have kids, I think. It’s so funny! When did I last eat an omelet? Oh my god…
What did you spend your money on then?
Probably books was one of my number one indulgences all the way through. I don’t really like clothes; I’m terrible at shopping. My mother actually still buys a lot of my clothes…bless her heart. I’ve never been someone who likes to shop, but I’ll tell you: You save a lot of money that way. I’ll take hand-me-downs from anyone!
[Egan goes through her outfit, pointing out things that are hand-me-downs. (“This is a maternity shirt— and it was a hand-me-down in the first place! I can’t believe I fit a kid in there…twice!”).]
I think, probably, eating out was my number one thing. Even in the East Village, it adds up. I ate a lot at Polonia, this little Polish place on 1st Avenue. I would often leave the apartment and go to Polonia for lunch, where I would have vegetable soup. It was incredibly cheap. A bowl of soup was like 3 bucks— plus bread, and you’re done!
You’ve had the same relationship all along, from when you were very young to now. The artistic path is very unstable in many ways. Do you think having this stable relationship throughout helped keep you grounded in some way?
I think the kinds of work we did actually complemented each other well. The kind of work he does is very sociable. I think there was a way in which the sociability of his world really complimented the isolation of mine.
I also remember that there was this really difficult period. I had this NEA and when that ended, the plan was that I would sell the book. But I had this frightening experience of reading it through and having another really big panic attack because I realized that it still wasn’t good. I was around thirty at that point, so I had been kicking around for a while. Because I got to New York at twenty-five.
I think I was a little traumatized by the earlier experience and I just couldn’t believe that once again I had written a shitty book. This time, of course, it wasn’t as bad. This time it was more like: You haven’t fulfilled your vision. Instead of: You have no vision. That is all the difference in the world. But still, it was just terrifying to feel like once again I was just flailing.
And I remember that he [her husband] was working on a production of Anthony and Cleopatra, which he called Egypt. I remember being in his world, being around actors, because it felt like such a relief and escape from my own bubble of terror.
With no more NEA, did you have to get back on the job market?
I had to go find a job, which was terrifying because in a way I didn’t have very good skills. That is how it felt. It’s so funny, the Holy Grail for me was that I just wanted to be a waitress! But I could never get a job. In New York, you can’t get it unless you have experience in New York. How are you supposed to do it? Everyone says, “You lie, of course!” But I was afraid.
I had a millions dead ends. I took a catering course. I was trying everything. I started sending resumes out. I was answering want adds in The Times. I got a call back, and it was a fluke, from one place I sent my resume to, which was the Tribeca Film Center. Which was a pretty cool place to work. Their financial officer’s assistant was going out of the country for a month and they needed someone to replace her. For some reason, totally randomly, they decided to throw me into the mix. I think it was the writing. He really didn’t like to write, so he needed someone to be his voice. I worked for him for a month, and that was great because it turned into a permanent job coordinating the First Look Film Series, which they were just starting at that point. It showed films by first-time directors. I did that for two years. I had my own office there. It was so cool! Talk about luck.
I think it was not until 1992 or 1993 that I actually sold that novel— so it was another three to four years before I finally finished and sold it.
What did it feel like to sell your first book?
I sold it, but it still needed a lot more work. It did not get much money. It was not like everyone was jumping at it; it was a very low-key sale.
But another critical thing I realized after the debacle of the novel I wrote in England was that I can’t actually work in a vacuum. I need to know on a more regular basis if whether what I am doing is landing or not. So ever since then, I’ve had a writing group that I’ve been a part of. The personalities change over the years, but basically, by the time I show anything to anyone, it’s been vetted to some degree by these folks.
And how did you find that writing group?
One woman in the group, Ruth Danon, is a poet whom I had met at Yaddo. It started out as a class that she was offering. Then it evolved into a group doing it together. Again, the personalities change, but the feeling is the same. The way we do it is, we read work aloud. We don’t actually look at anything on a page.
It’s a very trusting environment, but also a very rigorous environment. Because you want to know that everyone is on your side, but if they just tell you it’s great, they’re not doing you any favors. That part about everyone being on your side is really critical too. There’s nothing worse than not knowing whether their criticism is motivated by some sort of internal or external wish to undermine or whether it is valid.
But it can be hard in, say, a writing workshop, to shut out the choir of voices and hear your own voice.
Yes. But what I lose by not listening is much greater than what I lose by listening to bad advice. Because I think I can sort of sort through with my gut what is useful and what is not useful. Whereas if I hear nothing, I know vividly what results. I am never going to let that happen again.
I think people feel somehow that they can be hurt by hearing the wrong thing. I am not convinced that is true. We might get our feelings hurt, but I don’t think there is any actual damage done. What’s bad falls away.
One thing I often say to students is, “I am not interested in hearing solutions.” If people give me solutions that are cockamamie, which they often will, forget that! But take a step back and look at the problem they are identifying with that solution. That is useful to know.
You write nonfiction as well as fiction. Is your process different when you write nonfiction?
Totally. There is nothing the same about them. For nonfiction, the writing part is almost an afterthought. With nonfiction, it is basically the job of synthesizing a gigantic amount of information and experience into something crystalline and relatively short, although my pieces are relatively long. The Lorie Berenson piece took a really long time to write, I really struggled with the writing. But some of the ones before that I wrote in four or five days.
In fiction I am doing something entirely different— I am letting it rip in an almost unconscious state to see what I come up with, and then I decide what to do with it.
With nonfiction, I am dealing with the world. There is a kind of great feeling that happens with nonfiction, this sense of clarity about a subject and an excitement about sharing that in all of its nuances. Once I reach that point, the writing is easy. In fiction it is precisely the opposite because it is the act of writing that generates the material and then it is a process of years before I have really processed that and turned it into something interesting.
Even technologically they are different. Fiction-writing I only do by hand. Only.
Yep. I edit on hard copies by hand. I don’t do it well on a screen. I can’t achieve that unconscious state because I am staring at it and thinking, “Gosh, I need to fix that.” Also, I find that decisions made on a screen don’t look right on a page. I guess if we get rid of pages altogether maybe I can finally write on a computer!
Whereas with nonfiction— because I am dealing with reams of material— I am on the computer trying to fuse it all together in a precise way, line by line.
Do you identify more as a fiction writer or as a nonfiction writer?
I identify more as a fiction writer. But I do love the journalism, and I am very grateful for it. It has afforded me some really interesting experiences and given me access to material that’s helped my fiction a lot.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
My advice is so basic. Number one: Read. I feel like it’s amazing how many people I know who want to be writers who don’t really read. I’m not convinced someone wants to be a writer if they don’t read. I don’t think the problem is that they need to read more; I think they might need to readjust their life goals. Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work. To be reading good things. I feel that you should be reading what you want to write. Nothing less.
The second thing is, I feel like getting in the habit of it is huge. I guess that was my one accomplishment of those two years [with the first failed novel]— making it a routine is a gigantic part of it.
One corollary of that— and this is probably the most important thing for me— is being willing to write really badly. It won’t hurt you to do that. I think there is this fear of writing badly, something primal about it, like: “This bad stuff is coming out of me…” Forget it! Let it float away and the good stuff follows. For me, the bad beginning is just something to build on. It’s no big deal. You have to give yourself permission to do that because you can’t expect to write regularly and always write well. That’s when people get into the habit of waiting for the good moments, and that is where I think writer’s block comes from. Like: It’s not happening. Well, maybe good writing isn’t happening, but let some bad writing happen. Let it happen!
I mean, when I was writing The Keep, my writing was so terrible. It was God-awful. My working title for that first draft was, A Short Bad Novel. I thought: “How can I disappoint?”
So, just write and be happy that you did it. You stuck to the routine. You’re kind of holding the place so that you’re present for when something good is ready to come.
And then it’s all about rewriting. Re-visiting, re-visiting and re-writing. I think it’s a mistake to be too precious about one’s words. I feel the same way about the criticism. You’re not going to break! It’s pretty tough to stick it out, to do this. So, get used to it! People are going to not like it. Okay! You’ll live. So, it’s bad. Okay. You’ll live! They said ‘no.’ You know what? Everyone gets said ‘no’ to a thousand times. If that is really something that you can’t tolerate, this may not work.
Yes, that is huge. That is my biggest gift.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Peter M. Van Hattem
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