Imagination and Curiosity: A Q&A With Celebrated Novelist Jennifer Egan
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New York Times Magazine writer Jennifer Egan visited Davidson College Wednesday to give the annual Joel Conarroe Lecture.
She took time to answer questions before and met with students, including some who have a paper due on her most recent novel, Manhattan Beach.
“I’m happy to help,” she told them.
Egan also is the president of PEN America, a writers’ organization that fights to defend freedom of expression in the United States and around the world.
How much has your work as a journalist played into your fiction?
Journalism has been very helpful for research. It’s been a way to learn about things I want to learn. Researching two stories for [The New York Times Magazine] … led to a novel called The Keep. Doing certain articles forced me to acquaint myself with youth culture and a different age group’s approach to technology in a way that I never would have in my real life. If I didn’t have the experience of doing these very intensive research pieces, I don’t think I would have been able to write Manhattan Beach, which required the most phenomenal amounts of research. As a journalist, there’s a strange way in which you can go from being completely ignorant to quasi-expert.
You show such empathy toward your characters—even the ones that seem the most reprehensible. What is the importance of empathy in writing?
I feel like that is actually the job. If I can’t do that, then I can’t really write about someone. What brings me in is always curiosity. Empathy and curiosity are very closely linked. Curiosity about someone else’s life is asking the question of what it’s like to be them. My job as a fiction writer is to answer that question. If I’m unable to, I can’t do the job.
People often say “I didn’t like the character.” I don’t think that means they don’t want to have dinner with that person, I think what they mean is, “I’m alienated from that person, I cannot connect enough with that person’s mindset to care what they do.” That’s a failure on the writer’s part. If someone says “I don’t care,” that’s my failure. The only way to make someone care about someone else deeply is to show them the world of that person. Once we’re inside someone’s mind, the decisions they make, no matter how loathsome or reprehensible, should seem like the right decisions.
Who would you identify as your literary antecedents?
There are certain books that I hope are part of my literary DNA, books that I really studied, thought about and return to so much, even if there’s not a direct stylistic influence. I’d include The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and the House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Then there are the Greek tragedians, and Shakespeare, that I hope are in there acting upon me.
What is your process?
I tend not to start with characters or story, I begin with a sense of atmosphere. That is my portal into fiction. No matter how many ideas I might have about things I might want to write about, if I can’t find that portal in, if I can’t find that sense of atmosphere to pull me into the story, those ideas aren’t going to go anywhere.
I find thinking to be useful in some portions of the fiction writing process, but not at the beginning. I write by hand, on legal pads. The closest way I can look at it is like improv. I’m just guessing. I’m looking for something that feels organic that you can follow. Later, I write endless drafts …
Your books are all so different from each other. How do you shift modes and styles to make them that way?
What draws me to writing is curiosity. I’m eager to have an experience I haven’t had before. The thing that is most threatening to me as a writer is the feeling of familiarity or repetition. If I feel like I’ve done something before, my reaction to that is somewhere between horror and nausea. I don’t like that feeling.
The Conarroe Lecture Series
The Conarroe Lecture Series at Davidson is named in honor of Joel Conarroe '56, who served as president of PEN American Center, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and executive director of the Modern Language Association.
Novelist Joyce Carol Oates inaugurated the Conarroe Lectureship in 2002, and those who followed her include some of the most notable authors of this era: Michael Cunningham, Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon, Russell Banks, Margaret Atwood, W.S. Merwin, Edward Hirsch, Richard Wright '57, Don DeLillo, George Saunders.