Over the next five years, Egan made good on her free time, releasing her first novel, The Invisible Circus—about a teenaged girl who travels through Europe alone in the 1960s, searching for clues about her deceased sister—and the collection Emerald City and Other Stories. In preparation for her next book, Look at Me, Egan planned a story that “involved a New York fashion model who has a very serious accident, and her face needs to be reconstructed. She’s no longer really recognizable,” Egan explains.

If such a category exists, the conceit might be called vintage Egan: not quite realistic, but not exactly implausible either. “The idea is that she doesn’t look damaged, she just doesn’t look like herself anymore.” To actually write the story, though, “I knew I needed to do some pretty serious research,” she says. At the time, it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit an old passion. “I had always loved the idea of doing investigative reporting,” she says. “That was like a childhood fantasy.”

But when Egan started banging on the doors of the fashion world, nobody answered. “I would call modeling agencies and ask if I could spend time understanding what the life of a model in New York was like, and they essentially hung up on me,” she says. “I think they just didn’t care.”

Egan had to make them care, or the novel was in danger. “Right around that time, a friend of mine got a job as an editor at The New York Times Magazine,” Egan says. “And he said ‘Look, we want someone to do a story on young models living as adults in New York.’”

As a fiction writer, she says, “even though I had no idea how to do such a story, I said yes. Because I figured, even if it doesn’t work out, at least I will have gotten my research done.” And in the meantime, she could preface all her interview requests with the amazingly effective line: “Hello, I’m calling from The New York Times…”

“So that was basically how I got into journalism. And I spent months and months submerged in that world.” Not only did the article work out, it actually ended up being somewhat high profile—mostly, Egan says, on account of the stellar Nan Goldin photo spread that ran alongside it.

Since then, she’s written primarily for The New York Times Magazine, producing big pieces at the rate of one or two per year, most of them cover stories, on topics ranging from the secret life of gay marines to the difficult treatment of bipolar disorder in children. In 2002, her story on homeless children won the Carroll Kowal Journalism Award.

Not many novelists can claim dual citizenship in the upper echelons of both journalism and fiction, but Egan has found a way to balance her loyalties. “I don’t write that many non-fiction articles, but the ones I do tend to be really kind of long and exhaustive research pieces,” she says, the sort that involve “scores and scores of interviews.” And the act of submerging herself in the material of a non-fiction story can lead to an imaginative leap that generates the stuff of future novels, in ways that might not be obvious. Her third novel, The Keep, is a gothic tale of isolation and fear updated for the age of satellite phones and wireless networks. But part of the inspiration came from a cover story she’d just written about closeted gay teenagers in the Deep South, who are only out online, and spend much of their day-to-day “real” lives in isolation and fear. It’s not necessarily easy to shuttle back and forth between the two worlds of journalism and fiction, Egan says. Both fields tend to proceed from the assumption that the other is less important. “But that’s no surprise,” she adds. “Everyone thinks their own world is central. That’s how we all make ourselves feel important.”

 

As her coffee cools, I ask Egan the question that one is obliged to ask someone who’s just won the Pulitzer: What’s it like to win the Pulitzer? She laughs, and for the first time looks like she might rather be somewhere else.

“The biggest difference,” she says, “is you get asked that question a lot.” And just being asked constantly “gives you the feeling that more should have changed.”

One concrete effect is that sales of A Visit from the Goon Squad have finally started to pick up. Despite all the positive press, when the book came out a year ago it threatened to sink without leaving much of a trace in the market. “It’s such a killer,” Egan says, of the feeling she experienced then: that years of work might be left to languish on the shelf, that the reading public simply wasn’t all that interested. When things were looking grim, she remembers agreeing to go to a signing at a Borders, even though her publicist had informed her that the store only had five copies. “Not a very exciting quantity, but I was willing to go sign anything,” she says. “And when I got there, they still had five books. In five days, they hadn’t sold a single book.”

The good reviews kept appearing, but the signs were unmistakable. “You can just feel whether a book is selling,” she says. Goon Squad made The New York Times list of the 10 Best Books of 2010, and a couple of months later won the National Book Critics Circle award. Sales still remained lackluster. Egan began to wonder: what would it take? “And it turns out it took a lot,” she says. “It took a Pulitzer.”
 

  
To her reading at the Kelly Writers House, Egan wears a green dress with a faintly cellular pattern, in a color that matches the bright stems of the fresh-cut tulips perched on the old, wooden podium. The front room has overflowed, and a second monitor and temporary chairs are being hurriedly assembled. Egan’s own copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad is a battered hardback missing its dust jacket, the pages marked with dozens of purple PostIt notes that have crumpled down to the texture of old money.

Earlier, she’d told me about her experience being robbed as a student at Penn (“Actually, this is unbelievable, I was robbed on consecutive weeks, in the same place,” she says, while trying to make photocopies in the basement of College Hall). A soon-to-be stolen wallet is one of the first images that appears in Goon Squad, and that’s the story that she’s chosen for today. When she reads, her voice is cool and even:


 It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to realize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her.


Egan’s creative process often provokes conversation, because she’s known for writing all her fiction longhand, on legal pads. “Then the initial scrawl gets typed into a computer,” she says, essentially turning her PC into an elaborate typewriter. “I’ve written whole drafts of novels on legal pads and then typed that in,” she says.

After it’s typed in, “I read what I’ve got,” and it’s not always pretty. “In the case of a long book, it’s painful to read hundreds of pages of that impetuous scrawl, suddenly in typeface.” Her system might not sound particularly efficient, but it’s the only way she’s found to access the imaginative space that makes her fiction writing possible at all.

Once she’s read over her draft, she forms an after-the-fact outline that will guide her revisions. “I sit down and try in a very systematic way to figure out what I’ve got, what it seems like it should be, and what it wants to be,” she says. The outline itself can stretch to the length of a novella (for her longest book, Look at Me, the first outline filled 80 pages). “It has checklists,” she says, “and I literally check them off.”

She prints out a hard copy and, armed with her outline, goes back to rewriting and editing directly on the printouts, again working longhand so that she can reenter the mindset she needs to create new material. The marked up drafts are typed back in, and the process continues. “It’s a dialectic between analysis and impulse. And it goes on as long as it needs to go on,” she says.

After she describes the mindset she tries to write from, I suggest it sounds something like the approach behind method acting. Egan wrinkles her nose. (Her husband, David Herskovits, directs the experimental Target Margin Theater in Brooklyn.) “Method acting has a reputation of being a little precious,” she says. But she’s willing to entertain the parallel, in a limited sense. When she’s doing her best work, she says, “I forget who I am, almost. And I find that not scary at all. I find that a pleasure.”

In the tactile act of writing, she says, she can switch off the mental chorus of judgment and distraction, whether it’s about the household chores: “You have to get the laundry done.” Or about her own words: “That’s not very good. Why would anyone want to read that?” Or about her characters: “Why is he doing that?”

Her more intuitive approach isn’t based on unraveling the motivations of any particular character, or solving plot problems as though they’re equations. Rather, “I’m trying to let a certain voice emerge, for the whole work. The storytelling voice is the most important thing, to me,” she says. “The voice, and the texture of that voice.”

Perhaps for this reason her work is strikingly non-autobiographical, and Egan says she’s never transplanted a whole person or an experience into her work. It’s true that for Goon Squad, she drew on some of her own memories to recreate the feel of the ’70s punk scene in San Francisco. “I went to the Mabuhay Gardens, and went to lots of punk concerts there,” she says. “But it just felt like a colorful environment that I had access to.”

When Egan talks this way about the stray details of her life that have slipped into her work, it sounds as impersonal as an empty movie set. Slowly, she will populate it with the characters that take shape on her legal pad, in her own messy handwriting, as she excavates her imagination with all the care of a good archeologist sifting through the accumulated layers of history and memory.

“My entry point is a time and place,” she says, “and it’s best not to know too much more than that. Because the surprises are always the best.”


Sean Whiteman LPS’11 is a recent Penn graduate and frequent Gazette contributor. He lives in San Francisco.

 


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