Egan was born in Chicago, and transplanted to San Francisco at age seven after her parents divorced. Her father stayed in Chicago, and she would travel back to visit him during the summer. When she began looking for colleges, she was drawn to Penn in part by the excellent reputation of the University Museum. It seemed like the perfect place to pursue her childhood dream: a career in archeology.

After her senior year of high school, she deferred coming to Penn for a year so she could join an archeological dig in southern Illinois. “Which I paid to go on,” she recalls. After some time uncovering pottery shards and projectile points of the Mississippian Indians, she’d mentally switched her major before actually arriving at college. “I discovered that my notions of archeology were pretty fantastical,” she says. “I pictured shovels and big urns. Instead I had a scalpel, and a square meter of earth.” To her dismay, she found that archeologists didn’t even get to dig things up. “I hadn’t understood that you have to lower the earth until it’s below the object. I think that might have been the death knell” for archeology, she says. “I did not have the patience.”

The expedition did have a clarifying effect on her freshman year, though. “By the time I got to Penn, I already knew I wanted to be a writer,” she says. In the 1980s, before the advent of the Kelly Writers House, that meant building her own network of professors who saw her potential. One of these was the playwright Romulus Linney, who taught playwriting and fiction at Penn from 1982 to 1995 (he passed away this past January). He became an important figure to Egan, and would eventually advise her while she produced her creative writing thesis. “The last couple of years I just worked privately with Romulus,” says Egan.

Egan also took several fiction classes from Diana Cavallo CW’53, a writing teacher whose office was just across from Linney’s in Bennett Hall. “She stood out right from the start,” says Cavallo, now retired. “Her work was extremely vivid, and very visual. Place was very important.” From their first meeting, Cavallo recalls that Egan was unusually serious about her craft for a young writer. “She honed her craft, and that’s what stood out about her. She was willing to do it until it was right.”

Daniel Hoffman, the poet and Felix Schelling Professor of English Emeritus, who was then the director of Penn’s creative writing program, encountered Egan for the first time when the two of them gave a reading together in the old Christian Association building (now the ARCH). “Already, her prose had fluency and style,” he recalls. And although he also helped direct her final creative thesis, Hoffman says that Egan was never someone who needed much in the way of direction.

Helped by a glowing letter of recommendation from Cavallo, Egan was among the winners of the Thouron Award her senior year, which allowed her to study in England for two years. “I went to Cambridge,” she says, and while she was there she traveled a lot. Besides the UK, “I went to China in ’86, so [it was] pre-Tiananmen Square,” and also visited the USSR and Italy.

When it was time to come back to the States, she decided to move to New York. “I think I just somehow sensed that this is where I wanted to live as an adult,” she says. But while she’d been away, her college friends had already settled into the city. “They had jobs, and lives,” Egan says, while she arrived without any visible means of support. “And of course, New York is much more expensive than anyone thinks it could be,” she says.

Worst of all, the novel she’d been working on while she was away, based on an idea she’d had while at Penn, “was terrible,” she says, “as I quickly learned when I started to show it to people.” (Eventually, it would emerge as her first book, The Invisible Circus.) During her travels, there were long stretches when no one saw her work, and in that time her writing had drifted out of tune. “I had basically lost touch with what I had learned at Penn,” she says, from people like Linney. “I’d forgotten what made fiction feel alive.”

The first two years were truly difficult, she says. “I was very down. And it was very depressing to learn that the book was bad.”

By way of artistic rehab, Egan began studying with Phillip Schultz, who at the time was still teaching writing out of his home (he now runs the prestigious Writer’s Studio school in Manhattan, and has won a Pulitzer of his own, for poetry). “I can’t remember how I found my way to him,” says Egan, but the painful process of receiving feedback (“mostly negative”) did begin to move her work in the right direction. “I didn’t even bring in any of the book,” says Egan. Instead she brought scraps of new material, looking for pieces that would at least register a pulse. “I was finally reconnecting with the question of what we read for, and what as a writer you’re trying to do for the reader.”

Around the same time, she started reading unsolicited manuscripts—known as the “slush pile”—for The Paris Review literary journal. “Which was fun,” she says, “because I got invited to the parties.” Those weekly bashes at Editor George Plimpton’s expansive Upper East Side apartment have since been shrouded in legend, and Egan says she’s pretty certain Plimpton never actually knew her name. But those late evenings gave her a look into the New York literary scene, and the cast of characters inhabiting it.

To make ends meet Egan worked as a temp, but the jobs paid little and left her even less time to write. She landed a position as a “word processor” (bear in mind that it was the late ’80s) at the firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, which offered more flexible hours. Ultimately, she ended up as the private secretary to the Countess of Romanones (aka Doña María Aline Griffith Dexter), an immaculately dressed aristocrat, socialite, and occasional writer. “She had worked for the OSS during World War II, went to Europe and married a Spanish Count, and had a very colorful life,” Egan says. The Countess was writing a series of memoirish books about her experience as a spy (which became surprise bestsellers, and later turned out to be liberally embroidered). “She needed help with all aspects of her life,” says Egan, “and she was a very difficult personality.”

But she paid a living wage, and most importantly allowed Egan to work from 1 pm to 6 pm every day. “So from 8 am to noon, I wrote,” Egan says. “And then I jumped in the shower, put on my work clothes, and walked to the Upper East Side.” Finally, “I had the pieces of a life in place that really let me write.”


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FEATURE: Surprises Are Always the Best By Sean Whiteman
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