For Jennifer Egan, Success Came Too Soon
Jennifer Egan is undoubtedly one of the most versatile and prolific writers publishing today. Over the last 15 years, she has published book reviews, investigative journalism pieces, dozens of short stories and five novels, each wildly different than the next.
As The Economist put it recently, “Ms Egan is famous for defying categorisation. Her books already include a realist Bildungsroman, a gothic thriller, and a DeLillo-like novel about image culture.”
Along the way, she has been a finalist for The National Book Award for fiction, received a Guggenheim Fellowship and even had one of her novels, The Invisible Circus, turned into a movie.
Egan’s latest book, A Visit From The Goon Squad, falls somewhere between a novel and a collection of stories, and focuses on rock ‘n roll and the passage of time. She is currently at work on a historical novel about World War II.
It would seem that she can write pretty much anything, but as Egan tells Opening Lines in this interview, there is one exception: poetry.
Egan spoke with us about how keeping a journal inspired her to become a writer, why she threw away her first novel and the downside of getting published in The New Yorker at the age of 26.
Opening Lines: Jennifer, let’s start from the very beginning of your career. What is the earliest piece you remember writing?
Egan: The first thing I remember writing was actually a horrible poem when I was in first grade. All I remember is that one rhyme in it was “pig” and “jig.” It was for a poetry contest for kids, and it’s so funny because I actually presumed that I would win for this fabulous rhyme. The prize was this bookshelf full of books and I just wanted that so badly. So I tossed off my rhyme and awaited the accolades which of course never came.
I remember I also tried to write a short story right around that time about a girl who had a birthday party and no one came. And then the girl’s mother said to her, “The reason that no one came to your party is that you didn’t want them to come.” I remember feeling really surprised by that remark from this mother in this story, and feeling really intrigued, but I also had nowhere to go with it so that was the end. We were getting a little to psychological for the 6 year old mind.
So those are my two earliest memories of writing and perhaps they reveal early antecedents to my inability to write poetry, and to my fiction writing method which is very blind and without a lot of thought initially.
OL: When did you really begin to feel more of an impulse to write?
Egan: I remember writing in my free time a lot in high school. There was a teacher that I had my freshman year in high school who had a big impact on me because he really loved my writing. I hadn’t thought of myself as being special in that way, but he seemed to really respond to what I did, in a way that was strong, and that was exciting to me. I had never encountered that before. That was a case where writing for school became a big deal. I was 14 and I think a certain deeper interest in writing locked in around that time, although I did not fancy myself a writer.
“I sent around my first novel and I found that anyone I sent it to became unreachable because no one knew what the hell to say to me, including my mother for a brief period. I had the horrible awakening that any writer knows of discovering that I had done something that everyone hated.”
OL: Was there one particular assignment or creative writing piece you did while in high school that stands out to you now?
Egan: I’m sorry to say that my crowning achievement was a play about the group The Who. I don’t think that’s something I’ll be sharing with the world. I’m not even sure about where it is. But I really enjoyed working on it. What was important about it was certainly not the thing itself, but that I found it so entertaining to be on my own writing this thing.
OL: Now, I’ve read that after high school, you pursued a brief career as an archaeologist. How did that come about and why did you abandon this pursuit?
Egan: That was my dream throughout high school. But one problem was that I had no idea what being an archaeologist would be like. I thought that I could be paid as a high school graduate to go on exciting digs in exotic countries if I just made people aware that my services were available. I wrote to archaeology departments at major universities and said basically that I’m here and will work for a fee. Most people didn’t answer but one nice professor wrote back saying that graduate students actually pay to go on these digs, and there’s no way we’re paying you.
So at that point I said ugh, and I ended up paying to go on a little dig in Illinois. At that point I realized that while it was actually really interesting, it wasn’t what I had envisioned at all. And since it had all been a fantasy to begin with, the fantasy began to lose its power at that point, which left me sort of wondering what exactly I wanted to do.
OL: How did you end up choosing writing as your next best career option?
Egan: Well later that same year, I ended up going to Europe. I bought a Euro Rail pass and visited a number of countries, but I actually had a pretty rough time because I was 18, and my mother and step father were in the middle of divorcing. I just felt very alone in a big way, and at that point, in a fairly extreme state of fear and worry and just general flipping out, I became aware that writing was really critical for me. It just was obvious under the circumstances. I wrote in my journal and that was all that was keeping my mind from flying into pieces. So I came back knowing for sure that that was what I wanted to do.
OL: So keeping a journal while abroad was really what led you to the realization that you wanted to be a writer?
Egan: Yes, very much so. I still have that journal and it’s sort of amazing to read it now. You know, I really thought my life was over. It’s so amazing that someone 18 years old could think that, but I really did believe it. And in that state of extremis, which was somewhat imagined, but nevertheless seemed very real, I made the kinds of decisions that you make in extreme moments about what really matters to you. In a way, I’m just so grateful for it because I got to college basically knowing exactly what I wanted to do to a degree that has never wavered.
OL: When did you start trying to get published and how long did it take until you succeeded?
Egan: I got into the habit of sending things out in college, but of course, it all led to nothing for years. And then finally, I did sell a story to The North American Review, and then another one to Boulevard when I was 24. I continued to send out stories and wrote an unreadable monster of a novel that was so bad because no one had seen it and I didn’t receive any correction. So I had basically done a lot of really crummy writing.
OL: What happened to that first book?
Egan: Nothing. I mean a huge nothing happened to it. I sent it around and I found that anyone I sent it to became unreachable because no one knew what the hell to say to me, including my mother for a brief period. I had the horrible awakening that any writer knows of discovering that I had done something that everyone hated. So that was very depressing. And the stakes felt high because I didn’t really have any other plan. I was new to New York and didn’t really have any connections at all. I just had this book that I was hoping someone would like and quite to the contrary, everyone hated it. That was a low moment.
That story really hung over me and cast a long shadow, and I felt that I would never even match it, much less top it,” Egan says of getting published in The New Yorker at 26.
OL: Were you working a regular job or attending classes during this period, or did you spend most of your time just trying to write?
Egan: I worked as a temp and I would bring my floppy discs to my temp jobs and switch back and forth between my fiction and whatever I was supposed to be doing at my job. I also took a class with Tom Jenks, who was then the fiction editor at GQ, and he really pushed me to try doing some things that I hadn’t done before.
At that point, I was in a fairly good rhythm of writing work that didn’t make people run screaming out of the room, but it did tend to be of a certain ilk. It was often about teenagers, there was a lot about the past. It sort of followed the present-day situation, with flashbacks, denouement/epiphany and then everything’s going to be okay. That was the format, and the stories were doing that well, but at the same time, it’s not the most exciting thing. So Tom said to me, “I want you to write a story in which there are no kids and nothing about the past.” And I thought, Are you out of your mind? What can I possibly do? So I felt very hamstrung by those limitations, but then once I decided I was just going to go forward anyway, I found them really freeing, and I wrote what I would definitely call a breakthrough story, called The Stylist, which I ultimately sold to The New Yorker, and that was definitely my big break. I was 26.
OL: So you were only 26 and already had published in The New Yorker. What effect did that have on your career?
Egan: Well, you think, oh my god, then everything must have been easy, but it was in some ways a little too soon for that to happen to me because that story was by far the best thing I had done. Everything else I had was significantly less sophisticated. As inevitably happens if you’re a total unknown and publish in The New Yorker, a lot of people come forward and said, “Oh wow, what else have you got?” But when I would show them what else I had, they were actually not that interested. And at the time, there was no guarantee that I was going to do anything else especially interesting.
That story really hung over me and cast a long shadow, and I felt that I would never even match it, much less top it. And that that was thing that everyone was interested in, not what I’d been doing before. So that was tough in a way, although these are the problems you want. You want to be publishing and making leaps.
OL: With all that pressure for a follow-up, what did you do next?
Egan: At that point, I decided to take another crack at the horrific first novel I’d written because when I re-read it, which was very painful, I discovered that I’d done such a horrible job, I’d so utterly missed the mark, that in a way I felt like I hadn’t really touched the idea that I had wanted to deal with. It felt like I had just kind of aimed in the wrong direction and the target was still there and that made me want to give it another try. So I essentially threw that out. I can’t really say I rewrote it, because I didn’t save a single word, but there were certain basic impulses and plot moves that really fueled the next attempt, and they were the same as the first in some ways. And that is what ultimately became the first novel that I published, The Invisible Circus. It was a long evolution.
OL: Looking back now, what would you say was the toughest obstacle you faced in the years between when you first decided to pursue writing as a career and when you actually got your first book published?
Egan: I think the toughest obstacle was the question of why I was doing it. Although in a certain way, it wasn’t that tough since I was compelled to do it, but there was no one telling me this was a good idea. I had gone to an expensive college and gotten a good education, and then gotten another degree with a scholarship in England, and now I was working as a temp? My parents and family were wondering what I was doing. So that part was hard. Just that question of why was this a valid thing to be doing. At the same time, I think that if you’re a person who is going to be stymied by questions like that, you’re probably not going to really keep writing, because in a way, it’s a crazy thing to do.
So I would say, I think the hardest part was not getting so down that I just stopped. I just was down. I felt like life was passing me by.
OL: How did you prevent yourself from getting to that point where you might consider giving up on writing?
Egan: I used certain little tricks. For example, I continued to send out a lot of stories. These were the days of sending stuff out in the mail with a self-addressed stamped envelope. As soon as I got back a rejection – which I did all the time because I would send out eight copies at once – I would immediately put it back in an envelope and send it out again because I knew that as soon as I’d put that envelope in the mail box, I started feeling hopeful again. So I tried to immediately turn disappointment into hope.
OL: Finally, what is the one piece of advice you wish you could have given yourself when you were starting out?
Egan: The biggest advice would be don’t worry about the business. Forget who’s up and who’s down, it changes all the time. It feels huge, it feels immutable when you’re younger, and it’s really the most mutable thing. You just keep getting better, that’s all you have to worry about, and it’s so hard just to do that. You should just flush the rest of it out of your head. It’s literally nothing. I’ve been doing this long enough that I know it for sure. If I could get back the hours I spent worrying about who was who and who won what and why I didn’t get it – it was literally a complete and utter waste of my time, and you know time is the thing we don’t have enough of. Anything that’s wasting time and distracting you has got to go.