interview> An interview with Jennifer Egan

'Maybe memes are only for people under 50, I don’t know'

Jennifer Egan is touring the world with 'Manhattan Beach', her first novel since the overwhelming succes that was 'A Visit From the Goon Squad'. We sat down for a lengthy chat about her writing.


Perhaps first a quick note about your new book, Manhattan Beach. How would you describe it yourself?

In some ways, it is a bit of an old-fashioned adventure story. It takes place during World War II in New York and it involves the Brooklyn Navy Yard, deep sea diving and the merchant marine, but also the world of organized waterfront crime in America.

This is probably a question you get all the time, but ‘Manhattan Beach’ is quite a big departure from your previous books.

It is. That is pretty normal for me, but the thing is a lot of people think ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ is my first book, so they’re like, ‘oh my god!’. But I always do different things. The book before ‘Goon Squad’ was a gothic thriller (‘The Keep’, red.), so there is really no overlap between those two books. The same goes for ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ and this. I guess this more straight-forward structure allowed me to do more different things than I had been doing for a while, and that was really a pleasure.

Is that a deliberate thing you, to look for a different structure each time round?

It’s more that I want to be in a different world each time. Usually, the structure is deeply intertwined with the world that I’m writing about. I hadn’t realized this, but fragmentation and structural weirdness, if you will, feels very connected to temporary life. So walking away from that allowed me to leave all that behind, which I really felt ready to do.

Was it necessary to have written these more fragmented books first?

I think it made me appreciate certain things about classicism that I might not have otherwise. I really enjoy the big scale of it. You see this more often in genre fiction. For instance, my son is a big fantasy fan, and when we were reading some fantasy books together I just thought ‘wow, this is kind of wild, people are getting killed and are dying, there’s huge battles - you just don’t see this is contemporary literary fiction!’. It’s just not there. I thought - why not? That’s fun to read and fun to write! I think it was great fun writing this consciously and discovering the advantages of writing the more traditional way. I’m ready now to get a little crazy again, because it’s been a while (laughs).

‘Manhattan Beach’ has a strong female character, but there are also two male figures. Would you say it’s more difficult to write from a female perspective for you?

(laughs). That’s a good question. Maybe. It’s definitely less fun. I enjoy writing from a male perspective because it creates a natural separation between me and the character. It just takes me further away, basically, which is what I’m always looking for. But that being said - when I write female characters, I tend to write them very different from myself. Someone like Anna is really very different from me - she’s so daring, really determined and she’s able to hold on to a sense of who she is apart from how the world might see her. And I really admire that. But I do tend to skew towards the male, there’s no question. And with this novel I thought ‘female protagonist, boom’, but in the end, with the two male protagonists, you would be lucky if fifty percent of it is Anna. Probably a little less.

I knew I had hit bottom when my mother stopped returning my phone calls because she didn’t know what to tell me, that’s how bad the first version of my debut novel was.

Was it difficult to write about this very different World War II society in a time where society is very much engaged in the empowerment of women?

Well, I finished this in February 2017, way before MeToo or any of that. What is strange, is that recent events in America, since the book came out, have felt oddly related to certain things about it. First of all - Trump as president is sort of an old-fashioned thug, really. He feels like he’s from another time. He basically regards himself as being outside of law, and that’s essentially what organized crime was all about. So when he took office, I thought, ‘wow, I’m watching this old-style thug take power!’. And it was really a weird feeling. With the MeToo-movement as well. One thing I was really curious about when researching this book was the position of the women who worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and their relationship to the men. Certain things make the tension between men and women very obvious, like the fact that women couldn’t go on ships for the first couple of years that they worked at the Navy Yard. Clearly, the fear was that the men wouldn’t be able to control themselves and that some sort of sexual assault would occur in the closed quarters. It would be interesting now to say that we need rules to make sure men don’t assault women in the workplace - that would seem really weird now. And yet there is this strange dynamic that is appearing in certain workplaces. What do we do about that? I don’t know. But it seems so relevant to what I was writing at the time.

Becoming a writer

We are, of course, writing for a student magazine. One fun question we like to pose our interviewees is: how were you as a student?

Well, one thing is, when I got to university, I had taken a year off. I had this idea that I wanted to be an archaeologist, and that if I wrote to universities and offered my services as a high school graduate, they would pay me and FLY me to places like Egypt or Africa to dig for them. Needless to say, this was unrealistic in the extreme. I wrote to all these programmes, but I got no answer whatsoever. Finally, one answer came from the University of Berkeley, which said, ‘dear Miss Egan, what you need to understand is that our graduate students pay US to take them on digs, so no one is going to be taking you.’ (laughs). So I ended up paying to go on a small archaeological dig in Illinois, which is not where I was wanting to go. But I did realize that archaeology was maybe not the right thing for me. I eventually saved up enough money to get a backpack, a Eurailpass and start travelling through Europe. I flew to London - that was incredibly exciting! I couldn’t even believe those English accents were real! I felt like they were all pretending, even the children, how do they do it? But still, it was kind of intense; I was very solitary and without the internet, which is hard to imagine now, the isolation was extreme. I was also really anxious, and basically had a whole series of panic attacks. Which I thought were drug flashbacks, which tells you about what I had been doing in high school (laughs). But in that very anxious state, I basically realised that writing was this crucial thing that connected me to the rest of the world. And that was a big discovery. I was still able to go to university about a month later. By the time I got there, I knew what I wanted to do, and I must say, it has never wavered. So I think I was very directed as a student, more serious, and in some ways, less naive and sheltered than most of the kids around me. Their parents brought them to school, and they all had pillows and tea pots … I arrived by myself, with a suitcase, from California, and I was like, ‘here I am!’. But I also just loved university because I felt so safe there. I had been out there, in the world, and I had discovered it was not always so good being there by yourself, so I loved it. I feel like a lot of the local rebellions that other students had, or not wanting to work … I was done with all that.

'I flew to London - that was incredibly exciting! I couldn’t even believe those English accents were real! I felt like they were all pretending, even the children, how do they do it?'

How did you set about to achieve your writing goals?

I took a couple of courses – which I still remember vividly – and I edited the literary magazine, and I guess I kind of published myself, which made it pretty easy. (laughs) Then I actually won a scholarship to study at Cambridge so I went there for 2 years and while I was there I had an idea for a novel about missing the 1960’s. That’s a very powerful thing for me because I grew up in San Francisco in the 1970’s and I missed basically the counterculture, which felt like a serious drag. I mean, talk about missing the party! While I was at Cambridge for two years I was getting a masters in English literature, but I was also writing this novel. I wrote pages and pages and pages by hand, and I typed them up and it looked good, it looked solid sitting across the room. And when I moved back to the US and moved back to New York, I thought I must have written a masterpiece because it looks terrific sitting over there. So I started sending it out and, oh my God, it came flying back. I knew I had hit bottom when my mother stopped returning my phone calls because she didn’t know what to tell me, that’s how bad it was. (laughs) But little by little I started to get back on track. My whole career was incremental, I remember vividly I sold one story to a literary magazine and how thrilling that was. And then I had a big break when I sold a story to the New Yorker kind of over the transom which is hard to do - but it does happen, clearly. So that was very exciting. But it was very gradual, I never had a sort of superstar moment as a young person. I ended up with a job that was very useful. I was a private secretary for a rather maniacal woman - who was also a writer. She was a spy during WWII - or so she claimed. Others claimed that she was not. But she was a very beautiful woman who ended up working for the OSS, which was the predecessor of the CIA in America during WWII. She married a Spanish count and she ended up living in Spain for many years and then finally moved back to the states when her husband died. She screamed and yelled, but she paid me enough to live on, and I worked from 1 till 6 pm every day. So I would write from 8 till 12, get dressed and walk to work and then have her yelling at me from 1 till 6, but I would at least have done some work. So, I just kept going. I would apply for grants, and I reached a point where I didn’t have to have day jobs anymore. I could do this and that, and started doing journalism and it kind of slowly improved. And with A visit from the goon squad, I guess that was my big break. By then I was in my forties and I had been doing it long enough that it didn’t startle me to win prizes. So that’s a long answer to your question, but that’s how I did it.

Short stories and gaming culture

I was wondering how important you think it is short stories make an impact, and I think about Cat Person that was published a few weeks ago in the New Yorker.

One thing that was so exciting about seeing that Cat Person is that generally - at least in America - short stories are seen as a dead end, in terms of publishing. No one wants to hear that you’re working on a short story collection. This really was a problem with A visit from the goon squad. I refused to call it a novel when it came out in America and they refused to let me call it ‘stories’. So we had a stand-off, and called it ‘nothing’. To me, what Cat Person shows is that it doesn’t really matter what genre you’re working with – you’re trying to find a genre that suits your material and do the best work you can. So I believe very strongly in the form and in the power in the place of fiction – in the potential of fiction to hold its place in the culture, which I think is an open question. Because I look at what my sons are doing, who are not much younger than you are, and they’re mostly watching Youtube videos. It’s pretty horrifying, actually. I just think ‘Oh my God, you guys are intelligent, well-educated people who have been read to their whole lives, given very little technology until there was no avoiding it, and yet you guys are watching Youtube videos all day.’ I’ll say this to them: ‘show me why this is interesting.’ I had to get a lesson in memes the other day. I still don’t think I totally understand them, it’s a strange genre. What the hell are they? I mean, it’s weird. My son would be laughing hysterically and I’m like ‘explain to me why this is funny.’ Maybe memes are only for people under 50, I don’t know. The bottom line is there’s no intimacy there. You’re looking at stuff from the outside and often being asked to laugh at people, as far as I can tell. And that’s all fine, but you’re not experiencing the sensation of being inside another human being’s brain. As far as I know the only thing that can give you that experience is fiction. And what was crazy about Cat Person; people didn’t even know what to call it. They kept saying ‘I love the article.’ Article? What are you talking about? It’s as if they didn’t understand – they felt so connected to these people that they thought they were real people, but that’s what fiction is. It showed me how much power it still has and it was very heartening. Also, it was a really good story, I thought.

'I look at what my sons are doing, who are not much younger than you are, and they’re mostly watching Youtube videos. It’s pretty horrifying, actually'

It’s interesting what you say about fiction. It makes me wonder what role you think the video game industry can play in fiction.

Such a good question. I’m very interested in that.

In video games you are inside the mind of the character, but you also make the decisions.

I know. Well, I hate videogames. But that’s for two reasons. One is because I’m a parent of two boys. Find me a parent of two boys that doesn’t hate video games. (laughs) And second of all, I’m bad at them. (laughs) What I’m very interested in is how video games are going to work for me as a fiction writer. And how I’m gonna use gaming, because it’s a huge part of our culture. It’s fascinating how video games have revived a lot of interest in Dungeons and Dragons, which my husband played as a kid in the seventies with the original materials, which he still has and are pretty amazing. And my younger son is into all of this, so we’ve gone LARPing. I’ve LARPed! I know, it’s horrible. I wore a tiara. You’ll do anything for your children! (laughs) The problem I see narratively is that there is zero originality. I have not seen an original idea, an original moment or an original character in any of this. So it’s true that we’re getting this kind of interaction, but what are we really getting in terms of the story.

I think the most well-known video games do indeed focus on the gameplay more rather than the story.

And that’s boring to me.

I do think that’s maybe a phase that video games have to go through. That people will at one point say ‘okay, we’ve seen what we can do. Now let’s focus on the story.’

And people do say that. I know that there’s really a dispute in the gaming world where there are these more literary games that are actually strongly disliked by the sort of old school gamers who feel that this is sort of an intrusion to a world that doesn’t really warrant it. And as I understand it these more literary games – that do exist – are quite unpopular. There is a video game where you have cancer – I mean, who would want to play that? But I guess there is some merit to it, people want to read books about people who have cancer. But my question is always ‘how are games gonna help me?’ (laughs) Not ‘how are games gonna give people something I can’t do?’ I want to be able what they do and actually do it better.

One of the short stories in The goon squad is completely comprised of powerpoints, so maybe?

Yes, exactly! We’re thinking in the same way. And the God I’m serving has – at least so far – always been a literary God. Big Twitter users considered Black box a total failure because they felt it wasn’t Twitter-savvy enough. My reaction to that was ‘that wasn’t what I was trying to do.’ In the end, this was supposed to be read on the page. So in the end you’ll have to decide whom you’re serving and for me, I’ve sort of planted my flag in literature. Although that in and on itself is going to change because some people are going to say ‘you wrote in Powerpoint so don’t talk to me about literature. You’ve already gone off the rails.’ So who knows. The novel was invented as a very voracious form that could absorb other things and if you look at the earliest novels, they’re full of crazy stuff. So I think ‘Can I absorb a video game somehow?’ We’ll find out!

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