Habit of Mind: An Interview with Jennifer Egan

photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem

Interviewed by Allan Vorda

Born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco, Jennifer Egan is known by readers of The New York Times Magazine as a journalist, and to many more readers as one of the pre-eminent fiction writers of our time. Since her first book, a collection of short stories titled Emerald City (1993), she has published the novels The Invisible Circus (1995), Look at Me (2001), The Keep (2006), and A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), the latter of which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the LA Times Book Prize.

Egan's new novel, Manhattan Beach (Scribner, $28), is set during the World War II era, a time when women were newly permitted to take on industrial jobs that once belonged to the men, now soldiers fighting in the war. The novel follows the interwoven stories of Anna Kerrigan, the only female diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, her father Eddie Kerrigan, a bagman for the mob who has vanished under mysterious circumstances, and nightclub owner Dexter Styles, Eddie's mobster boss.

I interviewed Jennifer Egan on November 6, 2017 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston before the author's reading at Rice University for the Inprint Reading Series; we ended up discussing her latest novel of course, but also travel, beauty, and Rockford, Illinois, among many other topics. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation (transcription by Shawn Vorda).


Allan Vorda: Before getting into your latest novel, Manhattan Beach, I would like to briefly discuss some of your earlier writing. Emerald City, a collection of short stories, often depicts characters who initially might be described as not worldly or perhaps naïve, yet who experience some epiphany or awakening. I am thinking of Sam in "Why China?," Sarah in "Sacred Heart," and Rory in "Emerald City." Was there a particular enlightening experience that you can share that contributed to your own self-awareness.

Jennifer Egan: Yes. I took a year off between high school and college, and I went to Europe and traveled with a backpack. I flew to London, got a Eurail pass and traveled around Europe, which a lot of European kids did and probably still do. I didn't see too many Americans. It was very alienating in certain ways because my family was in San Francisco and, of course, those were the days without cell phones or the Internet. It's hard even now for me to imagine this. I felt very cut off and I think in that cut off state, I discovered that writing was an essential part of my connection to the world. It was an epiphany, although I don't remember a specific moment when it happened. I remember by the time I came back I knew I wanted to be a writer. I guess you can't really ask for more from a year off, right? I knew what I wanted to do with my life, but like so many discoveries I've made, it really came through adversity.

In other words, it was not a fun trip in many ways. It was very hard. I felt very isolated. I wonder sometimes whether anyone experiences that isolation anymore. I wonder whether without that isolation I would have discovered I wanted to be a writer. I don't know nowadays if I would have. I don't know if I would have been just chatting on Instagram the whole time and never reaching that discovery.

AV: How have your other traveling experiences affected you as a writer?

JE: I think a great deal, because I'm very influenced and informed by place. That's my entry point into fiction. I think it starts with the fact that I'm originally from Chicago, but my parents divorced when I was two. I moved at seven to San Francisco with my mother and stepfather, and the textures and feeling of that place were very different than Chicago. Right from the start I was attuned to the fact that in some ways geography and biography intersected. I used the places that I had been and experienced as both a traveler and a citizen very heavily. In fact it's the only part of my own life that I knowingly use in my fiction. So, in some ways, the places I've been offer me stories to tell. They're my access points.

AV: Several of the husbands in Emerald City are unfaithful leading to divorce. Charlotte Swenson, the protagonist in Look at Me, observes of her one-night stand with a married man: "It was obvious he was a regular cheater. So many were." You are a happily married woman with children, but should readers read into your characters that you do not have a high opinion of men in general?

JE: I think that would be presumptuous on the part of the reader because I think there are also a great many happy marriages in my work. However, it is fair to say that I have witnessed a lot of broken marriages. My parents divorced when I was very young so I didn't grow up with an example of a very happy marriage in front of me.

AV: Taking a line from Look at Me, Charlotte ponders: "Seeing her mother beside her annihilated that hope, leaving Charlotte to wonder whether someone so unbeautiful as herself would be allowed to go on, to have anything. Wouldn't someone more beautiful get it, whatever it was?" You seem to have a lot of references to women's beauty or even their unattractiveness. I'm curious what your concept of beauty is and its importance to women in general.

JE: I think we live in an image-saturated world, a culture in which physical appearance ends up having excess importance, in which people of all sorts are focused, have to be focused, especially younger people, on this self-marketing. That's really what social media is on some level. I think physical appearance has outsized importance in our culture and no one has much of a choice but to care about it. I think that's unfortunate in certain ways. It impacts people in ways that are different for every person, and I think it often has very little relationship to their inner lives. I guess I feel that physical appearance is a bit of a distraction, but it ends up mattering more than it should in a culture permeated by mass media.

AV: Throughout several of your stories you mention Rockford, Illinois. I believe your mother grew up there, but did you spend any time there and what is it about Rockford you like to use as a reference?

JE: I did spend a lot of time there because my grandparents lived there. Until they both passed away, I would go there in the summer and other times. I think what interested me in Rockford is it is a quintessentially industrial, mid-sized Midwestern city, but whose industrial peak gradually subsided over the last century. When its industry gradually began to die out, and to some degree its economy, its identity also changed. When other changes happened, like the highway systems in the 1950s, which left downtown Rockford sort of like a shell of itself. There were a lot of trends one sees all over America that were manifested in Rockford. I guess what I found interesting is it seemed like a way to look at a larger phenomenon in the progress and decline of American cities; yet it was also a place that I knew well and for which I had an affection because of my childhood.

AV: When writing fiction and doing your research, do you have time to read for your own pleasure? If so, do you feel this distracts or energizes your writing?

JE: I am definitely always reading for pleasure. For Manhattan Beach, I was reading mostly about the first half of the 20th century for several years. There's always the danger that what I'm reading starts to make a stamp on what I'm writing. What I find is if that happens, the influence tends to fall away in later drafts. I don't really worry too much about it. I love reading and I'm very inspired by it. I'm always looking for ideas and approaches. It's true I might grab onto an idea or approach that doesn't really fit in the context that I'm working in, but I can usually spot that at a later point and let it go.

AV: You state in the book Why We Write: "Read at the level at which you want to write. Reading is the nourishment that feeds the kind of writing you want to do." What kind of writing provides nourishment for you?

JE: First of all, I like to read fiction and non-fiction, but ideally writing that has a strong intellectual bedrock and a deep structure of ideas. Writing that is ambitious and pays attention to the music and rhythm of language.

AV: Manhattan Beach is your first novel since A Visit from the Goon Squad. What was the genesis of the story? Tell us about Lucille Kolkin—did you base any of Anna's character on Lucy?

JE: Lucille Kolkin was a woman who corresponded with her husband during World War II in a series of letters that are now at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and they're wonderful letters. I discovered them in 2005 and it took me a few months to read them all since I had limited access to the library. The reason I was reading these letters was to try to learn about the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Lucy was working after her husband, Al, had joined the navy. I did not base Anna on Lucy, but I felt like Lucy was kind of an inspiring spirit in all of it, because she was sassy and strong. Lucy was crazy about Al—head-over-heels in love—so it was very sweet to read the way she wrote to him. Certain little anecdotes from her experiences did find their way into the book, but it's hard to remember because I read interviews and interviewed so many women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. So I can't quite say to what degree I've used details from Lucy's experience, but certainly she was one of many voices in my head that provided a kind of texture of women's experience at the Yard, apart from all the stuff I made up.

AV: Since we are talking about the letters that Lucy was writing, hasn't this become a lost art? Nowadays people just correspond by email and writing by script is gradually disappearing.

JE: They don't know script, even my kids don't know script. It's very unsettling. First of all, who prints their email to save it? What are we going to do? We'll have no correspondence of which to have a record. Not only is the handwriting in Lucy's letters wonderful, but she and Al also made diagrams of things for each other. For example, at one point she kissed the letter paper, which was so eerie because you could see the little creases of her lips. It was like she did it yesterday! There was a human element that is simply not present if you read email. You're interfacing with a machine, not a person. One time Lucy was on a streetcar and her handwriting would be messy and she'd say, "Oh, my stop is almost here!" and it's just so much more intimate than reading email. There were a few letters that were typed, but I think that was because someone had typed them later to make them easier to read. Even a typewriter was an unwelcome intrusion into this prose. I wrote letters for a lot of my life. I have lots of letters that people wrote to me. I still save cards and notes, but no one writes letters. Yes, you might get a thank you note, but who writes a handwritten letter? I don't even do that, and I handwrite my first drafts. Future generations are going to have nothing. We're going to have screenshots of people's Instagram accounts to see what they were doing and thinking.

AV: The story of Manhattan Beach is set primarily in the 1930s and ’40s in which ethnicity plays a key role. "Dexter liked the Irish, was drawn to them, although time and again they had proved untrustworthy. It wasn't duplicity so much as a constitutional weakness that might have been the booze or might have been what drove them to it. You wanted a mick to help you dream up schemes, but in the end you needed a wop or Jew or a Pollack to bring them off." Can you explain to readers, who were not part of that generation, what it was like to be Irish and the ethnic differences that existed that you bring out in your book?

JE: First of all, it was very strange to use terms like that. My husband is Jewish, and when he was reading the book the first time, he was really shocked to find that I was using the term shylock or shyster in the first chapter. He was brought up short by that because it's an ethnic slur and the book is full of ethnic slurs. There was no way to be true to the period without making those characterizations. I spent a lot of time talking to the painter Alfred Leslie, who was very much a part of the abstract expressionist movement, and had a wonderful career and is still very active in his 80s. Leslie said people identified each other ethnically, but there was actually less ethnic prejudice than today. That was the first thing you wanted to know about someone, right up front—you're a mick, I'm a wop, he's a Jew, and this person is a Negro. Once our ethnicity was established, now let's move on. According to Alfred, we now have this fallacy that everyone is the same, which is not true, and ethnic tensions are actually made worse by the fact that we don't acknowledge our differences right up front. If you read someone like John O'Hara, it's striking how insecure Irish-Americans were. The Irish came to America in large part because of the famine, which was a catastrophe arising from the really cruel and negligent treatment they received from the English. The Irish already had a chip on their shoulder. Then they came here and they were treated pretty badly. It's amazing to think of how that prejudice has disappeared. I mean, who isn't Irish? We're everywhere! But there really was a strong sense of ethnic identity and also of insecurity and inferiority.

AV: This was a long time ago, but I remember my grandfather in Evanston who would look out his window and refer to a neighbor walking down the sidewalk and say, "There goes the Swede." I was just a kid, but to call your neighbor by his ethnicity and not even his name was very telling of those times.

JE: I never even thought of my name as an Irish name until much later. Chicago is one place where Irish-Americans have an ethnic identity, and definitely Boston, but not so much in New York.

I remember when I first moved to New York and got my phone number. I was working at a temp job calling the phone company. The woman gave me this great number that was really easy to remember, and I said, "Wow, thank you, that's such a nice number!" And she said, "One Irish girl to another," and it was so surprising. She had recognized my name as Irish and she was looking out for me. I don't think I'd ever had that experience before.

It's interesting to think about it in light of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the idea of whiteness as a construct. I really understand why he says that, because you rarely hear the word "white" in the first half of the 20th century. White—what did that mean? You were a wop, you were a mick, you were a Pollack, you were a Jew. The idea of all those people being combined into a category called white is something people from those ethnic groups would have had trouble comprehending. The Irish, for example, tended to hate the Italians. They certainly didn't see themselves as bound to Italians by any shared "whiteness."

AV: I once read the Irish were paid less than black people in the late nineteenth century because they were considered the lowest class of people. And yet due to Irish fortitude and pride, they built themselves up and made great lives for their children.

JE: The Irish had a lot of problems—alcoholism was extreme, physical abuse was rampant, and consequently so was a lot of abandonment. There are a lot of similarities with the urban poor that we now think of as being more often African-American: a lot of children raised without fathers which often leads to further fatherlessness. A lot of strong mothers holding families together. My character, Eddie Kerrigan, grows up in the Catholic protectory in the Bronx, and I think some of those buildings—or at least the grounds—still exist. A lot of the guys on the Irish waterfront did come from that protectory, but growing up in an orphanage did not necessarily mean you were an orphan. A lot of these "orphans" were kids whose families just abandoned them or couldn't raise them because they had so many children. Actually, it was Alfred Leslie who first that told me about this. He didn't know about the Catholic protectory because he was Jewish, but there was another orphanage where members of his family were placed, even though they weren't orphans. This kind of fatherlessness and rootlessness and trauma really existed in these Irish-American families, and it perpetuated a lot of pain that took quite a while to work through. And the alcoholism persists: my father and my uncle were alcoholics for decades before they became sober.

AV: Anna Kerrigan has a special relationship with her handicapped sister. Why did you create Lydia? What secrets does she know about Anna?

JE: I don't really create characters. I start writing and I see who enters the story. Lydia was there right from the beginning. I questioned that. I was unsure that I wanted to write about someone who was handicapped. But she felt inextricable. She's in some ways the fulcrum around which a lot of the story turns. So I rolled with that. I often don't feel I'm in control of who populates the stories. As long as I feel they organically need to be there, I just try to the best job I can to tell their story.

I think the main thing she knows about Anna is that she has a sexual history, which was not an acceptable fact for an unmarried girl at that time—certainly not a young teen. Although there was plenty of sexual activity going on, which is another thing Alfred Leslie talked about. He said in these tenement neighborhoods there was a lot of promiscuity among young kids. This placed girls in a strange position because the mores governing their behavior were very different than they are now. This often had very little to do with the reality of the situation, yet it led to a lot of guilt and bad feeling. Anna's parents are somewhat estranged, partly because of Lydia. Her father finds it impossible to feel good about his handicapped daughter and his difficulty in being affectionate towards her has created a huge divide in his marriage. Anna alternates time with her mother and her father; yet she says very little about either world to the other parent. Lydia, in a way, is the only person that synthesizes Anna's family life. She's the connection. It's through Lydia that Anna experiences her whole self, her whole life, and that continues when she develops another secret life that neither of her parents know about.

AV: Manhattan Beach is partly about the evolution of women's rights brought about by the Great Depression and World War II when women got involved in the workforce. Can you talk a bit about the role of women during this transitional period in our history?

JE: It was an incredible period for women. I always knew this in a vague way. Women were called upon to do work that they'd been told all their lives they could not do. The fact is they did it very well and then they were told they could not do it anymore. Rosie the Riveter was a propaganda campaign designed to get women to do industrial work because they were needed so badly. One of the women I interviewed for the oral history project, who was an amazing welder, talked about how she had become so proficient and so excellent at welding during her time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that she wanted to use those skills later, but she was laughed at when she applied for welding jobs. All of this came home to roost in the women's movement and the '60s counter-culture. There was no way to make this discovery go away and I think it was a really head-spinning moment for women. Interestingly, I think a lot of them really did just go back to much more domestic women's work and lives. They were back to the telephone company or to be secretaries. It's not true that they stopped working, although that's what some people say about the '50s. But that wasn't possible for working class families. The women still had to work. A lot of the women that worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard had already been working; they were just doing more of these 'women's jobs'—lots of telephone operating, secretarial work, and childcare. So they went back to that kind of work. If they could afford not to, then they didn't work. It was really their daughters that had to lead the charge and say we need to rethink all of this. The war in general was such a time of tumult. Women's lives were one of many different kinds of accepted patterns that were disrupted. I think that a lot of what happened in the '60s, in terms of the civil rights movements and all kinds of other things, were the result of that disruption. They sort of skipped a generation and then they really came to the fore.

AV: Anna wants to be a diver to repair naval ships which was considered a man's job. Why did you choose this role for her and what kind of research did you do?

JE: I don't know why I chose it. I was interested when I learned that deep-sea diving was a part of ship repairing and I saw a picture of an old diving suit, with the spherical helmet. I was very moved by that. The sea is a deep inspiration for this book. In a way I followed the sea into the various different elements of the story. One thing about using the ocean in fiction is that it's both real and metaphorical. I guess it was exciting to follow the sea into its physical manifestations and also reap its metaphorical rewards. Anna is trying to understand things that she can't see. The thought of her physically walking around the bottom of the sea just seemed incredibly thrilling to me. I couldn't resist.

AV: It is not just Anna but many of the female characters in your novels and short stories who exhibit mental toughness and the ability to eventually make sound decisions. Is this a theme you consciously try to address in your fiction?

JE: I'm always interested in strength and weakness in both genders. Stories of surmounting odds are not that interesting. We've all read those stories. I'm just as interested in marginal people who cannot master mainstream culture, both male and female. In the end, I'm more interested in those people than the ones who manage to triumph.

AV: Dexter Styles has a high opinion of himself. How should we judge Dexter?

JE: I guess the only way I can answer that is that in art and in life, I'm not very interested in judgments. I think that people are contradictory and imperfect and my job as a fiction writer is to try to capture those imperfections and to try to condense some form of the complicated mess which is human life. Judgments don't interest me; they're always reductive.

AV: Literary critic Matthew Carl Strecher wrote that Haruki Murakami has the unique ability to "include movement in and out of the protagonist's mind." I think the same is true of your work. How do you make each of your character's thoughts ring so true?

JE: That's one of the key things I think about with a character: their unique habits of mind. I think we all organize reality in our own way and a lot of that has to do with our individual past and our experience which is unique to us. Finding the way a person interprets reality and makes it legible for him or herself is the number one thing I try to find about every person. I have to find it. If I can't find it, maybe that means I shouldn't be in that person's point of view.

In other words, if I'm going to go into a point of view, I am making a promise to the reader that I can deliver the habits and mind of that person; if I can't, I haven't earned the right to represent that person's point of view. This actually happened a little bit in Manhattan Beach. I go in and out of various points of view, mostly with my three major protagonists, but a little bit here and there with other people like Lydia and her mother Agnes. At one point I was in Agnes's point of view a lot more, but what I found was that I couldn't give the reader much more than the reader already knew about her. So I pulled back on her point of view because I was not delivering on my promise to the reader to justify my presence inside her mind.

AV: All of your books are excellent, but is there one you personally like the best?

JE: Look at Me is my favorite. It's flawed, but it's the most ambitious in my opinion. I have not topped it. I'm still trying. It is all about understanding the deep mental landscape of individual characters. This is the number one goal I have as a fiction writer. This is one thing fiction can do that other types of media—film, YouTube, video games—cannot achieve, which is to deliver a deep knowledge about how someone else's mind works.

My fear was that lovers of Goon Squad—and that's where I found a lot of my audience—might not like Manhattan Beach. I've had that happen before. For example my novel The Keep, which was a gothic thriller, is where I found a whole world that loved the gothic. Yet the gothic readers weren't so thrilled with Goon Squad since there's nothing gothic in the book. I feel I ask a lot from my readers to make these transitions with me, but I'm finding that I'm getting a better reaction than I thought I might from people who loved Goon Squad. A number of people have said, "Look, I don't like it as much." They're honest with me about that. That's okay, they've given it a try and in some cases really enjoyed it. I'm hoping my next book will be a companion to Goon Squad. I'm happy to keep those readers with me and move back into that territory. If I can do it well is the big question mark.

AV: To quote from Goon Squad: "Time's a goon right? You're gonna let that goon push you around?" Your readers have waited seven years before Manhattan Beach was published. How long before Jennifer Egan knocks out that goon so we can read your next book?

JE: [Laughter.] Very fair question. I'm hoping, and hoping should be italicized, to be publishing every three years from now on through the rest of my career. I can't have those long gaps anymore or I won't get done what I want to get done. There are a number of reasons that this book took so long. One reason was that Goon Squad had such good luck, and I spent a lot of time trying to capitalize on that luck by speaking and traveling. Also, my kids were still young so I was with them the rest of the time. Now that they're teenagers—they've got their own lives to some degree—they don't want my help and involvement to the degree they once did. In fact, they're probably a little relieved that I'm not at home constantly right now. Frankly, it's just time for me to pick up the pace. I hope it will be every three years, max four, and never again seven. Of course, you say never and you find out you're not in total control, but I feel adamant that I don't want to have those gaps anymore. One concrete way I try to prevent it is while I was writing the first draft of Manhattan Beach, I also worked on the first draft of another novel for the first eight months. I actually have a lot of material which I need to type and get into, but that's very different than having nothing. That is where I found myself in 2012, two years after my last book had come out, and starting on page one. I don't want to let that happen again.

AV: Winning the Pulitzer Prize must be a blessing and a curse. You get all this popularity and sales, but then you're sitting at your desk writing you must feel this enormous pressure that you need to duplicate that success. Can you share what this has been like?

JE: I thought that I wouldn't feel pressure, but I totally felt pressure as it turned out. I think because of the delay, and I was very rusty when I finally started writing again, and the fact that I was taking on writing a book outside of my lifetime, was especially hard for me. I had always used times and places from my life. I did feel a worry about doing a horrible job and really being pounded for it. It was hard. I'm relieved that Goon Squad is not my last book anymore. The goal is always to keep getting better. The danger with having a book be so rewarded is that it starts to take on this iconic quality, and it can be hard to move past it. The big danger is not that you feel bad or that you feel worried, but that you actually cannot continue to improve. That's the biggest concern. I really hope that I've moved out of that weird loop of worry.

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