Jennifer Egan, bestselling author of The Keep, is no overnight success. The author, mother and journalist has spent upwards of 25 years writing, revising and developing her craft.
On March 6, as part of the Temple Poets and Writers Series, Egan spoke to the Temple literary community about the difficulty of supporting oneself as a writer, the process of developing unique characters, and the importance of writing badly.
“Growing up, I didn’t think of myself as a writer,” Egan said. “I wanted to be an archeologist.”
However, in the summer of 1981, when Egan was 18, she traveled to Europe to get away from a home life that was in shambles. In Europe, she suffered from panic attacks and writing became a solace. In the fall, Egan entered the University of Pennsylvania as an English major.
“I went to college knowing I wanted to be a writer, and I have never wavered,” she said.
After graduating from Penn, Egan studied at St. John’s College in Cambridge, England, returned to the United States, and moved to New York City, where she worked odd jobs to support herself.
“I worked as a temp, ran a film series and acted as a secretary for Aline Countess Romanones, author of The Spy Wore Red,” Egan said. “I worked lots of jobs and carved out time to write.”
When she was 26, magazines and literary journals began buying her short stories. Her first published story, The Stylist, appeared in The New Yorker.
“At that point, my father got off my back about my career,” Egan said.
Since then, Egan has published three novels and a short story collection including The Stylist. She has written seven cover stories for The New York Times Magazine and continues to publish short stories in The New Yorker, Harper’s and Ploughshares.
During her visit to Temple, Egan read “X’s and O’s,” a short story about a burnt-out slide guitarist and a successful record producer who change positions of power in an unconventional way. At the end of the piece, the two men have not alternated places physically, but their perceptions and the audience’s perceptions of power have changed.
“I am interested in perception and perspective, changes over time, and people who go in different ways than they seem,” Egan said. “I am always interested in the way abnormal perception is like exaggerated normal perception.”
In her latest novel The Keep, a New York Times Bestseller published in 2006, Egan explores the stretches of normal perception.
“The Keep is a study of paranoia,” she said. “Danny, [the protagonist], sees reality and becomes crazy. How is not being crazy like being crazy?”
Egan explained that inconsistencies make characters believable.
“The parts of people that don’t add up make them come alive,” she said. “When does a character’s moral code alter? My urge is always to try to break the set of rules I establish.”
In an interview, Egan stressed that persistence is the most critical element of learning to write well. Most often the persistent writers – not the instantly famous writers – are the ones who are remembered.
“Read, write and be willing to write badly,” she said. “Write the bad stuff to get to the good stuff, and do it again and again. Writing is not about meteoric success or instant fame. We live such a long life, but it’s sadly short. Try to write well again and again and again, and other worries will fall away.”
Leah Kristie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.