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Jennifer Egan on following her instincts

Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’, Jennifer Egan, reflects on her writing process. 

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This piece is from our coverage of Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. To check out the rest, click here.

As an author who swears by following her instinct and unconscious mind, it is difficult to categorise Jennifer Egan as one particular kind of writer. Rather, she is a shapeshifter who relishes the challenge of writing each new novel in a completely new genre. A Visit from The Goon Squad may be characterised by its fragmented, narrative style and the way in which Egan subverts the persistence of time. Conversely, her latest novel, Manhattan Beach, Egan explains, is an old-fashioned and traditional story at heart.

“When you create extremes of action in a book, you have to let go of extremes of structure.”

Egan explains that she is constantly finding a balance between the essential linearity of writing sentences, and the complexity of experience, an ever-existing tension.

Beginning a new novel, for Egan, involves starting with an imagined time and place. Often, it is an “abstract, intellectual question”, maybe even one of a very technical nature. Whether it’s the mechanics of deep-sea diving or the work of women at the Naval Yards in World War Two New York, the situations draw her into a fresh story.

One of the many memorable moments from our conversation included Egan’s intriguing analogy comparing the voice of a book to the stock of a soup. “If you have a good stock, it will taste good, even if you put a computer in it. But if the stock is very thin and weak, you can put in amazing things and it will still be bad.”

She elaborates that just as a good stock needs time to simmer, a novel similarly requires a tremendous amount of work and time, with a great deal of complexity to make different elements in a story effectively bind together.

To a question posed during her Manhattan Beach event regarding the reasoning behind the depiction of one of the main characters, Egan is quick to retort, “the word ‘chose’ doesn’t feel right.” Instead, she seeks to rely on the realm of instinct to ‘outwit’ choice.

Ideally, “writing without knowing what I’m writing, entering the scene as if I’m watching it unfold a half second before it happens” is what Egan seeks to do.

What may also be unique about Egan’s writing methods is that she writes every single draft and edit by hand, on a notepad. By relying on instinct, she believes this is the best way to produce material that is rich, complex, and succeeds in being symbolic in the ways that dreams are.

During the initial drafting process, Egan “stays ahead” of her conscious mind, and embraces it later during the editing phases. “When thinking consciously, you come to familiar things. You can’t think about [how to] avoid predictable possibilities.

“By writing very fast, I can’t read my handwriting, so essentially I blindfold my conscious mind and make it mute for now”.

Of course, no conversation is ever complete without a turn to Trump, and the event at Sydney Writers’ Festival was no exception. When asked by Byrne how the election of Donald Trump could have affected Egan’s work, she explains that she is “relieved” that she published Manhattan Beach prior.

Interestingly, there appears to be a pattern of Egan ‘predicting’ future events before they occur. In her previous novel Look At Me, Egan constructs one of her main characters as a Lebanese terrorist who plots a strike against the United States and targets the World Trade Centre. A week before the book was published, 9/11 occurred. “It’s not that I’m some great seer. I’m like 6 months ahead of time,” Egan admits to me. Yet even that is certainly grounds for amazement.

It’s clear Egan is in love with her craft. “It’s the sense of discovery and escape,” she says, “I love to be transported out of my life into another world …. into the excitement of a secret life I’m living at the same time.”

She describes it like an underwater source of energy; a freshness that she looks for. “When something feels familiar to me, I’m not interested.”

So what has Egan learnt the most from being a fiction writer? She pauses for a moment, looking thoughtful, before she answers. “I’m amazed at how realistic fiction ends up being. One thing I’m always surprised by is when you make things up, in a deep, humane and instinctive way, you stumble on more truth and likelihood than you would believe”.

She adds, as an afterthought, “I’m surprised how often these instincts proved to be possible”.

Egan relates these powers of foresight to a phrase by novelist Jane Smiley: “the energy of logic”. If you set up your ground rules carefully, and you’re rooted to a context through research and instinct and a deep connection to the people, Egan explains, you will make leaps—both into the future and back to the past—that are totally plausible.

No matter where those insightful instincts may lead her next, there is no doubt in any mind in the audience, that they are in the presence of one brilliant and distinctive writer.