Jennifer Egan speaks not just in complete sentences, but in thoughtful, entertaining, and insightful sentences — three adjectives that are also apt descriptions for her conversation with Pico Iyer last weekend. The kickoff to UCSB Arts & Lectures’ Speaking with Pico series was exactly the kind of invigorating discussion that makes me yearn to curl up with an authors’ backlist for a long cozy week in front of the fireplace.
Iyer opened the program by saying that one of the “beauties of entering the world of Jennifer Egan is you never know where you’re going to go next.”
He’s right. Her diverse works of fiction really do run the gamut, from her most recent novel The Candy House and its Pulitzer Prize–winning predecessor, A Visit From the Goon Squad (both pop culture-infused works of art that play with the narrative form in exciting ways), to Manhattan Beach (historical fiction), The Keep (gothic horror romance), and The Invisible Circus (family drama/suspense) — the only thing predictable about Egan’s books is that they’re sure to be interesting.
Surprisingly, it’s not a genre but rather the notion of a place that’s “the critical portal into any work of fiction” for Egan. She likes to start with an environment and then figure out who is experiencing that environment. From the setting she then develops her characters. “I would never write about anyone doing anything if I couldn’t understand them from the inside,” said Egan.
She also loves to immerse herself into learning as much as she can to write her books. “I feel like everything becomes more interesting the more you know about it,” said Egan, who also works as a journalist for the New York Times Magazine. Of her second career (she also has a third, teaching literature at University of Pennsylvania), she said, “Journalism … thrusts me into the middle of situations I would have been a part of otherwise.”
Interestingly, Egan said she uses a computer for journalistic stories and writes her fiction by hand “because I don’t want to know what I have (and start revising midway) … I like hurtling forward without judgment.” She’s also been in the same writing group for the past 30 years and relies very heavily on their feedback, though it’s often a “very painful process.”
“Again and again, I learn what I think through writing about it,” said Egan. “I find writing to be an extremely therapeutic thing and a very healthy way to process the world.”
I’m obviously in the sweet spot of the audience for a conversation between Iyer and Egan, as an admirer of both writers, but I could see the nods of many others in the auditorium when Egan said, “Fiction has always been about imagining ourselves out of our lives as writers and as readers.” She later advocated strongly for fiction itself as an art form: “I have faith that fiction is doing something (more than merely observing an experience, reading puts you inside the minds of the characters) that nothing else can do.”