Vampire soap operas
There’s no such thing as a typical Jennifer Egan novel. Her first, The Invisible Circus, is set in the ’70s and follows a young woman’s quest to piece together her older sister’s travels across Europe and make sense of her untimely death. Her second novel, Look At Me, takes place in New York and Illinois around the year 2000, and addresses issues of terrorism before 9/11. It was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award.
Egan’s new book, The Keep, is being published this month. A contemporary Gothic novel, it alternates between a castle setting in Eastern Europe and a U.S. prison. It’s unclear how the various stories are going to connect until they do. Maybe that’s one thing Egan’s novels—and her short stories—have in common: they’re all thrillers in their own way. The plots take you in a direction you didn’t foresee and you find yourself racing to the surprising conclusion.
This interview took place in May in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where Egan lives with her husband and sons.
THE BELIEVER: The Keep is incredibly different from Look at Me, and Look at Me was fundamentally different from The Invisible Circus. I’m talking about plot, point of view, setting—everything. I’m wondering how you break away from the blueprint. I think once a writer has found a structure that works for them, they have to make a very conscious decision to not abide by that structure. It’s hard because the blueprint is almost embedded in your subconscious.
JENNIFER EGAN: My books are all pretty different from each other—to the point where I’m sometimes told that people are surprised that one person wrote them. One reason is that each book has taken a long time to write, so they’ve happened pretty far apart from each other in my life. Also, because I don’t like to write about myself or even about lives like mine, there isn’t a throughline of my own biography or experience holding them together. I don’t really know the story when I begin. And frankly, what gives me the impetus to go forward is partly a sense that I’m discovering something unknown to me, exploring a new set of ideas. And what makes that discovery possible is almost consciously throwing away the books I’ve already written before I begin.
For me, so long as the world of the books feels really different in terms of voice, point of view, time, and place, I’m intrigued enough to go on. Look at Me doesn’t have a gothic feeling at all. It wasn’t even remotely in my mind until I went to that castle after it was finished. The revelation was: This is something new to me, something different. I just want to be here for a while, I want this feeling. And for me, that sense of time and place—of atmosphere—predates a character, a story, everything else except a few abstract notions that I want to explore. And those conditions have been so different for each of my three novels that I guess it was inevitable that the stories would unfold in different ways. There are definitely similarities, and I start to see them as soon as the books are finished. But I need to feel as I work that there are no overlaps, or I’m just not interested in going forward.
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