Jennifer Egan's most recent novel, The Keep, is a book with a distinctly gothic taste, yet it's not easy to pigeonhole in any genre. It has those spooky, ghostly elements we come to expect, but it can't be defined just by that. It's hard to define at all, really.
A lot of readers have agreed with me there, though not all of them were as impressed by the overall effect of the book as I was. The book is unique in a way that's difficult to pin down. Though it would seem a problem for a critic to be at a loss for words when it comes to describing a book, in this case that's a compliment. It's such a varied book. Egan took big chances writing it. I'd venture to say its richly complex style makes it a different book for every reader.
To say I was impressed is an understatement, though I can't the book is without its flaws. It was so highly experimental not everything worked for me, but enough did that I'm crossing my fingers Egan keeps on (no pun intended) in the direction she's going.
I think Egan's at her strongest when she's within the gothic framework. I wanted more of that in The Keep. What there was couldn't have been more compelling to me. The darkness of the plot in the first 3/4 of the novel was superb. Where I felt less enchanted was near the end, at the denouement. That's not to say I wasn't happy with the book overall. I was, but more of the dark, more tie ins with the mysterious things going on would have been more satisfying to me.
We need more writers to take chances like this. That's one thing I know for sure. We need less cookie cutter novels, and more books like The Keep. They may leave us scratching our heads wondering what just happened, but that's the beauty of novels like this. Complexity is a very good thing.
Jennifer agreed to answer a few questions for me. The interview follows below:
LG: Were you an avid reader as a child? What were some of your favorite books?
JE: I would describe myself as a kid who escaped into books. Like so many children, I especially loved series; I found it jarring and disruptive to have a book end, and it was such a relief to disappear instantly back into another book from the same world. One of my favorite series was Laura Ingals Wilder's LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, but I also loved HARRIET THE SPY and, I'm slightly ashamed to admit, Nancy Drew. I loved the Zilpha Keatley Snyder books; THE EGYPT GAME is one I remember in particular. THE SECRET GARDEN, of course. The E. B. Whites. I also really loved mysteries: everything from Sherlock Homes to "Ten Minute Mysteries" (I think that's what they were called) which I devoured.
LG: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Did you start out in prose fiction, or did you try another genre?
JE: realized that I wanted to be a writer during a year off I took between high school and college. I'd always loved to read and write, but I'd had it in my head that I would be an archeologist, and I was pretty set on that. During my year off, I first paid to go on a small archeological dig in Kampsville Illinois, where we unearthed Mississippian Indian remains in 90 degree heat, each of us on a designated square meter of earth. That took care of the archeaology fantasies. I spent the next several months working to save up money, and eventually went to Europe with a backpack and a Eurail pass. It was a difficult trip; my mother and stepfather were divorcing at home, and I had a sense of running away--never an ideal way to travel. I kept a journal as I moved around Europe, and somewhere along the way it came to me that writing was what made the world comprehensible to me, and what gave it meaning--that writing was what I was meant to do with my life, and that I'd known it all along, but simply not seen it. I began with fiction and consider myself primarily a fiction writer (though I do a fair amount of journalism as well): short stories and novels.
LG: 'The Keep' is a novel that relies partly on gothic elements. What were your influences in writing this book? Have you read extensively in the gothic genre?
JE: For a while, when working on THE KEEP, I had no interest in reading anything that wasn't gothic in feel. Of course, that still allows for plenty of reading throughout the centuries; from Walpole and Radcliffe to Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King. The most perfect Gothic work I've encountered, which I'd read before but not fully appreciated, is James's THE TURN OF THE SCREW. Two of the most compelling, though wild and ungoverned, are Matthew Lewis's THE MONK and Charles Maturin's MELMOTH THE WANDERER. I'm also crazy about Wilkie Collins' THE WOMAN IN WHITE. Talk about a book that is impossible to put down! I also think that childhood reading gives all of us access to a gothic sensibility; fairy tales are often so gothic (Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel), and the interest in ghosts and haunted houses and supernatural worlds is all the stuff of gothic fiction.
LG: What contemporary authors do you admire?
JE: Oh, it depends what day you ask me. For example, I'd never really loved Cormac McCarthy until I read THE ROAD, which I think is a masterpiece. I love Don DeLillo and Shirley Hazzard and Robert Stone and Joyce Carol Oates. Of my contemporaries, I've admired books by Heidi Julevits, Claire Messud, Michael Chabon, Jonathans Lethem and Franzen, Elizabeth Gilbert...and the list is always growing and changing.
LG: Do you read reviews of your work? How difficult is it to read a negative review? Is there some positive value to reading them?
JE: I do read the reviews. THE KEEP received more negative reviews than any of my other books; it tended to have a polarizing effect on people. I didn't find those negative reviews particularly helpful; ideally, I suppose, a negative review should take your book on its own terms and explain how and why you had failed to achieve what you were setting out to do. The less helpful kind simply fails to understand what you're trying to do. Those really got me down, leading quite naturally to the question: Why read them? So I may be heading toward a new approach in that area!
LG: What are your writing habits? Do you keep a strict schedule?
JE: I'm fairly disciplined, though I wouldn't say that I keep to a *strict* schedule. I write fiction always by hand, on legal pads, and fairly quickly. I seem to need not to be able to read what I'm writing as I write it--hence the handwriting. When I have a complete draft--be it a story or a novel--I read it through and make pretty careful plans (especially in the case of a novel; with stories the plans stay mostly in my head) for what I need to do next. In the case of LOOK AT ME, my second novel, my first revision plan was 80 pps long, single-spaced, in 10 point type. It took me well over a year just to execute it, and when I finally had, I read the draft through and wrote a shorter outline, then executed that, and so on. Even when editing, I work in longhand on printed copies, then type in my changes. The editing I can do pretty much anywhere, any time, and I have the capacity to keep at it for hours, but the original writing tends to burn me out after two or three hours, so that is most often a morning activity. Aside from legal pads and certain pens that I like, quiet and natural light are nice, but not necessary; I've worked on busses, planes, subways, cafes, you name it!
LG: As a public library employee I have to ask, what role have libraries played in your love of books and reading?
JE: I loved the library as a kid. I'd take out a few books and feel that gutted sense of disappointment whenever one world would end and I would have to enter another. Then that new would would encompass me, and it would be difficult to leave *it.* As an adult, I've also relied a lot on libraries. The beautiful reading rooms at the New York Public Library have served as my office for whole stretches of time, and I've also done lots of research there. I'm a huge believer in libraries, and try to take my kids often. I love to see the trance they go into, surrounded by all those books.
LG: What's next for you after 'The Keep'? What are you working on now?
JE: I'm working on a few short stories, trying to round out another collection I'd like to publish in the next couple of years. Some of these stories are connected, which is new for me, and a lot of fun. And I'm also gearing up to start a new novel that I've been thinking about and researching on and off for a few years, now. I don't like to say too much about things that aren't finished (much less started), but I will tell you that it's as unlike my other books as they are unlike each other, and that it begins in the 1940's in New York.
LG: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
JE: Three things: 1. read; 2. write. 3. be willing to write badly.
I'm amazed by how often I'll encounter someone in a writing workshop whose points of reference all seem to be movies. A person who isn't inclined to read is extremely unlikely to become a writer. I think of reading as the equivalent of eating; it feeds and nourishes and energizes us, and it fills us with good stuff that can hopefully find its way into our own work.
And as to the writing part, I try to think of it as a habit, like exercise. If you're out of shape and not used to exercising, doing so feels strange and uncomfortable. But if you're used to exercising, *not* doing it is what feels strange. Writing should be like that, and the way to achieve this is to agree with oneself to write for a certain time period each day: start with 15 minutes and work up to longer periods of time. In some sense it doesn't really matter what you write, only that you do it. Which leads me to point three: I think the fear of writing badly holds many people back. My personal experience has always been that good writing follows bad, and if you're not willing to get through the bad stuff, you won't get to the good stuff. I write terribly all the time, and I recommend it highly. In fact the working title for THE KEEP through the whole first draft was: A SHORT BAD NOVEL. And the first draft was indeed short and bad, but I kept working on it.
Thanks so much to Jennifer Egan for taking the time to answer these questions.
Jennifer Egan's website.