Writing insights from Jennifer Egan

Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan on harnessing the power of the subconscious, incorporating research into your fiction, writing a sex scene that’s actually sexy, and more.

We were lucky enough to hear Jennifer Egan speak in Amsterdam last month, courtesy of the John Adams Institute. If you haven’t read her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the innovative A Visit from the Goon Squad, or her latest, Manhattan Beach, do! They are both wonderful and wildly different from each other. This is a writer with some serious skills. Here are our favourite takeaways from the evening.

On process:
Don’t wait till you’re in ‘the right mood’ to write – ‘I’m almost never in the right mood,’ Egan confessed. ‘Exercise is a good analogy. I never feel like going to the gym, but I’m always glad to have gone.’ She aims to write 5 to 7 pages per day even when she’s not feeling it.

Let your subconscious do the heavy lifting – ‘I’m looking to get under my conscious mind to the part that has much better ideas…I want to be surprised by what I’m writing,’ Egan explained. So how do you do that? Egan fixes her mind on a time and place and sees who shows up on the page, rather than going in with an outline or a specific idea for a character. She also starts writing immediately after waking up, when the conscious mind is still a little fuzzy.

Try writing by hand – This is another trick for channelling the subconscious, and Egan said her terrible handwriting is actually an advantage: ‘Typing pulls me backwards rather than forwards because I can read what I’ve written and am tempted to fix it.’

Find literary mentors – ‘Each book has its own constellation of writers and artists that I’m “in conversation with”.’ For Manhattan Beach, it was Hilary Mantel, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and the classic noir writers from the 30s and 40s.

Find a safe and honest place to share your work – Egan said she’d be lost without her writing group. They let her know when her original idea for the structure of Manhattan Beach wasn’t working and helped her get back on track. And like in our workshops, they read work aloud, which she said is invaluable.

On research:
Avoid the impulse to include everything you learn – ‘Initially, you think everything is interesting and deserves a place in your book.’ It doesn’t. With Manhattan Beach, her first foray into historical fiction, she said her one regret is not letting the last draft sit for six months and then going back in for a final pruning. ‘You need time for the spell of the details to wear off.’

Try to interview people with relevant experience – Egan’s main character, Anna, is the first woman to become a navy diver, making underwater repairs to ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII. By interviewing navy divers from that period, Egan was able to get a sense of the experience and culture of the divers, which contributed to the richness of her novel. Her contacts even made it possible for her to try on a vintage 200-pound diving suit like the one Anna wears.

‘There’s a difference between is plausible and seems plausible’ – Egan’s gotten some flack for one of the diving scenes in her book where a rank amateur is allowed to go down in an off-the-books dive (we’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers). Egan checked the plausibility with her navy diver contacts, but some readers still didn’t buy it.

On writing a sex scene that’s actually sexy:
Go easy on the graphic details – ‘Say the least possible and suggest the most,’ advised Egan. If you concentrate too much on the mechanics of what’s happening, it can feel…well, mechanical. Her sex scene in Manhattan Beach really brings the heat.

If your sex scene still feels limp, look at your lead-up – ‘The most important thing about a sex scene is everything that comes before, how these two people got to this moment.’ Egan sums up everything you need to know with: ‘Get us there in the right mood and let our imaginations do most of the work.’

One to stick on the refrigerator:
Don’t give up – ‘Everything I do starts out being something that I can’t do.’

You can see the first part of Egan’s talk on lezentv.

13 March 2018

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