It’s a chilly January morning and a melancholic air hangs over East Seventh Street. Something changes when Jennifer Egan get on his bike. Rosy-cheeked and dressed in a dove-grey Fjällräven parka and stovepipe jeans that her teenage son recently outgrew, the novelist looks more like a carefree student than a 59-year-old literary lion on the eve of the publication of his seventh book. She jumps off her bike and locks it in front of a building. “That’s it,” she smiled at a window three stories up. She leans back to take a picture with her phone.
We’re standing in the shadow of the 450 square foot apartment that Egan and her boyfriend (now husband) David Herskovits rented for $900 a month in the 90s when she was still working as ” private secretary” to a novelist-countess (among other less glamorous jobs) and he was starting out as a theater manager, staging shows at nearby venues like La MaMa Experimental Theater Club and Nada. The couple decamped more than two decades ago, first to an apartment near Penn Station and then to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where they raised two sons, but Egan never stopped thinking about that first apartment. . It’s where they used to have cast parties that “were so crowded you could barely move”, and where she wrote her first book. She used it as a backdrop in A visit from the Goon Squad, a daring polyphonic novel that made the rounds in the music industry and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. In its revamp, the third-floor staircase housed Bix, a nerdy black graduate student who predicted the rise of ‘Internet. He’s back in his mind-blowing follow-up, The candy house, now as the god of technology whose memory-gathering invention sent the free world off its axis. Bix is a master of the universe in a name, but he dreams of returning to where he was nobody and where he had the best conversations of his life.
Egan herself is a top-notch conversationalist, her words flowing as we head to the East River, another of Bix’s most beloved spots. Incredibly beautiful, with cobalt blue eyes and a bone structure reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn, she seems more comfortable talking about her ideas, like we’re in a writers’ workshop, than getting messy and personal. In this, Egan doesn’t really make the job of the interviewer any easier, although she has experience of being on the other side of that equation: she recalls an interview she once conducted with a famous fashion designer who wasn’t in the mood to share much about her new fragrance. “But they sent me a huge container of perfume afterwards and I haven’t worn anything else since, so something good came out of it,” she laughs.
I first met Egan when I interviewed her about Goon Squad. We were in her home office, overlooking the leafy garden behind her brownstone where she sets up a La-Z-Boy folding recliner and writes during the warmer months. I was pregnant, and as she told me about her writing process, she was continually looking for her cat, Cuddles, who was trying to climb into my lap. (She waits until today to tell me she’s been worried since a pregnant friend was badly injured by a cat scratch.) At the end of our first conversation, she’d talked about one of her own pregnancies, pointing to the armchair in the corner of the office: she had spent most of her work there, working on a Muji notebook, delaying her departure for the hospital so long that she ended up running there at the last minute and missed her window during an epidural. And so I’m not shocked when she tells me that when she had COVID in March 2020, she attempted to continue her writing routine, handwriting several pages a day. “I was so sick,” she says. “But I finally had time to focus, and I didn’t want to take that for granted.”
Egan is a master puzzler who designs his projects as problems to be solved. She is known less for one type of book than for her singular intelligence and ambition, which produces works that defy categorization. His oeuvre includes a quasi-ghost story set on the European hiking trail (The invisible circus), an online modeling and identity thriller (Look at me), a gothic mystery (The dungeon), and a punk and postmodern Möbius strip (Goon Squad). His most recent, manhattan beach, successfully published in 2017, was an experience of another order: simple historical narrative.