Questions for Jennifer Egan

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Find out author Jennifer Egan's favorite authors, recent favorite books, and what her least favorite words are.


What are your favorite books and who are your favorite authors?
All times favorites:  Edith Wharton's THE HOUSE OF MIRTH
Ralph Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN
George Elliot's MIDDLEMARCH
More recent favorites:  
Shirley Hazzard’s THE TRANSIT OF VENUS
What’s the last great book you’ve read?

Emma Donohue’s ROOM.  I was crazy about it.  And Dana Spiotta’s STONE ARABIA, which I’m just finishing, is extremely powerful.
What are you reading this summer?
I want to read Karen Russell’s SWAMPLANDIA, and Francine Prose’s MY NEW AMERICAN LIFE.  I’m also excited to read a nonfiction book called DARK HARBOR, by Nathan Ward, about crime on the New York waterfront in the late 1940’s.
Where do you find inspiration for your books? Was there any specific inspiration for this book?
I tend to begin with a time and a place, not much more.  For LOOK AT ME, the inspiration was a deep longing to revisit Rockford, Illinois, where my mother grew up and where I spent a lot of time as a child visiting my grandparents.  I found myself thinking a lot about Rockford’s industrial past and wanting to know more about it.  This led to some odd jaunts around the place in a rental car, followed by meals at Chili’s and nights in a motel watching “Unsolved Mysteries.”  At the same time, I wanted to write about the world of New York image-making.  I sensed that the two fit together without really knowing any more than that.  I began the book with a specific question:  has image culture changed identity—the way we are to ourselves?  I thought the answer was “yes,” but in writing LOOK AT ME I discovered that I actually believed the opposite.
Do you have any writing rituals or habits? Where and when do you write?
 I guess the most ritualistic part of my fiction writing process is that I do it by hand.  That seems pretty fetishistic in our screen-saturated world, but writing by hand seems to get me into the blind, meditative state that I need to come up with the best material.  As a journalist, I write on a computer, but with fiction, I don’t want to read what I’m writing the moment I’ve written it down.  The fact that my handwriting is basically illegible helps to mystify the process! Mornings are my best time, but when I’m deeply into editing (which I do by hand, on hard copies), I can do it anywhere, anytime—on an escalator, in an elevator—which is one advantage to writing by hand.  I work from detailed outlines that I make AFTER I have a first draft and some sense of what I’m trying to.  I number my drafts, and often do as many as fifty or sixty drafts of some parts of a book.
What are your favorite words? And what are your least favorite words?
Great question.  Some favorites:  catholic, bizarre, pure, wisp, brutal, melt, transcendent, politics, careen, pierce, quizzical, fraught, shadow, toxic, whisper, parallel.
Some words I dislike:  plopped (as a substitute for “sat down”); like (as a substitute for “said,” though I use it myself!), vague (it’s…vague), great (as a superlative, though I seem to say it constantly).