The Double Life of Jennifer Egan

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Jennifer Egan and Kurt Andersen onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
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Jennifer Egan had sent just a handful of tweets in her life when she decided to do something bold: to publish an entire short story on Twitter. People had tweeted fiction before, but not anybody who had just won the Pulitzer Prize (which she won for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad). “Black Box,” which was published 140 characters at a time through The New Yorker’s Twitter feed, is a sci-fi thriller about a rookie spy who has been dropped into a dangerous situation she doesn’t understand at all.

Egan feels like she can relate to the double life of a spy; she’s a writer. “I’m living a fairly conventional life in my real life, but I feel like I have this alternate world that I’m visiting all the time,” she tells Kurt Andersen. “It’s the feeling of being lifted out of my life into another world that is the thrill of writing fiction.”

Egan might never have entered that other world if not for a series of panic attacks she had at the age of 18. While backpacking alone around Europe, she began to have bouts of terror she couldn’t predict. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” she says. “I really thought I was losing my mind.” Those panic attacks helped her decide to become a writer. “Writing couldn’t solve the terror, but somehow narrating it made it feel like I was somehow ultimately in control of it rather than the other way around.”

“I always feel very afraid as I work on books,” Egan tells Kurt. Having a Pulitzer under her belt didn’t make it easier. “It’s just so hard to write a decent book! Even if you feel like maybe you came close to doing it once or twice,” Egan says. But the fear is useful: it lets her know she’s on the right track. “If I’m doing something I know I can pull off, then that’s not the book I should be writing.”

Music Playlist

  1. Live piano music

    Artist: Joel Esher
  2. Stage Fright

    Artist: The Band
    Album: Stage Fright
    Label: Capitol Records