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Pageturner:Jennifer Egan

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

What is your latest book about? “The Keep” is a gothic novel with various twists, set in Europe and America in the present day. I use lots of standard gothic conventions –an old castle, twins, texts within texts–but what appealed to me most was the question that lies at the center of so much gothic fiction: are the strange phenomena the characters experience real, or imagined? I liked the idea of posing that question in an era when technology has greatly blurred the line between real and unreal experience.

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions? I like complete silence and lots of natural light. I do my best writing in the morning, and I write longhand, using the computer basically as a typing machine. I write a first draft relatively quickly, then spend years revising it, editing by hand and then typing my changes into the computer. I number my drafts and keep each printed copy, so I can go back if I feel that something good has been lost, and also so I can measure just how long the whole endeavor is taking me. In the end I recycle those cubic yards of paper — it’s an incredible relief.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? Read and write. “Read” because books aren’t like movies or dramatic productions that move quickly away before your eyes. You can take them apart and put them back together line by line. You can figure out exactly how it’s done. And there is no better writing nourishment than good books. And I say “write,” because most of us, I think, feel an enormous temptation to avoid writing badly. That’s a trap. Writing is a habit, like exercise. When you’re not used to doing it regularly, it feels wretched, like trying to run when you’re out of shape.

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure? Colum McCann’s “Dancer” — his work is both lyrical and tough, two qualities that rarely come together in one writer but are extraordinary when they do. Kathryn Davis’s “Versailles,” which is a playful and impressionistic, but strangely moving, account of the life of Marie Antoinette. And Meg Wolitzer’s “The Wife,” which is a hilarious and incredibly resonant look at power, ego and gender among husbands and wives, and especially among writers.

What book are you currently reading? I’m reading a first novel by my friend James Hannaham, which I think is going to be superb.

Is there a book you wish you had written? How about “Tristram Shandy,” which is not only one of the very early novels, but does everything that any postmodern novel has done since?

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Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by. Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook.” I expected it to heavy going, but I found it wonderfully flexible and inventive.

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
Shakespeare.

What book changed your life? Many books in many ways, especially when I was younger. But a book that had that kind of impact more recently was Shirley Hazzard’s “The Transit of Venus.” I read it at a time when I wasn’t sure I would have children, and I emerged from it with a clearer sense of what it is to be a woman in this world, and a belief that I would have a good life whether I had children or not. And that experience renewed my faith in the power of language to offer us new paths of thought and even ways of life.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland? I’ve never been, I’m sorry to say. My father was 100 percent Irish American, and his father’s ancestors came from Limerick, his mother’s from the north via Scotland. I’ve been dying to get there, and it will happen sometime soon, I have a feeling.

You’re Irish if . . . You love a good story.

Jennifer Egan will read from “The Keep” at Book Court, 163 Court St., Brooklyn, on next Tuesday, Aug. 15, at 8 p.m. and at McNally Robinson Booksellers, 52 Prince St., Manhattan, on Monday, Aug. 21, 2006 at 7 p.m.

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