Jennifer Egan, National Book Award Finalist for her novel “Look at Me” and a prolific fiction writer, will give a reading at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Klingenstein Lounge at Ithaca College. She is the first speaker as part of the Department of Writing’s Distinguished Visiting Writers series. Her latest novel, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” will be published in June of this year. Her work has also appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and numerous literary magazines. Egan has been described as “a refreshingly unclassifiable novelist” by the New York Times Book Review. Contributing Writer Quinton Saxby spoke with Egan regarding her style of writing, her reading habits and what she feels is the most effective way to teach writing.
Quinton Saxby: Can writing be taught, or is going through the process the only way to learn?
Jennifer Egan: There are some things you can do to put people in touch with that part of themselves that feels free in writing. I tend to gravitate toward very close readings of small pieces of excellent work, with an eye strictly toward craft. It’s amazing what you can learn from a paragraph. This close reading does impact one’s own work, just like eating vitamins keeps one healthy. You’re not teaching writing, exactly, but you’re giving people an occasion to create work and give them some thoughts about different elements of craft.
QS: How would you describe your process?
JE: I’m a very spontaneous, from-the-gut writer and then a tremendous rewriter. It’s not that I don’t ultimately consider every word carefully — I do — but I generate them in a really blind, almost unconscious way. For me, that is where the best stuff comes from. That dialectic between the consciousness of craft and the unconscious act of spontaneously generating material I think can result in some interesting stuff.
QS: Being a contemporary writer, do you read contemporary writing? Do you have time to read at all?
JE: When I’m excited about what I’m reading, I’ll sneak it [in] at every moment. I read a lot in the subway. I read at night. I was a judge for the National Book Awards last year, so I read pretty much everything, all the fiction that was published last year, which was actually terrific. I was forced to read a lot, which was just very satisfying in a way. Reading gives such a secret pleasure.
QS: Should writers study literary theory?
JE: I always advise people to stay away from theory. Just read. Enjoy it. That’s what it’s all about. Actually that’s not true. It’s about a lot more than that.
QS: What contemporary works currently influence you?
JE: I’m now reading a nonfiction book called “You Are Not a Gadget” by Jaron Lanier. It’s a very passionate warning about the direction the Internet has gone and some of the dangers and missed opportunities that you see happening there. Faulkner’s work has also meant a lot to me and been pretty influential. Before I started reading for the National Book Award, I was on an epic poetry kick. Some of that stuff is just really wild.
QS: Are there certain authors during college that gave you momentum for your career?
JE: When I think about texts that really moved me, I think about the years right after college. I was totally fascinated by all kinds of theories about how to read. I spent too much time reading books about reading rather than just reading. College was an odd hiatus into meta-thinking that was creatively inspiring in certain ways.
QS: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers at Ithaca College so that they can improve their writing style?
JE: Spontaneous generation is just the beginning. Find the structure, slash away all the stuff that’s uninteresting — which is always most of it — and find the things that are really alive, and figure out how they fit into something bigger. That’s how I work. Everyone has their own methodology and essentially I’m imposing my methodology on people briefly because that’s what I have to offer. Ultimately, everyone has to find their own way and their own approach.