Yesterday, the writer Jennifer Egan was announced as the 2011 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her book, A Visit From The Goon Squad.
The interview project and website, The Days of Yore - a site that aims to inspire younger artists by interviewing more established creative icons about the days before they had money or success - published an extensive interview with Egan. In it, she digs deep into her early years of struggle and confusion and finding her way in New York City.
An excerpt of the interview is below. Click on over to the site for past interviews with the likes of Sam Lipsyte, Gary Shteyngart, George Saunders, David Shields, and other award-winning writers and artists.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was little, I wanted to be a doctor. I was really interested in gore. My grandfather was an orthopedic surgeon and he had a lot of books in his library that I would just pore over. A lot of them had really horrible pictures of deformities.
It attracted you?
It did, kind of. I was interested in corporeal strangeness. I wish I could tell you it was about making people well, but I think it was more about wanting to cut them open!
But you lost that interest?
I did. I would just add that I was deeply interested in biology and physiology. I would read about that on my own time. I felt like it wasn't covered enough at school-- I went to this girls' school and I was like, "I want to hear more about the human body!!"
This was probably nine to thirteen, fourteen. When I became a teenager I got very squeamish, and that interest totally disappeared. That squeamishness-- and I'm sure you could read lots of interpretations into that-- was almost a fear of the body. Just a fear of seeing what was in the body. I remember being really afraid of seeing blood. I'm not really like that anymore, but I don't feel neutral about it. I look away if I'm getting a shot.
No more doctor. Then what?
At that point I became really interested in anthropology and I really wanted to be an archeologist. I thought that was a for-real goal, actually. I applied to Penn. I got into the anthropology department, but I specifically wanted archeology. It was the seventies and a lot of exciting things were happening, discoveries in archeology. It was a moment when that felt more present in the culture than it is now.
I took a year off between high school and college and it was kind of funny-- I had this idea that I could hire myself out as a person to go on archeological digs and dig, without any training! I actually wrote to a number of archeology departments and offered up my services. I think none of them answered me except for one, who said, "You know, our graduate students actually pay us to go on digs. So, obviously, this is not appropriate." It was a nice note, but basically saying: "This is never going to happen."
Then I actually paid to go on a little dig, which was in Southern Illinois. They were digging up Indian remains. It was essentially the kind of thing the professor was describing to me only it was open to the public. So I went, and what I discovered was that what I had imagined archeology to be bore little resemblance to the actual experience.
In my imagination, it was kind of digging up big chunky urns with a shovel! [Laughs.] But what one so often neglects to account for from the outside of any job is the tedium-- and I include writing in that. It was a square meter of earth, it was 99 degrees, it was the end of summer in Illinois. We used a scalpel. We couldn't unearth-- that was the thing that really bugged me. You had to lower the earth until the object was sitting on top of it! You couldn't dig it out! It's called a dig, but you couldn't dig!
By October I knew that I probably didn't want to be an archeologist.
So I had to save up money since I really wanted to travel-- now that I wasn't going to Greece or Italy to dig! It took me a long time to save up the money. When I finally did have enough money, I got a backpack and went to Europe and bought a Eurail pass. I was eighteen.
I would recommend that to anybody. Although it would be different now because no one is really ever cut off from anybody anymore. To do that then was really to be severed from your ties. To make a phone call I had to wait in line at a phone place and it was not easy.
Were you alone?
Yes. It was actually really hard. Of course you met people along the way, it was a freewheeling summer, lots of European kids-- it's normal for European kids to do that. It was kind of incredible to be so isolated, and in a way to be thrown into this very old and different world. But what I found was that it was actually very tough. I started to kind of flip out to some degree. In retrospect, I think I was having panic attacks, but I had never heard that term. I think now people would know, but then I thought: "Drug flashbacks, insanity, Go Ask Alice!" It was the summer of 1981.
When would these panic attacks come on?
It was usually when I was alone. The nature of a panic attack is that you're just terrified and you don't know why. Anyway, that became very tough. They would strike and I wouldn't know when they would. And I was desperate to be with people, and that's not a great way to be traveling.
But anyway, in the course of all of that it became very clear to me-- and I'm not quite sure how-- that writing was the thing that I needed to do. How that revelation wormed itself through the chaos of my mind at that time, I am not quite sure. I was writing a lot in a journal-- which was very helpful to me later because I've used a lot of that material. Maybe if I read through the journal I would understand how I came to realize that. Anyway, I know that when I came back, I was positive that I wanted to be a writer. If I was going to be sane-- which I wasn't sure of!
Well, luckily, you'd probably heard about all the crazy writers in history...
I literally thought: "Can I write in an insane asylum?" [Laughs.]
It is very uncomfortable to be alone, and I think that is why we, as a globe, have fetishized connection the way that we have. But I think that we are losing a lot by losing the experience of solitude. Many people have said that, but I feel that very viscerally. That was not the only time that I traveled that way. I went to China later, the former Soviet Union. I remember my birthday in China, I couldn't make a phone call. I couldn't speak to a single person I knew on my birthday.
I will always remember those times because they were so extreme. I was lucky to have had those experiences. They made me know myself in certain ways that I might not have otherwise.
And so, then you knew you wanted to be a writer.
From that point on, I can say that I did not waver. That is not to say that I had any great hopes of success. I really didn't. I always feel, and at this point I kind of hope that I always will feel, that I have no idea how things will work out. Because I think that is actually the fact. The minute you start thinking you have it made, you're in big trouble. Everything is in flux, always.
If you've been around as long as I have, watching the literary scene, then you know that who's in and who's out changes by the year. It's really a very fluid situation that requires that the person who is having the good luck now isn't having it a year or two from now.
The rest of the interview can be read here. It was conducted by Astri von Arbin Ahlander.
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