Jennifer Egan is chill. Jennifer Egan seems almost impenetrably calm, drifting into the Penn Bookstore in a leather jacket and musing about whether or not the weather’s too hot for her boots—“Should I get a pair of flip flops?” she says. Behind her, the Penn Bookstore staff nudge each other and whisper behind their hands. One asks her about a small, specific passage at the end of her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad; she glances across the store while she thinks of the answer, past the rows of shelves where her books are on display and the mound of copies of her latest book, Manhattan Beach, which debuted October 3. When the bookstore staff asks her to sign them, she loops a tidy scrawl across the page with an aloof sense of having done this again and again. She’s not often recognized, she says—“That’s the nice thing about being a writer,"—but in this store, on her old campus, she’s something of a supernova.
“You know what I would really love to do?” she says. “I’d love to sit on Locust.” We climb onto the iron chairs outside Frontera, and she curls into the seat. She takes a photo of College Green and texts it to one of her best friends from college. “This is what I remember from Penn,” she says. Around us, campus beats on: chairs rattling, howls of conversation. “I love this,” she says. She leans back, closes her eyes for half a second, and repeats: “I just love this.”
Before she was The Jennifer Egan—the prize–winning, critical awe–inspiring, Wikipedia–page bearing writer whose latest book proclaims, in an excerpt from a New York Times review on the back cover, “Is there anything Jennifer Egan can’t do?”—she was Jenny from San Francisco, and she wanted to be an archaeologist. Penn’s prestigious anthropology program drew her in, as well as its urban setting, but what really solidified her decision to join the Red and Blue in 1981 was a sense of belonging on campus. “I just had this feeling of this is home,” she says. Her voice gets lilted, honeyed. “I have so many wonderful memories of walking down Locust and just seeing the different sculptures—I feel like this is, I mean, Penn is really where I feel like my life sort of turned around... I stopped being a sort of more or less unhappy teenager and became a really inspired person full of hope about the future. I credit Penn with that. I really feel like it happened here... It was just a thrilling place to be,” she says. “I loved everything about it.”
When she attended Penn, Reagan was president, and the school “wasn’t as artsy," she says. “It was a very Wharton–dominated moment. We were the only Ivy with a majority of students that supported Reagan, which is really shocking. But in a way, I think it made the arts community even more fierce.” She spent her time editing the Penn Review, writing here and there for The DP (she recalls an article she wrote about subway murals), working at the publishing house The Penn Press and delving deeply into her school work, which she immersed herself in with a ferocity. “I think I became a writer here,” she says. “I really do. I feel that very strongly. I came in hoping to be a writer, and I came out absolutely determined.”
To talk to Jennifer Egan about Penn is to see a tapestry of the Penn experience. She lived in Hill, then HamCo, she went to Smokes’ exactly once (“It seemed like a lot of screaming and yelling and drinking beer”), she lingered in art museums and “pretended to be adult” on South Street, she power–napped, for two or three minutes at a time, in the library, she found different spots across campus to eat lunch, trying to branch out each time, she drank wine and chain–smoked cigarettes, and she flickered through the hysteria and sweetness and melodrama that characterizes college life.
“Oh, we were terribly stressed,” she says. “We felt that our lives were extremely dire and extremely important. And we were right,” she laughs. "But we were also ridiculous. I mean, but yes, there were tears, there were break ups, there was pressure, there were tests—that’s what it is to be an undergraduate.”
She’d taken a gap year and backpacked across Europe before starting freshman year, a trip she described in her commencement speech to the College last year as crushingly lonely, and when she came to Penn she felt like she had “leapfrogged” past the stage where she’d enjoy Smokes’ or frat parties. “I think I would have liked to be comfortable there,” she says softly. Then she laughs. “I don’t really like beer. That’s probably part of it.”
Jennifer Egan published her first novel, The Invisible Circus, at age 33. She can remember a distinct moment at Penn when she realized what that first book was going to be about; she wrote an original draft of The Invisible Circus in the two years after she graduated Penn, while she was studying at Cambridge as a Thouron Award recipient. (She’d applied to writing programs as a senior, but didn’t get into any. “Not a single one,” she says. “It means nothing. It was too early.”) After Cambridge, she moved straight to New York, sleeping in a friend’s apartment on a foam bed that faced an air shaft. For a while, she was a temp, then worked as part of a word processing pool in a law firm. She worked odd jobs: in catering and as a private secretary to a countess who was an aspiring memoirist. “I was a young writer bumbling around New York,” she says. “I felt like I was doing a new thing every day.”
When she’s writing fiction, Jennifer Egan writes by hand. She likes to write outside, reclined, for five to seven pages at a time. "A steady pace," she says. She doesn’t want to write too much, to get greedy. She writes to escape, she says, to disappear into another world. “I find it really boring to write about myself or my life or people I know,” she says. “When I write, it’s going into the wardrobe, it’s going through the looking glass, whatever children’s book metaphor you want. That wish isn’t satisfied if I’m trying to write about my own life.” She grimaces slightly. “Some day I’ll try to write a memoir, if I can bear it.”
She’s found her footwork in experimental fiction: works that flicker between characters and jump through time, largely inspired by a six–year–long reading group she joined in New York that focused on the complete works of Proust. Her latest book, Manhattan Beach, is something of a deviation—a historical fiction novel, her first publication in seven years and the first one to follow Goon Squad, after all of its fanfare and acclaim.
“I’ve never been someone who’s really felt like I had something to contribute,” she says. “And that remains true. I always hope that I can write something that people will like. But I don’t count on that.”
Jennifer Egan graduated from Penn in 1985—but on a hot, slightly windy day last May, she returned to campus in a billowing black graduation gown to give the 2017 College of Arts and Sciences commencement speech.
“Look inward,” she urged the graduates. “Spend time with yourselves.” She devoted much of her speech to talking about the trials of technology, and how “the pain of comparison” she wishes she could have saved herself from.
“I feel for you guys,” she says on Locust. “I feel like you have such a huge challenge in trying to manage this.” She takes pleasure in putting her phone in a separate room, she says, in trying to write and live and breathe without the incessant pressure of distractions. “One I thing I know is that people who are really productive are going to manage that... In the end, you can’t do anything very well if you’re defracted. Self–discipline ends up being an important character trait now than it’s ever been,” she says. “How much we control what we do is a really important question.”
Writing is an expression of that discipline, she says, a force of habit–training, like going on a diet or exercising, or becoming accustomed to putting down the phone. It’s the force of habit that’s propelled her to literary success, she says, although she bristles at the word “successful."
“The world is huge, and what I do doesn’t matter very much,” she says. “That’s in my mind all the time. I know it. I mean, it would be so bizarre to think that I’m important, like really? No fucking way. I’m not a Buddhist or anything, but if you just take one step back, time moves quickly, and we all pass quickly. You hope to do something that will remain or touch someone, but there’s no way of knowing that... I don’t find that a harsh reality, I find that a reassuring reality.” She leans further back in her chair, smiles. “I just try to do what I can.”