LitFest attendees gathered in Johnson Chapel on Friday, March 1, to hear from Jennifer Egan, winner of a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. Professor Martha Umphrey, director of Amherst’s Center for Humanistic Inquiry, introduced Egan as “a chameleon with literary form”—not only an innovative novelist but a short-fiction writer and journalist whose articles have frequently appeared in The New York Times Magazine.
Indeed, after Egan read from the opening chapter of her most recent novel, Manhattan Beach (longlisted for a 2017 National Book Award), much of the evening focused on her versatility as a writer. Jennifer Acker ’00, editor-in-chief of Amherst’s literary journal The Common and author of the forthcoming novel The Limits of the World, asked Egan about some of the structural differences between Goon Squad and Manhattan Beach. “It was really such a pleasure to get back to old-fashioned storytelling and the skills that requires,” she said of the latter book, which is more chronologically linear than the former. Manhattan Beach’s main character is a woman, but Egan more often writes from male characters’ perspectives, because, she said, “I love the feeling of being delivered out of myself, out of my own life, into another world.”
Acker also spoke with Egan about her apparent fascination with gangsters and criminals (Egan’s grandfather was a police officer); her practice of typing nonfiction on a computer but writing fiction out longhand (the rough draft of Manhattan Beach reached 1,400 pages); the writing group she’s been meeting with since 1989; and the difference between journalistic interviews and oral histories.
Egan, who is now working on a companion book to Goon Squad, believes in continually challenging herself as a writer. “Whenever I feel like I’m developing a path of least resistance, I resist it,” she said, “because that’s how you get better.” –Katherine Duke ’05