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My New York: Jennifer Egan

Pieter M. Van Hattem

Photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem

Novelist Jennifer Egan on being productive in the city of distractions.

Setting is king in a Jennifer Egan novel—and she’s the first to admit it. “Unless I find writing about a place fun, I cannot do it,” says the author and frequent contributor to The New Yorker. “A place has to pull me.” One locale that has pulled her again and again is her home city of Brooklyn, where she lives in a brownstone with her husband, the theator director David Herskovits, and their two baseball-playing sons.

New York City first appeared in Egan’s work in the 2001 novel Look at Me, about a supermodel who survives a car crash in Illinois and returns, horribly disfigured, to Manhattan. The borough is where Egan first lived when she moved to the city in 1987 as an up-and-comer in the literary world. “I have a memory of New York still in its somewhat depressed state,” she says. “Bryant Park—which is the funnest place in the world now—I remember it as a needle park. I used to work as a temp and I remember writing on my lunch break in Bryant Park as people were selling drugs next to me. The city looks 1,000 times better now.”

In 2000, Egan and Hershkovits left Manhattan for not-yet impossibly hip Brooklyn—a move Egan says has been a boon for her writing: “It’s lighter here. And it’s quieter.” In the relative calm of the Fort Greene neighborhood, Egan penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, a time-hopping novel (or is it a short story collection? Discuss.) that follows a cast of punk rockers and music industry hangers-on as they self-destruct their way through Gotham and beyond.

Egan is working on a new novel about New York in the 1930s and ’40s, and when she needs a break—or inspiration—she tromps around her neighborhood with her family. Her haunts include 67 Burger, the Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn Museum and the great green spaces of Prospect Park. When Manhattan beckons, she and her kids catch a show at the The New Victory Theater or an exhibit at the Museum of Mathematics.

With such a compelling real-life setting at her fingertips, it’s a wonder Egan gets any writing done. “The only way to not get destructively distracted by New York is to give oneself permission to miss 99.999 percent of what’s happening here,” she says. “If you can’t do that, you can’t produce here. I do feel pain over things I miss—exhibits, shows. But the funny thing is, even when I miss things, I like knowing that they’re nearby.” //

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