I brought along Jennifer Egan’s newly-minted Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad, on my honeymoon in 2011. I remember reading it on some Argentine vineyard and thinking, simultaneously, “Man, this is incredible writing!” and “Man, I’m never going to be able to write like this!” The novel’s sublime; separated into interconnected but self-contained vignettes—with one chapter conceived as a PowerPoint presentation—it was like nothing I’d ever read in my life. It was raging against the machines of conformity, something I’d always related to in art, whether it be a Sex Pistols song or a René Magritte painting. In recent years, Egan’s added to her quintet of novels with 2017’s Manhattan Beach and been named President of PEN America. She’s also been a five-time Yaddo resident, and below, I’ve captured her thoughts on her times there, in her own words.
1. First Things First
In 1989, I ended up getting into Yaddo off the waitlist, and it was for a winter session, right around Christmas. It wasn’t a very popular time to be there. I hadn’t had any success as a writer at all; I was 26, and I’d never sold a story. I got into Yaddo as much as anything through persistence, because I basically called every other day and chatted with this nice woman who used to be the administrator there. In a way, since I hadn’t published yet, getting in was really the first feeling of legitimacy or approbation that I ever received from the literary world.
2. Admissions Admonished
There’s luck to anything that has an admissions process, because you’re trying to please the right people at the right time. One year, I was a panelist for admitting people to Yaddo, and I’ll say that I think it’s a fair process, because the work is read blind. You don’t know whose work you’re reading; several people read it, and they give it numerical values. Also, judges have the option of giving a push to one person they believe in, who isn’t getting the numbers to get in. I should add, the last time I applied to Yaddo before I had kids, I didn’t get in. I was rejected. I hadn’t won the Pulitzer, but by that time, I’d published two books and lots of journalism.
3. Friends With Benefactors
You mostly meet other artists at meals. Especially in the off-season months, when it’s just one small dinner table. You’re making dinner conversation; that’s how I met most of them. The food is fantastic, and there’s plenty of wine flowing—if people want to bring it. (They don’t serve it there.) If people wanted to, they could share their work in the evening. You could have a presentation or reading if you wanted to; it’s not required, and the last time I went, I didn’t do it.
4. Diary Of A Madwoman
Yaddo has had a weirdly pivotal role in my writing life. One time, I went to write the first draft of my first piece of journalism. It was about a model named James King. I’d never written as a journalist before, and I had no freaking idea what I was doing. Luckily, the room I was given had this large office, and the entire thing was covered with papers and Post-its to help me keep track of all this stuff I had. Someone walked in and said, “This really looks like the room of a madwoman.” It turned out that the first draft was a complete nonstarter. But it was the beginning of what was ultimately published and was the beginning of my journalistic career. [Editor’s note: “James Is A Girl” was a New York Times Magazine cover story in February 1996.)
5. Failure Is Success In Disguise
The last time I went to Yaddo, I was at a very, very low point with my novel Manhattan Beach. I even considered leaving, because I felt it was so uncomfortable to be confronted every day with this project that I had such grave doubts about. But I really got a huge amount done, and that actually helped me get over that terrible phase I was in. Yaddo was kind of crucial. I’ve tried to pick moments where I thought I would really, really need it. You should think carefully about what you’re going to do at Yaddo, and whether there’s really a reason to be there.
6. Spa City Envy
I love the city of Saratoga. I’m always incredibly excited by 19th-century landscapes and buildings, and that excitement has only grown. I think, in a way, it was even more intense this past time I was at Yaddo, because I was working on a historical novel [i.e., Manhattan Beach], and Saratoga came up a lot in the material I was researching. One time when I was there, I went and had a mineral bath. I’d also often walk from Yaddo to Downtown Saratoga, because I didn’t have a car. For me, walking and thinking about writing are intertwined. I feel a connection to Saratoga, actually. Most of all, the history that you can feel percolating right under the surface; to me, that enriches any place.
7. Visitation Rights
I’m currently working on something related to Goon Squad that will follow those characters into other realms. There’s a lot of structural challenges about that that are really formidable. The problem is that the characters come from a different book, and making them connect to one another is very difficult without a lot of authorial intervention that’s going to feel really forced or phony.
8. Never Say Never Again
As far as going back to Yaddo’s concerned, I don’t think I need to be there. My life has simplified a lot. I’m lucky enough to support myself with my writing, so I don’t have a day job I want to escape from. I feel connected to Yaddo without actually utilizing it in the way that I have. And I hope that will always continue. But I’ll never say never about going back to Yaddo.