In Jennifer Egan’s 2001 novel “Look at Me,” an academic poses as a journalist in order to interview a fashion model. Working for a private eye, the fake journalist is seeking information on the whereabouts of a foreign-born terrorist, whom the model had befriended in a New York nightclub. As the plot develops, the model persuades the academic to engage in a bit of actual journalism, enlisting her to write about her life for a website called Extra/Ordinary.com. Although the phony reporter turned novice reporter interviews the model at length, she proceeds to embellish her subject’s story.
Sixteen years later, the relationship between journalism and fiction continues to fascinate Egan, who based parts of “Look at Me” (though, to be clear, not the unethical subterfuge) on her own experiences reporting on the fashion industry. She’ll discuss that relationship March 2 when she presents a speech titled “Novelist As Journalist/Journalist As Novelist” during opening night of Festival of Arts Boca. Egan, whose six books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad” and the forthcoming “Manhattan Beach,” began working in journalism following the publication of her first novel, “The Invisible Circus,” in 1995.
“My first piece of journalism was about fashion models,” Egan says during a recent morning phone call from her home in Brooklyn, “and the reason I agreed to do it was that I knew I was going to be working on ‘Look at Me,’ which required a pretty thoroughgoing knowledge of the modeling world in New York. And I was having a very hard time getting access. In the world of fashion, it felt like they didn’t really care about talking to a writer about what they did.”
But when an editor friend at the New York Times asked if she’d be interested in writing about teenage models for the paper’s magazine, Egan recalls having an epiphany.
“I thought, ‘Aha. If I write about them, and I’m writing for the New York Times, even if the story never sees the light of day, I’ll have gotten my research done,’ ” she says. “I had no idea what I was doing, and it took awhile for that story to take shape. But ultimately, I was kind of hooked.”
Egan says she got a rush from distilling months of reporting and “comprehensive knowledge of a world that I had acquired” into a story whose readership would be much broader than that of her books. “It felt different,” she says. “It felt like another important thing that I could do.”
Every year or so for the next 15 years, Egan burrowed into the kinds of articles that in the age of Twitter and mass ADHD are called “longreads” but were once simply known as “stories.” She studied Catholic seminarians in Maryland as they prepared for lives in the priesthood. She investigated the phenomenon of cutting, or “self-injury,” among girls and young women, and she dug into a reported rise in bipolar disorders among children and adolescents. She published her most recent investigative piece, a profile on Lori Berenson, an American imprisoned in Peru for abetting terrorists, in 2011.
“I’m most interested in working on pieces that involve a world that I don’t understand,” Egan says. “This would be a common element to my feeling about fiction and nonfiction. The closer something is to my life, the less interested I am. That’s a huge difference between me and a lot of other people. I am not interested in myself. The farther I get away, the happier I am. It’s not that I don’t like my life, ’cause I realize I sound like a dissatisfied person. I’m not. It’s just that I don’t want to live it twice. I’m living it. That’s enough.”
At her Festival of the Arts talk, Egan says she will explain how her work as a journalist informed “Manhattan Beach,” the novel she plans to publish this fall and whose final edits she completed two days before this interview. She says the research-intensive novel is the reason she hasn’t published any journalism in six years. She also says “Manhattan Beach” is a much different book from “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” a decades- and continent-spanning novel whose characters are connected by the punk scene of late 1970s San Francisco.
“I don’t think it would be possible for it to be more different,” Egan says. “It’s a fairly straightforward, noirish thriller that is set in the ’30s and ’40s and is deeply engaged with the practices of deep-sea diving, merchant shipping during the war and shipbuilding at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.”
While conducting her research for the novel, which Egan says she began more than a decade ago, she immersed herself in military history, interviewing current and former Army divers, Navy Yard historians and women who worked as shipbuilders during World War II. She also disappeared into the culture of the era. “I listened to a lot of rah-rah World War II music: Benny Goodman, the Andrews Sisters,” she says with a laugh. “It’s been a pretty total immersion for me.”
Egan admits to being worried that fans of her more experimental fiction will think the conventional approach of “Manhattan Beach” is a sign that she’s sold out. “But you know, I always have that worry,” she says, “because every book is so different.” “The Keep,” her 2006 gothic prison novel, subversively toys with the concept of the unreliable narrator. “A Visit From the Goon Squad” famously includes a chapter written in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. And in 2012, a New Yorker magazine Twitter account published Egan’s “Black Box,” a futuristic spy story featuring a character from “Goon Squad.” The story unfolded tweet by tweet, one hour a night for 10 days.
“There is no narrative trickiness at all,” Egan says of the new novel. “I actually tried. I had all kinds of bells and whistles I was thinking about using, and the book just repelled them. It did not want them, and they worked poorly.”
Her journalism often behaves the same way. “Experimentation only happens for me as it grows out of the material,” she says. “It’s not like I think, ‘Oh, I want to be experimental. What can I write about?’ With journalism, you’re talking about real people, and your job is to tell about something that is actually happening. It’s not that there’s no experimentation for that. Things I ended up doing [in my journalism] were surprising to me, but it all comes out of the material. Clarity is the No. 1 value that I always have as a journalist. My job is to make this story accessible, and if I’m doing the opposite, then I’m literally at cross purposes with my job.”
Jennifer Egan will present “Novelist As Journalist/Journalist As Novelist” 7 p.m. Thursday, March 2, during Festival of the Arts Boca at Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center, 201 Plaza Real, in Boca Raton. Tickets cost $30. Call 866-571-2787 or go to FestivalOfTheArtsBoca.org.