Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

Jennifer Egan, author of "The Keep"

My inspiration for The Keep happened in a single moment--or really, more like a single hour. I'd just finished my previous novel, Look at Me, and was wondering what I would work on next. I'd also just had my first son, and my husband and I had taken our eight-week-old baby to Charleville France, where my husband was directing a play. It was an ill-starred trip (I ended up having to return early because of a serious illness in my family), and we ended up having only one day of leisure together. We spent it driving around in Belgium, and our travels included the town of Bouillon, named after Godfrey de Bouillon, who led the first crusade. Godfrey's ruined castle still stands on a tall hill overlooking the town, and we took the obligatory tour, my husband carrying our baby in a pouch on his chest.

As soon as I passed through the castle's massive gate, I felt a thrill of excitement at being there. The castle was dank, and much of it lacked a roof; the "floor" was mostly squishy rainsoaked grass. The underground rooms were still intact, dark and smelling of mold and wet stone. All of it gave me a feeling I've learned to recognize: a particular frisson of excitement that comes of knowing that I will "use" a place in some fictional way.

After my visit to Godfrey's castle, I struggled to figure out what that way would be: did I want to set a novel in Medieval times? Somehow that didn't feel right--among other things, in my newly maternal state I couldn't fathom the research. But also, as time went on, I realized that it wasn't historical reality that I craved--it was historical fanatsy, particularly the heavy, eerie, even slightly cheesy atmospherics of gothic fiction. Having determined that, I began doing a lot of reading: classics of the genre like James' The Turn of the Screw and Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, and also early lesser known works like Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer and Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho.

For a long time all I knew was that my book had a castle in it; the rest of it gradually arose from that. I struggled enormously at first with the voice; my previous novel had been more of a social satire, directly engaged with a particular time and place (America at the turn of the 20th Century), and the voice was knowing and full of irony. As I tried again and again to begin The Keep, sending my protagonist, Danny, up the hill to the castle day after day with his Samsonite in tow, the voice felt all wrong; I kept asking myself, "Why would *this* voice tell this story?" and I could find no answer. I wondered if I would have to abandon the novel. I became incredibly depressed by my inability to move forward comfortably, and I felt paralyzed--I was still in the thrall of a gothic sensibility, but felt unequal to the task of entering into it. I was reduced to demanding of myself that I write five bad pages a day (I always write fiction in longhand), and I gave my novel the working title: "A Short Bad Novel." Often I would spend most of the day avoiding the time when I would have to sit down and write my five pages, but I made myself do it.

At one point I found myself writing the words, "I'm trying to write a novel," which of course was true, but this time I felt I was writing that sentence as someone else. I followed the thought into a prison classroom, where I ended up writing a scene in which one workshop member is demanding that another tell him what will happen next in the story he's working on...or else. I found the idea funny and weirdly touching, and I loved the voice because it was unpolished and non-lyrical; it's a voice that's just trying to get the story down without making it beautiful. Once I'd found that voice, I knew that I had a novel, because I just wanted to keep listening to it, hearing the odd, sometimes crude way it would tell a story. And Ray (the prisoner)'s lack of polish made it possible for me to free myself from some of the conventions of writing that I'd gotten tired of: the moving in and out of the past, conventions of dialogue and character and backstory. Ray has a different way of doing those things, because he hasn't learned the conventions. I'll be curious to see what kind of a mark he leaves on my writing as I move on to the next book.

Jennifer Egan's book, Look at Me, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Please visit her website.

(Author photo by Marion Ettlinger)


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