By Rachel Hurn

A response to a public conversation with Jennifer Egan on February 7, 2012. 

Jennifer Egan does not write about herself. She divulged this to a crowd of one hundred last Tuesday night. “Personal writing has to matter in a larger way,” she explained. “It has to matter to the reader.” One audience member raised his hand—“So the nonfiction pieces you’ve written for the New Yorker didn’t matter?” A chuckle fanned through the crowd, and Willing Davidson, fiction editor of the magazine and moderator of the evening’s discussion, flashed a smile. “I am always thrilled to write for the New Yorker,” Egan said, “but if writing necessarily meant writing about myself, then I’d rather do something else.”

Egan went on to say what does matter to her: how she writes (on yellow legal pads by hand, reclining in a chair), and how that experience mirrors meditation. She does not do what I’m doing, sitting down and recounting an actual evening. Instead, she has an “out of body” experience, where she lets go of modernity (like typing on the computer), closes off the fetishized connections (like Facebook and Twitter), and conjures characters she has never met before, characters who are not real. As she described her process, she said, “What I can think of consciously is just of limited interest. I’m looking for something a lot bigger, and that seems to only come from the unconscious for me.”

There is a spiritual aspect in Egan’s search for real experience in made-up characters. This search for truth via invention reminded me of Look At Me, her National Book Award Finalist novel, which will celebrate its tenth anniversary this year. The book deals heavily with the subject of fact versus fiction. For the unfortunate ones who have not read it, it’s about Charlotte Swenson, a fashion model who survives a terrible car accident with months of reconstructive surgery and a new face that people literally do not recognize—a terrible shock for a model reemerging in Manhattan’s fashion scene (in which turning thirty-five is frightening enough). Charlotte, who is obsessed with the idea of identity and what she calls people’s “shadow selves,” that is, who they are when they’re not covering up or trying to be someone else, decides to reinvent her own identity. She has a new face after all. She can debut as a new model, she can spy on people, she can even toy with the possibility of becoming a detective.

But then, Charlotte reaches a turning point. She almost gets her face cut up with razor blades in a fashion shoot, a gimmick a photographer vaunted for making a shoot look more  “real.” Over the course of the next few months, she opens up to a ghost writer, surprising herself at how good it feels to be honest for once. And in the end, the process of inventing identities has managed to reveal her shadow self, her real self.

Perhaps this is what Egan was getting at last week. What is “true” isn’t always that; what is fictionalized isn’t necessarily not true. People pretend every day. A new face will not make you a new person. But by inventing characters, Egan is getting at the truths that make fiction real. And those are the truths that matter.

Rachel Hurn writes for the literary blog The Millions