Since her time at Penn, Jennifer Egan has defined herself as a writer.
That definition gained worldwide recognition on April 18, when the 1985 College graduate became the first-ever Penn alumna to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her fourth novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad.
Winning the Pulitzer, Egan said, has been “transcendently great and also very strange. I still can’t really believe that I won that. It’s such an iconic thing.”
However, she added that “winning something like this is about good luck as much as achievement.”
While Egan credits part of her recent recognition to luck, her dedication to writing has been apparent since her years at Penn.
Though she initially applied to the University with an interest in archaeology, the gap year she took before entering school allowed her to figure out that writing was where her true interest lay.
After traveling through Europe on a journey that would be reflected in her first novel, The Invisible Circus, Egan came to Penn, where “my desire to write and my identification with writing as a goal strengthened.”
While at Penn, Egan “received some fantastic instruction” from playwright and professor Romulus Linney, among others, who advised Egan on a creative piece that would later appear in her first book.
However, “there was no Writers House when I was at Penn,” Egan said. “There was a community, but it didn’t have a physical center.”
That didn’t deter Egan from being involved with writing in any way possible. In addition to being the editor of The Pennsylvania Review, Egan wrote for the Penn Press and The Daily Pennsylvanian.
Although much of Egan’s experience at Penn “was imbued with this wild hope that I could become a writer,” she added that the arts and letters community has experienced a great deal of growth since her time as a student.
“When I was there, it was during the Reagan years,” Egan explained. When then-Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan spoke at the 1985 Commencement, many students turned their back on his speech in protest of the conservative politics of the time.
However, “it feels to me that the arts have really strengthened after I left,” Egan said, adding that the founding of the Kelly Writers House in 1996 has contributed to the growth of the writer’s community.
Under Penn President Amy Gutmann, she said, “there’s been a huge amount of energy put into developing arts and letters.”
Writers House faculty director Al Filreis agreed, adding that students who, like Egan, want to pursue writing as a career, are very “optimistic about finding meaningful work in the world as writers.”
“The assumption that writers are depressed by an atmosphere in which business-minded students succeed while others wallow in lack of prospects has been outdated for at least several years,” he added.
With the strength of the current literary community at Penn, Egan said returning to her alma mater as an established writer “is an amazing experience, it’s very moving.”
Egan, whom Filreis emphasized has mentored writers at Penn for many years, will be speaking along with 2007 College graduate and Law School student Sam Donsky at the Writers House for Alumni Day on May 14.
Donsky, who credits the existence of the Writers House during his time at Penn with much of his success as a poet, called Egan “my favorite novelist, period.” As one of the students whom Egan has mentored, he said the opportunity to read with her is “a special experience of the highest order.”
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