Spies Like Us: A Conversation With James Hannaham and Jennifer Egan
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He’s a provocative novelist with a laser-sharp wit and she’s a near world-famous writer you’ve probably heard of once or twice. But what do Jennifer Egan and James Hannaham have in common? It turns out not only are they old friends, but also the literary equivalent of old war buddies; having been in the trenches of writerly struggles together since way back.
For the release of his new novel — Delicious Foods — Jennifer Egan interviewed James Hannaham at Greenlight Bookstore on March 23rd. And before that event, I sat down with James and Jennifer at his Brooklyn apartment for a more intimate conversation. In it, the two authors offered unique insight into the role history can play on literature, how they manage their expectations of the world of letters, and the humble beginnings of their unique and super-powered friendship.
Ryan Britt: You blurbed James’s first book. How did you guys meet? What’s the origin of the friendship?
Jennifer Egan: It’s a long time now. We met through my husband — then boyfriend — who directed plays. How did you meet David, James?
James Hannaham: I met David [Herskovits] because he did a directing seminar at Yale that John Collins was in.
Egan: Was that when he did Spring Awakening or was that separate?
Hannaham: It was separate, I feel like Spring Awakening was earlier. This was in 1990–1991. And John Collins was in that…John and I moved to New York around the same time and started Elevator Repair Service not long after that. Which started because we were both working on Titus Andronicus.
Britt: So it was theatre that brought you together?
Egan: Yes! Though I wasn’t part of theatre, it was my boyfriend.
Hannaham: And I wasn’t doing too much at that theatre. I was standing outside and guarding these microphones.
Egan: They performed a lot on the street! The neighborhood was pretty crazy then. They were performing in this window of this storefront on Ludlow — which is hard to believe now that that could have been dangerous —
Britt: Right, now every window on Ludlow has a performance.
Egan: Or expensive shoes. But…yeah…that is how I know James. Though it was quite awhile before I knew that you [James] even wrote fiction. I wonder how we had that conversation. Were you writing fiction at the time?
Hannaham: What happened was that I’d gotten job at the Voice in the design department and had started writing articles and there seemed to be a lot of social pressure for your next “thing” to be a book.
Egan: Those were the days.
Hannaham: In the environment at the Village Voice it seemed like next step, after writing reviews was to write a book about something, a non-fiction book if you were a critic. But I knew I didn’t want to write non-fiction. I had no idea what I would write. So I kind of took a stab at writing fiction. And I said to myself “who do I know…” (laughs)
Egan: And I hadn’t published a book either!
Hannaham: I showed you a story of mine. Which I was thinking about yesterday in the shower.
Egan: I still think about that story.
Britt: What was it about?
Hannaham: It was a story about a black gay man who accidentally kills a Republican senator during rough sex.
Egan: And the dialogue between them during the sex is just wild. I remember reading this and thinking “Oh My God!” this is just a guy I knew from the theatre world. And the story was just so shocking and funny and horrible. And it did a lot things. How many times of all the times when people say “would you read my stuff,” does anything happen in those stories?
Britt: Were you the kind of friends who made a lot of weird jokes with each other?
Egan: I think James is funny. I feel like I’m not funny. I’m funnier on the page than I am in real life.
Hannaham: I feel like you [Jennifer] have a mordant sense of humor. But you don’t make as many puns as I do.
Egan: But I feel like from the beginning, I was trying to strategize for you.
Hannaham: That’s true. I was doing a talk at City College a few years ago and I was being asked to retrace the steps of my career and at almost every turn I was like “and then Jennifer Egan said to me…”
Britt: So, if you guys had a family relationship, what kind of relationship would this be?
Hannaham: Well, we do have little nicknames for each other…
Egan: That’s truuuue!
Hannaham: There was a point at which Jenny was trying to help me find an agent and at a certain point — you know how they say you need an agent to get an agent — Jenny was that. And so, I don’t remember who started it, but I started calling her “Agent 99.”
Britt: From Get Smart.
Egan: Right, from Get Smart. And I always adored Agent 99 from Get Smart. And so…
Hannaham: ..she started to call me 007, because my first name is James.
Britt: So you guys were like spies together.
Egan: It kind of felt that way. Because it felt so ridiculously hard at the beginning. For most of my time I feel like I really struggled. With Goon Squad I had a lot of really good luck, but it was such a pleasure to use some of the knowledge that I’d gained from all of that to help someone I basically knew was going to get there. But it was kind of crazy how hard it was.
Britt: Was there something in those days, or before, that you wanted out of the writing life, something you don’t care about now, or something you’ve let go of?
Hannaham: Everyone generally thinks it’s going to happen faster than it can.
As if having the machinery in place will make it all happen when in fact it comes down to the work.
Egan: That’s true. There’s often a focus on getting an agent before one needs one. That was not James’s situation, because he had a book. But often, I find people are very focused on that. As if having the machinery in place will make it all happen when in fact it comes down to the work. With James, I was full of advice, but the most essential thing is that the work has to be really good and get better. And that’s a lot to ask. James has always done that. And I remember when you told me about Delicious Foods and I thought “this is a really good idea,” but we all know that doesn’t necessarily mean…
Hannaham: Yeah. It’s what they call in Hollywood “execution dependant.”
Britt: Talking about the book a little bit [Delicious Foods] was this something where you had the concept first? Perhaps before the characters?
Hannaham: There were two ideas. I had this idea in the back of mind that I wanted to write a book that in someway dealt with the legacy of slavery — sort of a rite of passage for a young black novelist — but I wanted to do something I hadn’t seen done before. And I came across this story in John Bowe’s book Nobodies about a black woman who was essentially enslaved in Florida in 1992. I was like “okay. I don’t have to set this in the past.” So, a lot of different things were snowballing at that moment. But I don’t like to think of it as “the concept,” like it’s this thing I put in the toaster while I work on the egg…it all sort of came together at once.
Britt: Now, I might have misinterpreted this, but you make a reference early in the novel to the idea that Eddie should keep his hands up. How do you feel about that reference? Is it a reference to Ferguson? What do think history will do with a book like this?
There are so many different ways to “read” something.
Hannaham: Well, you’re actually asking the wrong person this question! Because of [Jennifer Egan’s] Look at Me…but it’s hard to say. There are so many different ways to “read” something. And as an academic, I’m not sure I know how to answer that. I could read it as a feminist or a post-structuralist. There’s so many ways to answer that.
Egan: I have an answer! I think they [future people] will of course conflate it [Delicious Foods] with Ferguson. There’s no way not to. That’s why, in a way, Look at Me [which quasi-predicts 9/11] is the same. I mean, I do have an afterward that clarifies that I didn’t write Look at Me in response to 9/11 because I wouldn’t have written that book after 9/11. But I’m operating in the same moment that lead to 9/11. And that’s what I think is true of Delicious Foods, too.
Hannaham: And I think that particular detail is not about anything political. But I was editing the book during that time, so it’s possible that it’s in the back of mind. However, my copyeditor on this book told me they were an EMT, so they had a lot of input. And because Eddie has had his hands cut off, I did a lot of research as to what you need to do to survive. Part of that was keeping your arms “up.” One story I researched was about woman named Mary Vincent. She was raped and had her forearms cut off. And after surviving, she became an artist!
Britt: So, Jennifer Egan, imagine you’re James Hannaham: what do think is the question that James Hannaham is going to be sick of getting by the end of the Delicious Foods book tour?
Egan: Well, one of things we have in common as writers is that we don’t work too much from personal experience. So, I feel like there’s a constant desire for readers to find parallels between one’s life and one’s work. And they do exist but I think in the case of people like us if we wanted that to be the conversation, they would be much more in the foreground. I always have a hard time with those [autobiographical] questions. I don’t like to talk about myself, in any way. So, it’s hard to be asked that, when I’ve worked so hard to conceal — even from myself — how much of this stuff I actually used from my life. With James’s first book [God Says No] we had some pretty hilarious moments where people assumed the closeted, obese, evangelical Christian man in the book was James!
Hannaham: Well, that book was written in part to confuse that impulse.
Egan: Anyway, we had potential agents criticizing that book for being so clearly autobiographical.
Britt: How presumptuous!
Hannaham: I think it’s really weird when you’ve written a character who is based on someone and then the “real” person will be like “I’m in that book! That’s me in that book!” And I’m like, no, it’s not. It’s actually just a collection of words.
Egan: I probably talked for way too long about Goon Squad. But I stopped feeling at a certain point that I had been asked questions before. It felt like the first time, each time I did an event. And that was a great stage to reach. Which made me think of theatre. I’d be like “oh I can’t read this chapter again,” but then I’d think, “People perform in plays, every night for months!” And they make it fresh every time.
Britt: James, are you looking forward to that theatrical part of this business, now that you’re heading out on book tour?
Hannaham: Yeah! I mean it’s an ideal job! It fits a lot of my skill sets. I’m good at performing, but I’m terrible at memorizing.
Egan: It is like the easiest job in the world. I had a terrible public speaking fear, but James, comes from a performance background…
Hannaham: I’m also not afraid to die on stage!
Britt: What are you working on now, James?
Hannaham: You’re going to be totally freaked out by this answer. I’m doing a show. [An art show.] I’ve been offered a solo show at a gallery in Ridgewood — which is right in the middle of the book tour — but I couldn’t say no. (laughs) It’s the Kimberly Klark gallery.
Egan: Is it new stuff?
Hannaham: It turned out to be quite new. I bought a vinyl cutter. So I can make vinyl letters that you can stick on things. And it’s going to be a lot of vinyl letters, sentences stuck on the walls. And they said, “Well, you might want to make some stuff that we can sell,” and so I stewed over that conundrum for awhile. But I made these small, 12 by 16 which are poster-type things with these phrases on them that were mostly phrases you’d hear someone say about a work of art. Like, one of them says “Not My Best Work.”
Egan: When is the show?
Hannaham: Beginning of April!
Britt: James, what’s your favorite thing about Jennifer Egan?
Hannaham: That she…lives…nearby. (laughs) There are just too many other things!
Hannaham: I just don’t know anyone who is sharper. And generous. And fierce.
Britt: How about you, Jennifer? What’s the great thing about James?
Egan: Just a totally splendid human being. And amazingly enough, also a superb writer. It’s very hard to find all of that in one person. But, I would take the person first. It’s fun to do all this writing stuff. But that’s not the real thing.
Britt: If you were to pack it all in and say we’re done with this writing thing, you’d still be great friends?
Egan: I’d hope so!
Hannaham: For sure. But, probably spies, too. (laughs)
Original artwork provided by James Hannaham