Elisabeth Egan’s debut novel, A Window Opens, touches on themes that many workers, particularly working parents, can relate to. The protagonist of her novel, Alice Pearse, decides to “lean in” after her husband leaves his job at a law firm. She accepts a position with a startup that wants to “reinvent the bookstore experience.”
Egan is currently the books editor at Glamour and her career included a stint at Amazon Publishing. The company in the novel, called Scroll, shares a few parallels with the recent profile of Amazon in the New York Times. Like Amazon, Scroll wants to change the way the world reads books and buys merchandise. Scroll also champions “Tenets of Winners” and features a boss who emails Alice at 6:30 a.m. on a weekend.
Alice, a lifelong book lover, enters the world of NDAs served with fancy coffee and pastries, a never-ending stream of emails, and a business that seems critically important but never launches. The depiction is not wholly a negative one. Readers see, through Alice’s warm and humorous perspective, the challenges of juggling parenthood, work, and other responsibilities in our 24/7 connected culture.
Anyone who has had a dream job that later turned out to be, well, a nightmare, will relate to the boss who employs a strategy of “befriend, then berate,” awkward office moments with coworkers, and conflicts between work and life when the line between the two has become increasingly blurred.
I talked with Elisabeth Egan about her childhood dream of writing a novel, content versus literature, and the question we should ask ourselves in place of can we “have it all?”.
The Rumpus: A Window Opens reads like a novel written by a book lover and lifelong reader. Was writing a novel something you’d wanted to do since childhood?
Elisabeth Egan: Absolutely. It was something I dreamed about, but for a long time it didn’t feel like something I would be able to do. It seemed like something other people did. I always enjoyed the fruit of other people’s labors, and then something changed. I was about to turn forty, and I thought, why have I never tried this? I spend so much time reading novels and thinking about novels and recommending novels. And finally, I thought, I have to try my hand at this. So yes, it was a dream, but one that I didn’t feel was possible to realize until I actually sat down to do it.
Rumpus: This is your first published novel. Is it the first one you wrote, or had you worked on other fiction previously?
Egan: This is the first novel I wrote. The last time I had written fiction was my thesis in college, which was a collection of short stories, and that was in 1995. So I had not tried my hand at fiction in eighteen years when I started this book. It was a bit of a leap of faith.
As I was working on it, I thought of all those times I had heard people tell me, oh, I have a novel in a drawer, or my sister wrote three novels that didn’t get published. Those are the kind of things that throughout my career in publishing kind of went in one ear and out the other.
When I actually sat down to write a book myself, I realized what a tremendous leap of faith of it is. And I certainly had such a respect for the people I’d known over the years who’d written a novel, and it hadn’t worked out, and sat down and started writing another one. I’m not sure I would have had the gumption to do that.
Rumpus: Your novel captures the real-life, everyday types of conflicts working parents (especially working mothers) face. Why you were inspired to write about this?
Egan: I felt like the life I was living wasn’t really reflected in books or in movies. I wanted to get at the humor of being a working parent. And I felt like I saw that in sitcoms, but always in this kind of slapstick way where everything worked out okay in the end. I felt like there was a way to show the chaos of what my life was looking like at the time that was funny, but also got at some of the disappointment of it and some of the disillusionment that I felt occasionally when I wasn’t so happy at my job and knew what I was missing on the home front. And that feeling of being at home and constantly worrying that I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain at work. Wherever you are, you’re thinking about the other place.
And I feel like whenever we hear from working parents in the media, they’re always way more important than I am. I’m grateful to people like Sheryl Sandberg. I always use her as the example that there are lots of women who have spoken out about how hard it is, and I’m really grateful that they’ve done that. I’m avoiding using the phrase “working mom” because, in my world at least, it applies to men and women. But there’s the flipside of the coin of the everyday working stiff who’s not the boss, who doesn’t have a whole infrastructure of people to make life on either side, either work or home, easier.
I love what I do, but I don’t have an assistant. At home I don’t have a full-time nanny. I don’t have a cook. I’m very happy with my setup but I feel like I don’t see it that often in books, movies, and TV shows, and maybe it’s because it’s not terribly entertaining. But I wanted to try my hand at showing this life that so many women and so many men I know have and take the conversation about how you do it all to regular people, not just titans of industry.
Rumpus: I was going to ask about Lean In, but you answered a lot of that question.
Egan: You know what, I love Lean In. And it’s funny, a few very early reviews of my book have, maybe it was only one, described it as the “antidote to Lean In.” And I thought, wait a minute. I love Lean In. Make no mistake. That book really got my wheels turning. To me it’s required reading. But it did make me think, what about the regular ladies who are on the train every day who are ordering groceries at the same time that they’re making their list of what needs to get done at work that day? There’s this whole army of parents we don’t hear from.
And the people you hear from are always talking about how much they love their jobs. So I wanted to put my character in a job that she didn’t love and see, what does that look like? That makes balance much more difficult. Right now I have a job that I love. If I have work I have to do at home or I have to work late, I’m happy to do it. Sometimes it feels like a hobby. But I think we’ve all been in that spot where we’re not loving what we do and suddenly the equation is way out of whack.
Rumpus: I think anyone who had what they thought was a dream job and then they realize, oh wait, this isn’t what I thought it was going to be, relates to it.
Egan: Whether or not you have kids, it’s that slow dawn of disillusionment.
Rumpus: Exactly. Do you think work-life balance is a myth?
Egan: I wish there was a different image for it. All of the metaphors we use for it—the work-life balance, the juggle, the balance beam—I feel like the phrasing is getting old. No, I don’t think it’s a myth. I think you can have it all. I think it really depends. I say this at one point in the book. The question is really, what do you want?
I can only speak from my personal experience. I’ve never had a long period of time I felt, “Wow, I really have it all. The balance is in perfect calibration.” For me, it’s day to day. One day I feel like things are really going well on the work front. The next day I think things are going really well on the home front. Sometimes it’s even hour to hour. Before I had kids, I thought those phases would last longer. I didn’t realize how precarious everything can be. But as my kids have gotten older, and maybe I’ve just gotten more used to it, it feels less precarious and more exciting. I like the idea of having a big life that has everything in it. But especially when your kids are really small, man, it’s exhausting.
Rumpus: Why did you decide tackle fiction instead of nonfiction?
Egan: I think fiction is so much easier because you can say what you want to say. I’m used to writing for Glamour where every single word is fact-checked. It was liberating. I also felt like there were a lot of, maybe because I started writing this right after Lean In came out, there were a lot of books that were nonfiction about parenthood and work. The last novel that I had read that was along those lines was I Don’t Know How She Does It, which came out almost fourteen years ago. And it came out before everyone had a smartphone. I felt like that topic was ripe for a revisitation through fiction. Because now we leave work, and we all have our office in our pockets. In some ways that makes your life so much easier. In other ways you could easily do work at 10 o’clock at night. My dad came home from work and that was it. He was done.
Rumpus: Does your job as Books Editor at Glamour influence your writing?
Egan: I don’t think so. I think my work schedule makes me very disciplined about when I write because I don’t have all day to do it. Sometimes I fantasize, wouldn’t it be great if I could just be a full-time writer? But then I think, no. The work I do here, being with people who I find stimulating and interesting, it exposes me to people I wouldn’t know, and a world I wouldn’t be part of if I weren’t here.
The content of what I do here doesn’t really influence me so much as a writer. It shapes my days in a way that I like. I’m really disciplined about writing early in the morning because I have to come to work. And being here at work gets my mind off the loneliness sometimes and the stress of being a writer. Can you imagine sitting down and writing for eight hours a day? I really feel like I can do it one or two hours at a time. If I have eight hours just stretching out in front of me, I go into a real funk. I’m a social animal.
Rumpus: As a reader, to me it doesn’t matter how much of a novel is inspired by autobiography. But I’m curious if the autobiographical elements influenced how you wrote this book?
Egan: The arc of the father getting sick, that’s very closely linked to the true story of my own dad getting sick and dying of throat cancer, but that actually happened twelve years ago. I was very concerned about my mother and my sister. I was worried that they would feel that I was sharing too much about my dad and his illness. So when I sent them the manuscript I was worried they would feel it was too private. The kids in the book are not exactly my kids in real life. I didn’t want my kids to feel too exposed. I was conscious of wanting to protect my people. Also my husband is not a heavy drinker. And my husband has never thrown a laptop across the room. He has no rage issues. I was conscious of clearing all those things with him and with them. I think the part that was the hardest to write was the part about the dad.
Rumpus: I could see that. The other part that surprised me was the babysitter leaving. You know the dad is going to be emotional, but the babysitter leaving was unexpectedly emotional for me.
Egan: That’s so funny. For me too. In real life we did have a babysitter we’d had for eight years, and she ended up leaving, as she should have because she got a much better job. For me that felt like a breakup. First of all, I’m very sentimental. Second of all, nobody loves [your kids] as much as you do, but when there’s someone who is coming pretty close, it’s really powerful. I cried for days when she left. To the point that my kids were like, “Mom, we’ll be fine.”
I’m glad to hear you say that. I worried that some people might be like, I don’t want to read about somebody’s babysitter. Hearing about somebody’s babysitter is almost like hearing about somebody’s dream. Other people are like, I’m not interested.
Rumpus: Like you said, it’s like a breakup. You’re married, you have kids, and yet you still have these losses.
Egan: Yes, and they’re not always the losses you expect. My son just graduated from elementary school and they had this huge graduation ceremony with speakers and a slideshow. And all around me there were parents breaking down. They were so sad, and I felt totally stone-faced. Those are not the moments that get me. To me it’s when the kids learned to ride the two-wheeler. It’s those little private moments you have with them. When their front teeth fall out. When they each learned to read. Those are the moments that kick me in the gut, not the biggies.
Rumpus: I don’t know if I read this or if I got this impression from the book, but it seemed that you wrote it while commuting to and from work. Is that accurate?
Egan: In the summer, my daughter swims with this swim team that practices from 6 to 8 a.m. And the pool that they practice in is just far enough from our house that it doesn’t make sense to drive home because it takes so long to get there. So two years ago I thought, I could do something useful with this time. These are two hours I’m just sitting here. Some of the parents go for walks. Some parents play cards. And that was when I started writing.
I thought, I’m going to use the two hours to try to write a book. I was barely awake. My inner editor was still asleep. So I just started writing. I wasn’t working that summer so I had three months to do that morning thing. In September I started working at Glamour, and I was hell-bent on continuing and getting the first draft done. I brought my laptop and worked on the train for forty minutes there and back. The initial draft was called “The Round Trip,” and there was much more about the train in it. My agent was like, only people who live in New Jersey are interested in this. I live in a commuter suburb. Everyone I know commutes, and to me it’s kind of a fascinating topic.
I was so relieved to realize that I could get work done on the train because otherwise it’s kind of a dead zone. My husband’s father, he had a long drive to work, and he taught himself how to play the hands-free harmonica. He had this metal stand that he used, and he would play the harmonica on the way to work. And I’m not kidding; he’s a harmonica maestro. And then he also taught himself Italian on the way to work. I thought, if my father-in-law who is almost seventy can do that, I can write a book. That kind of galvanized me.
Rumpus: I feel so lazy. I just listen to audiobooks.
Egan: I’ve gotten really into audiobooks.
Rumpus: I love all kinds of fiction. And I tend to listen to more fiction than non, but I cannot listen to literary fiction with audiobooks.
Egan: Neither can I.
Rumpus: It just doesn’t hold my attention.
Egan: It’s excruciating. Although I can listen to any nonfiction. Right now I’m listening to, have you read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book?
Rumpus: I haven’t picked it up yet.
Egan: Do yourself a favor; listen to it. I started reading it. It’s really powerful. It’s his voice reading. It’s amazing.
Rumpus: Your book captures the tension between loving physical books as objects and the ephemeral nature of technology. In the novel there’s a lot of emphasis on e-books. It sounds like you listen to audiobooks. Do you prefer any form?
Egan: The funny thing is most of the books I read aren’t out yet. Right now, the books I’m reading are coming out in November. So there are no audiobooks yet. I’m reading galleys. It is possible to get NetGalleys on my Kindle or iPad, but most of the time I read the physical book. I think that’s particular to me because I write book reviews and I’m reading so far ahead.
In terms of reading e-books, if I’m going to read on a screen I prefer to read nonfiction. I like to have the novel in my hand. But I would call myself platform-agnostic. I’m not one of those people who has stamped my foot and said, “No, I won’t read e-books.” But I do feel very, very strongly about bookstores as community centers and places I want in my town. I do think twice before buying an e-book just because I love the owner of my bookstore and I want her to be there in business. What about you?
Rumpus: I’ve started running out of room, and I have a hard time letting go of books. So my new rule is I try not to buy the physical book unless it’s just really beautiful. But if I think I’m just going to read it once, we have a great city library so I’ll check books out. I listen to a lot of audiobooks because I don’t have a lot of time to read, and I can listen to audiobooks to and from work.
Egan: Can you take the audiobook out of the library?
Rumpus: Yes. And e-books too.
Egan: That’s great. I do feel like when I meet somebody in this era, who is all paper all the time, it reminds me of my mom who back in the day refused to learn how to use a fax machine or get a microwave. I’m all for progress. Whatever makes your life easier, I say go for it.
Rumpus: Do you feel like our technology-focused culture is at odd with books? By that I mean books tend to be this slow, immersive read. One of the reasons I don’t like to read on my tablet or phone, for example, is that I get distracted by email or a text. So even though I’m platform-agnostic I find the experience itself a lot more distracting because of everything else around it.
Egan: I do too. I feel like my reading habits have changed dramatically in the past three years, mostly since I’ve been on every social media you could possibly be on. Every once in a while I’ll reach a tipping point when I’ll decide I’m not checking Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram today. I would like to immerse myself in a book.
But I think that people always want a good story. Even though I do feel like I get a constant interesting diet of articles and news briefs via Twitter or Facebook, when I’m sitting on the beach and I want to be transported someplace else, I really want the book. I think that probably people’s reading habits have changed, but I still think that hunger for a good story is not going anywhere.
Rumpus: The work jargon and the phrases, like being agnostic in terms of carbon-based books or e-readers, were hilarious and spot on. I liked a lot of the acronyms. Did you collect phrases as you were writing?
Egan: Yes, absolutely. I paid very close attention to a few friends who work in the tech world. My husband is a lawyer and works in mergers and acquisitions, occasionally with tech companies. And I always love the lingo. You know, “examining things from a thirty-thousand-foot perspective.”
A friend of mine just left the magazine world to go work for a tech startup and she was telling me about this term to “Sherpa” something. It’s when you train someone to do something. I can’t remember exactly what it means, but it was such a funny term. I started collecting weird bits of lingo and reading about what it’s like to work at Microsoft or Google and kind of came at it that way.
I’ve always loved work and office lingo. Probably because in the magazine world we only have like two bits of lingo we use. But this lingo is now two years out of date. There’s probably a whole new set of vocabulary.
Rumpus: The phrase “content” kept coming up in your book, like the position as a content manager, etc. Do you feel “content” is different from literature?
Egan: That’s such a good question. No, I don’t think I would make that distinction. I used the term content kind of tongue in cheek. Since I’ve been working in the media world for twenty years, I no longer work for a magazine company. I work for a media company, and we produce content. We’ve all learned this new language. The labels, you see it with books. Is it literary fiction, is it chick lit, is it such and such? To me, it’s like, who cares? It doesn’t matter what you call it. If it’s something that you think about when you walk away from it and you want to get back to it, that to me is the name of the game. The rest is just lingo. I don’t know that I would want my book referred to as content, in the disposable sense. But I don’t make a distinction between content and literature. I make a distinction between interesting and not interesting.
Rumpus: I hear the term content used a lot, and it doesn’t always seem like a positive term. Disposable is a good adjective.
Egan: Yeah, it feels a little bit disposable, but I don’t think it’s meant to be. I mean, when we talk about content for Glamour.com, that content is in no way inferior to what’s in the print edition of the magazine. And I would think The New Yorker feels the same way. I think content is a term we’re still wrapping our minds around and its definition will evolve. And Alice was kind of grappling with what that meant.
Rumpus: I noticed you love quotes. Do you have any favorites right now?
Egan: I don’t have a favorite off the top of my head, but I do have a favorite source. I listen to The Writer’s Almanac every day, which is Garrison Keillor’s podcast. And it is so full of great quotes. I feel like whatever he’s saying every morning, there’s always a moment during my day when I think back to something that was on The Writer’s Almanac, and I’ll think, how did he know this was going to happen today? For quote lovers, I recommend The Writer’s Almanac podcast.
Rumpus: You’ve sold your second novel. Have you started it?
Egan: Yes, I have started it. I’m already stressed out about finishing it because it’s due in June. When I sold my first book, somebody said to me, there’s a long lag time between when you hand in the revision of the novel and when it actually comes out. And somebody said, maybe it was my agent, just get started. Don’t wait for them to ask for another one. Start writing. So I did.
It was a little easier. I felt like I could take myself a tiny bit more seriously than I had the first time because I knew I could do it. This one’s a little harder to write because it’s one hundred percent fiction, and the main character bears no resemblance to me. I haven’t finished it yet. I’ve taken a little time off right now. My plan is as soon as my kids go back to school in September to really buckle down and get back to it.
Author photo © Beowulf Sheehan.