Today I talked to Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit From the Goon Squad, a 2011 novel that won the Pulitzer Prize. The book was lauded for its creativity as well as its ability to capture what it’s like “growing up and growing old in the digital age,” as judges put it. In it, Egan explores time and does so in a nonlinear fashion. One chapter is written as if it’s a PowerPoint presentation, which is hilarious. She was awesome, and inspiring, to talk to.
Though Egan lives in Brooklyn, when I talked to her she was in Manhattan, getting stuff done—because, as I found out, that’s what Egan, the mother of two boys, does—she gets stuff done.
Me: What are you doing these days?
Jennifer Egan: I’m working on two new books at once (note: Getting stuff done, example one). “It’s an interesting thing because I’ve never done that before…usually I do journalism at the same time too…
Me: Man, that’s impressive I can’t even read two books at once.
JE: I agree. I also can’t read two books at one time. But my books move on multiple tracks, which relieves me of my temptation to over-complicate…I never know if things will work out. There’s always an absolute chance of failure.
(She went on to tell me that the two books she’s working on are very different. One should act as “a sibling to Goon Squad.” The other is a historical novel set in New York in the ‘30s and ‘40s. According to Egan, it’s “rather conventional.”
She explained that in an effort to focus on her writing, she has been doing less speaking engagements—maybe one presentation every six weeks.)
Me: The “engagements” tab on your website is totally empty.
JE: Thank you for reminding me. I’m writing this down right now. (note: Getting stuff done, example two)
ME: What sort of things happened to you over the past few years to make you take time so seriously?
JE: It certainly wasn’t interesting initially, when I was in my 20s…At first I thought no one under 40 would be interested in Goon Squad...Young people seem to be a lot more interested in time than I was...Maybe that’s due to technology? New technological norms?...The main thing is, I got older. I started feeling that sense of, I don’t know what, middle age? But I don’t feel that, I don’t feel middle-aged.
Me: I’ve read that Proust really influenced your writing of Goon Squad:
JE: I was bored with him in my 20s.
Me: I also read that The Sopranos served as another Goon Squad influence. I mean, it’s a great show, but…
JE: (laughs) I was watching it while reading Proust. It’s also so reliant on time. I mean, everything is, to an extent. But the early episodes, the characters were younger…You get to see the experiences of a long-lasting dramatic series. I was following this thread and that thread—I liked that. Polyphonic…You don’t see a lot of that anymore. Fiction isn’t serialized anymore…I wanted to write explicitly about time and change.
Me: The PowerPoint bit (chapter in Goon Squad) is genius. And hilarious. Are you a PowerPoint master now?
JE: I don’t like to brag but I certainly am. (note: Getting stuff done, example three)
Me: What interesting rock ‘n roll trivia did you learn while researching Goon Squad?
JE: Mostly learned about the length of pauses in songs. You can learn about that in that chapter [“Great Rock and Roll Pauses]…It’s funny, as a journalist I kept trying to get jobs in the music industry, unsuccessfully.
Me: What are you reading right now?
JE: I’ve been reading a lot.
(She then rattled off five titles and had nothing but enthusiastic praise for each one. (note: Getting stuff done, example four))
Henry Roth Call it Sleep. Truly a masterpiece.
Alfred Kazin Starting Out in the '30s. It’s about a struggling writer and critic during the depression. Really interesting.
Anatole Broyard Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir.
Kenneth Fearing The Big Clock. A ‘30s crime thriller, based in New York.
Jack Kerouac The Town and the City. I much preferred it to On the Road.
I’m really enjoying learning about [New York in the ‘30s and ‘40s]. To write about a moment outside my own lifetime is a huge challenge for me. There’s so many elements you need to know.
Me: What do you have planned for your Bend visit?
JE: I’m going to give a talk about doing journalism and fiction and the interaction between the two.
Me: My fiancé is a writer, a poet, mostly. What advice can I come home with? And share with the rest of Bend’s growing literary scene?
JE: Try to worry as little as possible about who’s in and who’s out. I mean, who can even remember? …I used to feel crushed by my own significance, but it was a complete waste. A complete waste of time.
It’s a challenge to keep working well over time. But you've got to keep doing it…Doing it for the joy it: if you’re having the fun then so is your reader.
And the rest you know: read and write.
Note: Egan answered my questions with thoughtful, involved, sometimes hilarious and often multifaceted replies. What appears above is a truncated version of all that she said. Egan was a delight to talk to and I’m very much looking forward to seeing her presentation next week. I also now want to read her other books.