Q&A: Novelist Jennifer Egan
We wish they made more novelists like Jennifer Egan these days — writers who have all the necessary chops for falling down the Eggers/Foer wormhole, but have the good taste to do it in a sparing, almost genteel way. And yes, there is a chapter in Egan’s latest novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad, that is told in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, but there are also pages upon pages of gorgeous, engrossing writing that penetrates her characters’ psyches with the old-style bow and arrow the old masters used to use. Turns out, those characters are pretty relatable, too — A Visit From The Goon Squadcontains a series of fuck-ups joined by either rock ‘n’ roll or family, all of whom are desperate to get back to a time when either one of those things were the most important and affirming things in their lives. (For a sample, try “Ask Me If I Care,” a chapter which recently appeared as a short story in The New Yorker.) Told in an elliptical, almost short-story-collection style, Goon Squad‘s jumps and turns make the book play like an album; not every song relates exactly to the one that came before it, but taken together, it’s a masterful stylistic statement.
One of the characters in A Visit From The Goon Squad obsessively seasons his coffee with small flakes of gold. Where did this notion come from for you?
It came to me as I was writing the previous chapter, in which the protagonist, Sasha, tries to entertain her blind date by regaling him with tales of her boss, a record producer. I wrote that he sprinkled gold flakes in his coffee and sprayed pesticide in his armpits, intending that mostly as a laugh-line: a thumbnail sketch of an eccentric record producer with decadent habits. But after finishing the chapter, I found myself wondering about that cartoonish boss. I thought: Why would someone sprinkle gold in his coffee and spray pesticide in his armpits? I began “The Gold Cure” as way of trying to answer those questions.
“Ask Me If I Care,” your recent story in The New Yorker, actually appears as chapter three of the book. Which came first?
I wrote “Ask Me if I Care” quite a while after writing chapters one and two. I knew that I wanted to get to San Francisco in the late ‘70’s, when a lot of the characters in Goon Squad went to punk clubs together as teens. But maybe because some of that material overlapped with my own past—I, too, went to punk clubs as a high school student in the late ‘70’s—I was hesitant to approach it for a while. I’m always hesitant when my fiction overlaps with my real life. So, while it appears early in the book, “Ask Me if I Care” was actually one of the later chapters I completed, and it took me quite a while to make it work.
The death of the music industry is more or less a character in the book, or at least a way of framing the changes in how people communicate and relate. Do you mourn it all that much?
There are reasons to mourn the passing of the music industry as we knew it, and I say this as someone who has had neither direct involvement with it nor delusions about its altruism. The fact is, recording artists are far less likely nowadays to make money from their music (versus touring) than they were before. I realize that the music industry was often scummy, and not overgenerous, financially, with the artists it recorded, but what has replaced it seems to have even less to offer them. Another sad change, I think, is the atomized buying of music, which makes it harder for artists to conceive of a whole vision composed of smaller, contrasting units—as they could with record albums or CDs. Nowadays it must feel like writing a novel but only being able to sell certain “hit” chapters.
Your website acts as a great companion to the book, providing context, and (we love this part) soundtrack suggestions for your stories. Meanwhile, a chapter in A Visit From The Goon Squad is essentially a PowerPoint presentation. Through all of this, do you think you’re actively trying to find a different way of writing that embraces technology?
I didn’t think of it exactly that way, but in some sense, yes. Sheer curiosity led me into PowerPoint—as I realized what a ubiquitous genre it was becoming, I found myself wanting to see how it might work for fiction. It wasn’t easy, but I was intrigued to learn that I could accomplish some things with PowerPoint that are actually quite hard to do in conventional fiction: I could create slides in which multiple readings were possible, and I could also dispense with a lot of the connective tissue that seems to bind—sometimes even constrict–conventional narrative. As for the website, I found myself wanting to work against the typical author website: lots of grinning mugs and self-promotional hype. I think we’re all getting tired of the endless self-sale on the web. So I thought, Why not offer something different, that’s more of an experience unto itself? Glad you liked it by the way.
Another theme in the book is how the drift of time alters people. How do you think that drift has changed the you that went to Penn?
Well, of course you’d get a more reliable answer from someone who knew me when I went to Penn! From my own point of view, I haven’t changed that much; I came to Penn determined to be a writer, and I’m still hacking away at that goal. I like to think I’m a little more easygoing, more able to distinguish irritants from real problems, and therefore less likely to flip out about every little thing. If that’s true—and I hope so, God help me!—then it’s surely because of the drift.
This interview originally appeared on Philebrity in June of 2010.