Interview with novelist Jennifer Egan
- by Shawn Conner
Last month it was announced that Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The Pulitzer was only the latest in a long list of accolades that includes innumerable positive reviews as well as the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Her fourth novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad is as remarkable for its stylistic innovations – one chapter entirely in PowerPoint – as it is for its story, and quality of prose.
Set in and around the music business, the novel revisits themes from Egan’s earlier books – the American girl lost/missing in Europe (The Invisible Circus), the phenomena of celebrity and celebrity culture (Look At Me), Internet addiction (The Keep). The threads intertwine in the book’s non-linear format, in which each “chapter” works as a story in its own right, with one chapter’s minor characters taking centre stage in the next for something that is not quite a novel nor a collection of short stories, but perhaps more like a concept album. Settings and decades change as well, from San Francisco’s nascent punk rock scene to an African safari to a future New York City concert.
In 2010, shortly after the book’s publication, Guttersnipe reached Jennifer Egan at home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where she was enjoying some time off following a book tour. Music journalism, Jagermeister as an artistic choice, and the future of books were among the topics.
Shawn Conner: I don’t imagine you see many bands these days.
Jennifer Egan: Not as a resolution, but it doesn’t fit into my life too much at this point. It just doesn’t seem to happen all that often.
SC: How close is Fort Greene to Williamsburg? Because you can’t swing a dead cat in Williamsburg without hitting a musician.
JE: It’s pretty close! And you can’t swing a dead cat in our neighbourhood without hitting a writer. Oh my God, it’s lousy with writers.
SC: So when you go to a coffee shop, everyone’s on their Macs writing short stories.
JE: I don’t know. I try not to go to coffee shops where writers appear to be writing.
SC: Do you like to write in coffee shops?
JE: I actually do like to write in coffee shops. I like to drink coffee when I write, which is part of it. I’m not a regular anywhere. I’ll sit down and see if the moment is right. I’m not a fixture at any coffee shops, but I’ve certainly darkened the doorway of many in Brooklyn over the years. Because I have little kids, I do end up out more than I used to, I used to spend whole days and barely leave my apartment. Sometimes I just find my office is a really uninspiring place to be, often it’s kind of messy and I’m full of guilt about all the things I haven’t done. Going out is a quick way to clear the decks and create a fresh feeling.
SC: And you write in longhand.
JE: Of course, I use the computer as a typing machine. But I edit long-hand on hard copy and then type in my changes. As a journalist I write everything on a computer. For fiction, I find having my impulses and sentences staring back at me in typeface right away very inhibiting, and it seems to lead me backwards rather than forwards, and it really hinders my method, which is unconscious outpouring initially, followed by methodical analysis and instruction-making. But I can’t get the material to work with if I don’t feel comfortable letting it rip.
SC: What about reading?
JE: I hate reading on a computer. It actually hurts my eyes. Maybe it’s not bad to be on an electronic device all day, I realize studies have shown it has no impact at all, it doesn’t feel healthy to me. I don’t like being attached to a machine all day. You should never say never, in five years maybe I’ll laugh about this. But I can no more imagine choosing to read a book on a screen rather than an actual book, it almost feels like a step backwards to me. You’re relying on electronics, you can’t read it as your plane is taking off – why? Why would anyone want to do that? At the same time I’m a little disingenuous when I say that, because I deeply understand people want to do it, and I’m fascinated by those impulses. And curious about them.
SC: We’re also the generation that worships books as objects.
JE: I believe in objects. I like objects. I’m not a fetishist about them, I don’t collect antiques or stamps. But I actually like things sometimes. This idea that everything can exist and not exist, and be more efficient and more flexible, to me is strange. What you lose is all the traces of yourself, and your past. For example, I still have my old address book. It’s very cumbersome, and I can definitely see why, when and if, I’m sure eventually I will, I end up having all this in a handheld device, I’ll just laugh that I hauled around this kind of chunky, slightly dilapidated book. But what I like about it is, every time someone moves or gets divorced or dies, I have all of their information there still. It’s like a palimpsest of the past that shines up through the present. Even when I change people’s addresses in my address book, I would cut a little sticker to fit over the old address and put the new one on, so there’s literally a kind of layering. I like that. I used to want to be an archaeologist, maybe this is where I can’t seem to let that go.
It’s a little bit the reason I like to write by hand, too, which is if you’re always writing on a screen and editing on a screen, there’s no sense of history there, you’re literally existing in a continuous present. I like having the traces. I can look back through all of these drafts that get dusty and wormy by the bottom probably and find the chain of decisions that led me from the very start on yellow legal pads to what I eventually ended up with. I like having that sense of connection. And that’s another thing about books – when I’m reading a book I make all kinds of little notes, not with a pencil, but most often with my fingernails, and I have a sort of a system of dog-earing pages in very subtle ways so that if someone picks up the book will think, “Hey, no one’s read this,” but I can see that I’ve read it and noted my impressions.
That’s what I like about objects, that they hold a kind of history, and a history of daily life, which to me is the most poignant kind of history. I get at that in a way in Goon Squad with Sasha’s found objects, the collages and sculptures she makes after she’s married and has kids, to try and preserve and reserve all this detritus of their daily lives. I really understand that impulse. I don’t do it. If I find a little piece of paper from 10 years ago that has incomprehensible notes and a to-do list, and names and phone numbers, I love just looking at that and thinking, that meant to me something once, I knew exactly what all of this was. That was a moment from my life.
SC: That’s the first time someone I’ve interviewed used the word “palimpsest”. I have to stop interviewing musicians and talk to more authors.
JE: [laughs] It’s so strange, I’ve done more interviews in the last few weeks than I have in my life, and this is the first time this [the importance of objects] has come up. And I think about it a lot.
SC: Speaking of the character Sasha, she’s a kleptomaniac when the book opens. Did you ever shoplift?
JE: I did a little bit, with my friends, but I was terrified, there was no thrill. I’m a very law-abiding sort of Catholic school girl in my heart, and it was terrifying to me to think about getting caught. As a result I was terrible at it. The ones who did a much better job were the ones who did I think get a kind of thrill from it. And didn’t have any guilt about it. What I mostly remember was feeling jealous of the girls who had more guts and could take more.
SC: But that’s the writer’s role… it sounds as though that was your role during your punk-rock phase as well.
JE: It’s always been my role. I’m so glad I found a job that makes it okay to basically be like a loser-outsider [laughs]. Now I can say, “Hey, there was a strategy all along. It’s okay I was this totally forgettable non-entity, I was being a writer!”
SC: Then again that’s your take on it – someone else in the scene might have seen it otherwise.
JE: I think that I’m really right about that in these contexts. I think I was an okay character as a teenager. I didn’t have one of those strong teenage personalities that leave a mark. I think I was quiet and hesitant and watchful and generally a follower.
SC: In Goon Squad, you get to indulge in a couple of different types of journalism, celebrity and music [Ed. note: one chapter is written as a celebrity profile.]. How did you approach describing music?
JE: I have done almost no music journalism, and that may be one reason I didn’t feel fatigued by the attempt. Although I was conscious of the fact that language was not always working with me in that effort, and I thought about reading descriptions of wine, and I could feel this strained effort of on the part of the writer to come up with some exciting adjectives that hadn’t been used in connection with wine before. I felt that a little bit. It was not easy.
The danger is that it sounds incredibly clichéd. The minute a word is uttered it feels wrong, but in the end I felt satisfied with it. But in a way maybe everyone gets to do that happily once, it’s got to get a lot harder the more times you do it. One reason I turned to music in this book is that I had been unsuccessful as a journalist in getting any assignment that would get me into the music world. I’m dying to.
SC: One of the lines I like is, “Everybody sounds stoned, because they’re emailing people the whole time they’re talking to you.”
JE: Isn’t it true! I can’t talk to my husband, he’s physically incapable of not emailing while we’re on the telephone. It’s like we’re talking 20 years ago long distance, there’s a time lapse: “Hello, are you there?” Oh my God. And sometimes on a conference call it’s really bizarre, because everyone seems to be in that space, becuase no one’s really owning the conversation, and you can even hear people typing.
SC: Another line I loved, is when Lou [an aging record exec] says of his son Rolf: “He didn’t make it.” It’s only four words, but they say so much…
JE: Yeah. You know that’s all Lou can say, that’s the only way he can actually frame what occurred, which is unspeakable, especially for him. And his speech is so impaired at that point. It’s just this tiny little offering.
SC: Okay, one last question about an artistic decision – why did you make [washed-up musician] Scotty’s drink of choice Jagermeister?
JE: I never really have good answers to those questions. But I have an anecdote, which is that, when I went to my step-sister’s wedding many years ago, we walked out a very long way, after a very long bus ride, into the Joshua Tree national park in the California desert and up hills and when we finally got to the wedding spot we all had a little shot glass of Jagermeister. And it struck me as the nuttiest drink. It wasn’t beer, it wasn’t really refreshing, it was strange. And it was the only Jagermeister I have ever drunk but i think it stayed with me as an odd drink I wanted to salute at some moment. I think also there used to be a rumour that Jagermeister had a kind of a druggy effect, I’m sure that’s probably not true, and I certainly didn’t experience it from my little shot glass. But it basically seemed like an idiosyncratic drink for an idiosyncratic guy. But you know, it appeared in the way these details almost always appear for me, it just happened as I was writing, which gets back to writing by hand, in this fairly unconscious way, and often being surprised by what emerges. And then trying to use that.
Books by Jennifer Egan: