Conversation: Author Jennifer Egan
Writer and journalist Jennifer Egan has intrigued readers and critics with her experimental novels, “Look At Me,” a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award, and its follow-up, “The Keep,” a national bestseller. She has also been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Her newest work, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” explores the changing music industry, nostalgia, time and much more, with chapters occasionally taking the form of feature articles and PowerPoint presentations.
I spoke to her earlier this week to discuss the novel:
A transcript is after the jump.
Also after the jump, you can read the PowerPoint chapter from “A Visit From the Goon Squad.”
JEFFREY BROWN: Writer Jennifer Egan has intrigued readers and critics with her experimental novels “Look at Me” and “The Keep.” Her newest work, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” explores the changing music industry, nostalgia, time and much more. Jennifer Egan joins me now. Welcome.
JENNIFER EGAN: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: I have read where you’ve said you thought this novel is about time. What does that mean?
JENNIFER EGAN: Well, I was reading a lot of Proust, and I was interested in trying to write a book about time today. And I think I was particularly interested because of the huge technological changes that we’re going through and I found myself very drawn to the music industry, which has been in a kind of a freefall in recent years, as we all know.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, why was music the way into telling the story? It’s a group of characters, it begins in the 1970s, San Francisco — very specific music scene, right?
JENNIFER EGAN: I think for a few reasons. I think for one thing, all of us remember those teenage years and those songs that we fell in love with and the music scene that we were part of, so in a certain way music cuts through time like almost nothing else. It makes us feel like we’re back in an earlier moment. And then I think on the other side, the music industry is an interesting lens through which to look at change, because it has had such a difficult time adjusting to the digital age. So it felt a little like all roads led to the music industry. I also had yen to write about it for years. I had tried as a journalist and never could quite make it happen, so it was my chance to finally dive in and learn about that industry.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you’re known for these interesting books and different styles all the time. Where do you start? I mean, in this case was it starting, as you say, a yen to write about music or —?
JENNIFER EGAN: I think it was a couple of things. I was interested in writing about time and about music, but actually what started it was standing in a hotel bathroom washing my hands, looking down and seeing a wallet lying in plain view. And I have been robbed a number of times and had my wallet stolen in all kinds of situations, and I thought that poor women — someone might take her wallet. And then I thought, but I’m the only person here. And it led to one those fictional leaps where I thought, ok, who is the woman who would take that wallet and why.
JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s how the novel starts.
JENNIFER EGAN: I started with that, and I wrote, basically just started with that moment and went. And in the course of writing the first chapter about the woman who takes the wallet, I find myself intrigued by a mention of her former boss, whom I wrote, I found her saying that he sprinkled gold flakes in his coffee and sprayed pesticides in his armpits and he’s a record producer. And at that time I thought, well, that’s just sort of a music thumbnail sketch, but ultimately I thought, who is he and why does he do those things. And that led me into this music producer, Benny Salazar, who is in a way in a state of mourning over the direction the industry has gone, and also for his own, he’s heading into middle age and thinking a lot about his years as a punk rocker in San Francisco, which then led me to write about San Francisco in the late ’70s, where I was a high school student going to punk rock clubs on occasion. So one thing led to —
JEFFREY BROWN: Was the hair spiky at that time?
JENNIFER EGAN: The hair was pretty much as it is now, actually. I didn’t have the guts to spike my hair. But anyway, I found myself following one impulse after another in this very nonlinear way.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, because that’s where I want — I mean, you said it led you to write about the 1970s, but in fact nonlinear is the key to this thing. You go in and out of time, we meet a character one point and then later on in his or her life, and then spinning back. I guess that goes to the sense of time, different moments of time?
JENNIFER EGAN: Well, I had the thought of just going backwards, because initially as I was writing these chapters I was moving backwards, but then I found that the power, the whole didn’t seem to be greater than some of the parts when I followed that backwards format. I think what I was most interested in were the moments of surprise when we realized that time has passed. You know, it’s moving slowly and incrementally, but we only notice it in sudden quantum leaps where we think, ahh, this has changed. And the change always feels surprising, which in itself is surprising because change is so constant. So I was interested at getting at those little surprises amongst a group of people over many years, and it seemed like the best way to do that. To try to twist it in as many ways I could was to move in out of time rather than solidly forward or backward.
JEFFREY BROWN: But, you know, earlier I used the word “novel,” and there is this the sort of inevitable question about what it is that you’ve written here. There are stories, they are linked, but they are not linked even in a normal way, if there is such a thing as normal. It’s not plotted as a kind of standard novel. What do you see yourself as having done?
JENNIFER EGAN: Well, I was not sure myself as I went along, and I worried about that. I thought, well, this isn’t a conventional novel and it’s not really a story collection. And then I thought, who cares, it’s a work of fiction and I’m basically following my instinct. My goal was that it be exciting and gripping and fun, honestly, and I thought if I can do all those things who cares what we call it.
JEFFREY BROWN: And I guess the answer to “who cares’ might be the publisher, right? I mean, if they have to market something like this that’s maybe beyond what you are doing as you sit down and write, but does that become an issue?
JENNIFER EGAN: It hasn’t, although I was not — I wondered what they would say when I gave them this, and I really wondered when I added a chapter after I already sold them the book. And I wrote that chapter in PowerPoint, so that’s an example of the kinds of ways, the different odd ways I tried to find to tell these different stories that I was interested in. And the PowerPoint chapter takes place in the future, and it’s narrated by a 12 year old girl who keeps her journal in slide form. So she’s writing about her family life in slides and that was, I thought that was kind of interesting and kind of fun. The chapter is called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” and it’s very much about her brother, who has a kind of an Asperger’s obsession with the pauses in rock ‘n’ roll songs. And using PowerPoint let me show these pauses in a visual way that would have been impossible in conventional fiction. So, again, if I had worried too much about what I was doing and whether it fit into the right category I might not have done that, but I think that it adds power and, honestly, fun to the book.
JEFFREY BROWN: It also goes to what you were talking about earlier, this notion of technology, how it’s changing and changes the cultures. In this case it’s how it changes, perhaps, you as a writer and the form you take.
JENNIFER EGAN: Well, the funny thing is, actually, I write by hand, so in way —
JEFFREY BROWN: You write by hand?
JENNIFER EGAN: I really do. I’m not a technophobe, but I’m pretty old fashioned. I write on legal pads by hand. I use the computer as a typing machine. So, initially, I tried doing my PowerPoint chapter by hand, which of course a total nonstarter. I didn’t even own PowerPoint, I had never used it, but I was curious about the fact that it has become such a ubiquitous genre. And I thought, ok, this is a way people are telling stories now; how could fiction work in this genre. Also, you know, in terms of the subject of that chapter — the pauses in these songs — the thing that’s so compelling about a pause in a rock ‘n’ roll song is that you wonder for a moment if the song has ended. Then the song continues, and there is this kind of relief, aww, ok, I’m still listening to the song. And then the song actually does end. I think metaphorically that really interested me in a book about time. There are all these pauses in our lives that make us think about the big pause or sort of the pause that’s all around us, and I think it was compelling to me in that way, in that PowerPoint allowed me to explore it in a more vivid way than I could have otherwise.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Last thing — a lot is made about the different; all your books are so different. One reviewer was saying that each of your books could have been written by a different writer so distinct are they in setting and style. Do you agree with that? And if so, why? Is that just you as a writer exploring different things?
JENNIFER EGAN: You know, I try consciously to keep myself entertained and challenged to not repeat myself at all. Like when I start a new book my goal is to pretty much throw out what I’ve done and try something completely different that I think initially I cannot do. That’s what makes it challenging for me and makes me able to grow as a writer. And honestly it just keeps it fun, because I want to try to do something I’ve never done and write about a world, and ideally in a way technically, that I’ve never taken on before, so I am glad to hear that. I think there are a lot of thematic connections between the books, but stylistically and in terms of voice and subject and content I have tried to make them really diverse.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The new one is “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Jennifer Egan, thanks for talking to us.
JENNIFER EGAN: Thanks so much.