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Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’ Awarded Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

April 18, 2011 at 6:07 PM EDT
The Pulitzer Prizes, an annual award for print journalism and the arts, were announced on Monday. The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times both received two awards each, and the award for fiction went to Jennifer Egan for her novel, "A Visit from the Goon Squad." Jeffrey Brown has an excerpt from his conversation with Egan.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: This year’s Pulitzer Prize winners were announced today. The Los Angeles Times garnered two awards, including one for exposing politicians in Bell, Calif., for paying themselves enormous salaries.

The New York Times also picked up two prizes, for international reporting and for commentary.

In arts, the fiction award went to Jennifer Egan for her novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad.”

Jeffrey Brown talked to her about that book last summer.

Here’s an excerpt.

JEFFREY BROWN: I have read where you’ve said that you thought this novel is about time. What does that mean?

JENNIFER EGAN, “A Visit from the Goon Squad”: 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 in to telling a story about — 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. You know, 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re known for these interesting books and different styles all the time. Do you — where do you start? I mean, do you start — in this case, was it starting, as you say, a yen to write about music, or — or — 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. I have had my wallet stolen in all kinds of situations, and I thought, that poor woman, 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, Bennie 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: 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.

Why — why that — I guess that goes to the sense of time, right, is 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 — 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 realize that time has passed. You know, it’s moving slowly and incrementally, but we only notice it in sudden quantum leaps, where we think, oh, 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the nonfiction award went to Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee for his book on the history of cancer. You can watch Betty Ann Bowser’s interview with him on our website.

Also there, find a profile of Kay Ryan, who won the Pulitzer Prize today for poetry.