November 13, 2010
I chatted with Jennifer Egan the day after a tornado touched down not far from the author’s Brooklyn neighborhood. Rushing to get home from the subway, she took shelter under scaffolding, watched the sky turn green, and later described the feeling as a “unique weather event,” a term one could use to describe each of her books: Egan is known for her versatility, whether she’s writing about the collision of identity, pop culture, and technology in the National Book Award–nominated Look at Me, or renovating the Gothic novel in The Keep.
Her fifth book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is an “album,” a series of 13 connected narratives that revolve around characters in the music business. Though there’s even a chapter written in PowerPoint called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” Egan transcends literary devices to touch on the ungimmicky topics of art, commerce, and time. (For an excerpt from the first chapter, click here.)
We talked about why you should cheat on your novel-in-progress, why her new book is not depressing, and why a writer who is so interested in the impact of technology on people’s lives still has an AOL account.
The National Weather Service is still deciding whether the storm can actually be classified as a tornado. While we’re on the subject of definitions, is A Visit from the Goon Squad a novel? A collection? A story cycle?
As I was working on it, I did not think it was a novel. It seems to have been received as a novel and I have no problem with that. It was very clear to me that it had to have the structure that it had, and that was more important to me than satisfying some criteria of categorization. The challenge is to write something that feels fresh and strong, and if that means not worrying about genre, then so be it.
Did it evolve in fits and starts over a long period or had you written a number of stories before a master plan imposed itself?
I was writing a historical novel and was having a little trouble focusing on it. I wrote the first chapter [of A Visit from the Goon Squad]—what I then thought was a short story—just to stay loose, to do something that felt fun as opposed to something that felt like an obligation, and after I wrote that, I found myself really curious about [music producer] Bennie, who’s mentioned in passing as someone who eats gold and wears pesticide. I became curious about why he did those things, so I thought, Well, what the heck, I’m going to write another story about him.
I tried to do a combination of things: one was just to keep having fun and following my own curiosity and excitement in whatever direction it would lead me, but at the same time to think a little bit analytically about exactly what I was trying to do and how to achieve it.
Which sounds like a good recipe for writing well. I think writers often forget to have fun.
I know that if I’m not having fun, the reader is not having fun. Fun is actually my best guide as to whether something is working or not.
You said you were working on a historical novel, then took a break. A friend of mine calls that “cheating on your novel.”
It was like that.
You’ve talked about being influenced by The Sopranos, and in this book, there are some vivid descriptions of people reacting to art, whether it’s visual art or music. Is your work inspired by other art forms, and did you find it difficult to put the experience of listening to music into words?
My work is absolutely influenced by other art forms. For example, one of the primary inspirations for The Keep was a video piece by Bill Viola, basically of a swimming pool with time-lapse photography; there are these shadowy figures moving around it. It’s not intended to be Gothic but it really read that way for me and it caught my imagination. I spent a long time looking at it.
As far as writing about music, it was extremely difficult. I felt sympathy for people who write about wine because you realize that descriptions of wine are so silly, the same words over and over again—oaky, grassy, barnyard—and I always found myself thinking, Can’t you find other words? But actually, it’s very hard to translate these experiences into a language that doesn’t sound ridiculous.
Did you listen to music while you were writing?
I don’t usually. I listened to a lot of music with this one to get me into the right frame of mind. One of the big challenges for me was to make these radically different technical choices for each chapter and to throw myself into each one fully and leave the others behind so that they didn’t sound similar. Music really helped me do that. With “Ask Me If I Care,” I really got into these old San Francisco punk bands, a lot of whom never even really recorded anything (of course, a lot of the band members are dead, a lot of them drug addicts) but there are YouTube videos of them. And it was amazing to see these old shows, these poor-quality recordings that really do capture the feeling of that moment, and to think I could have been in those audiences, one of the heads bouncing up and down. That was very moving, the way music makes time seem to disappear and reconnects us with earlier points in our lives. When I was working on the chapter “Out of Body,” which takes place in the early ’90s in New York, I listened to bands like Curve. It was a grungy moment in music.
There are a lot of comebacks in this book. Several of the characters have a fall from grace or lose their way initially before finding themselves back on their feet. Does the topic of redemption for your characters interest you?
I love that you say that because what I hear again and again is that [A Visit from the Goon Squad] is a very depressing view of aging. I’m really almost mystified by these descriptions of the book as this dystopian view of time grinding everyone up.
Had you said, “Are you interested in the topic of redemption?”, I would have said, “No way.” However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in it. It just means that I don’t like the way it sounds. What I was most interested in is the unpredictability of change: You’re in high school—some kids are in, some kids are out—it feels like this is how life will always be. In professional life, in our twenties, the same fallacy happens again. I think the possibility of redemption is a natural part of the shifts of time and fortune that affect all of us. One of the very hopeful lessons I’ve learned growing older is that no matter what is going on, it’s temporary. The irony is, the thing that seems so clear as a younger person—This is how it is—is the only thing you can say for sure is not true. It’s a complete misunderstanding. It’s almost beautiful in its completeness.
There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of old and new New York, particularly a scene where a publicist is going to see a washed-up rocker, and they encounter these people carrying huge Crate & Barrel bags in SoHo, a neighborhood that was once, like the musician himself, edgy. Do you think New York has lost its edge as a place for artists? What was your experience when you first arrived?
I didn’t move [to New York] until ’87. People were talking about the death of SoHo as an art center already. It seems like plenty of people are still coming here. I came for no good reason and I stayed even when I had no particularly good reason to stay: My writing was terrible; it was so much harder to make a living than I thought it would be; I was a temp, I worked in the word-processing pool at Wilkie Farr & Gallagher, I was a private secretary, but I did what it took to stay.
In the beginning of The Keep, here’s Danny dragging a satellite dish around Eastern European ruins. In this book, Bennie thinks technology has ruined music, photography, and film. What’s your own relationship to technology? For instance, you write in longhand.
I’m very interested in the changes technology has wrought and in the relationship between technology and inner life, most overtly in Look at Me. I was really interested in the relationship between image culture and self-representation via technology, asking the question of whether identity is actually altered or broken down or transformed through the process of exposure.
Personally, I wouldn’t call myself a very zealous person technologically. I think I’m much more interested as a writer than as a consumer.
I notice you still have an America Online account!
I know! I’m singlehandedly keeping them in business. I’m a late adopter. It’s not so much out of fear as a lack of curiosity and a hatred of having to learn new things because it takes so long. With AOL, the thought of having to change my e-mail address is such a drag. There’s also something funny about having had the same e-mail address for so long that makes me want to hold on to it. There’s a weird kind of Masonic recognition among AOL users at this point. You’d be surprised how many writers are actually AOL users.
Do you have a smartphone?
I don’t have a smartphone. That is very much a choice because I don’t actually want to receive e-mail all the time. I see people who seem to be completely compulsive, unable to stop using their handsets. They’re going to need medication. I actually think it will become a mark of status not to have to be on a smartphone all the time. It will be the equivalent of the paperless desk. The reason I’m resisting the smartphone is that once you have it, it’s very hard to imagine life without it.
I actually read A Visit from the Goon Squad on a Kindle and was thinking, during the chapter that’s written in PowerPoint, Would this read differently if I were experiencing it on paper?
The huge irony is, we’ve had terrible problems with the PowerPoint on e-readers. At best, it’s hard to read. On the brand-new Kindle, no matter what direction you turn the Kindle, the PowerPoint turns the other way. I’ve had people writing to me sounding like they’re about to blow a gasket. The technical people are working on this. It’s so ironic that I’ve put these systems to the test. I don’t have an e-reader; I don’t have a smartphone; I write by hand; I’ve only been on Facebook since last fall and I’m a terrible user.
Who are your influences?
For Look at Me and everything before it, my influences were very contemporary: Joyce Carol Oates, James Salter, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Rick Moody’s Purple America.
I really love Jean Rhys: little compressed fierce bullets of books, in particular the novel Good Morning, Midnight. Graham Greene and Robert Stone—agonized Catholics, love them. In my first novel, The Invisible Circus, there’s this long LSD trip where I tried to move into an authentically druggy stream of consciousness and I was thinking very much of Virginia Woolf.
Edith Wharton, and in particular The House of Mirth—women and appearance and money—it’s an early look at image culture and how that affects people. Edith Wharton is my polestar: She is there always. For Look at Me, I actually named a minor character Lily, in honor of Lily Bart.
Tristram Shandy is one of those books that I read at the right moment and it had a deep and lasting impact on my sense of what the novel could do. Essentially, all of the so-called modernist innovations were present in the very first novels. There’s nothing radical about experimenting. Experimentation was part and parcel of the notion of the novel when it was first born, and to push the form is simply to fulfill the expectations and hopes of the people who did it first. That’s something I believe profoundly and I think it’s had a huge impact on the way I’ve moved forward in my books.
What are you reading right now?
Bleak House. I think we have this idea that the nineteenth century was this bastion of convention, and it’s so far from the truth. Novels that we tend to call “nineteenth-century” today are often a lot less flexible and pyrotechnic than the actual nineteenth-century novels. Middlemarch is unbelievable, incredible. David Copperfield is fantastic. The other thing about these books is that you can’t put them down. They manage to make 900 pages a romp. Who can do that now? Show me the writer who can make me romp through 900 pages.
How do you balance motherhood and writing? I’m thinking of the character Ted, who has “two precious hours” each night to write about art, and who locks his sons out of his office.
I have found it difficult from the beginning. I was a workaholic—I worked seven days a week before I had kids. I felt so confused by the deep crazy love that I have for my kids and that sense of never being able to do enough. At the beginning, when I was with my baby, I wanted to be working, and when I was working, I wanted to be with my baby. I feel like I’ve come through that. It’s not that it’s always easy. Often, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing the right things, but this [one] moment is not the basis to judge. The questions are, “Are things getting done?” and “Am I spending enough time with my kids?”
How do you create a space for yourself where you can concentrate?
Rather than worry too much about setting, what tends to work best for me is an imperative…right now, I am demanding of myself five pages a day and that has to get done. Rather than saying, I need the right circumstances, I need the right space, you can get a little too caught up in that. It’s a funny mix of, on the one hand, understanding that this is a difficult thing to do, and at the same time, not going too far in your self-coddling, and remembering that people write with full-time jobs. It can be done, a balance between indulging the difficulty but not using it as an excuse, because there’s some part of all of us that doesn’t want to write.
You feel comfortable writing from a male point-of-view. In this book, the record producers, Bennie and Lou, are powerful men with big appetites, yet both are fully realized. Was there a conscious effort to transcend the type?
Very much so. I love writing about and as men. It lifts me out of my life in a way I find exhilarating. I relish taking on situations that guarantee I’m not writing about my own life. In this book, I take on a lot of types that seem almost clichéd and try and break them open and reveal more of the complexity and nuances of that person. It was difficult in the case of Lou. He’s so objectionable. It was a great challenge to make him sympathetic.
There are still a lot of people who don’t want to read about characters who are “unlikable.”
I can’t even imagine what they’re reading. Where are these books about likable people? Where are these good books about likable people? You don’t have dramatic conflict without trouble.