An Interview with Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize–Winning Author of A Visit From the Goon Squad
JENNIFER EGAN isn’t interested in so-called conventional fiction. “I’m really trying to do things that are weird,” the Brooklyn author said in a phone conversation before her February 1 lecture at Benaroya Hall. She backpedals—“weird” isn’t the right word. Complex? (She loves to think out loud.) What do you call a nonlinear narrative novel that moonlights as a series of short stories? To start, you call it a Pulitzer Prize winner. And a National Book Critics Circle Award winner (that beat out last year’s golden child, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom). Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)—with its loosely intertwined stories of record execs and punk guitarists and kleptos and teenage girlfriends—is a challenge, to be sure, but that’s part of the fun.
What is the Goon Squad exactly?
There’s an expression referred to in the book, which is “time is a goon”—I made it up—so, in a sense, the Goon Squad is the inevitability of time passing. The reason that it’s a goon is that a goon is sort of a cartoonish enforcer: you know, the muscle you can’t get past. It’s not that…it’s always sad to get older. I don’t think that at all. The goonish aspect of time is just the fact that it can’t be beaten. It can’t be overcome. It always, always wins.
Has your life changed significantly since the Pulitzer? It depends how you define “significantly.” I would say no, in the sense that the basics of my life are still the same. I’ve got two kids and a husband, I live in Brooklyn, I have the same friends I’ve always had—and in a way, that’s what life is. The big change is that my readership has really expanded, and I feel so grateful for that. Especially for a writer like me, who is not really writing mainstream stuff—I’m not interested in so-called conventional fiction. I’m really trying to do things that are weird. That’s wrong, actually: It’s not that I’m trying to be weird. But I’m interested in telling stories that are complex and different enough that they require fresh angles of storytelling. For someone like me to have the chance to reach hundreds of thousands of readers is the best luck you could ever have.
What’s the most important piece of feedback you’ve gotten, whether from a book club or an editor or just a reader?
I’m always struck by the fact that whenever I do a reading from Goon Squad I’ll talk for five minutes about how the book came to have the structure that it has, and why. And then I’ll read from it, and very often people who have read the book will say, “I really wish I had heard that before I read it. It would have helped so much.” I don’t know whether I could transcribe what I say in those five minutes and it would be as helpful…but I feel like sometimes people worry that they’re not “getting it.” I’ve talked to readers who have said, “I felt really anxious because I couldn’t remember who people were, and I kept having to flip back!” And the first thing I always say is: “Who cares?” Each part stands completely on its own. You should be able to read and enjoy this even if you are not aware that there’s any connection between the chapters.… I wish there were just a way to reassure people. The point is just to have fun. That is the beginning and the end of why I read. Now, what makes reading fun for me is a book that has a real reach and a strong intellectual yearning, and a book that seems to grapple with the culture in ways that are interesting. I consider that to be fun, as long as the story and the people are leading the way. And some people who don’t want all that might say, “You know, I actually don’t think your stuff is that fun.” And that would be fair enough—I mean, in the end, this is just about taste.
Are you working on a new book?
I’m working on it in my mind. I’m working on something shorter, because I haven’t really had tons of time—I’m still spending a fair amount of time promoting Goon Squad here and also in other countries. It’s been difficult to really sink fully into a new book, but I can give you some sense of the historical context of the one I hope to work on next: New York in the 1940s, and specifically women who built and repaired ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII.
How did you come across this, or what sparked your interest?
I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library to do research a few years ago.… I guess in looking at images of New York from the 40s—or really any time during the first half of the twentieth century—what’s striking is the vivid presence of New York’s waterways. Lots of piers, which now are just gone. They’ve literally fallen apart, and they’re just kind of pieces of wood sticking up out of the water. Some of them still exist, but when you look at photographs of the city from any distance, what’s so striking is how predominant the waterways were, how important they were to New York life. And that is not something that I think most people who live in New York really feel anymore. So that kind of got me thinking about waterways and boats, and that inevitably led to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which is a pretty amazing space with a pretty amazing history. In fact, it was the largest builder and repairer of Allied ships in the world during WWII. There were two ships that were irreparably damaged, and they cut them both in half and soldered together the good half from each one. It was amazing what they were doing.
So all these Brooklyn girls—or actually girls from all over the place—ended up working there, and I got involved in an oral history project with the current management of the navy yard, interviewing ladies who had worked at the yard who are now in their eighties and fast disappearing.
What does that Brooklyn woman in the 1940s look and sound like?
Oh, impossible to generalize. One of the things that’s so fun about it is that it pulls together all different ethnicities, races. There were all these different kind of vectors of discrimination, because on one hand, the culture was much more racist than it is now, more overtly so; on the other hand, women too were viewed as lesser beings. There was actually tremendous solidarity among the women that cut across racial and ethnic boundaries. There were a lot of Jews, there were Catholics—all of these things that might have separated women in the course of normal life were secondary to the fact that they were women, doing these really unusual jobs. All of that becomes very interesting in the context of the yard. They came from all over. The money was very, very good.
Have you met anyone during your reporting that you think would make an incredible character in a book?
You know, I don’t, because I don’t tend to ever use people I know in books. I’ll often think, That’s an amazing character. But I’m never thinking about it in terms of someone that I can actually use, because I’m actually very bad at that. That’s one of my weakest areas. I have a lot of trouble writing in a fictional context, about things that have actually happened. I don’t know why that is.
Do you think it’s because the standard’s already set and you can’t be as creative?
I think it’s more that I like the sense, when I’m writing fiction, that I’m discovering things, and having adventures, and in terra incognita. The feeling that I have is one of boredom, when I sense that I’m overlapping with stuff that I know or people that I know or things that I’ve done. I feel like the fun seems to go out of it for me at that point.
Off topic, but I can’t not ask: Do you still write by hand?
I do. I write fiction by hand, journalism completely on a computer. I barely need to look at a sheet of paper. Yes. Because…with fiction, I’m trying to access a less thinking part of me, and I write very quickly, very spontaneously. It seems like my mind has a different connection to the writing if I’m writing by hand than it does if I’m on a computer. If I’m on a computer, I’m in a basically analytical mode. But that doesn’t yield very much if I’m writing fiction. I need to be in an exploratory mode. Also kind of a more unconscious mode. I sort of think that the handwriting may be a way of getting at a kind of meditative state.… I just love not being attached to a machine. It is such a relief to just walk away from that screen and not need it near me. I can write fiction on an elevator; I can write fiction on an escalator. Maybe I lose something in terms of velocity, but I think I gain it in terms of freedom.
Seattle Arts and Lectures: Jennifer Egan
Feb 1, Benaroya Hall
SEATTLE MET PICKS: Check out our February picks for the hottest events in town and get the details on Jennifer Egan’s upcoming Seattle appearance.