Goon Squad Leader

Meet Jennifer Egan, Book Fest headliner, Pulitzer Prize-winner and Virgo-style perfectionist

Jennifer Egan considers herself a late bloomer, partly because she was working as a typist to pay bills while other future authors were getting advanced degrees in creative writing. At 50, the Brooklynite with a “real Catholic schoolgirl personality” feels behind in terms of prolific output, having only written four novels, a short story collection, journalism for The New York Times Magazine and short fiction for magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s and McSweeney’s.

But when she bloomed, she bloomed brilliantly. Her last book, A Visit From the Goon Squad, earned Egan the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. It’s a swirling collection of linked stories that swoop backward to the ’70s punk scene in San Francisco and forward to a dystopic near future. The book’s kaleidoscope of perspectives, eras and writing styles all serve to drive home the theme of time’s inevitable passage. In doing so, Egan taps into our youth- and technology-obsessed zeitgeist, revealing the collective anxiety hidden at its base. (One chapter is famously written via PowerPoint, and in the more futuristic moments, characters communicate emotion best via text message).

Now, Egan is putting journalism on hold to write two books. One will be in the same style as Goon Squad, and the other will be about the shipyards of New York City in the 1930s. But when she headlines the Vegas Valley Book Festival on Nov. 3, Egan will likely read from and focus on Goon Squad.

You have written so much about the passage of time. How did it feel to celebrate a milestone birthday in September?

What makes this birthday hard is feeling like I haven’t been able to do a lot of what I wanted to do with my life by this point. Part of a midlife crisis is definitely the sudden cold understanding of the end game of all this. … In my case I feel very lucky that I’m doing exactly what I wanna do, so I feel like I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

So you’re handling it better than some of the characters would in your books?

It’s true that people have a kind of bittersweet sense of time passing in [Goon Squad]. But the funny irony of time passing—I really do think about this in my own life—is that even if nothing has gone wrong … there’s a sense of loss.

Being a beauty is a theme in your fiction. Considering that Time described your cheekbones as magnificent, I was wondering if you have ever aspired to be a beauty?

What a hell of a low aspiration is all I can say. No, I did not. My goals were always far more grandiose! [Laughs.] I saw it honestly more as a potential pitfall than an aspiration. I have never seen my appearance as something that defines me, but more just an element of the mix of things that were me. My interest in beauty—whatever that is, because it’s so subjective—has always been a tiny facet of a much larger obsession of mine. Which is image culture, the world of mass media and advertising and how that world of images—a sort of parallel world [that] has little to do with real life—interacts with our psyches and changes the texture of being alive.

Speaking of image culture, when you come to Las Vegas you’ll find a lot of that here. Would you ever write about Las Vegas?

I feel like it’s insane that I’ve never been to Vegas. I feel like I should have gone to Vegas at birth. From a distance, it seems to embody so many of the things that interest me: the American willingness to create reality from the ground up and manipulate it, which is what image culture is. I can’t even describe how excited I am to get there.

What can you reveal about your new book about shipyards in New York City in the ’30s?

I can’t tell you much, because the way I write is very blind. I don’t really know what my books will be about or even what will happen in them until I am pretty deeply in. … So I can’t say too much, partly it’s a little bit of superstition but even more I feel like I myself don’t really know yet.

Could you talk about your process of writing experimentally and instinctually?

I start with a sense of time and place and not much else. And I try to write from that. I write by hand, which is a critical element, because my handwriting is illegible. So I don’t really know what I’m writing as I write it. … When I have a draft, I type it all up, and of course, it’s terrible! A lot of it is redundant, lousy, boring, clichéd. But hopefully there are just enough surprises that, out of that, I can get a sense of what it is that I’m trying to do, and very rationally make plans for revision.

Writing by hand is foreign to me!

It’s interesting because I’m also a journalist, and I can’t even fathom doing that by hand.

How do you balance fiction and journalism?

“Balance” is one of those words that seem to be about something I can’t achieve. Whether it’s how you balance motherhood and writing, there’s never any balance. I’m putting journalism on hold at the moment, because I’m writing two fiction books at once. One of them, the historical one, actually required quite a fair amount of research, so that’s sort of filling the journalism niche for me.

In The New Yorker’s recent Science Fiction Issue, you contributed a story, “Black Box,” that was simultaneously published via Twitter. How did that turn out?

Some people got pleasure out of it, some people were mad. Funny thing about Twitter, it only exists for those who choose to be aware of it. I’m a Virgo and nothing is ever quite perfect enough for me, but I felt very pleased. Whether I’ll ever find another piece [that fits] Twitter is a big question. How can you find a story that can’t be told any other way? It’s not easy to do.

Is there a new storytelling medium you would use in the same way as Twitter?

I’m interested in games as a general idea, but I haven’t found any way in yet.

What can you say about the other book you’re writing?

I hope to create another constellation of stories that will work the same way Goon Squad did, methodologically, stories that are related but not chronological and they just have this huge range of styles and approaches. But that’s just a big question to a totally different end. I’m not interested in writing about time; what other big story can I tell with that same methodology? It’s an interesting challenge.

Music played a key role in Goon Squad. What are you listening to?

I really have been loving Cat Power and there’s been a group called the Weekend Players. Just started listening to Diego Garcia. I really like Jenny Youngs, Kathleen Edwards, and I love M83. I really should mention that I’m crazy about Rick Ross. His voice is just out of control … he’s like the earth.

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