From the Issue: The Answer is Luck, a Conversation with Jennifer Egan
Written by Bwog Staff
Jennifer Egan’s most recent novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is a collection of 13 intertwined short stories dealing with time—the titular goon—music, and technology. The book won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, along with dozens of other accolades including a spot on our bedside table. Her latest short story, “Black Box,” was tweeted in 140-character increments before appearing in The New Yorker. She is currently working on a historical novel. Egan sat down with Blue and White senior editor Luca Marzorati, CC ’15, at a café near her home in Fort Greene.
The Blue and White: What are you reading now?
JE: I’m reading very arcane material about the Merchant Marines in the twenties and thirties, so it’s not really necessarily for a wider readership (laughs). Some books are quasi-self-published—these old sea guys telling their story later. A lot of these were published in the eighties, when the speakers were in their sixties, and most of them have passed away now. I did read one contemporary thing that I really liked, which hasn’t come out yet, called The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann, who is a Norwegian writer. It’s a spare murder-mystery that’s put together in these little shards and pretty haunting and kind of scary, but I really liked it.
B&W: I assume the Merchant Marine books are research for the historical novel.
JE: It takes place in Brooklyn and New York in the thirties and forties—Depression and World War II. It’s been a sprawling project so we’ll see what actually happens. When I think, okay, I barely have enough research to deal with what I’ve been writing about, it feels like the story lurches into some new area about which I know nothing. So at this point I have deep-sea diving and all of the technology around that in that era. Very complicated—merchant marines, the Mafia and its relationship to the government during World War II. It may be a disaster, we’ll see.
B&W: What are the challenges of writing historical fiction?
JE: I think it’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m not sure whether I’m stymied by not working within my own lifetime—obviously I haven’t lived in the future, but somehow that wasn’t that hard for me—but this is incredibly hard. I never write autobiographically but I really do use the times and places that I know. I never knew how much I relied on them—remembering the feel of a place, all the little details that you just kind of know without knowing you know them.
Working outside my lifetime I know nothing. Just the most basic things I don’t know, and as a result I feel weirdly hindered or inhibited, so I keep waiting…The other thing is that maybe I have higher standards than other people have for themselves when they write historically. Right now, I’m thinking, how does anyone do it ever? Why? Does it have any merit? Is there anything I can say about this time that could be useful, or is it just bullshit? I don’t know, but I do like challenges. It’s good to feel so challenged, but the nature of the challenge is that I feel like I might not pull it off.
B&W: Do you have a different mindset writing fiction compared to nonfiction?
JE: Totally. Almost opposite. With fiction, I have no idea what I’m going to write before I write it. Any of the things I could think of are not going to be the interesting things. It always goes a different way that I couldn’t think of, and so I use writing as a way of generating a story. I don’t start with an outline, it’s literally this kind of blind fumbling—which of course is mostly terrible—but what I’m looking for is an interesting move which I wouldn’t have thought of. And then, I have an endless revision process where I try to turn all that in a way blather into something that is sharp and controlled and all those things. But the insights, I can’t seem to get to without this blind process.
Journalism is the diametric opposite. I already know the reality. The reality is out there. I don’t understand it. I’m a dunce when I start, but I know what I’m trying to get to, which is a kind of expertise that allows me to distill a complicated topic in a compressed way that makes it comprehensible for the average reader. As opposed to writing literally revealing the world to me, the world is there and I need to synthesize it.
B&W: Are you researching the entire book before you write it?
JE: No, my God! This is what is so hard! Because I don’t know what the story is, I don’t know what to research! I’m doomed to a feeling of absolute idiocy as I write this first draft because there’s no research ahead. Often the research itself suggests story possibilities that I wouldn’t have known. In a way, I’m at the moment of maximum misery. I finally do know what the story is, I think, but I also know that I haven’t done the right research and I have a huge amount ahead of me and I also know that it reads really crappily because of the lack of research, but there would have been no way to do it ahead of time because I didn’t know what the story would be. At the end of the day, I may look back and say this is really where I hit my limit—I just can’t thrive in this context as a writer, so I’ll write a crappy book, and the world will not end. I hope (laughs).
B&W: Do you ever try new forms and realize they are not working?
JE: I’ve definitely had things not work. I tried some things in Goon Squad that didn’t work actually. I really loved the idea of using a play structure or format for one chapter, to actually have it be about making a play and use dramatic writing as part of it. It seemed like such a great idea. It’s amazing how perfect things can sound conceptually and yet be so dead on arrival. I couldn’t make this thing live for love or money. I really wanted to write one in the form of epic verse poetry. I still think it would have been so much of a better book if I could have pulled that off—to have epic poetry and PowerPoint in one book! I was really inspired by [Byron’s poem] “Don Juan”— it’s such a great rollicking story, the writing is so loose and very self-conscious. He’ll comment about how the coffee was that morning, and then he’s back in the story. In this very naïve way, I thought, I want to do that. Well, you know, try copying one of the best poets who ever wrote! I can’t really write poetry and that was a big problem—it was a deal breaker! That one, it was kind of a nonstarter, because although I tried, I couldn’t actually write the poetry. I couldn’t do it—it was terrible.
I have a lot of ideas now. This book seems to be resolutely conventional—another strike against it—although I’m waiting to see if there’s some strange twist about that that I haven’t found yet. Then I want to write a companion to Goon Squad, actually, down the road, and I have some pretty radical ideas of things I’d like to do for that, but a lot of them won’t work.
The one thing I will say, this piece that I wrote that The New Yorker tweeted, that is one where I really did start with the form, and somehow I kind of landed on a story, a voice that seemed to live in my mind in that form, and that worked well, at least from my point of view. And PowerPoint, too. I started with PowerPoint, I didn’t have the story yet, I just had the program. It can work either way, but if you start with the form, you’ve got to find the story that requires it, and that can be hard.
B&W: You’ve incorporated PowerPoint, Twitter, and text message slang into your fiction. How can you explain your draw to technology?
JE: There’s this strange thing where I’m very resistant to technology as a human being and kind of frightened of it, but then as a writer I’m totally excited by it. It’s a strange paradox. I’m greedy—I’m looking around to see what feels resonant to me, fictionally. I’ve started to learn to identify a certain feeling I get when something might help me write fiction, and I just sort of file that away. PowerPoint, it happened before I even knew what PowerPoint was, which is really weird. I had never used it when I first thought, I would love to try that. I think I was just desperate, because every chapter of Goon Squad I wanted to have a different form, so almost anything would have been worth a try. With Twitter, even though I don’t really read Twitter that much, and definitely was not very comfortable tweeting, I just immediately felt a kind of interest in the way language emerged in that form, and the slightly serialized feeling of it, the odd, unexpected beauty of it. In Goon Squad, I used this odd texting at the end, and people have said, Oh, you’re trying to show…Are you kidding me? How boring! I thought it was beautiful. That’s why I liked it. It’s more a sense of possibilities that are interesting than a critique. If I feel critical of something—like, for example, Facebook—I’m really uninspired by that. It seems so boring, it feels really dull and generic—really Soviet—so it leads me nowhere and that makes me walk away.
B&W: Do you have any insight into the success of Goon Squad?
JE: The answer is luck. That’s what it is, but how do you get that luck? Because somehow you intersect with some sort of cultural curiosity at the moment. What that was, I don’t know. Certainly fragmented narratives seem to be of interest right now. I think there is a general preoccupation with time that I think is very technology-based. When I taught at NYU [before Goon Squad was released], I remember thinking, Wow, this will be great. I hadn’t really written about teens in a while, and my kids were younger, and I want to know how young people are dealing with technology and it will be great to get their perspective. What was weird was when I would talk to my students, it felt like they felt out-of-date. It felt like they and I were marveling at kids five years younger, who had grown up with things that they had only just started using. That was kind of odd to me, and made me realize that technology makes everyone feel old. I never thought this consciously, but I think it was maybe why I was interested in it, that that [the book’s structure] does weirdly mimic online experience. It’s a hyperlink in a certain way—the idea of falling from one thing to another and then, oh, there’s that. You can go on endlessly. That feeling of a book doing that was exciting for people, and it never crossed my mind, but I think it was probably the reason it was exciting to me too.
B&W: How does the literary theory you studied in college influence your work?
JE: I think it made me aware of the meta-possibilities, and I don’t think that’s bad. Most of my books have that quality of being about their own writing process. You can think about it or not, but especially with The Keep and Look at Me, the idea that this whole thing may be a document created by the plot you just read is sort of overt. I never want that to be attention-seeking. I think it’s boring when that becomes the whole point, but if that can be an additional echo in there, I think it adds richness. So I think it’s in my literary DNA for sure, and I’m not sorry about it, because I feel like as long as it’s fueling the story and not draining energy from the story, then the more the merrier. Let’s have everything in there, why not? If there’s one thing that can explain what I think fiction writing is for me, it’s, How can I do the most possible things at one time? It’s compression. That’s what it is. If I’m only doing one or two things, I’m in a very bad situation. If I’m reading someone who’s only doing one or two things, I’m bored. I like to feel that there’s almost this explosion of compression. I’m not saying a lot of plot lines, but many levels of storytelling and perception happening at once. That’s what I’m always trying to do, so if one of those can be a meta-level, if I’ve given that some thought, I’m happy about it and I think that that awareness is in me dating back to college.
B&W: What is the lure of constantly switching genres?
JE: For me, it’s really necessary. I don’t think I would have the motivation to do it if it just felt like something I had done before. It’s true that I don’t have any kind of brand, but who cares? I think that’s a bigger problem for a nonfiction writer than it is for a fiction writer. And in the end, I do it for fun. That really is my motivation, so it’s not fun if it doesn’t feel fresh or new. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of struggles, because there certainly are, even when it’s new, but the feeling of it being familiar, that’s like a deadly feeling to me. I think all the time: I don’t have to do this, there are a lot of other things to do that are more directly helpful to the human race. So this is what I’m doing as long as I think that I’m working at a level that’s satisfying to me. So when that ends, I’m out. There are a lot of other things that would be interesting and worthwhile.
B&W: What advice would you give to young writers?
JE: I think the number one thing is just read a lot. That almost matters more than the writing. At this age, you can’t expect to—this sounds awful, but—you’re not writing stuff that you’re going to be sending out or saving. Especially if you’re in New York, to the degree possible, forget all the crap about who’s doing what and how to get ahead. It’s so hard not to get distracted by that, and I was so distracted by it for so long, but it turns out it’s completely meaningless. It’s so hard to do anything good, and not many people will. That’s what it’s all going to come down to.