About The Author
Jennifer Egan was born Chicago, grew up in San Francisco and now lives in Brooklyn.A journalist and writer, she has written four novels and a collection of short stories (not all currently available in the UK). Her short stories have appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker and Harper's.
She was the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in 1996. Her second novel, Look At Me, was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 2001, but it is with her most recent book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, that she has broken through into the first rank of contemporary American writers; it won the National Book Critics' Circle Award, was shortlisted for PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and has been longlisted for the Orange Prize.
The book is structured as a series of stories, shifting back and forth through the lives of a series of characters most of whom work in the music industry to build up a picture of both their lives and the changing society around them; Egan has compared it to 1970s concept albums such as Quadrophenia and Tommy.
Here Jennifer tells Frances Gertler how the book came about and discusses some of the startling techniques she used in its making.
Questions & Answers
The book has been described rather neatly by one reviewer as 'punk Proust for the internet era'. But what was your starting point, did you always have the twin themes of time and music in mind?
I'd had the themes of time and music in mind for a while, but when I started this book I didn't realize that the two would converge in it -- partly because I didn't realize at first that I was working on a book; I thought I was writing a story or two while procrastinating the start of a different book. Time as a literary subject had been on my mind since I'd returned to Proust's opus at around age 40. I read it with a group of peers over several years, and found myself awed by its scope and reach, wondering again and again as we read what a contemporary novel about time might look like. Meanwhile, I'd wanted for years to learn more about the music industry, and had tried repeatedly to get journalistic assignments that would occasion some kind of immersion in it. I succeeded only once: in the late 1990's I was assigned the job of following a pair of identical twin female rappers who called themselves Dyme. Their album was on the verge of being released, but in the course of following them, I began to realize that the album actually wasn't going to be released, and when I shared this hunch with my editor, he pulled me off the story! But certain details of the Dyme sisters' lives found their way into the Stop/Go sister band I invented for Goon Squad, including the orange shag-carpeted recording studio!
Was there any one character you found yourself wanting to return to unexpectedly?
I actually have returned to one character: Lulu. I'm writing about her now in later life, though whether the project will go anywhere, I'm not sure. One nice thing about Goon Squad, for me, is its open-endedness; revisiting its characters feels like a casual engagement, rather than a 'Sequel' or 'Prequel',neither of which interests me. There where chapters and characters I wanted to pursue in the book and couldn't pull off, and one chapter -- the PowerPoint -- I slipped in at the last minute. So not only am I open to having some occasional contact with my Goon Squad cast in future, but I feel like the logic of the existing book almost invites that.
The novel began life as self contained stories, with some characters appearing in several of them. Did you plan from the outset to make it a novel?
I think the moment when I realized it was a book (I'm still hesitant to use the word 'novel'!) was when I was working on the third of the self contained stories, and found it extending narrative tentacles and affixing them to four older stories I'd finished and published some years before. I sensed the whole thing connecting up in a strange, organic way that felt completely outside my control. Most of these connections were made while I was showering late at night, for some reason; I would stand there with steam billowing up, in a state of amazed stupefaction. I wasted a lot of water in writing that book.
Do you think music still means to the young what it did in the 80s and 90s, the period depicted in part of your novel?
Of course the curmudgeon in me wants to mutter, 'No, it was all more real and authentic when I was a teenager than it is now.' But that's exactly the kind of nostalgia I tried to undercut in Goon Squad. Also, that really smacks of the phenomenon of universalizing one's own experience onto the world (whose best moments -- surprise! -- all happened to come along right at the moment one got there). I'm inclined to think that, yes, music is still a powerful force in the lives of young people, as it was for me and for my mother, who adored Elvis. My own kids aren't teenagers yet, but my eldest is a passionate Eminem fan, who emulates him (not always desirable, I have to say), reads about him, discusses him and performs exegesis on his songs. So based on his connection to that music of his choice, I tend to doubt that there's been a diminishment of intensity in the way young people relate to music.
What kinds of research did you have to do?
This is a pretty lightly researched book, luckily for me. I needed some information about the technological shift in musical production -- ie the movement from analogue to digital recording. This required some very long telephone conversations with a mixer in New York, who was incredibly patient and helpful. I also read a fair amount about the music business; a particularly helpful text was So You Wanna be a Rock & Roll Star by Jacob Slichter, the drummer of Semisonic. But a lot of the music stuff is drawn from my own memory of the punk scene in San Francisco in the late '70's, with a little help from You Tube.
The part of the book displayed as a powerpoint presentation was really striking and effective; how did you come to use that technique and how did it compare to writing more conventionally set-out prose?
I came to it out of a compulsion I couldn't understand at the time that I began to experience it. I had never used PowerPoint, didn't own it, and (it turned out) didn't have enough memory on my laptop to hold it. I assumed at the time that I was being driven by the sheer need to find new technical approaches for Goon Squad (one of my rules was that to be included in the book, each chapter had to have a completely different mood and feel than all of the other chapters). I tried epic poetry but couldn't pull that off; why not PowerPoint? Once I finally bought the program and began to use it, though, I realized that there were much deeper reasons that I'd been driven to it. Goon Squad is all about time; the book consists of specific moments with big gaps in between. PowerPoint is a genre built around specific moments with gaps in between, so using it became a way of making manifest the book's approach in an immediate and visible way. There were huge challenges to working in PowerPoint; the biggest -- its cold, corporate feel -- I tried to neutralize that by having the narrator of that chapter be a child. And it was hard to give up the connective tissue that we fiction writers tend to depend on. But there were big payoffs: for one, I could create slides that allowed the text to be read in multiple ways, each one slightly different. And most thrilling of all, PowerPoint let me represent pauses visually. My favourite slide is of a pause at night. You can probably imagine what that might look like!
As well as being very much about time, and the ravages it wreaks on all your characters, there is also a recurring theme of outsiderness. How far does the 'delusional faith' of inclusion drive your characters - or indeed their author?
Before I started writing this particular book, I had a notion of writing a book called A Visit From the Goon Squad that would be about people who weren't part of the big web of connectedness that has come to unite many of us. That includes people without resources, mostly, or with other hindrances. Even though I didn't end up writing that book, exactly, some of its DNA is in this one. For many reasons -- one being a family member I'm quite close to who is mentally ill -- I feel vividly aware of the presence of many, many people outside the mainstream who feel excluded from it. And now that our 'mainstream' involves constant hyperconnectivity, you might say that those outside of it are even more interstitial than they might have been in the past. I feel a huge sympathy for those people, and I have to admit that it delighted me to let one of them -- Scotty -- triumph in the end of Goon Squad.
As well as moving through the past, in the Safari section you offer snapshots of the future, some but not all of which are fulfilled elsewhere in the book. These flashforwards are really striking and unsettling but also give the impression that you almost couldn't bear to leave out their fully envisioned futures?
I'd been interested for a while in writing something whose 'present' was imbued with the knowledge of what would happen later. 'Safari' ended up being the place where I let that happen. It would be overbearing to have too much of that, and in fact when 'Safari' was published in The New Yorker, the editor asked me to cut way back on those future leaps. But to me, they're what make the chapter interesting. In the end, that particular tale is playing with the whole idea of omniscient narration; how much does the narrator know, and when and how does s/he impart it to the reader. And what are its effects? If we're reading, in part, to find out what will happen, what is the impact of knowing those answers long before the characters will? And all of Goon Squad plays with these questions, to some extent, since it's not chronological. It moves forward and backward, so sometimes we learn what happens, and sometimes we find out how things used to be -- in which case we already know how they will turn out.
How have you - and your writing - been affected by the huge critical acclaim the book is garnering - so far winning the National Book Critics Circle Award as novel of the year and being longlisted for the Orange prize?
I wish I knew better -- it would mean I was writing more than I am right now! Hopefully the success will have no deep effect. The danger is a feeling of pressure -- a sense that I can't top Goon Squad, and that no one will like anything else I do as much. That's a worry, of course, but let's face it: obscurity -- the sense that no one will ever know or care about what one is writing -- is also a worry. Both have the potential to distract, but writing well is always about surmounting distractions, whatever they may be. I guess this success may temporarily change the tenor of my distraction, but my job hasn't changed: to overcome distraction and get the writing done. And to move forward into material that's completely unlike Goon Squad, even though people have enjoyed it.
Who are the writers that inspire you?
Shakespeare, for his ability to do so many things at once, so well, and create so much truly great work. Sterne and Cervantes, for doing everything that's been done since. Dickens, George Elliot, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates. James Salter, Graham Greene. But for Goon Squad, Proust above all else.