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Jennifer Egan on 'Goon Squad', 'Los Angeles Times' brouhaha, and her next novel

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Jennifer Egan
Pieter M. van Hattem

Unlike Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which had years’ worth of hype before it sold its first copy, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, released last summer, has been a slower-burning literary sensation. After Goon Squad made its way onto many a top ten list in 2010, it made waves again last month when it beat out Freedom for the ultra-prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award. Goon Squad is hardly Egan’s first well-received, wildly inventive novel, but with another literary nod from across the pond and the new paperback release, Egan seems to be experiencing a new level of critical and commercial recognition. She took some time to talk to EW about Goon Squad and why it connected.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on winning the NBCC Award and all the big nominations. You’ve been a well regarded and well reviewed author for a while now. So does winning one of the most prestigious literary awards out there feel like a culmination of sorts for you?

JENNIFER EGAN: It does, in a way, though I remain in a state of stupefaction that Goon Squad is the book that has produced that effect. I just didn’t expect such an idiosyncratic, decentralized book to prompt such strong enthusiasm. It gives the whole thing a somewhat accidental feeling. I also know, having been at this a while, that it’s very rare for a book to have so much good luck. I’m doing my utmost to luxuriate in the moment — I have a feeling my good luck may well have been exhausted for a while!

What do you think is the value of literary awards and “best of” lists — both for authors and readers?

I think the big-picture value is that they generate excitement about the industry — a welcome thing, especially in these challenging times. For individual authors, of course, awards and lists can generate prestige and sales. In the case of Goon Squad, which sold slowly for a long time despite the good reviews, those “best of 2010” lists were pivotal, and made the book really sell. What lists and awards don’t measure — and I feel this strongly — is the lasting value of any work of art.  They’re a snapshot of a moment, and one should always consider their judgments in that context.

There was a bit of an online outcry when an LA Times article ran a story about your NBCC Award win but pictured Jonathan Franzen instead, as if his loss were the bigger story than your win. What was your response to that?

It was funny; by the time I knew of the brouhaha, it seemed to have taken on a life of its own. In a way, whatever aggravation I might have felt was preempted by the fact that so many other people were incensed on my behalf!  I did think that the Times’ excuse — “We didn’t have a picture of her” — was a bit Old Media. I mean, there are lots of pictures of all of us out there, and it takes all of a millisecond to find them.  The outcry points to the intense frustration many people feel on behalf of female writers, and I’ve certainly shared that frustration at times. I think that all discussions of this sort are useful — messy and awkward though they may be. I guess I’m a believer in open airing of collective grievances, rather than private seething.

When you were writing Goon Squad, did you have any sense that what you were writing was special, or would connect with readers in a way that was different from your previous novels?

No more than I have with each book as I’m writing it — it always feels special to me and has to, really, or I wouldn’t have the excitement to work on it. If anything, I felt more doubtful than usual with Goon Squad, because I knew that the book’s genre wasn’t easily named — Novel?  Stories?  Novel-in-stories?—and I worried that its lack of a clear category would count against it. My hopes for it were pretty modest:  I just wanted to hold my own, and my plan was to try to do something big and splashy with the next book.

The last chapter was truly fascinating and really wonderfully and believably imagined. What was the germ of the idea for that last chapter?

I knew pretty early on that I wanted to revisit Alex—a minor character in the first chapter, when he’s in his early 20’s—as he approaches middle age. Since the first chapter takes place around 2007, I had no choice but to plunge into the future. I didn’t worry about whether I was writing science fiction, or anything like that; I just tried to follow Alex into his future, and be as observant as possible about what the world around him had come to look like. I was most concerned with the question of how he had evolved—it was his story that led me to all the rest.  It’s funny to me that people see that chapter as dystopic (well, okay, I guess the idea that global warming has altered the earth’s axis is a little scary), because to me we seem closer to some of what I imagined than we even were when I wrote it. For example, I posited the existence of handsets for preverbal children. I was writing about that pre iPhone, and honestly, I’ve watched toddlers using their parents’ iPhones and thought, Wow, that’s exactly what I was picturing in “Pure Language.”

What was your process of writing the Power Point chapter?

Well, I took a crack at writing it on yellow legal pads, by hand, which is how I write most of my fiction, but that was basically a nonstarter.  Once I’d gotten over the hump of getting hold of the program (I had to add memory to my laptop just to buy it), I began — as I would with any new genre — by reading widely in it. In the case of PowerPoint, of course, that meant reading a lot of corporate documents. But I actually found them fascinating, because of the various approaches to the challenge of telling a story slide by slide. I bumbled quite a bit at first, just trying to figure out how to use PowerPoint and avail myself of its features. I finally settled on a methodology something like this: I’d pinpoint the fictional moment I wanted to portray (PowerPoint only allows for the creation of moments, without connective tissue). Then I’d list what seemed to me the essential component parts of that moment as a series of bullet points. Then I would study those bullet points and try to understand their relationship to each other:  was it cause-and-effect?  Was it circular?  Was it a counterpoint?  An evolution? Having identified the relationship of the parts to each other, I would choose (or, when I really got comfortable, create) a graphic structure to house the bullet points that would clearly manifest their relationship.  There were lots of revisions and reconsiderations, of course, but that was how I did it, slide by slide.

Does it annoy you at all that so much attention has been given to the PowerPoint chapter? Do you think it might give potential readers a skewed impression of the novel?

I haven’t had that sense; often people have said things like, “I approached the PowerPoint with great skepticism, but…” and wound up liking it more than they expected. It may have alienated some readers, but I also think it brought the book more attention than it might otherwise have had. My personal belief is that it’s the core of the book, and that Goon Squad would have been much weaker without it; in fact it almost scares me how close I came to not including it (I added that chapter after selling the book). Goon Squad is a book about time, composed of 13 discrete stories separated by gaps. And PowerPoint (or any slideshow, it doesn’t have to be Microsoft) is a genre composed of discrete moments separated by gaps. As a genre, it echoes the structure I was already working with in Goon Squad, and its corporate coldness allowed me to be overtly sentimental in ways I probably wouldn’t have allowed myself to in conventional fiction.

It seems as though the novel of loosely connected stories is on the rise. What is appealing to you about that structure? And do you think you will you return to it?

The structure itself has no innate appeal for me, honestly. I only used it because it made sense for this particular story about a group of decentralized people over many years. If the story I’d been writing had been more centralized, I would have gravitated toward a structure that manifested that. The great advantage of the structure I did use, though, was that working in discrete units — rather than one big unit — let me include a huge range of moods, tones, and technical approaches. I figured, if this piece is made of parts, let’s make them as different from each other as possible, yet still adding up to one story. So that is an advantage I found to using loosely connected stories to build one big story. I doubt I’d do it again anytime soon, though; I always like to work against what I’ve just done, and right now I’m hungering for a big, central narrative.

There’s been a lot said about your writing process — writing on yellow legal pads without re-reading a word until you start feeding the words into the computer. How did that method evolve for you?

Well, when I started writing, in high school, I had a manual typewriter. And then I had an electric typewriter. So in those years, writing by hand was the most flexible way to go. By the time I started using a computer, halfway through college, I was used to handwriting my fiction. I did write stories on a computer for a year or two, but then I drifted back to my old ways. The bottom line is that I like my first drafts to be blind, unconscious, messy efforts; that’s what gets me the best material. And there’s no way for me to achieve that effect while staring at every word I write in typeface. So I’m led, inevitably, back to the legal pads, and my illegible scrawl. It isn’t so much that I don’t reread as that I can’t, without serious effort.

You write many great articles in the NYT Magazine about youth culture, and with Goon Squad it seems like you’ve become a literary voice for the Facebook set. How do you keep current with youth trends, and why has that been an area of interest for you?

It’s hilarious to me that people have likened Goon Squad to a Facebook experience, since I didn’t even join Facebook until the book was done and sold. I’m extremely grateful to my work for the NYT Magazine for keeping me connected to youth culture, though. Who wants to know what a 48-year-old is thinking — I’m not even sure I do! I guess that’s why I’m drawn to youth culture; because reporting on it gives me a reason — even a mandate — to get very close to it and understand it. That’s not an opportunity I’m going to have any other way. I’m paid to be nosy and curious about the lives of people half my age or less, and it’s a Godsend, because I want to know what’s coming up next and there’s no other way to find out.

I know you published three of the stories in Good Squad as standalones in The New Yorker. Was there a story from the novel that anchored the entire book in your mind? One that seemed to connect all of them thematically for you?

I think it was the combination of the first and last stories that really anchored it for me: a young woman steals a wallet while on a first date with a guy she met online, and 15-or-so years later, that guy, now a husband and father, tries to remember that same date from his early years in New York. Those bookends always filled me with hope; I thought, if I can just get from one to the other in an interesting, rich way, I will have written a decent book. At many points, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to pull it off; I seemed to be missing critical steps. But finally, with the PowerPoint, I felt I had the minimum I needed to get me from one to the other.

What are you working on currently?

I’m hoping to plunge into the book I put off to write Goon Squad:  a historical novel set in New York during and after WWII, involving women who built ships at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  I’ve done a lot of research, and I need to re-immerse myself in that and then break out the legal pads and see what happens.