Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan

Photo c. Peter M. Van Hattem

Transcript of conversation with Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan: It's a book about time, and I knew that going in, and time and music are so interwoven. I mean, nothing makes time seem to evaporate like hearing a song that you remember from an earlier moment of your life, and I think we're all very aware of that now, especially because of our individualized music systems that we walk around with all the time. I feel steeped in my own past, I think more than I would if I didn't wear an iPod when I went running, and I also, a book about time nowadays, just has to be about technology, because I think so much of what has changed in our lifetimes is just the way we do things technologically, and of course, the music business has really been decimated by some of those changes and is basically in a free fall. So it became an interesting lens through which to look at technological change.

Jo Reed: That was the award-winning novelist, Jennifer Egan talking about her book, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed. Since its publication last year, A Visit from the Goon Squad has been wowing critics with its clear-eyed compassion and brilliant structure.  Jennifer Egan who is also a notable non-fiction writer brings a journalistic lucidity to her wildly imaginative work.  The book is comprised of interlocking stories told in non-linear narratives that stylistically range from tragedy to parody to power point. It’s through this jumble of styles that we trace the lives of Bennie Salazar, a music executive with a punk rock past and his troubled assistant, Sasha.  But we’re also witness to the people who have touched their lives in ways both big and small so that a peripheral character in one chapter might take center stage in another.  The result is a vivid picture of these people, of who they thought they were, of who they became and of the havoc time plays in all our lives. 

This year, Jennifer Egan was awarded the National Book Critic Circle Award in fiction for A Visit from the Goon Squad.     I was lucky enough to speak with her a few days after the awards ceremony.  Here’s our conversation.

Jo Reed: First of all, Jennifer Egan, bravo, many, many congratulations on winning the National Book Critics Circle award.

Jennifer Egan: Thank you so much.

Jo Reed: What was that like for you, when you were sitting there and heard your name?

Jennifer Egan: It was very thrilling. I mean, I was so nervous, I felt like I just wanted it to be over, and I almost didn't care what the outcome was, because I found that that sense of waiting and wondering was really agonizing, but it was very thrilling. I mean, I was weeping. It was moving, after so many years, to be honored in that way.

Jo Reed: And of course, the book that you were honored for is, A Visit From The Goon Squad.

Jennifer Egan: Yep.

Jo Reed: Which is a very unusual title, and I think we'll get to that later, but first, here's the most unfair question. Can you briefly just give us a sense of what this book is about?

Jennifer Egan: Basically it follows a handful of people through different moments of their life. They're fairly loosely connected. It’s not about a family. The two core characters are a woman named Sasha, whom we first meet in her mid 30s, when she's in a pretty bad way, has a problem with stealing, and her boss, for a long time, Bennie Salazar, who is a music producer, and we move back and forward through their lives. I think one thing that is always important to say about this, is that I wrote it in pieces. My goal was to write one story that happens in parts, but I really wanted the parts to be as different from each other as possible, kind of in the manner of a concept album. There's actually an A side and a B side. Because when people talk about collections of linked stories, they tend to assume there will be a continuity of tone and voice, and I really wanted the opposite, I wanted that feeling on an album where you go from a soft song to something really hard, and then back to something else that's different. I wanted a collision of different styles and feelings that all work together to make one story about people over time.

Jo Reed: The other part of this is, that decision to have the book in so many different voices, and the way the book itself is structured. I mean, it moves backwards and forwards through time, it has obviously multiple-- not only multiple narrators, but multiple perspectives. Why was that important, why did you want to do that?

Jennifer Egan: Because, I guess, to my mind, if I was not going to write a conventional, more centrally oriented novel, I felt like, if I'm going to do it in this partitioned way, why not exaggerate the particular nature of it, by having each part be completely different from all the others, and yet, all fused together into one thing. It seemed like a more extreme exciting choice to me.

Jo Reed: Here's the part that I'm still trying to figure out with this book, which is, on one hand, it does seem like this postmodern book, and at the same time, it feels, in its scope, and just breadth, like a 19th century novel. And I can't quite work out how you did that.

Jennifer Egan: Well, I mean, I wasn't thinking of it as post modern, although I understand why people say that, because it's fragmented and non-linear. I guess, in a way, I thought of it as polyphonic, so that's kind of an old musical idea.

Jo Reed: We're back to that.

Jennifer Egan: So you know, I think, in a way, it's just, we're describing the same thing in different ways. I guess, you know, for me, it just felt like the kind of story I could only do in this way. Writing something that is postmodern for its own sake, is something that would kind of worry me, because I would think, well, but how much fun will it be, really? I mean, what about the story? I mean, to me, I feel like whenever I end up doing something that seems experimental, it really is the story I was trying to tell seemed to demand this more idiosyncratic approach.

Jo Reed: I have to say, and lord knows I respect writers greatly, but we've all read books where somehow the point was how brilliant the writer was. And the story gets lost, and they become very annoying.

Jennifer Egan: Yeah, I mean I think in the end, the story and the characters have to lead. But I will say that I think that a willingness to try different things, has been freeing for me, because I think it has allowed me to tell more complex stories than I might be able to tell in a more conventional way. Certainly in this case, I don't know how you would write this as a conventional novel. There's just--there are too many things happening, and it moves through time too freely. So by making this leap, it allowed me to do something that I couldn't have done otherwise. And that was honestly, just kind of fun.

Jo Reed: Well let's talk about Sasha for example. As you say, the book opens with Sasha, but then we see her throughout the book from different perspectives different characters' perspectives of her. Sometimes she's just a shadow in a chapter, other times she's taking center stage, but at the end, we almost get to see her from a 380 degree perspective, and that's, I think, what that structure, gives us.

Jennifer Egan: That's interesting. I mean, one of the rules that I made for myself, I had three as I was working. One was that each chapter had to have a different protagonist, so no one could actually be the center more than once. Of course that was very challenging, because I knew that I wanted to visit people at different moments in their lives, but I could only do it from their own point of view one time. And sometimes this caused some technical problems for example, I knew that I really wanted to find a way to visit Sasha at a future point. As I said before, we meet her at a kind of difficult moment of her life, in her mid 30s, and then we see her at different points in the past. But I wanted to get to her future, but I couldn't figure out how to do it, except from her point of view. And then ultimately it came to me, that, of course, I had to write from one of her children's point of view, and that would be a way to do it. So technically, it was hard. I couldn't-- you know, in one way, it was freeing to work this way and it allowed me to cover a lot of ground, and a lot of years, but it also made my characters a little bit inaccessible to me. I had to be tricky about finding ways to see them at different moments, when I could only use their point of view once.

Jo Reed: Why did you set up that challenge?

Jennifer Egan: The rules were not so much to challenge myself, but to codify what I could already see that I was doing, and to try to make sure that I kept doing that. So in other words, I started with Sasha steals a wallet. That's really where the book started. I had no idea where it would go. I thought I was just writing a short story, actually. Then, in the course of writing about that, Sasha makes mention of her ex-boss, all we know about this guy is that he puts he's a music producer, he sprinkles gold flakes in his coffee, and he sprays pesticide in his armpits, and his name is Bennie Salazar, and I wrote that thinking, ha-ha, that's a fun thumbnail sketch of a decadent music producer, but then I found myself thinking, yeah, but why does he do those things, because it may seem like a fun stereotype, but stereotypes only exist at a distance, and there's always an inner logic to the specific things that people do. And I found myself sort of haunted by this guy, and I thought, okay, I'm going to write one more story and it's going to answer the questions of why he puts gold in his coffee, and sprays pesticide in his armpits. And then, I became sort of enamored of him, Bennie Salazar, and in the course of the story, I thought, at the time, that I wrote about him, there was a mention of his ex-wife, who plays doubles at a country club, which conjures up another sort of cliché, and I thought, yeah, but who is she, and what was it like when they were married? So I found myself moving in this lateral way, and I also found that each chapter, which I realized at that point, they were chapters, not stories, felt very different from the others, and they were moving backward. And one of the things that was fun was the characters who had been very central in one, became very peripheral in the others, and all of that excited me, so I thought, okay, so this is how I'm going to write a book that's like this. How can I define the relationship of these chapters to each other, so that, as I keep going, I can sort of hold to the pattern that I'm creating. And so one of my rules was, each person could only be a protagonist once. The second one was that each chapter had to be technically different from all of the others, so that the feel of it, the world of it and the voice of it was unique within the book, and the third was that each one had to completely stand on its own, and not require anything around it, to be comprehensible and enjoyable, because I think I felt that I was going to make them so different from each other, then I couldn't make them dependent on each other. I had to make sure that each had its own payoff. It felt like something I could do for the reader, to make it easier to read a book like this.

Jo Reed: It was so touching, I found, when we went back and saw Bennie as a teenager, and he was peripheral in that. I found it so moving, it was really, really something.

Jennifer Egan: Well it's-- there's a lot to be said for going backwards. I mean, we have this tendency to use chronology in a forward way in fiction, and I'm certainly not the first to have enjoyed going backwards, and whole novels have been constructed around that. Charles Baxter's First Light is an excellent example. But we tend to crave the answer to the question, what will happen, but in a way, the question of, what was it like before is also a really intriguing one, and finding out the answer to that is satisfying, so in the Bennie chapter, when I was trying to understand his odd habits, he harkens back to his punk rock youth in San Francisco, and as soon as I wrote that, I was kind of excited, because, of course I was in San Francisco at that time, and a very peripheral observing part of that music scene, and I thought, wow, maybe I can actually write about the punk rock scene in San Francisco in the late '70s, wouldn't that be fun? So I did, I basically set the school part of it in the big public high school that I went to, and had them all go to these clubs that I used to go to, and it was great to get to use that material.

Jo Reed: In the Chapter “Safari” for example. We're told, in the midst of the narration, that in four years, one character joins a cult in Mexico, another will kill himself at 28. It's just inserted into the narration. Why that?

Jennifer Egan: You know, I had wanted to use that device for a long time. I had thought it would be really interesting to write a piece in which in which the present is completely infused with our knowledge of what will happen later. And so that was sort of a longstanding wish just, technically, I thought it would be an interesting thing to have the present freighted with that knowledge, to have the reader know so much more than the characters know, and then when I began writing “Safari,” which I was led to in a way, in the same kind of lateral way that I've already described, in this case, in the punk rock chapter, in which some 17 year-old girls have gotten mixed up with a much older guy, who's a music producer named Lou, he makes mention of a trip that he took to Africa, and they're all on cocaine, and he says, "I'll take you to Africa," and the girls say, "Great." And it's just a pass-- it's a fleeting moment but I found myself thinking, so what was that trip that he took to Africa, who did he go with and what was it like? And then it became a chance to explore completely different side of Lou's life, which is his relationship to his children. And that trip, of course, happens earlier in time. Anyway, once I began working on it, I think because I already knew a lot about what would happen to Lou, I had already written about him at a future point, I-- it was-- it seemed natural to try this device that I had been interested in, in that chapter.

Jo Reed: You know I found that chapter so interesting first because I was really struck by the authority of the author. But then it got me wondering is it fate, are these characters on a trajectory? But then I had the realization that the how something happens is just as important as what happens.

Jennifer Egan: Yeah it's interesting, because in a way, there's a potential--I would never want to write a whole book like that, because there's a kind of overbearing quality to the omniscience of the narrator in that case. So it seemed like an interesting organizing principle for that one part. I think it's not so much a sense of fate. I don't really believe in that, although, of course everything feels like fate when you look back.

Jo Reed: Of course.

Jennifer Egan: So I think, in a way, what I'm doing there, is just playing with this elasticity of my own movement through time, as the writer of that particular book, because in a way, we have that experience in Goon Squad in all kinds of ways, since we often move backward. People are imagining what their lives will be, and we already know, not because I told them in that moment, but because we've already seen what happens. So it became a different way of exploring that kind of elastic relationship to time.

Jo Reed: You have a parody of new journalism, the “celebrity profile,” - here's the thing, when I started reading that chapter, I thought, oh, this must have been so much fun to write, and then by the end, I wasn't so sure.

Jennifer Egan: It was fun.

Jo Reed: Okay.

Jennifer Egan: It was really fun. You know, I had been, you know, of course reading celebrity profiles. How can you escape them, and I always-- what was so striking to me, was first, the impossibility of the task was just always foremost in my mind when I would read this. The star wants to give up nothing, and yet the star needs the interview. So the star grants some very small amount of time. The interviewer, who is usually a writer of some skill and probably with much higher ambitions than just to be sitting there talking to this star, is trying wildly to infuse some kind of meaning into the exchange, both because the readers want a sense of having really touched some heretofore unseen aspect of the star, and because it's a piece of writing, and they want to do a good job. And so you end up with these crazy contortions of the writer trying to render up an authentic experience having no access to the star, really, and therefore, often yammering on about him or herself, because that's really the only person that the writer has access to. And so anyway, it was-- I mean, in a way, it's shooting fish in a barrel to do a send-up of the celebrity profile, but it was fun, and of course it's actually pretty dark, what ends up happening, because there are a lot of undercurrents of anger, shame, desire, in this case, it's a male interviewer and a female star, and a kind of rage. And all of those end up coming to the surface, although, hopefully still in a humorous way.

Jo Reed: You also have a chapter as a PowerPoint. It might sound as though it's a gimmick, but it worked really well in the book. What gave you that idea?

Jennifer Egan: You know, I felt really, speaking of compulsion, I felt really compelled to write in PowerPoint, and it was a strange thing, because I had no reason to necessarily want to do it. I had never used PowerPoint, I didn't own PowerPoint, it turned out I didn't have enough memory on my laptop to even have PowerPoint, which some preliminary research made that clear. I think what really-- the moment that I remember thinking that I wanted to write in PowerPoint, was reading the New York Times about the Obama campaign in the summer of '08, and it was basically an article examining how the campaign had turned a corner and suddenly gained so much traction. And there was repeated reference to an important PowerPoint presentation within the campaign that had changed a lot of people's minds about the story that they should be telling. And I kept fixating on the idea that they had branded the presentation right in the Times, that it wasn't called a memo, it wasn't called, you know, a paper, it was called a PowerPoint. I'm sure everyone at Microsoft was, you know, giddy when they saw that. But I found myself thinking, so it really is a genre, it's not just a way of giving a paper, it is a type unto itself. So that added to my desire to use it. I had a lot of false starts. I didn't want to buy it, I was-- I'm not really that technologically curious or advanced. I tried to create a PowerPoint by hand on yellow legal pads, because I actually write fiction by hand on yellow legal pads. None of that worked. I sold the book without the PowerPoint, and had pretty much given up on using PowerPoint, but I couldn't quite let the idea go. And so I did end up buying the program finally and reading some PowerPoints, and feeling again, kind of excited by the possibility, and so unbeknownst to my editor, or agent or anyone, I started writing a chapter in PowerPoint, when I was supposed to be doing just light revisions on the book. And one thing that had dogged me, one problem with using PowerPoint, is the corporate feeling of it, which seemed kind of deadly for fiction, but I had this other problem I hadn't solved, which I alluded to earlier, which was that I had not done the job of giving us a vision of Sasha in her future. And that was really troubling me, because we see Bennie, you know, in the future, 2020-something, we know where Bennie ends up, but Sasha, we only really know by hearsay, and then suddenly it came to me that if a child was creating the PowerPoint, it would not feel corporate, so I thought--and if it's Sasha's child, I can finally deliver up this picture of her future life. So then I was like a woman possessed. I mean, I spent the summer in a dark room staring at my computer and learning to use PowerPoint, and only when I got in there and finally became conversant in the program and was able to use it, did I understand that, I think the real reason that I had wanted to use it, was that I sensed that it would be a way of almost laying bare the organizing principles of the whole book, which are--it is built around pauses, it's not continuous. And PowerPoint is all about the discontinuity, that's the difference between a PowerPoint and a traditional paper, it consists of moments, and in a way, so does my book. So creating a chapter out of moments became a way of, in a way, revealing kind of the secret strategy of the book, in an honest way that I hadn't been able to do otherwise, and I think it was really critical, actually, to this book. It's almost scary to me how close I came to not having that PowerPoint in there.

Jo Reed: Did you do research for the music industry part of this book?

Jennifer Egan: I did do some, yes. I had wanted very much to write about music as a journalist. It had been kind of a longstanding goal. I wanted to learn more about the industry in that way that you can when you have to write about something. And I did actually get one assignment, which was to follow a group of identical twin rappers, called, Dyme, D-Y-M-E. And their first album was supposed to be released. This was maybe ten years ago, or so. And in the course of following them, I began to realize pretty quickly, it just didn't feel to me like the album actually was going to come out. I sort of felt like not much was really happening, and that was when the music industry was starting to really have severe problems, and, in fact, it never did come out, so I got pulled off of that assignment when I told my editor what I thought, but I do have a sister group in A Visit From The Goon Squad, called, Stop/Go, and there's a little of the Dyme DNA in there. And so that, in a way, it ended up being useful, but I would say I did a fair amount of reading, and then I did a number of interviews with a very helpful producer, mixer, because one of the things that I didn't quite understand, actually, was the difference between analog and digital recording, so he was very generous and I find in general, that a combination of, kind of journalistic interviews, and book research is a great mix. Because just having one or the other feels a little incomplete, but the two seem to kind of fuse into a deeper knowledge, but as books go, I would say this one is fairly lightly researched, because I was drawing a lot on my own memory for this.

Jo Reed: What else so you think has writing nonfiction, what else has that given your fiction writing, do you think?

Jennifer Egan: Oh, huge quantities. I mean, I think that, just in terms of my preoccupations, I mean, it's not that it has made me-- that journalism has made me preoccupied with things I wouldn't have been, but the assignments that I've accepted have often given me a chance to explore things I might not have had a chance to otherwise. So, for example, in my last novel, the keep, which was all about-- it was all about our new world of disembodied communication, and how we're sort of communicating with invisible presences all the time, and what that means for us mentally, I think was largely inspired by a couple of pieces I did for the Times Magazine, one of which was about the secret online lives of closeted gay teens, and another of which was about online dating. Doing those stories made me understand the depth of engagement with internet experience for many people, which I didn't personally have, and that, in a certain sense, people do live actually different lives online than they do in their real lives. So all of that was interesting. I think all of those pieces that I've researched become a kind of bedrock of experience that isn't my own, but is much closer to me than something I would just read about. It seems to be a kind of gray area between my own experience and other peoples’ experiences. They are other peoples’ experiences that I know intimately and all of that ends up filtering into the fiction. I feel so grateful for it, because I write very badly about myself, and my own life. I have no interest in doing it. I can only write about people and situations, or I'm only moved to write about people and situations, that feel removed from my own life, and I feel like my experience as a journalist has given me access to a lot of intimate knowledge of people that I might not have otherwise.

Jo Reed: When you began your writing career, did you know you wanted to write fiction, or was it more nonfiction? How did you come to combine the two the way you do?

Jennifer Egan: Well, I think when I was imagining being a writer, I loved the idea of doing both, actually, I mean, I've always been a kind of, you know, I was a Harriet The Spy girl, I actually did try to sort of sneak into a neighbor's house, inspired by that book, but I was too chicken. But I'm someone who wants to know about other people, I want to-- I always had fantasies about being invisible, being able to just go into people's houses and listen to them, so the idea of being a journalist was very satisfying, because I love the idea of just worming my way into lives that had nothing to do with mine, and worlds that had nothing to do with my world. In fact, I pursued fiction first, and was doing that for quite a while before I had any experience with journalism. The journalism came about really because I was planning my novel, Look At Me, which I knew would involve a model whose face was going to be destroyed, and who ends up looking different and trying to reenter her life. And I found that when I called modeling agencies and asked them if I could hang around and learn a little bit about their business, because I was a novelist, they didn't understand what I was talking about, and had no interest in helping me. They seemed to be, literally, unable to know what I meant. So I couldn't get any access to that world. Then I someone asked me if I would write about models for the New York Times Magazine, and I thought, hey, I bet you if I called them and say I'm calling from the New York Times Magazine, they'll pay more attention. And so I thought, you know, even if the story doesn't work out, I will at least have a chance to do this research that I need to do. So that was really the beginning, because I did end up writing the story, and had a really long and rich, very satisfying, for me, experience with the New York Times Magazine, writing about all kinds of things, but I honestly was just using it, almost as a cover, to get in there as a fiction writer the very first time.

Jo Reed: Okay, and final question. We have to talk about the title, A Visit From The Goon Squad.

Jennifer Egan: Well not everyone loves it. That title came to me years ago, and I was very excited by it. It felt like it had an interesting book attached to it, and I thought, I wonder what that book will be. And when I first started writing, as I described earlier, you know, one chapter and then another, and realizing that it was a book, I thought, this must be A Visit From The Goon Squad. It's finally arrived. But of course I had no idea what it meant, except that I also knew, and I should have mentioned this earlier, that one of my inspirations-- the primary one was certainly Proust who wrote about time with a kind of excellence that I think I can't imagine anyone will ever surpass. But the other inspiration was the Sopranos, which I was watching over many of the same years that I was reading Proust. And who's novelistic qualities, which are--have been much discussed, I really felt powerfully, and particularly the movement between central and peripheral characters, the way that it would break open a character who seemed to be a cliché, and reveal a very nuanced inner life, and the way that it's rather decentralized. All of that, I thought, I'd like to do that in an actual book, so I liked the thought that The Goon in the title sort of gave a little wink to one of my inspirations, which was that show, but it was only in the course of writing a particular chapter, that I suddenly understood what the goon was, because a character says, "Time's a goon, right? Isn't that the expression?" And in that moment, I was so excited, I thought, yes, now I get it. If I hadn't been able to make a satisfying connection, I would, of course, have changed the title. But it continued to feel right to me. It's not one that everyone responds to, I have to say, but for me it worked.

Jo Reed: Well it worked for me, too, Jennifer. Thank you so much, and again, many congratulations, it's so well deserved. Thank you.

Jennifer Egan: My pleasure, and thank you, too.

Jo Reed: That was Jennifer Egan. She just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad, You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.  

Excerpt from “The Passenger” from the album LUST FOR LIFE, written and performed by Iggy Pop, used courtesy of EMI Music. Excerpt from “Foreric: piano study” from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions. 

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the itunes link on our podcast page. Next week, designer and National Medal of Arts Recipient, Milton Glaser. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.  For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Novelist Jennifer Egan talks about her National Book Critics Circle Award-Winning book, A Visit from the Goon Squad. [29:24]