If you haven't already heard of Jennifer Egan, you will soon. The Brooklyn-based author of the stunning, wholly original A Visit From The Goon Squad has been the talk of the town, thanks in no small part to her recent acquisition of a little award called the Pulitzer Prize. The book, according to Egan herself, is hard to explain, but in a loose nutshell, it follows—in a non-sequential, polyphonic fashion—the tale of an aging record exec and the people connected to him over the course of some 50 years. If that sounds like a challenge, it's not—Goon Squad, for all its tricky literary stylings, is a pleasure to read.
Egan, who seems slightly befuddled by the amount of praise she's racked up recently, will be participating in this fall's Brooklyn Book Festival alongside fellow hometown favorites like Jonathan Safran Foer, Colson Whitehead and Emma Straub. We talked to the author about what it feels like when you win a Pulitzer, her development deal with HBO, and the torment of a first draft.
Since we're a very New York-centric blog, we're always excited when we can get a local author who's made it on a national level. Do you feel like you’re part of a literary scene here? I've been here [in Brooklyn] for going on 11 years, and it's a cliche that there are lots of writers here, but I can see why they’re here-- it's a fantastic place to live. When I hear "scene" I think more of nightlife, and that I would not know about, because as a mother of two, I'm simply not out that much. However, in my mind, there's this spectacular convergence happening, a bunch of nightlife going on, and I love to know that it's there even if I can't participate in it. That's what living in New York is so much about. You've got to love that there's so much more happening than you can ever do or you can't stay here.
I think the other thing that honestly has always made me want to stay in New York is exactly the opposite of the fact that there are writers here. I love the fact that that I'm surrounded by people who don't give a damn about the publishing world, who are part of other worlds that exert just as strong or stronger a center of gravity than the publishing world does. I think some people find that worrying, and some people find it a relief. For me, New York has always been about the many alternatives to the world of writing.
That's an interesting take on it. Yeah. It's the opposite of what you would think. But it makes sense. And I think it taps into the longstanding New York tradition of being neurotic and anxious about your given profession. For me New York is about anonymity, that's the draw. It's not at all about other people in my business being nearby. It's that I can get on the subway and eavesdrop on conversations that I would never have access to otherwise. That's why I stay. That's why I could never leave. Because any other city that could give me that would have the conversations taking place in languages I couldn't understand. There's really no other city in America like this.
I will actually use that as a segue to move over to Goon Squad. In the book, in each chapter, you’re sort of thrust into the world of someone who was in the periphery of a previous chapter, that you might not have considered to be a major part of the story. This was not one of my original questions, but now that you say that you love New York because of its sense of anonymity, I’m wondering how that ties into Good Squad? That's a good question. First of all, I should say, I don't write about myself, or my life. So for me in fiction it's always been about what I can dream up, that feels far away from me. And seems to almost offer a way to be lifted out of my own life. So, walking around and looking at people for me is just this constant exercise of my mind reaching out and kind of imagining a life for them beyond the moment that I'm seeing, beyond the moment that I'm witnessing. And what I love about New York is that it just provides so much variety. So many different kinds of encounters happen in a single day, even just passing on the street or riding the subway.
In a way I started Goon Squad not even realizing I was writing a book, I thought I was just writing a few stories to stall before starting this other book that I wanted to write—or thought I wanted to write—I still haven't written it. But, I think that for me that sense of someone catching my eye and being able to follow them into their lives is such a wish-fulfillment fantasy that the book is basically built around that. And I think that New York provides more fodder for that kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy than any other place I've lived. So there's the connection.
And so how do you describe Goon Squad for anyone who hasn't read it at this point? Clumsily. I say that it's about a number of people but two primary characters who are a male music producer and his female assistant, and that it follows them forward and backward through time over about 50 years, and it takes place in New York, California, and parts of Europe, and it's very much about time and music. But that's a long explanation. And not necessarily that appealing.
As a reader, when I was going through Goon Squad it became this fun anticipatory guessing game when I realized the next chapter would be about someone that I'd previously read about. It really sort of eggs you on to keep reading to see who's coming up next. Interesting. See, you had a good attitude about it. Some people do not. Some people feel like it's really a drag to not know where they are, and I was aware some people might feel that way, and the one payoff I tried to offer was that at least each chapter stands on its own. So while on the one hand I'm asking people to start over and that's asking a lot, I tried to provide a payoff each time.
I'm curious as to what your publisher thought when you handed in Goon Squad. They were supportive, and I think a little wary in terms of sales because I think anyone could see that there were major strikes against the book. It's not a clear genre, it has a title that, in retrospect, people told me some found alienating, but no one told me ahead of time, which I was a bit disappointed by, but I don't think I would have changed it. The book's most difficult aspect is that it’s very hard to describe. Almost no matter what you say about it, it misrepresents the book in some way, and that's a huge stumbling block. And it was a tough sell in the beginning, despite the positive reviews. It really took a Pulitzer Prize to make this a bona fide best seller. That's asking a lot, you know!
And HBO now wants to develop it into a show? The deal is that they have optioned it, and so they hopefully will do a pilot, and I guess if that pilot is terrific, it will become a series. I mean, that's a lot of "if"s. But it’s a thrilling idea that they would take this on because I think everything they do is at such a high level, and I was directly inspired by the Sopranos for this book so there's a kind of spectacular symmetry about it.
I'm sorry, did you say you were inspired by The Sopranos for Goon Squad? Well, I just really adored the series and thought a lot about why it was so powerful, and tried to use some of what I learned from it in Goon Squad. I loved that it was polyphonic, with lots of narratives happening at once, I loved that the arc of the season, the basic story that a season was telling, was often not clear until the end, but the storytelling had such authority that we just sort of went along, not even knowing what was really on the table, exactly. I love the way they would make peripheral characters central, and kind of break open their inner lives, and I loved the way that they also used stereotypes and then dug under them to show really nuanced characters, so that people were both stereotypical and nuanced at the same time.
One thing that's interesting about this whole HBO thing is that because it's proposed as a series, the idea is that in some sense it will ultimately move outside the bounds of the book altogether, which is scary in one way, but I also feel like the structure of the book is open to that. There are all kinds of directions I thought of going in and I didn't, and I like the idea of them going in those directions. I feel like there's an openness to the narrative that makes it possible to part from it without violating it. It's more about some kind of rules of inquiry than actually sticking to what I've done. I think.
Where were you when you when you found out you won the Pulitzer? I was at Olea, a restaurant in Fort Greene, just about to have a late lunch. I was just sitting there, and I was extremely stunned. I knew nothing. I didn't even know the day that the Pulitzer was going to be announced. But that morning, my publicist said "Oh, we're hoping for good news today!" and I remember thinking Oh, I really wish I didn't know that. I now knew that my day was going to be about focusing on that hour of when it would be posted on the website, which was 3:00. And I would forget about it and then I would remember it, and I would think, "Wow, I really want 3:00 to be past so I can breathe, like this is agony, I hate waiting for information"—and so at 3:00 I hadn't heard anything, I looked at my watch and said, Okay! I had a moment of that sort of slight free-fall feeling, and I was like, Okay, I expected it, and now it's behind me, let's move on, and it was literally like five after 3 and I was already forgetting about it, and then my phone rang.
Between that and the National Book Award and that and the countless positive reviews and all this press you've been doing, does this change the way you've been thinking about what you've been working on next? I've been working on the same thing for a long time, which I have done very little on but I am eager to get to, which is a historical novel that will be set at least in part in New York in the 40's. All the prizes haven’t really changed the way I feel about it. It has changed the speed with which I'm able to get to it, because I have this opportunity to really sell, which is something that a writer like me rarely has to begin with—because my stuff is not really that conventional, and with this book, which I know from personal experience is an especially tough sell, it feels almost surreal to have it on the Times bestseller list. I never would have thought I'd look at that list and see my name, or a book by me. But, it does mean that I am not moving forward on new projects at a lightning pace, let's say.
But it sounds good that you had something else you had already started before Goon Squad really exploded. I wouldn't say I had gotten very far with it, I do have another thing that I'm more deeply into which is shorter, that I think that'll be the thing I finish first. But I'm pretty excited about it, I feel connected to writing; there have been times in my life where I have felt really alienated from any kind of writing. When I had my first child I didn't write for a year, and I felt when I tried to start again I might actually not be able to do it anymore. I really could not do it well, and I felt out of sorts with it. I don't feel that way now.
Of course, I’ll sometimes sit down to write and be terrified. I guess people think the logic is—now I'm supposed to be so good, I won this prize—but I actually am really bad, and now that's going to be revealed. But the truth is, I think that with every book. I don't know what I'm doing. That's the price you pay for doing something different every time. I always think it won't work out and I'm always afraid of being revealed as a failure. But I'm used to working in those conditions, and I'm confident that no matter what horrible things my cruel unconscious says to me or superego or whatever the hell it is, that I can keep working amidst those words, because I think if the work is interesting it will exert its own center of gravity and make sure that it gets done. And if the work isn't interesting, I have to find something that is interesting. So we'll see.
I am willing to write very, very badly. I think that is really my secret weapon. I'm willing to write bad stuff because I know the good will come next.