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Arts and Entertainment

L.A. as 'Literary,' the Death of the Book, and Writing in PowerPoint: An Interview with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Jennifer Egan

Photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem/Vistalux
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Jennifer Egan is an author who defies. Her fictions often embrace unconventional forms, narratives, and literary styles. She has challenged the essentials of literature, whether by unfurling the stiff structure of the novel or reinvigorating the importance of the chapter as both self-contained unit and cog. And for it, there’s been no shortage of acclaim. Egan’s latest novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, sparked controversy when it won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award and upstaged critic favorite Jonathan Franzen—the news of which brought the L.A. Times trouble when the story of Egan’s win ran alongside a curious feature photo of Franzen. And then last month, the once unassuming A Visit From the Goon Squad won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Despite an arsenal of bold literary experiments (including one celebrated chapter written in PowerPoint), a sundry crew of characters and their various intersections with the music industry, and the commitment to a peripheral, collage-like narrative, Egan’s novel swayed even the most jaded of postmodern critics. The book has been deemed “more culturally penetrating than a shelf of Don DeLillos,” by The Telegraph, and the Washington Post declared, “If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile.”

Jennifer Egan was cheerful when I met with her in the lobby of the downtown JW Marriott and it was little wonder why; A Visit From the Goon Squad had just won the LA Times Book Prize the night prior. As the interview unfolded, it was clear that Egan’s geniality lacked any pretension of lavished auteur. Instead, Jennifer Egan—2011’s literary ‘it’ woman—was friendly, funny, and insightful.

Congratulations on winning the L.A. Times Book Prize.

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Thank you. I was really surprised because this book has gotten a lot of love and I would fully have expected to see the love go elsewhere. At the same time, it’s always amazing to be recognized, so, I was thrilled.

A Visit From the Goon Squad has received so much critical acclaim. You’ve said the amount of attention it received was really surprising to you—much more so than with some of your other books.

It really was. I was led by my own curiosity and excitement about what I was doing with the book, though I recognized huge problems with having to find its way into the marketplace. It’s never good from a marketing standpoint when something is hard to describe. I kind of had that with my novel Look at Me, where people would ask, “What’s it about?” And I would say, “Well, as you pick one direction”—and you recognize that you’re kind of misrepresenting your book. So I could see that that was going to be a problem here. And I also thought people were going to think it was a collection of stories, and stories are difficult to sell. So it seems sort of ironic, this of all books.

Many reviewers seem taken with your resilience to labels. The New York Times has described you as an author who is ‘uncategorizable.’ Such praise seems to counter common advice writers are given to clearly define their work, whether it be through genre or marketing toward a specific target audience.

I don’t really think in terms of categories. In a way, I came of age as a writer at a different moment, when there was less pressure on all of that. And I feel as if the categories were less distinct as well. I didn’t feel aware of a strong divide between commercial and literary fiction when I published my first novel in ‘95. And I do, a little bit, chafe against those categories—both as a writer and also as a consumer.

When I taught at NYU, one of my students mentioned that she wanted to write Young Adult fiction. I loved what she was doing, which was very raw and yes, was about young women, but I felt a little bit hesitant about having her categorize herself at that early stage. I think the last thing you want to do is put limitations on yourself when you’re just developing. It’s one thing if someone else comes along and says, “this reads as young adult fiction to me and this is the best way to market it,”—but to have her saying it, as a student; I was just struck by that. I think it gave her comfort to feel like she had a category and a goal, but I would never want to see someone stymie themselves.

You were very dedicated to the idea of decentralization throughout A Visit From the Goon Squad. You adhered to certain rules as you wrote: (1) Every chapter had to have a different protagonist (2) Every chapter had to be technically different than the others by way of tone, mood, and distinction of feeling (3) Every chapter had to stand completely alone. Why was decentralization imperative, and upholding these rules so important?

The way I write is very intuitive and kind of blind. I also write by hand. So when I’m writing, I’m in a pretty unconscious state of mind, waiting to see what will happen. Once I had a few chapters of Goon Squad and realized that it was going to be a book, I could see it was not going to be your average centrally-oriented novel. What was fun about Goon Squad, to me, was moving around and not moving forward, but moving backward. And I was enjoying that each piece felt very different from the others, and yet they connected. So I thought, I really have to stick to it. And it did become harder and harder to do that. I wanted to revisit certain characters—I did try to break that rule—but it was flat, and it didn’t work. So even when I wanted to break the rules, the internal logic of the thing was stronger than my own wanting to waffle [laughs]. I don’t usually have rules in my mind, but in this case, it was useful in helping to guide me through potentially infinite possibilities. The danger with something like this is you just go on and on and on, so the rules were a way to keep me rigorous with myself.

Reactions to Goon Squad’s ‘PowerPoint chapter,’ in which you tell a story using the interface of a computer slide-show program, have been both great and somewhat diverse.

It’s actually very hard to write something in PowerPoint and it’s not something that I’m rushing to do again. I think it’s hard for something like that not to be gimmicky. And gimmickry is all about imposing a cute surface onto something that could have been better done in a different way, in a more conventional way. For me, it was a story that I don’t think I could have told in any other way—because it’s actually pretty schmaltzy. It’s very ‘sweet’ and I felt the coldness of the corporate interface balanced that. But it was difficult. Fiction writing is very much about continuity and PowerPoint doesn’t allow for it. There are transition graphics to fade from one slide to the next and there’s a reason for that, which is that there is no continuity in PowerPoint, and they’re trying to offset that with a look of connection. And that’s very tough from a fiction-writing standpoint. I could barely manage it for 76 slides and I was so happy to return to conventional narrative when that was over. At the same time, it is really fun to avail oneself to some of these forms and make new fiction with them; I mean, why not? That shouldn’t be scary as long as it’s part of the bigger picture.

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Because technology was so integral to Goon Squad, what do you make of current worries about digitization and the future of publishing: do you think 'the death of the book' is a legitimate fear?

It feels to me like people have been worrying about the death of the book, certainly since I was a child. So that seems to be an old worry. To me, a book does not have to be a physical object. And I say this as a person who does not have a digital reader [laughs]. I use the old fashioned book. But when I hear that people with e-readers are buying more books—which is something I hear a lot—I feel excited.

I do feel a sense of worry—I think we all do—because of how quickly technological change is happening. I’m 48 and when I was a kid, we didn’t even have answering machines yet. So that’s a gigantic change. And I think that the plight of the music industry has made everyone afraid; the other big question is how piracy is going to figure into all this, which becomes very easy when anything is digitized. I think the industry, how books will be created and sold; there are legitimate worries there, but I’m not sure that the death of the book is on the list.

You have written many feature stories for The New York Times Magazine and other publications. Since journalism is a big part of your career, how do you navigate the shift between writing fiction and nonfiction?

They’re entirely different. They connect, thematically, but the process is almost opposite. With journalism, I spend months trying to become briefly expert on one topic that lasts approximately ten minutes [laughs]. Once I have a crystallization of what I’m trying to understand, I write it quickly, trying to create a sound simulacrum of the real world, as I’ve discovered it to be. But with fiction, I’m trying to invent a world, which is much more inductive and the exploration has lots of dead-ends and blind alleys in which the writing itself reveals the world to me. But there’s kind of a potential myopia about writing fiction when you’re in your own head and your own world. It’s nice to remember that there’s a big world out there with massive problems and challenges and people who are dealing with all kinds of things and who couldn’t care less about my fictional world. I find that heartening--it's like 'get out of your own head, your own world.' For me, the experience of writing fiction and nonfiction are so opposite, that they compliment each other almost perfectly.

You grew up in San Francisco and you presently live in Brooklyn. Both places are well regarded in a literary sense and bear reputations for having very active literary communities. What do you think makes a city ‘literary’?

San Francisco, growing up there, did not seem especially literary to me, but I grew up in the 70s and I think what everyone was feeling then was the passage of the 60s. We moved there in 1969, when I was 7, and I just felt grief over having missed all of it. It’s funny, I don’t think of San Francisco as a particularly literary city.

I do live in a place right now that is dense with writers, but I’m not sure I would know that. I remember reading about Hemingway in Paris and all of the writers there, and thinking that they must have just walked down the street, bumped into each other, gotten drunk, and talked about literary things, which maybe they did, but I am not personally doing that so much. I’m sort of just scrambling to take care of my two kids, spend some time with my husband, and get some work done [laughs]. I think the sense of a literary hub is often something that is felt more from the outside and imagined than truly experienced.

This year, L.A. was, rather harshly, deemed 61st in a list of the most literary cities in the country.

You’re kidding! I have always loved coming to L.A. on book tours. In my mind, L.A. has always seemed a kind of bookish town. Dutton’s was my favorite independent bookstore in America, and part of what I loved was that it seemed such a contrast to what people would expect from L.A. Of course, the movie industry is a bigger deal here, I wouldn’t argue with that. But coming here as a fiction writer, I’ve always felt that there is a huge interest in storytelling, and a real excitement about it. I think they must be defining ‘literary’ specifically in terms of the printed book. But if you think about ‘literary’ in the broader sense, as interpreting reality through the sieve of the human mind, then I think it’s quite literary, actually.

When you were first starting to write, you supported yourself by temping. Many people in L.A. are also temping while in pursuit of artistic aspirations. Can you offer any words of advice to L.A.’s many young hopefuls?

One thing that has really helped me is to remember that this moment is only this moment. There’s such a tendency to think ‘so-and-so is in,’ and ‘I’m out,’ or ‘other people are doing more and getting more.’ The degree to which a person struggling in the arts can avoid getting distracted by what other people are doing and getting is important. I’ve seen a number of writers leave New York, feeling that it was too much for them to know that the publishing industry was right there and certain people were seeing other people and parties were happening without them. I think it’s so important to protect one’s own focus and try to avoid scenarios in which you feel demoralized. So my advice is to try to set up a life in which you are as little distracted from what you’re trying to do as possible.

And, lastly, is there anything you are working on at the moment?

I’m sort of working in my mind [laughs], which is not quite the same as actually working. I want to reconnect to a historical novel that I was trying to get into before Goon Squad. I feel it floating into my head, which is a good sign. I’m excited to really sink back into writing. I just need to immerse myself in it and in my mind. I basically need to stop talking before I can really do that.

For more information about A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan's other books, and to see PowerPoint fiction in action, visit the author's website.