Celebrating the Possibilities of Fiction

A Conversation with Jennifer Egan

by Robert Alford

20 February 2012


Forgetting One's Self / Finding One's Self

As far as speculative stuff goes, I’m not sure if I deserve credit for having done too much of that. But to the degree that I have, again it came about through the kind of story that I wanted to tell. In A Visit from the Goon Squad the last two chapters take place in the future. I won’t deny I had a great time imagining forward, but I got there not so much from a decision that I wanted to try imagining forward, but from the wish to follow certain characters into middle age who were simply not going to reach middle age until the future. So again, I ended up arriving in a genre a bit unwittingly, but not unwillingly, and again the genre had a certain sense of place about it.

In other words, to follow my characters to the point that I needed to, I landed in the future. And I quite happily enjoyed the process of imagining that, but it didn’t begin with a wish to write speculative fiction.

I guess I’m willing to visit any genre in that way, it’s funny because none of this has gotten me into the genre that I have most enjoyed as a consumer which is just flat out mysteries. I loved them as a kid, I love them now. I don’t read lots and lots of them but I often thought that that would be a realm that I would love to visit. I’ve brushed against it in my first novel and in The Keep, where there is a murder and we’re not quite sure who’s going to be killed and who’s the killer, but I do love the thought of really trying to tackle that genre. One thing that’s held me back is the sense that I’m not prepared, because the nature of the mystery genre is that it really requires a pretty thoroughgoing knowledge of what’s been done and I don’t have that knowledge when I’m writing. So I think the danger is that I would just fumblingly repeat the efforts of others. But I love the thought of writing a mystery.

Your work has, at times, been characterized as satire. Are you comfortable with this description and what are your thoughts on the role of satire in contemporary society?

I think parts of A Visit from the Goon Squad have a satiric edge, let’s say, and Look At Me very much did. I think the big lesson I’ve learned is that it’s very hard to write satire in America because almost immediately whatever you’ve thought of turns out to come true, or sometimes it already was true. Maybe I don’t go far enough as a satirist, because what begins for me as satire ends as verisimilitude, and sometimes not much time seems to have passed to get from one to the other. I think a playful critique is good for all of us, and that’s basically how I see satire functioning. But I’m not interested in a kind of contemptuous satirical vision, I try always even when I’m knowingly being satirical to also be humane, but I mean let’s face it, there’s plenty in American life to make fun of, and we all participate in it.

What inspired you to write about the music industry in A Visit from the Goon Squad?

Well, music and time are pretty intertwined as I think most of us know from our daily lives now that we each have our own individual sound system. Many songs on that sound system, for most of us, have significance because they meant a lot to us at earlier points in our lives. So I think that’s one thing. Music plays a big part in Proust, both as a plot element and as an organizing principle and, of course, there’s the famous madeleine that transports Marcel, the narrator, through time, but honestly, music does the same thing in his novel, and more often. So I think that was part of it.

I also had to do a fair amount of research just to write the second chapter about the music producer Bennie Salazar, and in the course of those conversations which were with a producer/mixer, I became sympathetic to what it was like to be on the inside of an industry in free fall. It’s not something that I had really understood before because I didn’t know anyone in the industry. But in those conversations that I had, the goal of which was really just to learn the difference between analogue and digital recording, repeatedly, there was this sense of, well, it used to be like that, but now it’s like this.

There’s this real sense of a gigantic, seismic shift and that really interested me because I knew that I was writing a book that was about time and about change. It’s hard to think about time and change nowadays without also thinking about technology because it changes so fast and the rate at which it changes reminds us constantly that time is passing. Somehow, with all those thoughts in my mind and hearing again and again this kind of before and after notion of the music industry, I began to feel like that industry would be a good lens through which to look at the passage of time technologically.

You have compared the narrative structure of A Visit from the Goon Squad to that of a concept album. Can you explain?

Yeah, a concept album is a big story, told in parts that sound very different from each other. I don’t think you can come up with a better purely technical description of what A Visit from the Goon Squad is. It’s not really a conventional novel in the sense that it doesn’t have a strong forward thrust to it, or a strong central narrative. It’s very diffused. There are kind of two main characters but we also really diverge from them at various points. So, I was not comfortable even putting “novel” on the cover of the hardback because I worried that people would pick up a book that they thought was a novel and dislike it simply because it wasn’t that type of book. But I also didn’t want to call it a story collection because that really didn’t seem to describe the overarching effect that I was going for.

So, as I was working on it, I thought, huh, I don’t really know what this is. And to me that wasn’t especially troubling. I think it is troubling to readers though. I think that in some people’s minds, the novel and story collection exist as kind of Platonic categories. There’s something a little bit troubling about a book that refuses to fit into either one. Whereas to me, I feel like, look, fiction is fiction. Who cares whether it exactly matches a label. However as I was working on it, there was a point where I thought, you know there really is sort of a part one and a part two here. And then I thought, why not call them “A” and “B”, since we’re harkening back to the days of vinyl. And then I thought, huh, isn’t that interesting?

In a way the idea of this as an album really makes more sense than I had realized. Because there is a big difference between A Visit from the Goon Squad and a collection of stories, or especially so called linked stories, where stories are about some of the same characters and there’s a lot of overlap between them. Often these collections of linked stories have a similarity of mood and tone that indicates the fact that they are in fact telling one bigger story, but I really wanted mine to function differently. I wanted the parts to be as different in sound, if you will, as they could possibly be.

You use a variety of narrative perspectives, shifting tenses, styles and even a power point presentation to present the stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad. Is the book in some way a comment on the aesthetic form of fiction itself and all of the various things that it can accomplish?

I didn’t think of it that way. The way I imagined it was just — if I’m writing this in parts, why not get the maximum advantage from that that I can? In other words, why not create a much bigger range of experience than I could possibly get away with in a more centrally oriented novel? Maybe I’m saying the same thing in a different way though, because in some ways it is a celebration of all these possibilities, and I do feel that way about fiction. One of the things that’s so great about it is its flexibility. That’s why I sometimes do feel impatient with the question of whether it’s a novel or a story collection. I feel like, who cares about those names? Aren’t they only there to serve us, and if they’re not doing that job, then let’s put them to the side for a moment. I do feel energized by the many things that fiction can do and has done from the very beginning. If you look at the early novels, they’re these really exciting, elastic grab bags of possibilities.

What is the importance of distance in your creative process, because you’ve said in interviews that you don’t like to write directly about your own experience?

I think that there are many things that a sense of distance does for me. On the most basic level, I write out of a desire to, I don’t want to say escape because that makes it sound like my life is bad, but to transcend my own everyday experience and to get to live in a parallel world. I think that’s the motivation for me. I feel like I’m getting to have two lives for the price of one. It’s heavenly. And in a way, it’s really three lives, because there’s also whatever I’m reading, whatever world that’s transporting me to. That’s what I love. And because I write in a fairly instinctive way, as I’ve said before — endless revising etcetera — there’s a real element of surprise and discovery to the process for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Even in The Keep which is a very tightly plotted thriller, the plot moves came about instinctively. So that element of surprise is a lot of the motivation and the fun for me. If I’m writing about things that I know, like myself or other people, a lot of that excitement is diminished because I don’t have that sense of discovery or adventure. I’m having to continually harken back to my own life as a reference point which is the opposite of the sort of thrill seeking that I enjoy.

Photo by Marion Ettlinger

Photo by Marion Ettlinger

I know there’s a way in which the tools that I’m really using as I write are emphases and extrapolation, because of course, I must be using my own life in some way. You could say, well what else have you got? And that’s reasonable. But I think a feeling of distance from my own life is what allows me to find emotions and experiences elsewhere and really throw myself into them. It’s almost like a kind of ventriloquism whereby I detach from my own emotional life so that I can find those emotions in other places and feel as if they belong to other people. It helps me a lot to forget about myself when I’m writing fiction not just because I’m not that interested in myself but because I think I can find myself, if you will, in a fragmented and unrecognizable form more easily if I’m not thinking about my actual life.

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