Celebrating the Possibilities of Fiction: A Conversation with Jennifer Egan

Pulitzer Prize winning author Jennifer Egan discusses her unique combination of influences, the role of genre and satire in her work, and the importance of distance in her creative process.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Author: Jennifer Egan
Publication date: 2011-03

The Invisible Circus

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Author: Jennifer Egan
Publication date: 2007-10

The Keep

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Author: Jennifer Egan
Publication date: 2007-07

Look at Me

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Author: Jennifer Egan
Publication date: 2002-10

There are many writers who describe their writing as a process of discovery, but there are few who have followed this exploratory impulse across such a vast and ranging literary terrain as Jennifer Egan. In terms of both subject and approach, Egan brings a seemingly insatiable appetite for experimentation and inquiry to her work, and with each book that she writes, she invites her readers to join her in an excavation of strange and uncharted new worlds. In The Invisible Circus, it's the personal aftermath of a violent call to revolution experienced in the Europe of the '60s. In Look at Me, the image driven world of high fashion and an eerily prescient satirical vision of American culture form the contours of her narrative. And in The Keep, the realm of gothic literature somehow melds seamlessly with modern day internet culture in a tale of both page turning suspense and penetrating insight.

Her most recent book, 2010’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, is ostensibly based on the twilight of the modern music industry, but really, it’s a book about the passage of time itself, a contemporary iteration of Proust’s grand and indomitable undertaking in In Search of Lost Time. Told in short narrative passages, the characters and concerns of which overlap through a series of often fleeting and seemingly random connections, A Visit from the Goon Squad is neither a novel nor a short story collection. It is, however, one of the most entertaining and engaging works of literary fiction in recent memory, and it has earned Egan the highest of honors and accolades including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Egan recently took some time out of her busy schedule to discuss her work with PopMatters in a conversation that touches on her eclectic combination of influences, the role of genre and satire in her work and the importance of distance in her creative process.

You have cited both Marcel Proust and the TV show The Sopranos as sources of inspiration for A Visit from the Goon Squad. Can you explain this unique combination of influences?

First of all, influence is always a difficult thing to pinpoint when you write as instinctively as I do because I don’t really know exactly what I’m going to end up doing when I sit down to do it. I’m waiting to be surprised myself, because I find that the surprises are always the best ideas. It’s not that I sit down and write great stuff without thinking, not at all. Most of it is terrible. But the stuff that feels fun and fresh to me tends to happen fairly unthinkingly. So, sometimes it’s only later that I can really parse out what actually influenced me.

Proust was the most conscious influence. I returned to In Search of Lost Time in my late 30s, having read only a couple of volumes in my early 20s. And when I returned to it, I found myself wondering, over the years that it took me to read the whole book, what a contemporary book about time might look like. It seemed a very worthy topic to me at that point, though it actually seemed quite dull when I read it in my early 20s (laughs). What a difference 18 years can make.

Proust accomplishes his heroic task in a sort of real time way. A lot of time passes as you read the book, even if you read it quickly, and I did not. In the group of peers that I was reading it with, I think we had five or six children among us in the years we spent reading Proust. So as he teases out the implications of time and the radical shifts that it brings, we as readers were experiencing some of those twists and shifts in our own lives as we read the book. I loved all of that and I especially loved Proust’s ability to capture the transformations and reversals that happen over time, the way that outcomes are so often unexpected and in fact almost the opposite of what you would expect. The biggest question for me was how to capture the sweep and scope of those transformations and reversals without taking thousands of pages to do it. It’s a technical question — how do you do that?

During the same years that I was reading Proust with my friends, I was also watching The Sopranos, which also unfolded at a leisurely, kind of real time pace, through which the children in the series grew up, and all of the characters visibly aged. So again there was a sense of one’s own life passing in tandem with the unfolding of the series. Somehow, as I asked myself the question of how to technically accomplish what Proust accomplishes but in a different and, most importantly, compressed way, I decided that using some of the techniques of a series like The Sopranos might be one way to try to do that. That’s the way in which they fused.

There’s this lateral approach in The Sopranos in which a minor character suddenly becomes a major character for a while and then goes out of focus again, and the overarching story is almost invisible at times in the face of subplots and complications that are so engrossing that one almost would forget what the story, capital S, of the season was, or not even know it until the season began to conclude. I really liked all of that, and I think in some way, when I sat down to work on A Visit from the Goon Squad, the idea of merging some of those techniques with my conscious goal of writing a book about time must have happened.

And to bring it full circle, I believe HBO is currently developing A Visit from the Goon Squad into a miniseries. What has your role been like in the project?

I should correct you there, it’s not a miniseries but an actual series that they are imagining, which is interesting because of course what it means is, if by some miracle, it all really works, they would move beyond the confines of my own book after probably one or two seasons. As you say, it has a full circle feeling of inevitability about it.

My involvement is pretty minimal, I’m attached as a consultant which means I’m happy to appear and share ideas, but I don’t really want to be involved in the writing because my books tend to be very different from each other and one of the things that I most need when I try to start something new is a kind of distance from the previous projects. On some level I need a kind of mental renunciation of it, a severing of contact with the approach and voice and mood and tone of the previous project and I’m worried that if I got involved in the physical creation of a series, it would be very hard for me to get the distance I’m going to need. Not to mention that I have no idea how the hell to write for television, and I worry that it could be a learning curve that would absorb me for way too long.

There does seem to be this trend of novelists going into television writing, and many critics have praised long form TV as one of the most exciting new realms of cultural production. What are your thoughts on the relationship between fiction and television?

Well, I agree that there’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on out there, but I’m really at kind of a distance from it. I did recently start watching The Wire. I watched the first season and I was utterly engrossed in it. I found it pretty addictive, actually to the point where I’m pausing before starting to watch the second season because it was taking up too much of my time. So, I certainly understand why people are interested. There’s this kind of joyous, swaggering revelry in serialization that we haven’t seen since the 19th century when these amazing novels were written in that way. So I’m all for it, theoretically.

Though in terms of my own time and energy, I have to say honestly that I don’t watch a lot of TV and I’m not that interested in writing for it. I guess on some level my fascination with this is more theoretical than actual. In the end, I just keep wanting to put my own time and energy into both reading and writing. But it’s clear that I’m also interested in some of the techniques of TV, not so much so that I can participate in the creation of television, but because I have this sense that all of this can do interesting things for the novel and that’s really what I’m mostly interested in.

Even with these kinds of crossovers that we've discussed, there is still this persisting divide between a popular culture of TV, movies and music and a so called high culture of art and literature. What are your thoughts on this dichotomy and how do you view your own work in relation to it?

I don’t like this so called high brow versus commercial dichotomy because I feel it isolates both camps in an area that I’m guessing no one particularly wants to be in. Who wants to be "high brow", and I put that term in quotes, and unappreciated, and who wants to be "commercial" and "unserious"? And again, I can’t help looking back to the 19th century to someone like Dickens or George Elliot or Zola. These were writers who were revered, widely consumed, and yet they were writing great work by any standards. I don’t see any reason why there has to be an opposition there. I don’t like it and I don’t think it serves any of us very well, either as producers of creative work or as consumers of it.

You have worked in a wide variety of genres throughout your career: novels, short stories, speculative and gothic fiction to name a few. What is the role of genre in your work?

Good question (laughs). I don’t really begin with ideas about genre. I certainly wrote a gothic novel, The Keep, that conformed to and in some ways played with every convention I knew of to work with in the gothic, but the way I came to it was very instinctive and visceral.

I went to visit this castle in Belgium, my husband was working in France at the time, and we had a newborn baby, I put him in a sack around my neck and we went to this castle on my husband’s day off. I had been to castles before, but this time I had a very strong, excited reaction to being there that at first I didn’t quite understand myself. It felt revelatory and thrilling to be in a ruined castle and I thought: I have to write about this somehow, but I didn’t know what that meant.

At first I thought maybe that meant that I wanted to write a historical novel set in medieval times. But then I started to feel like, no, I wanted the kind of fake medievalism of the gothic. I wanted the sort of cheesiness, if you will, of that gothic atmosphere, which is really about the perception that the supernatural might be possible, that there’s this state of awaiting the arrival of a disembodied presence and a communication. And I began to realize that I was interested in this, in part, because I just felt enticed by that gothic sensibility and gothic realm, but also because I was interested in juxtaposing that with our own present day hyper-connectedness.

So, I came to it instinctively, with an excitement that I had to work myself to understand and that finally brought me to the genre. And the genre was almost like a place, I mean the gothic is a realm that doesn’t exist in life, it’s a literary space. Although I include in that this cheesy soap opera Dark Shadows that I watched in the ‘70s as a kid (laughs). So, the gothic is an imaginary realm, and for me what genre provided was this imaginary realm that I could visit in all kinds of ways and did with delight for a couple of years as I wrote my book.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

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Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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