Author interview: Jennifer Egan on time, the music industry, and winning the Pulitzer

Jennifer Egan is caught in a tug-of-war between the past and the future. On the one hand, she’s already writing her next book, a historical novel set in 1940s New York. On the other hand, she’s keeping busy promoting her latest novel A Visit From the Goon Squad, which has already won some of the publishing industry’s most prestigious awards, including the 2010 National Book Critics’ Circle Award and the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Goon Squad is a uniquely structured novel (famous for one chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation) that goes back and forth through time, offering snapshots of the interconnected lives of a group of people in the rock music industry. And it isn’t just literary critics who have embraced Egan’s most recent novel — nearly 5,000 readers have picked it up for the online Goodreads Book Club, and the book has already been optioned for a TV show on HBO.

For this 48-year-old, American-born author, seeing Goon Squad on the innovative TV station HBO would make perfect sense, considering that The Sopranos was one show that inspired the structure of her novel, which encapsulates a different character in each chapter, slowly revealing how they fit together as it moves along. “The Sopranos had an almost meandering feeling until it unfolded, and yet the storytelling had such authority that you were quite captivated, even without exactly knowing what you were watching for,” Egan said. “I loved the way that peripheral characters would suddenly become central.”

Earlier this week, Egan spoke to Bookclub-in-a-Box from her home in Brooklyn, New York, where she lives with her husband, kids, and cats. “I feel it’s a really good use of my time just to reach out to readers, and someone who is as unconventional a fiction writer as I am doesn’t get that opportunity often,” Egan said. “It’s thrilling to think of book groups that tend to read more mainstream stuff engaging with my book. I just can’t believe I’ve been so lucky.” Check out the sidebar for Egan’s literary influences while researching Goon Squad, and read the full interview below.

Were you surprised that your book — with its unconventional structure and niche genre involving the music industry — won the Pulitzer Prize over a more traditional novel?

In general, my hopes for the book were very modest going into publication, because I knew there were a number of strikes against it. It is kind of unusual and it’s not easy to categorize, and in our world that’s never a good thing — we like to put labels on things and know what they are. And not only is this book quite difficult to label, it’s difficult to summarize.

So my hopes were kind of modest, and I really did hope to hold my own in a basic way, and ideally come up with something a little more mainstream for my next book. That was literally all I was thinking, so it’s amazing to have so much recognition for this book that seemed like a “problem child.” […] I think it’s exciting to see that such a mainstream, old school prize in fiction has been kind of adventurous. I mean, it’s cool, but still, in no way was I expecting or even really hoping for it. But I was sure glad to get it!

You have said that growing up you were a music fan, but not an expert in the field like the characters in Goon Squad. What made you decide to write about the rock music industry?

A lot of different things led me to the music industry. The most petty of them is that, as a journalist, I had desperately wanted to have an assignment that involved learning about the music industry, and I had never managed to successfully do that. But I think the real thing that led me to music was my preoccupation with time. Time and music have an interesting intertwinement that I think we all know in our personal ways, and I think listening to songs can really make time disappear like nothing else.

In Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, which was a big inspiration for Goon Squad, music plays an enormous role not just in terms of plot, but even in the structure — there’s a kind of musical quality to the way that novel unfolds. And I would say both things are also true of Goon Squad: music is certainly a plot element, since the characters are involved in the music industry in various ways, but the structure is also musical, in that it’s structured like a concept album, where one big story is told in small pieces that sound very different from each other.

But I think one of the biggest reasons I wanted to write about the music industry is that any book about time really, by necessity, ends up being about technology, because technological change makes us realize how fast time is passing. And I don’t know if there’s any other industry in the arts that has been so gutted by moving to digital as the music industry. So it’s a bit of an homage to a great moment in the rock music industry that has clearly passed. Even the concept album is sort of an endangered species, because we buy music in a very atomized way now — it’s very hard for a musical artist to get a lot of people to buy a whole album. So it just felt like the right time to look back at that industry and also measure the impact of time on it and those who work in it.

You mentioned how this book moves back and forth through time, opening and closing with the character of Alex — first as a young man in the 2000s, and later as he grows up sometime in the 2020s. How did you decide what order to put the chapters in?

That was actually something that I misfired on originally. As I worked on the book, I had the idea that it would go backwards the whole time, and the first problem with that was that I wanted to go into the future. I felt that given the logic of the book, which was very much about catching sight of a peripheral character and then plunging the reader at a later point into his or her inner life, it seemed clear that I would want to revisit Alex. And once I knew I would be going into the future, I couldn’t adhere to my backwards chronology because the future chapter was not going to make sense as the first chapter of the book.

The big question the whole way through was, will this be more than a bunch of freestanding stories, and will it combine and combust with the added power on its own as a single work? But I really knew, when I read the book in the backwards way, that it was not going to happen. And I was very disappointed, but I realized I was missing out on a lot of opportunities by using that structure, because often, nice little surprises that might have happened for the reader — hearing about a character, and then being immediately rewarded by hearing more about that person — were undermined by the chronology. […] I tried to find a structure that would work a little more serendipitously, being guided by what would be the most exciting and amusing thing for the reader to encounter right now. That ended up being my organizing principle. Backwards chronology is just as limiting as forward chronology, and that’s what I had to realize.

In the last chapter, which takes place sometime in the 2020s, you describe several things about technology, such as toddlers everywhere using these “handsets.” What did you want to say about technology?

I don’t think in terms of getting a specific message across, I really don’t. I write in a fairly blind way, without a sense of what will happen — it’s a process of discovery for me. I ended up writing about the future because I wanted to follow Alex to the middle of his life, and then I just imagined forward and all of it became sort of fun and amusing. The one thing I will say is when I imagined toddlers on those handsets, the iPhone hadn’t come out yet at that point. I don’t know if you’ve seen a toddler using their parents’ iPhone, but it’s pretty much in synch with what I was imagining. So I don’t even think that qualifies as futurism anymore. […] I was just kind of imagining forward to the moment where there is a ubiquitous handset that everyone has, and social networking is simply the way business is done. Again, to some degree this is already much more the case than it was when I was writing that chapter, because things move so fast. I was probably writing that in 2007 or so — that’s a long time ago, technologically.

Can you tell me what your next project is?

I was actually trying to work on it when I wrote Goon Squad, so as you can see, I haven’t gained a lot of traction with it. I really want to write a historical novel set in New York in the 1940s, involving women who built ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. And I’ve actually gotten involved in oral history classes interviewing a lot of ladies who did this, and there are tons of them around, they’re in their 80s. It had some effect on Goon Squad, because I was talking to a lot of people who were towards the end of their lives looking back, and it made me think a lot about time and how it works. But now it would be nice to actually do something with that research, and write the book I’ve been planning to write! But I don’t want it to feel like Goon Squad, that I very much know. I think it will have a more central narrative — I don’t want to write something so polyphonic. I want it to feel very, very different, even if I am still playing with time.

What book are you currently reading — not for research, but for pleasure?

I’m reading The Ask by Sam Lipsyte. It’s very funny. It’s a comic novel about — I would have to say a loser, I’m not sure what’s a better word to describe him — who is in the business of fundraising for the arts in a small college he calls Mediocre University. I find it extremely reminiscent of Martin Amis, not just in the quality of the humour but in the nature of the protagonist, who is relentlessly self-destructive. And when he’s successful, it’s purely accidental. I’m totally enjoying it. It’s written with a lot of commitment, and there are a lot of elements in play. I have a feeling some surprises are in store and I’m looking forward to them. I’m about half-way through.

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