Read the transcript of a the public conversation with Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Visit From the Goon Squad as well as Look at Me and The Keep. Moderated by Willing Davidson, fiction editor of The New Yorker. Rewiring the Real is a yearlong series of conversations with writers about the interplay of literature, technology and religion.
William Davidson: So I thought we could sort of begin at the beginning and I wanted to talk a little about your epigraph for Visit from the Goon Squad. There are two quotes from Proust and the second one is: “The unknown element in the lives of other people like that of nature, which each fresh scientific discovery merely reduces but not abolish.” And I wanted to just sort of start out by asking a little bit about how Proust – who is sort of living in a time of tremendous scientific and technological change as we are – how did it influence your writing?
Jennifer Egan: Well, in many ways, I guess I’ll start by just saying, you’re right. His book was written at such an interesting technological time and yet it feels really imbued with sort of old world sensibilities, so it’s one of the shocks of reading it is having things happen like an airplane flies. You think: “What?” Or there is a period where people started talking on the telephone and that’s very startling.
I first read Proust first in my early twenties with great excitement for all the parts but not with a lot of interest in the nostalgia part which of course is a lot of what the book is. And then returning to it in my late thirties with a group of peers, you know, I found at that later point that I finally engaged with his interest in time. And almost immediately I started thinking, how would you write a contemporary book about time that has this feeling of enormous sweetness to it? But of course, you know, Search for Lost Time happens almost in a real time way.
I mean, in this group that I was reading the book with, I think we had five children among us in the years that we spent reading Proust. So in a certain sense, we aged and our lives passed and evolved over the same years that we were reading the book. And I love that sense but at the same time I knew I didn’t want to do it that way and somehow, it seemed like the answer in some way is in technology, which is present but kind of latent in Proust’s novel.
I think in part because while his book is obviously explicitly about time, it is a very a nostalgic work in a way that it makes perfect sense because, Marcel, the narrator, and I think Proust himself, feel nostalgia for, really, a whole world that had passed with the First World War. And I don’t feel like I’ve seen that kind of transformation exactly, that sort of before and after in my life although certainly having been in New York for a long time I have a bit that sense about 9/11, but I guess what I feel is the big change that I witnessed in my lifetime is technological. Certainly the reason the acceleration of technology feels like kind of the big story that’s the before and after. I mean when I think about being in my early twenties, partly what I think about, or maybe what I notice, is that what I don’t think about is a certain kind of communication that I have all the time now that I didn’t have then.
So I guess it just felt inherent in a contemporary look at time that technology would be a huge part of it. I don’t know whether Proust exactly gave me that idea or it was a sense that in writing my own book about time Proust no longer could be latent. That would be more like the difference between our two books.
The other big difference is in what he locates: his book is nostalgic in part because there is really a single point of view. Whereas I wanted to avoid that and create multiple points of view and multiple senses of what the present is and, you know, sort of what nostalgia might be longing for. I didn’t want the book to have an answer to that question, I was more interested in each person’s individual answer to that question
William Davidson: And to just stay with Proust for a second but go off on a tangent, everybody loves to hear about how writers actually do their writing. And Proust is obviously one of the most famous examples, that he was in a room lying in bed, so I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind just telling us a little bit about how technologically advanced your actual writing process is.
Jennifer Egan: Well, this is maybe where Proust and I are closest together, because I actually write with my hand and I don’t really like to sit straight up so I’m often in a chair unless things are really difficult. But I’m a very low tech grader so I write with my hand on legal pads and then I type up what I’ve written.
That happened more or less continuously because I treated each unit separately for a very long time because I didn’t want them to kind of bleed into each other. I really wanted to keep them feeling very distinct, almost like completely different books until I merged them.
But in the case of other novels, I’ve written an entire draft on a yellow legal pad. It’s hundreds of pages before I type any of the pages up. So I type it, which is laborious especially because my handwriting is very hard to read, then I have to read what I’ve written. Now I’m looking at it and you know…that is definitely the most agonizing part because it’s just, you know, it’s the stuff that feels so raw and bad, really, in many cases and yet it’s looking at me in the face
So then I make very, very meticulous revision plans in an outline form and I start trying to realize [where it’s going], which I do by hand on hard copies. And, you know, I make my crazy little notes and symbols and arrows and attach other pieces of paper. Then I type it in, type in each draft, I number my drafts so that I keep track of how many times I’ve gone through this with each chapter and I just keep on going and going, you know, naturally the lines get shorter and the drafts get cleaner and, hopefully, I’m moving in the right direction.
William Davidson: And has that changed or is that a fixed process that now feels like the lucky way to do it?
Jennifer Egan: I think it’s pretty fixed. I’m always looking for ways to cut a year out easily from each book, but I think the problem is my conscious analytical mind doesn’t have very good ideas. That’s what I’ve really come to realize.
For me, what I can think of consciously is the obvious stuff. So here is the perfect example, I knew I wanted to write a chapter of my book in PowerPoint (PP), I thought: “Okay, so, why would a person write a chapter in PowerPoint?” It’s a big question. Why does my narrator write a chapter in PowerPoint? And the obvious solution was it’s a kind of corporate person who thinks in PowerPoint like my sister who works in … and actually said to me: “I think in PowerPoint.” And I thought: “Oh my god.”
So I thought: “Ok, a corporate person will be telling the story,” but there is also a big problem with PP which is that it feels very corporate and that’s not really the kind of feeling I want to have. To write a piece of fiction and have a corporate type telling the story not only did not solve that problem, it actually exacerbated it. So that was kind of the conscious idea that I would have that just ultimately doesn’t go anywhere. What I find is that if I sit there and think about what I should do or if I write on the computer screen, that’s the quality of idea I come up with: not good enough. So I need to get into a more meditative distinctive state where I start with the ideas that surprise me and those are the ones that I end up holding on to.
William Davidson: Had you used PP? Did you know how to do it?
Jennifer Egan: I had never used PP before. I wasn’t even 100 % sure of what it was. I mean, I knew it was a computer program but I didn’t realize it was just a slide show and when I finally got in there and started I thought: “Oh, ok, I know what this is.” So no, I had never used it and in fact it turned out that I [contacted] a few corporate people I knew. I said: “I’m really interested to know about your work, could you send me a PP or something.” But then I found out I couldn’t open them on my computer. Actually, I needed a program, and then it turned out that I didn’t have enough memory and there were so many hurdles. So actually trying to …PP … on a yellow legal pad, I just sort of waited. There is little you can do on a yellow legal pad and I found that limit when I tried to use PP in that form.
William Davidson: To take technology as a subject and to actually surround yourself with technology are very different things. Do you find yourself being an active, you know, I-phone user or Twitter user? Or do you think that to give yourself enough hit space, you have to step away from that? And is that a different kind of pressure, time pressure per encroachment, than say, you know, time old manners like having children?
Jennifer Egan: Well, I feel like there is a real contradiction between me and my relationship to technology as a consumer and my interest in it as a writer. As a consumer I’m a very late adopter. I never want to bother. You know, I just feel like it’s such a hassle that I don’t want to learn it. I really did not want email on my phone and I held on as long as I could, but then I noticed that I was having to go home all the time because I needed to check my email and I suddenly thought: “You know, I should see how much time I’m saving by not having it on my phone because I keep going home when I actually don’t want to go home.” I finally got it.
But in general I’m very slow to adopt things and you know I also feel like it’s even a contradiction because I’m actually not very interested in it truthfully as a consumer. I’m fascinated by the fetishization of connection itself. It’s so interesting: is that human or is it novelty? Or some combination? I think about it all the time: who cares that we can connect, what’s the big deal?
You know, I think Facebook is dull. I think it’s like everyone has to live in a huge Soviet apartment where every one’s cell looks exactly the same and we tolerate these horrific aesthetic conditions …[and they] change, workaround, move our furniture when we’re not home because we want to be connected. I think it’s madness!
I’m on there but I turned off all my notifications. (Audience Laughter) Of course, how can I not be on there? But you turn off all of your notifications and you never find out in your email what’s happening on Facebook and immediately it starts to disappear. It’s interesting how constantly they want to remind you to come back.
So that’s my example of not being thrilled by what some people find exciting. I don’t mean to denigrate it because I think excitement is excitement. If it’s exciting for some and not exciting to me that does not mean it’s not exciting, it just means that I’m not feeling that for whatever reason.
With Twitter, I’m fascinated by it mostly as a phenomenon, not so much as reader. So again, I would say [I have a] sort of active relationship.
William Davidson: So you’re interested in the architecture?
Jennifer Egan: Not only the architecture. I am also interested in it for fiction truthfully, because I’m interested in the possibilities for serialization. You know, I think a lot about the time when the great serial art events were novels being written better than TV shows – the idea that people are checking something constantly to create this possibility for a kind of serialization that could be fun.
So I am kind of interested in that but I don’t really feel like a consumer of it. As a writer I really am interested in technology, very much. As I already said, I feel like it’s sort of the big story of my life time in terms of change and I’m always fascinated by the ways in which technology shakes our lives. I’m always wondering whether it is actually changing us as humans. I mean that was the question I was interested in specifically in my novel Look at Me, where I wondered about image culture and the kind of growing sense that I think many of us have of our own images as something that came apart from ourselves, or as an extension of ourselves. Whether the imperative to consider at least one zone image and to some degree create it from the outside in has impacted what we were to ourselves. Whether it has actually touched our identities. Yes, it has changed who we are deeply but I ended up feeling exactly the opposite actually. I thought: “No, of course not.” But those are the kinds of questions that really interest me. So there is a real disconnect between the two sides of me, I guess.
William Davidson: Do you think the ways in which the increasing pace of technology leaches away the possibilities of the novel in any profound way? I think we can now probably, mostly, agree that because of various digital distractions, people have less time to read. Does it makes them less important?
Jennifer Egan: I don’t think it should. I don’t see why it would. I mean, I guess the only way that this could really be would be if some other medium that had come along that could do what a novel does but do it better. I guess the only argument you could make would probably be the TV which is of course not new at all
I’m revealing my bias here. I’m not a huge TV watcher but to me television can be very captivating. It’s not the same experience as reading a book so I guess I don’t see why it should be so. And yet I feel worried too, I think I feel the …. in my sensibilities about technology most when I’m being a parent because I have two kids and they think I hate technology. So funny because …you know people say I have some great ideas about technology but they [my children] think I’m sort of a crazy crusader who just wants to eliminate screens from the planet and deprive them of all things their friends have. And what they sense is actually a kind of terror. People that I can kind of understand, basically you have to read.
You have to read and you get the reaction “I don’t want to.” You know, part of it is because of the way the message is being delivered and also because who wants to do anything you’re being told you have to do? So I don’t know anyway, I don’t see why the novel should be threatened and the novel really was invented to be a kind of crazy.
William Davidson: So I’m also interested in what other sort of media and media consumption informed Visit from the Goon Squad. Obviously, the music plays a big part in it and I find that in a lot of writing, novels, you share a lot about how music sounds, how it feels and the visceral experience of listening to plain music. But what I really liked in here is your attention to sort of the technological aspect of how music is actually made, and to me that made it a lot richer and I was just wondering if you could talk about: A) How you decided that it needed to be part of this instead of having teenagers, people experience music, to actually go to the technological details of it while that was an imperative? And then B) was this a research project, was this the result of years spent in …and recording punk bands?
Jennifer Egan: Well, I think what I started with is: “What is our technological connection to music?” I work pretty intuitively at the beginning so in this case it was really extreme. I didn’t even know I was writing a book when I started it, I thought I was just going to write a freestanding short story.
So I wrote the first chapter about a woman stealing a wallet and there was one moment when she tells her date, she’s on a date when she steals the wallet, that her ex-boss who’s a music producer “sprinkles gold flakes in his coffee” and “puts pesticides in his armpit.” And when I wrote it, it sort of happened in the page, I was like, “haha …music producers.” And I thought, really, that’s as far as it will go. But I found myself kind of haunted by that brief sketch and wondering who this guy was and his odd habits. All I knew about it was I have had long standing questions about the music industry as a journalist which have been unfulfilled, mostly because I had no ideas and no connections. So when I would go to New York Times Magazine and say, “Why can’t I write about music?” and they said ”What do you want to do?” I had very few ideas about what to do. So it didn’t really go anywhere, although I did get one brief assignment that didn’t quite work out.
William Davidson: What was that?
Jennifer Egan: Well, it was to write about these identical twin sisters rappers, and they were called Dyme and their first album was just about to come out, so it was kind of debut story. I think it was going to be part of a whole issue. So I will tell my most embarrassing journalistic moment because unfortunately … So I was thrilled finally I had an assignment about the music industry. I knew very little about the.rap world. The first couple of weeks following these women, they were going to a release party for another album and I went with them and you know I was kind of trying to find my way around so I went up to someone and I said, “Could you point out Biggie to me?,” and of course it was a posthumous release, so that did not help with the Dyme sisters. So maybe it was just not meant to be and in fact what really ended it was not that lurching performance but the fact that again, the feeling this was the 1990s, and actually [the album and article] wasn’t going to come out. Like there was sort of nothing actually happening, because it was for a special issue, at certain point my editor said: “What’s happening?” and I said, “Not much” and he said, “You’re out of there.” And I think the album was never released.
So here I mention this music producer because I had a long standing interest in the industry and I thought, “I think I’m just going to write a story about this guy,” and to write that story I had immediately to do some research because I think I knew right away that I just wanted to be at work. So I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with a producer who was very generous and I was asking basic things like what’s the difference between analog and digital recording which he explained in great detail.
Also we probably talked maybe three times for about two hours each and what I really got a sense of from these conversations was what it felt like to be inside of an industry in free fall. And there was a constant sense of this is how it used to be and this is how it is now and again and again. And I think that made me feel more invested in that transition in the industry… My own teenage years of music because I grew up in San Francisco, you know Bill Graham and organizing concerts, there was a feeling of Rock’n’Roll as an absolutely, something that could never be taught,as a powerhouse culturally and as an industry, not the nicest industry in the world but a very strong one.
This idea of before and after, then/now feeling was kind of interesting to me, so it was really the technological investigation that led to, I think, a real knocking on the industry, something I wanted to write about and a measure of change… I was not in a band but I was around, I mean I basically saw a lot in a kind of flowery way. To be how it always is but you know it’s not that you can always see a lot and are distracted with your own drama I guess so that’s how I arrived at using some of the memories.
William Davidson: Indeed, is there a danger in, of course there is, what are the dangers of writing about music that you’ve been writing about …?
Jennifer Egan: Well, I think, I personally do not write about people that I know or myself, so there is really never a certain degree to which I’m actually writing about something that I experienced. Time and place are really as close as I get to that. I think the danger probably always is, you know, this matters vitally to the writer because the writer is … And it’s important to him or her but the big question is, “Why does this matter in a larger way?
But I can’t say that I worry, I didn’t worry anymore than I’m kind of worried generally when I’m writing something about that specific part. I didn’t really think of it as a music novel and you know when the book came out I didn’t do any kinds of interviews for music magazines or anything like that, maybe there was an effort that I was not aware of. It never occurred to me, so it was only after three or four months after the book came out that it seemed like the music press thought, “This is kind of our world.” So I found myself doing more interviews with radio programs with…..music.
So I guess there was some way in which I didn’t feel conscious because I didn’t really quite realize that music was such an important part of the book I was working on and maybe that’s partly because I was writing pieces and trusting this larger vision was going to reveal itself but not quite knowing what that vision would be as I worked.
William Davidson: I wanted to switch here slightly and talk a little about the actual technical/technological innovation that you invent in this book, and you know what a lot of people have noticed about your writing in general is that you have tremendous prescience in inventing things that then come true which is very impressive. But what also strikes me is that a lot of things in this book such as the starfish to take an example are things that don’t actually exist but quite logically can exist. It seems to me that this is one thing that separates your work a little or puts it in the other end of a continuum with like a real genre fiction. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about sort of the realness effect for the real when you’re making things up.
Jennifer Egan: What do you mean by the realness effect so I make sure I understand?
William Davidson: I guess I mean the idea that this can fit very possibly both within a fictional world but within our world as well, in that the reader is not jarred by thinking about the ….because you know to make sure that the reader is not suddenly thinking this couldn’t possibly [happen].
Jennifer Egan: I think because I come up with stuff pretty instinctively, it just sort of occurs to me when I’m writing. I don’t think about it too much ahead of time and I think maybe that’s one reason it is not more distracting. Because it’s not like I come up with, you know, these inventions that I’m excited to unleash on the world of my fiction. I probably wouldn’t be able to do that really effectively because as I said I’m not a technology user if I just stand here and thought, “Ok, I will tell what I think is going to happen next,” I have no idea. But if I am writing it some ideas seem to come to me, so there is not a lot of thinking that happens there. It’s just kind of a leaf of imagination that seems fun sometimes and I kind of stick with it or sometimes it feels kind of …..scale right away and then I don’t.
Some of the inventions I talk about, the starfish for toddlers which has a screen, I would never write that now because the IPhone hadn’t been come up with that yet when I was writing that stuff, so I was really envisioning something not really far from an IPhone and then there is a device with a touch screen which I had never seen at that point
William Davidson: But you didn’t patent the touch screen?
Jennifer Egan: I wish I had! Another aspect of your question is this issue of something not real but possible, that kind of odd ‘next’ and I would say that in a more general way that has nothing to do with futurism or technology. It’s what I’m often kind of trying to reach for and it’s hard to get there but I guess I should say when I’m most happy, what I’m most proud of as a writer, are things that are completely crazy and yet seem totally plausible and even logical at some level. These are the really good ideas, even if clearly insane and possibly evil.
So an example of it is a scene like this and I wish I could write this all the time. It’s hard, it’s rare that it really seems to work but there is ….look at me where there is a fashion show and there is a woman that was hired to do this, she has her face destroyed, rebuilt, doesn’t look like herself anymore, may look not that good anymore, doesn’t seem to look….she sort of gets this feeling that something is going on that she’s not totally clear on it and it becomes clear when the photographer raises a blade and wants to cut her face. So the idea is that this is a new thing that people are doing ….are excited to do it because it’s really high profile. Basically you get your face cut a lot and bloody and it’s powerful and raw, real and shocking and it’s a real experience and she is terrified and doesn’t do it but the scene is crazy.
I mean it is sort of plausible, I’d say that as someone who has done a lot of research on the modeling world. And yet it’s obviously unappealing and ridiculous because of course I did make it up. So that’s the kind of mix of things that I love to have happening at one time … I am because I know I’m far ahead enough to build that credit. I mean, if you come up with a touch screen six months before the IPhone comes out so I don’t know but I am always trying to find this way where things are both extreme and therefore beyond what we know our reality and yet logical and even sort reasonable in a way.
William Davidson: I think actually that the example from Look at Me is a perfect one because it doesn’t have to be technological. It can be cultural in a way. An analogy to that in this book is how you may glance and mention people having sort of scars on their wrists in imitation of a famous party where everybody who is everyone was there and they got drenched with boiling oil. So it’s a real mark of distinction if you have these scars on your wrists. But what I was thinking about with these scars on their wrists, I think technologically, it got me thinking on stigma. They reminded me of stigmata, which reminded me of religious angles of the novel and I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about this. You know because a lot of these characters seem in search of some kind of spiritual fulfillment obviously and a lot of them find it through music and in the final chapter I sort of thought the musician can be seen as a messianic character. I was wondering: how much you were thinking about the spirituality aspects of music and what these characters are searching for?
Jennifer Egan: I wasn’t thinking of it all that much, although I was very aware that that feeling about what happens to Scotty and …very marginal sort of imperilled god who has very little and has struggled a lot and yet he is sort of raised and loved by this kind of conversions around him at the end and you know it’s hard not to think in religious or spiritual terms about that.
I think I have felt kind of the presence of more overt religious inquiry in other books of mine. In certainly my first novel I think was very much, you know, younger sister who’s trying to connect in some way with older sister who is dead, whose name is Faith. So I think perhaps …a little too hard in retrospect, but I was really interested in something that I think I continue to be interested in.
So I’ll just kind of say it but more in relation to that book, you know in The Invisible Circus, this younger sister who strongly resembles her older sister is trying to find out why she committed suicide. But, really, the older sister committed suicide in the 1960s …very involved in the counter-culture ….her sister grew up when I did in the 1970s so she is trying to understand this mystery but really she is consumed by this idea her sister was Real kind of with a capital R and that she is not. And her life is sort of this clear shadow and her sister is a visionary, vivid, kind of exciting and eventually ephemeral existence. So in a certain sense she goes in search of her sister’s story but really what she’s looking for is a kind of transcendence and she feels that pretty overtly. What she was hoping for was to be lifted out of her own life really in some sense and you know of course what actually happens is somewhat different. She does find out what happens to her sister and what she learns is that in some way ….of transcendence.
But I guess what I was really interested in that book were a few things. I don’t know if i managed totally to ….but i was very interested in the parallel between that search for transcendence that I think we all feel and in all kinds of ways and the birth of mass media really in the 1960s with the televising of the Vietnam war -ultimately the media portrayals of the counter-culture. And I was interested in whether there was kind of a way in which members of the counter-culture experienced that feeling of being elevated into the media, which was a pretty new experience people had at that point and had an element of transcendence to it. And whether that contributed to their experience and whether there was an echo there of drug experience because in both cases there is a sort of out of body quality.
So anyway, here it is in a chapter called the Out of Body in the A Visit from the Goon Squad. So these ideas are still really with me or these questions to what degree and we know that the longing for transcendence spiritual impulse is, in all cultures, is a human impulse and I guess I’m interested in the that. It shades through modern life, especially through media and technology and it becomes infused with longing and wishes and needs that really have nothing to do with the actual transaction being performed…to the intensity that which we crave the brief satisfaction that seems to give us.
William Davidson: So you have the transcendence of the …..and the ….but you also have the transcendence of the connection through Facebook.
Jennifer Egan: Yeah, I mean although that’s not really in here. Well, I guess there is a little sense of it. I actually was not yet on Facebook when I wrote the book, which is funny because people had said that it seems to mimic that experience of moving in and out of people’s lives on Facebook, which was not an experience that I actually had. But I’d still think that maybe that one reason this structure seemed appealing to me was that sense that it mimic that hypertext model really of following curiosity in a lateral way through a kind of tangle of connections
William Davidson: I guess this is a sort of technical question, one amazing thing about this book is just how many points of view from which it is read obviously. And I feel like the PowerPoint chapter has gotten a lot of the attention in that way, but you have first person, second person, third person and varieties of all of these things. What made you want to take on such a big challenge in doing that? What need couldn’t be satisfied except through that?
Jennifer Egan: Well, I think it was again that I didn’t know I was writing a book when I started it. Some of that was in place already but I realized I was writing a book really after writing the first three chapters. I started to follow Sasha and Danny and now I’m interested in writing about him in a quick ….his ex-wife this excellent double playing and I just thought: “Huh, I wonder about that.” So I wrote a chapter about her and there were things that were clear already. One was that when they were moving backwards in time, which is actually how I thought the book would be organized as I was working on it and that proved actually not to be successful in structure. So I had to rethink that. Another one was that each chapter was about a different person and so much so that the other people were very peripheral and …characters, people …very important in other chapters of the three that I had written.
And the other thing was that they all didn’t feel that they were part of the same book, the texture of the chapters, or the stories as I thought they were, when I wrote them was extremely different and I loved that. I guess there was some sense, in part, why not take total advantage of that and if I was going to force … The satisfaction was central narrative, why not get all the range because there is only so much you can get away with in terms of range if you’re writing a centrally aligned narrative. But if you’re writing it in parts, I think why not have a part in psychedelic colors …in pixels or whatever I’m just using metaphors …I wasn’t thinking of it exactly that way I just thought it would be really fun to have them seem incompatible and yet all fuse that just seemed like, … another version of what I was saying before it seemed like the first I could push in every direction and still have it work and so I just thought it has to be that way .
William Davidson: And do the sections written in first person, do you feel most affection for those?
Jennifer Egan: You know, I would have to think to remember which are, I don’t even necessarily remember those technical details. So I think not. No, I mean the voice of each felt clear from the beginning and for …so much to say: “Jeez, should I write this in first person or third person?” There has to be a kind of a feeling about how to do it, that’s really clear from the beginning and that’s what a voice really is, that attitude, the point of view, the kind of sound, a texture. So in the case of each chapter, I always knew what would be right from the start. I had chapters that failed where I could not find a voice that was distinct enough.
William Davidson: What are some of the outtakes?
Jennifer Egan: Well, there were some characters that I really would have loved to write about more. There is a boy who kills himself named Ralph as a 28 year old. We don’t really meet him as a little kid and I really wanted to try to see him as an adult in his life before the end, so I had a whole narrative about him moving to New York. It was really terrible. I could not make it work at all. It was interesting because I had three rules that I used to guide me, which were that each chapter should be about a different person, each chapter had to deal with different texture and feel, and each chapter needed to stand completely on its own. And when the chapters, they failed all three … any close calls where I can say: “Well, it’s really great but it doesn’t stand on its own.” So, you know, it was either workable or not workable.
And, you know, there is Sasha’s uncle who goes to find her in Italy has a wife named Susan that he talks about fair amount and kind of disappearance of his passion for her and I really wanted to write about Susan. I thought that would be great. It was not. So there were characters that I couldn’t seem to approach in a fresh way, they sounded too much like the other chapters and the whole thing just kind of went in steam every time.
William Davidson: We’re going to move in to take audience questions now, if you have questions. In the meantime, thank you very much.
Audience: You made a comment at the beginning, you said that you didn’t want to write about yourself or anyone you know. How do you draw that distinction and how do you draw it?
Jennifer Egan: Between myself and people I know?
Audience: Writing about people you know…
Jennifer Egan: It’s not a philosophical decision, I just don’t seem to enjoy doing it or to do very well. I think it has something to do with the feeling that I have when I’m writing which is so unconscious and kind of escapist in a way. I don’t really know what’s going to happen as I write it but I can’t really achieve that effect if I’m writing about elements that had already happened or if I write about people that remind me of me or of people I know.
It seems to undercut the feeling of …..that I have as I’m working that is a lot of what motivates me. I find it fun and exciting to get to a parallel landscape, so a feeling of dullness sets in if I start to sense that I’m getting near my own life and I just don’t want to do it. And so the memoir is like this, it really sort of the last thing I could contemplate but I do occasionally. Personal essays I truly despise it. I would be doing something else if it had to be that. No way.
Audience: The friend of mine who gave me your book argues that this is more a collection of stories that it is a novel. My stance is that it’s a novel more than a collection of stories and I’m wondering if you can give me some ammunition for my argument more than just the characters but also the structural and thematic level and how you see it.
Jennifer Egan: I’m so sorry to disappoint you. I actually wouldn’t let them write novel on the cover when it was in hard cover. I’ll start with my feeling about it. I actually don’t care and don’t know which one it is and that question was in my mind from the beginning: “What is this?” It’s not easy to categorize it and I thought: “Well, if it’s fun why does it matter what it is?” And at a certain point I decided that what it really was a concept of them because I found myself with two halves. They don’t really make sense in my no-longer backwards chronological order, that’s the truth, but I held onto them because I was sort of fond of the way I was naming them instead of one and two, A and Bs.
I was writing in the 1970s, and I thought: “Oh my god, I finally understand what this is.” Because in the great days of the concept novel, first they were a lot like books, there were pages, the final covers were big, it was a reading experience. And what the concept novel is, is a big story told in pieces that sounded very different from each other. That’s probably the most accurate description I could think of for what I ended up doing here.
The reason why I didn’t want to put novel on the cover was that I was worried that people who had certain ideas of what a novel was would be disappointed to find this not fulfilling those expectations and judge it harshly just for that. So I felt that it would be unfair to the book to call it a novel. But unfortunately I hadn’t anticipated, people don’t actually buy a book if you don’t tell them what it is. So we learned that the hard way. In October, I was ….the first edition that came out in June, my publisher said very clearly when the paperback came out : “we are putting novel on the cover if that’s okay.” And that’s how it has been mostly reviewed as a novel, so the answer is, I don’t know. But, honestly, in a deeper way I don’t care because I feel like these are just labels we put on while it’s all fiction. Somehow to my mind, the idea that these are pre-existing categories, platonic categories that your works don’t fit into seems not quite right so I haven’t worried about it too much.
Audience: I’m curious about your research process. I’m reading Look at Me right now and you do such a good job of inhabiting the body of this publicist who ends up bringing Charlotte to ….extraordinary to….who is a possibly mentally ill visionary who knows an extraordinary amount about the history of ….I’m just curious, do you…these people you writing about or do you make it up? How does that work?
Jennifer Egan: I think often it’s oddly through research. It actually give me the characters themselves in some cases. So for example with …where I used to go as a kid to visit my grandparents’ place. I have to say, not one whose local history room of the public libraries are often a point sought after by people living elsewhere, I actually spent a lot of time in there.
The more I read about it, I was interested in its industrial history. The more I began to have a sense of a kind of mad enthusiast who would somehow believe that…contained important information for the future of the planet. So that’s sort of what gave me loose. So I do do a fair amount of research. I don’t generally just make things up but it’s not that I’m not willing to. It’s that the research itself is what reveals so much to me.
So, for example, I’m trying now to write a new book for which I’ve already done an enormous amount of research but I haven’t really reacquainted myself with that enormous amount of research. Interestingly, with technology, part of that is that it’s all on an I-pad that I don’t really like reading. So now my research [feels] off-limits to me. I have to open this I-pad and read about it when I don’t really like to. So I tried to move forward without re-immersing myself in the research and what I’m finding is it’s not just that I don’t know what I’m talking about which is not great, but it’s even worse than that. I don’t know who am I writing about.
So I feel like research is, if I find the reason why research is exciting to me, there is a certain feeling I get as I’m reading it. I remember feeling this, I remember reading about green production in …Illinois. Complete enthusiasm and excitement. It’s such a great feeling, it’s as if I’m reading an allegory of some kind, just behind the grain, there is something else that I really am into and I’m worried right now because I actually don’t have that feeling about this research that I’ve done already.
And I don’t know if the Ipad can be blamed for all of that. So basically no the research can reveal actual people and then of course I do additional research to ….. when I was writing The Keep I already somewhat knew who my people were and I needed to know a lot more about prison life and I did what was a lot of archival research reading and then also visiting prisons, I find that there is a great combination of journalistic approach and then a more straightforward meeting approach, it works very well generally .
Audience: You mentioned that you don’t like writing about yourself very much. I remember reading that piece about archeology in the New Yorker -that very short thingy you wrote about being downstate Illinois- did you not enjoy writing that?
Jennifer Egan: I didn’t. It was short. I’m always thrilled to be in the New Yorker in any way, so it’s not that i felt that it was a hardship. I was ecstatic to be doing it but I didn’t have that joyful feeling of escapism that I crave from writing. I didn’t get that from that piece just because it was a different process, plus I was trying to remember instead of escape.
Audience: In… there was so many moments that …….stopping to say, “how did she think of that?” and I’m wondering what moments when you were writing this book surprised you?
Jennifer Egan: Because I think I found myself in that space that I like to be in -kind of crazy implausibility and yet a kind of logic- and so I guess the funnest parts were always parts when I got to do that. So, for example, for some reason one scene I remember writing very well, this was actually the chapter that persuaded me to write a book, it was the third one that I wrote thinking I was just writing stories.
It was about Danny’s wife, Stephanie, so there is this point where she and her brother are going to visit this Asian rockstar and I was writing outdoors in the summer. It was hot and I’d written up until the point where she and her brother were about to arrive at the rockstar’s apartment and I had absolutely no idea what would happen when they got there. I felt a little bit of pressure. I thought it’s going well, I feel like it’s all coming together in an interesting way, but what the hell should happen when they get to the apartment?
Maybe she will be home and I don’t know it’s going to be tough to pull that off because …So I sat down and waited to see what would happen and I found the things immediately seeming to move forward in a way that I was happy with it. And it led to this revelation on the part of the rockstar who wanted to do a suicide tour where he was basically going to send himself to death …find out how this will happen and I was surprised by that. I really was. That’s one of the huge scenes of the book that- like it just somehow emerged, the interaction among characters. Because the brother had hoped to be a writer in a certain way not just …And the rockstar revealed this idea about suicide. The brother reconnects with his own identity as a writer and basically signs on to write this story so all of these things converge and that was surprising and fun. It was nice to be present for that.
Audience: You talked about how much you don’t enjoy writing about ….I was just wondering, you don’t like writing about true events … emotions still belong to you?
Jennifer Egan: That’s a good question. I feel like the tools that I’m using all the time as a writer are really empathy and … both of them are tools that lead you to think of the …your own experience or imagine …experience and you know it’s the emotional part of that. So I feel, I always feel a connection with my characters.
The danger of that sometimes I think is that I am not able to be far enough from them. Other people, many people, have said “I don’t like them.” You know, fair enough. But it’s not so much that I worry that people are likeable or not. What’s very important to me is that the reader understands why the decisions that I make are not only to them appropriate decisions but, in some cases, they are the only decisions to make.
That’s what I’m trying to get to and I have to be working from my own experience, in some way I guess, although I do feel like I’ve always had a weird ability or a liability actually to detach from my own experience. I really find this as a journalist, that I sometimes forget who I am as I’m interviewing people. I don’t really feel that I bring a lot with me and it’s a very useful quality. I feel like it’s easy for me to forget about my own concerns. As a journalist I can listen to points of view that are radically contradictory with an openness that is very real in that moment. I think somehow as a fiction writer all of this is at play, I may be somehow forgetting my own emotions and history and almost through a kind of ……I’m finding them elsewhere but not feeling them in myself.
Audience: You talked a lot about the kind of escapist quality in the writing process and I’m just wondering how much of that you feel you lose when you sit down to do the editing when it’s actually on the screen and how you stay in that mental state while still having to edit?
Jennifer Egan: I don’t edit with a screen because of exactly that reason. I always edit on hard copies by hand because even to edit, so much of editing for me is rewriting, because what I start with is so raw, it’s so loose and you know wrong-headed in a lot of moments that I need really to re-enter it. I have a pretty firm rule with myself which is that I don’t make changes on the screen because I find that my changes are often wrong. I should say, as a journalist, I write completely on a computer so it’s not that I’m not capable of it but for certain kinds of writing it seems to be working very well. But not for writing and for me editing is almost inseparable from writing so I just keep doing it with my hand.
Audience: You started out by talking about time and I think one of the most comments on aspects of the chapter about the Safari …..and I wondered how were you when you were writing that, like what occurred to you that ….the purposes it was meant for?
Jennifer Egan: It was something I wanted to do for a long time. I thought: “What would it be like if we were constantly aware of what the future will be, how could that work?” It seemed interesting to me and other people….flash lights I was electrified by them, I wanted to see what it would be like if ….more,did it continuously and sometimes working on this book which I wanted to, I found a moment, maybe I can use that in this book.
I think the exciting thing about it for me is to invoke emotions and play with the knowledge that the reader has about what will happen and let that reflect back on the present where it has various effects. I don’t think it would work for a whole book.
Audience: You touched on your readers a little bit on the IPad. I was just wondering, did you think about how the powerpoint would be difficult to read when the book is transferred onto a Kindle?
The publication industry is going through significant changes under the introduction of the kindle or the IPad, so what are your thoughts on the changes?
Jennifer Egan: Well, to answer your first question, it certainly did not occur to me when I was working in digital form that the reader …would be no one could read it on an E-reader. That was not something that seemed like a likely problem but it turned out to be a gigantic problem. I continue to get frustrated by emails from readers and at the beginning people were divided. I had to write a …back to read the powerpoint. Well I can’t blame them to be bummed about that, it’s ridiculous. And i’m sure that in 10 years, this will seem like a laughable anecdote. So no, I really did not have any worries about the powerpoint and whether it would be readable on a E-reader. [That] was actually not on the list.
As far as my feelings toward E-readers generally, I don’t gravitate naturally towards E-readers. It’s my nature to still read on paper, paper magazines and paper books. I have nothing against them. I want people to read so if you think about that logically if people are not reading books on E-readers while they’re doing everything else on E-readers that’s not going to be good for books.
There needs to be a way for books to live in digital culture or I figure that they really could die. So I’m happy for people to read in any way they like to read. There are a lot of other issues, however, one of which is piracy which has obviously devastated the music industry and it’s also happening a lot with ebooks and the minute you’re buying something digitally you can also not buy it digitally. I don’t think it’s big problem in publishing but it’s a problem and there is also a kind of business model problem for writers which is that ebooks make less money for them so there are all kinds of issues and problems as with any medium moving to the digital.