Authors@Google: Jennifer Egan

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 29.08.2011

>> Greg Sanders: Thanks for coming out. My name is Greg Sanders. I'm a tech writer here
at Google and I'm also a fiction writer. And it's my privilege to introduce Jennifer Egan.
She is the author of "The Invisible Circus," which was released as a feature film by Fine
Line in 2001 and is now in my queue, by the way. "Emerald City and Other Stories," "Look
at Me," which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2001, and the bestselling "The
Her new book, which we'll be discussing today, is "A Visit From the Goon Squad." It's a national
bestseller; won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the Pulitzer
Prize. Also a journalist, she writes frequently in the New York Times magazine. Thank you.
>>Jennifer Egan: Thank you.
>>Greg Sanders: For coming out. Do you wanna briefly describe "Goon Squad" if you haven't
had to do it a hundred times already?
>>Jennifer Egan: Actually, I've gotten slightly better at it because of that. It's actually
a very hard book to describe, which is one thing that I really worried about as I was
working on it. It always helps if something is just easily characterizable in a sentence
or two.
But this, in fact, consists of 13 chapters that are very different from each other in
mood and tone and feel. And in fact, each one has a different protagonist and yet, they
all combine into one story. And some of the issues braided through it are time and the
music industry.
Basically follows two main characters, a music producer named Bennie Salazar and his one-time
assistant named Sasha. And it goes backward and forward through their lives and actually
also visiting peripheral character's lives over a span of about 50 years.
I feel like the thing that I can say that seems to bring it most into focus for people
is that structurally, my model really was like the '70s concept album, something like
Tommy or Quadrophenia, where each piece sounds different and the fun of it having all of
these different sounding pieces collide together into one story. That's what I was going for.
>>Greg Sanders: I think it works really well. And there are stylistic differences also.
I mean, there's one chapter where there are no quotation marks, if I remember correctly.
There are these little tweaks. But one thing I notice is that you use--. There are two
very solid anchors.
You anchor each chapter either with music and/or technology and time. And I think, I'm
just wondering if you came upon this method organically or if you thought like--. I mean,
even the future sections, you're not quite sure where you are and then you're like, "OK,
this is definitely not now, but it sounds like a continuation of Twitter, of Facebook,
of whatnot."
And then the past sections, there's this, there's even--. One of the characters says,
"Just wait until the future. We'll be able to find all of our lost friends." I found
it really interesting. I'm just wondering if you consciously did that.
>>Jennifer Egan: its yes and no. My writing process is extremely organic. I write by hand
on yellow legal pads. I have handwriting that cannot be read often even by me, much less
anyone else, which results in my basically not knowing what I'm writing as I write it.
And I like that. As a journalist, I write on a computer and I'm looking at what I'm
writing and revising it as I go. But as a fiction writer, I'm looking for the unconscious
to do what I'm not able to do,
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: not smart enough to do.
>>Jennifer Egan: So, I basically, I follow the story and wait for it to unfold in this
handwritten way. And then when I have a draft, I type it up and then I'm very systematic
and analytical in trying to figure out what needs to be done with it, what it seems like
it could be and how to make it be more of that.
And so in that phase, yes. I do a lot of thinking about thematic threads and how they're moving
through and locating people in time and space. But the basic impulse is really a gut impulse.
>>Greg Sanders: So, that's the second editorial layer is putting the rivets in a sense.
>>Jennifer Egan: It's a counterpoint because then, when I execute those changes, I'm again
doing it by hand on hard copies. So, I write in my changes, which often involves lots of
strange arabesques and symbols and arrows leading on to other pages.
And then I have type all that in. So at that point, I've again veered very much back into
impulse and instinct. But then ultimately, when I have another big draft, I read it through
and make another very systematic outline. So it seems like a very left brain/right brain--.
>>Greg Sanders: That might be good, that battle. That battle between the two is probably what
brings it [inaudible].
>>Jennifer Egan: I don't see it as a battle. Sometimes, it is a battle.
>>Greg Sanders: Conversational. Conversational.
>>Jennifer Egan: Like, why can't you get that done? But yes. It is more of--. It feels like
two sides of a process that both must be done well for it to work.
>>Greg Sanders: Right. And the handwritten early drafts, does that slow down process
help you creatively?
>>Jennifer Egan: Well, it definitely slows me down. I keep thinking, "Isn't there a way
to speed this up?" I think it does help me. I think it helps me in a number of ways. One
is, as I said, I'm trying to access the unconscious and I can't seem to do that when I'm looking
at what I write in a typeface.
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: Now, people have pointed out that I could always cover the screen of
the computer and write by hand, but I actually can't--. I have to admit I haven't tried that.
But I don't really think it would work. I think there is something about the actual
physical connection to the language that helps me and leads to surprises that I can't consciously
think of and I'm trying to enable that process. I also have wrestled with the fact that I
feel like it takes me too long to write books.
And I've often thought, "But if I could do it on a computer it would be faster>" But
I've actually started to feel that I think I want time to pass as I'm writing a book.
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah. I think it's a good thing, actually. I mean, for example, I use
a manual typewriter. I type a lot of these up and I find that there's a more forceful
relationship with the language on the page when you're physically doing it as opposed
I mean, you can type really quickly, obviously, on a computer, but I wonder rhetorically how
does it change my relationship with the content that I'm writing?
>>Jennifer Egan: It's interesting, though. Gabriel Garcia Marquez got on a word processer
and never looked back.
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: So, it's interesting how it works differently for each writer. And
so much of the challenge for me, and I think really for everyone, is just finding out what
works for you. And you do that by trial and error.
I do occasionally edit on a screen if I'm really stuck and I feel like I don't know
what I'm trying to do and I wanna move it forward a step. And I don't want to sit there
not knowing what to do and doing it slowly.
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: I figure if I don't know what I'm doing and I'm just gonna flail, let's
do it faster. That's the only time. But generally, I find as I'm typing in changes, I'm thinking
of this right now 'cause I'm doing it today. I have a manuscript. I've made a bunch of
edits. I'm bringing it to my writing group tonight and so, I have to type in all these
And as I'm doing it, I find myself thinking, "Wait a minute. Wouldn't it be better this
way?" I'm wanting to edit on the screen. But I really try to resist that temptation because
generally, those changes are wrong. And once I see it on the page again, I have to change
them back.
And I think, "Why did I do that?" But as we move into a world of reading more on screens,
it leads to the question of how much it matters how it looks on the page. So I don't know.
>>Greg Sanders: Well, I was actually gonna ask that. That was one of my questions is,
how do you think is, we've become so enmeshed in our relationship with our devices and technology
and paperless books. How do you think that affects, that's going to affect narrative
forms like the novel?
And should it affect the way a writer thinks about his or her readers?
>>Jennifer Egan: The answer is I truly don't know. I mean, it's clearly affected me to
some degree. I mean, I've written a chapter in a form that's really meant to be viewed
digitally. So obviously, I've been impacted by the notion of digital reading.
>>Greg Sanders: Right. We'll get to that.
>>Jennifer Egan: But I've never used an e-reader. And in fact, I only have had a smartphone
for two days. So I'm pretty behind.
>>Greg Sanders: We won't ask what kind.
>>Jennifer Egan: Don't ask how well I'm texting on it. That's what's really sad, speaking
of taking a long time. So, I don't know. I mean, I have a complicated relationship to
technology as I think we all do. I'm afraid of it. I mean, in a simple way, like, "Oh
my God. Maybe I won't know how to use it."
Afraid of the implications of it in a bigger way. I think there's always the fear that
it will somehow make the world worse. And if you look at early reactions to the telephone,
it was exactly the same. And you guys probably know more about all this than I do. But I
think we still feel it.
It's the sense of hurdling forward. Where will that lead us? Things change so fast.
I had this sense, I taught at NYU the spring before this last spring and I taught undergrads.
And one reason I wanted to do it was I thought I wanna know what "young people" are doing
and thinking about right now. Often, my journalism keeps me up to date with that, but I felt
a little confused about it in terms of technology.
But the thing that was so funny was these 20- and 21-year olds felt old because they
felt like, oh, teenagers now have really grown up with Facebook, but we didn't. So, we're
the dinosaurs. And I thought, "Wow. I wonder if technology is moving so fast that everyone
feels old."
>>Greg Sanders: You can't keep up.
>>Jennifer Egan: I find myself commiserating with 21-year olds about how 14-year olds were
way ahead of all of us. And I thought maybe the 14-year olds are looking at the two-year
olds thinking, "Well, they know how to use iPhones. They've grown up with them and I
didn't have that experience." So, who knows?
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah. I mean, speaking about two-year olds and technology, there's the
latter part of your novel projects us forward, I don't know, ten, fifteen years later. I'm
not sure.
>>Jennifer Egan: Yeah, something like that.
>>Greg Sanders: And there is a foreboding relationship with technology. I mean, there's
two threads, or two elements. One is there's this kind of, people act as ads. I mean, they're
paid to do the equivalent of tweet and update their posts or whatnot to create excitement
an event that's going to happen.
>>Jennifer Egan: Right.
>>Greg Sanders: And I found that really, really interesting. So, you're saying you have a
troubled relationship, but you also seem to use that.
>>Jennifer Egan: But I'm fascinated.
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah. And then there's also a section where there's this young couple
that we meet earlier, much earlier in the novel. And then we see them in the future
and they have a two-year old daughter. Maybe she's a little younger. And there's this sort
of--. Everyone's got this--.
There's this ubiquitous communications texting device that everyone has and they're like,
they don't want her to touch it.
>>Jennifer Egan: Right. There's also been one invented for kids.
>>Greg Sanders: Right, exactly.
>>Jennifer Egan: Called a Starfish. But when I imagined that, it was pre-iPhone. And in
a way, I feel like that fantasy's already obsolete because the iPhone is kind of what
I imagined.
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: Something bright and candy-like that would be really easy. It would have a
touch screen and would be really fun and easy for kids to use and buy stuff on. I mean,
I am a two-day smartphone user and my children have already bought apps on it.
I mean, they're not two, but--. In a way I feel like that's already been superseded.
So, yeah, I think in that chapter one feels some anxiety about technology. At the same
time, creatively it is so exciting to me.
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah.
>>Jennifer Egan: I mean it's just thrilling to think about new forms and genres that become
possible through technology. And to me, the novel, while many people feel that it's imperiled
by all of this, I don't actually feel that way because to me the novel has always been
a very flexible, elastic, open form. If you look at the earliest fiction, Cervantes and
Laurence Sterne, that stuff is out there. It's meta--
>>Greg Sanders: I'm reading Don Quixote now. Unbelievable.
>>Jennifer Egan: Tristram Shandy has crazy graphics in there. I mean, if PowerPoint existed
he would've been using it. So, I feel like they're all kinds of things that are possible.
And that is really exciting to me, even as I, myself, am clearly not an early adapter.
>>Greg Sanders: Well, I think in some ways you are. I mean, you're pushing the envelope.
I mean, especially--. Can we talk about one of the chapters that I really love?
>>Jennifer Egan: Sure.
>>Greg Sanders: For those of you that have the book. Well, it starts on 230-something.
But it's basically, I guess, also a projection of the future and if this--. It's an entire
chapter. The entire narrative is done, you said with PowerPoint?
>>Jennifer Egan: Yeah, I did it with PowerPoint.
>>Greg Sanders: And--.
>>Jennifer Egan: It could've been any slide.
>>Greg Sanders: It could've been, right, exactly. And narrated basically by a young woman.
>>Jennifer Egan: A twelve-year old.
>>Greg Sanders: A twelve-year old and she's writing about her autistic brother, or--?
>>Jennifer Egan: He's an Asperger. He clearly has trouble with socialization. He has Asperger’s
obsession with the pauses in rock and roll songs.
>>Greg Sanders: Pauses in rock and roll. It's called "Great Rock and Roll Pauses." And I
thought it was really great. And the thing is there's a narrative momentum in it. And
it's not standard, obviously words on page. I was just wondering. I actually saw an interview
with you on PBS and you mention that you handed this chapter and after, to the publisher,
and after the initial manuscript?
>>Jennifer Egan: Yeah, the book was sold and this chapter wasn't in it. I had been obsessed
with working in PowerPoint. And in a way, that obsession I think epitomizes my odd relationship
to technology because I really wanted to write a chapter in PowerPoint, but I had never used
I wasn't even totally sure what it was. And I didn't have it. I said to some friends in
the corporate world, "I wanna learn more about what you do. Send me a few PowerPoints." And
I discovered I couldn't open them because I actually didn't own PowerPoint.
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: And then, when I looked into it further, I determined that I actually didn't
have enough memory in my laptop to hold it. And it was expensive. So, I thought, "You
know what? To hell with it. I write by hand, so I'm gonna do PowerPoint by hand."
So I sat down and drew rectangles on my yellow legal pad and thought, "All right. Let's get
some PowerPoint happening here." Of course, it went nowhere. I mean, if you're gonna work
in a genre, you have to be in the genre. So ultimately, I bit the bullet and bought the
program and did all this.
But even when I had done that and I was struggling to figure out not so much how to use it because
it's easy, but what it meant to work in it. Because initially I thought, "OK. It's just
bullet points." But in fact, that's not a very sophisticated use of PowerPoint at all.
But my biggest problem, and the biggest hindrance, and the reason I hadn't gotten far with it
and sold the book without it was that I didn't like the corporate feeling of it. There was
just this corporate smell to it
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah, the feeling.
>>Jennifer Egan: that seemed really unappealing and antithetical to the feeling I look for
in fiction. And so, I couldn't figure out a way around
that so I thought, "OK. You know what? I can't make this work." So, I sold the book and then
after that, there were a couple of things that were really nagging at me. The main one
was that Sasha, one of the major characters, I was not able to find a way to visit her
in her future life, whereas Bennie, the other one, appears in the chapter we were just talking
And that seemed really asymmetrical and wrong. And so, that was nagging at me. And then there
was the fact that I hadn't found a way to use the PowerPoint. And a third obsession
that I hadn't found a way to work in, which was an obsession with the pauses in rock and
roll songs.
And then all of a sudden, I had this brain wave that if a kid was the PowerPoint narrator,
it would undermine the corporate feeling. It just couldn't be there really in a kid's
voice, and that if it was one of Sasha's kids, I would've found a way to visit her in her
future. And then as it turned out, I even managed to get the rock and roll pauses in
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah.
>>Jennifer Egan: Because she's writing mostly about the tension in her family life resulting
from her brother's obsession with these pauses and her father's absolute, not rage, but deep
frustration at being lectured at about pauses in rock and roll songs endlessly by his son,
thus being reminded of his son's trouble and difficulty socializing with other kids.
And so there's all this--. I mean, it's a loving family, but a family with issues and
struggles like every family. And this twelve-year old is its chronicler. And she uses PowerPoint.
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah. She's taking a course in making slides and I think she quotes something
from the class, "Add a graphic, get more traffic." Right? I mean, that sounds like something
you'd hear here.
>>Jennifer Egan: Word wall is a long haul.
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah, exactly. Word wall is a long haul.
>>Jennifer Egan: I should've gone into advertising. It's clear that she's learned this at school.
>>Greg Sanders: So these kids are gonna be basically in this version of the future. These
kids are just completely conversant in graphical representations of information. That was really
>>Jennifer Egan: Well, I think that's somewhat true already. In fact, it was funny 'cause
I thought, "This is a crazy idea that a twelve-year old is using PowerPoint." People are gonna
just die at the thought of that.
And so I mentioned it to a friend of mine and she said, "Jenny, my twelve-year old just
did a presentation in school in PowerPoint last week." I mean, this has already happened.
And I said "Oh, OK. I won't get credit for futurism on that one." But yes. She keeps
her journal in slides and this makes her mother very uncomfortable so Sasha, my main character,
because she keeps saying, "Why aren't you writing? What's all that white space? Where
does the writing come in?"
So, it becomes an object of mother/daughter tension, too.
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah, there's a lot going on in that chapter. I thought it was really
great. And I understand, tying into that, I've also heard you say you don't write about
your own life, but it sounds like you write about maybe little overlaps. You allow characters
to carry around your interests or obsessions.
I mean, the rock and roll pauses, you said, was actually yours. That's actually something
that's been on your mind. Is that right?
>>Jennifer Egan: Yeah. I think I do that a lot, actually. I think I have ideas that are
interesting, but not all that interesting. Not interesting enough to do much with on
their own. And instead of pursuing them myself, thank God, I just give them to characters.
>>Greg Sanders: That makes sense.
>>Jennifer Egan: I hope that becomes slightly more interesting. There's another one that
sneaked in there. There's an art historian who wants to write a book about representations
of sound in Cezanne's paintings, whether his brushstrokes of his outdoor, green and orange
landscapes are actually trying to suggest the sound of locusts at that time of year.
I had this thought myself and I thought, "That's an amazing idea. Maybe I should pursue it."
And then I thought, I don't know, it immediately translated into "wouldn't it be interesting
if someone else was interested in that?"
>>Greg Sanders: Right. It provides that character with a quirky richness.
>>Jennifer Egan: So thank God I didn't take a two-year detour trying to somehow turn this
into an art historical thesis.
>>Greg Sanders: It's not too late, though.
>>Jennifer Egan: I think it's too late. But yes. I do that all the time. I have ideas
that I--. I flirt with ideas that I think are interesting and then I give them to characters.
I think that's the right home for most of them.
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah. I think it works. And one other one I noticed that also was a segue
into one of the other threads is the technology that's the anchor, and then there's the music
anchor of mostly punk. I mean, Bennie Salazar is an ex-punk rocker and we meet some of his
friends along the timeline, past and the future.
And he's got this great internal monologue. I think he's driving down the West Side Highway
listening to the Dead Kennedy's. And he's basically saying like, "I know why punk died.
I know why music dies, 'cause it's digital music production." There's no longer hiss.
There's no longer imperfections or pops. And I was wondering if that was something, if
that was--. I mean, I think there's something about digital processing that removes the
>>Jennifer Egan: That actually was not my idea. I read a piece by Neil Young in Harpers
years ago. It had to have been--. It was actually just as CDs were becoming ubiquitous. And
he decrying this digital sound and saying that he thought it would basically kill music.
And his point was, we'll somehow recover from this, but it's gonna be really hard. And that
always really struck me because I thought it was fantastic. Everyone was so excited
about the clarity of the sound.
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: And that was exactly the thing that he abhorred and thought was, in
a way, unmusical and inhuman. And so, that idea stayed with me and I think I gave that
idea to Bennie.
>>Greg Sanders: You gave that to Bennie. Yeah.
>>Jennifer Egan: Yeah.
>>Greg Sanders: Do you think that there is a punk sensibility to the novel? I mean, it's
nonlinear. It's slightly disruptive as far as a narrative form goes. And I interpreted
that, it might just be me, but I interpreted that. I was like, "It's just a punk, punk-ish--."
>>Jennifer Egan: I didn't think so. I mean, I certainly thought of it as an album, as
I said. And it's been pointed out to me since that my PowerPoint chapter, which is the second
to last, basically functions as a kind of musical pause in the book because it happens
right at that point that I think pauses are best used when you're close to the end of
the song.
The pause makes you think the song will end and then it doesn't. So, there's this rush
of relief followed by sadness because then the song does end. It heightens awareness
of the song passing, or of time passing. So, I think there was a musical idea behind the
Punk rock sensibility, I don't know. I mean, I think one thing that I didn't understand
actually, was how permeated the book is by music. In a way, I was interested in it and
certainly did research on it and I knew that my characters were in that industry. But for
example, when the book first came out, we didn't really reach out to the music world
at all in terms of publicity, which I think was odd in retrospect.
Eventually, that world found it on its own, but months later. So I think I didn't think
of it as a "rock and roll" novel. And I think that helped me because in a way, there are
a lot of interesting books in that genre, and High Fidelity and others.
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: And I think I might have been intimidated just as I didn't think in
the last chapter, or the two last chapters, leaping into the future, I am writing science
fiction, another genre I'm not that familiar with and would be in a way tentative about
venturing into. So, I didn't focus on that too much. I guess the answer is I don't know.
I don't know.
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah. I also thinks it's maybe not a completely fair question because readers
are gonna bring their own nostalgia into it.
>>Jennifer Egan: That's it.
>>Greg Sanders: And I was, I saw The Ramones in '81 at The Palladium. I saw them a couple
of times and it was exciting. It was terrifying and I was--. I can identify even though your
early punk scenes, I guess late '70s, early '80s, took place in San Francisco and I was
in New York, I was like, there. But of course, I was bringing all of my own material into
it. So then I was like, "Oh, yeah. It's kind of a punk novel."
>>Jennifer Egan: You know what I think? I think there's a desire out there for a punk
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah.
>>Jennifer Egan: And I think people have been willing to consider this, that, for me to
fulfill that desire. And I feel lucky to have somehow tapped into a collective musical wish.
I didn't think it myself, but I was very excited to write about that moment in the late '70s,
that punk rock moment which I witnessed very much on the sidelines.
>>Greg Sanders: I was gonna ask, were you there? Oh, from the sidelines. But you still
witnessed it.
>>Jennifer Egan: Yeah. I was definitely there, but I didn't have green hair.
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: I looked like me, but I think I just felt the strangeness and the newness
of it. And I think it was especially vivid because this was all happening in San Francisco
where I and all of my friends had grown up in the '70s, basically feeling like we had
the worst timing in the world to have missed the '60s.
Like, how lame to have had all of that happen and be too young to have any part in it? And
my parents weren't hippies at all. I mean, we got there in '69 and they were very straight-laced.
And I feel like I saw hippies out the window of the car. So, there was such a sense of
We were all trying to recreate that moment. I mean, I would walk around barefoot all day
in a city. Like, it seems crazy now.
>>Greg Sanders: I thought that's what you're supposed to do in San Francisco.
>>Jennifer Egan: They haven't been doing that for a while. I mean, my mother didn't love
that. But it wasn't like, I mean, she didn't threaten to institutionalize me. It felt OK
to be doing that. And then punk rock was such an overt repudiation of all of what, of everything
about the '60s counter-culture.
It's music. It's mood. It's optimism. It's sense of coherence. Basically, it was just
a big fuck you to all that, which in one way you would think maybe that could've been disappointing
or shocking. But I felt that it was exciting. I still love the '60s stuff, but I love the
idea that something new is on its way in.
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah, I think it was a very exciting time. I was happy to see the mention
of The Dead Kennedys and Jello Biafra. And I was like, "Oh." My brother used to come
home with the vinyl and I would look at it.
>>Jennifer Egan: He's a legendary San Francisco figure.
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah.
>>Jennifer Egan: He ran for mayor while I was living there. And he's still out and about.
In fact, there's someone writing a book about him. He was an interesting character.
>>Greg Sanders: Yeah.
>>Jennifer Egan: In a way, he was a host figure. He would welcome bands from other cities and
these scenes were so local. He was really an eminence, ultimately, of the scene there.
>>Greg Sanders: That's interesting. You mentioned a little bit your internal process, or I guess
your external process of working with a manuscript. What about, and this is an abstract question,
but is there a way of describing the process of your imagination, like how you come up
with ideas?
How you manage that and how you get them out on paper.
>>Jennifer Egan: Yeah. Basically, in a way, it's fairly simple because it is so unconscious
and intuitive, but what I really begin with is a time and a place. Ideally, I don't have
too much more than that. I just need to know when and where. So, for "Goon Squad" it was
very specific.
I was actually trying to work on a different book, a historical novel that I'm really hoping
to start very soon. But I was having trouble getting back into the research that I had
done. And I was in a hotel bathroom. I look down. I saw a wallet under the sink 'cause
I was washing my hands and I thought, "Oh, my God. How could someone leave her bag with
a wallet right there?"
I immediately, I mean, I guess this is about as close as I get to my own experience. It
connected instantly with experiences in own of being robbed, which I have been a ridiculous
number of times and ways, not including physical violence.
But there was one particular time that was really tough when my wallet was stolen and
then I got a call from a Citibank employee who was very lovely and professional and said,
"We have this service that will help you get your new cards set up and pull yourself out
of this."
And I was very upset. This was probably 18 years ago and I cried on the phone and I said,
"I'm going out of town and don't have an ID. What am I gonna do?" I poured my story out
to her and she said, "It'll all be fine. It happens all the time." Then it came time to
choose a new pin number for my cash card and somehow in the course of doing that, I somehow
mentioned my old pin number.
And the conversation ended rather quickly at that point because she was the thief. So,
she rushed to the nearest cash machine and overdrew my checking account and I was just--.
I mean, I was just flipping out before that. You can imagine the state I was in after.
I was in orbit of misery. And I kept thinking, "I talked to her. I talked to her on the phone."
But what I was left with when everything calmed down and of course the bank reimbursed me
'cause they're insured for that. I kept thinking, "What was it like from her side?"
Like, who was she? I became fascinated. I wish that I could find her. And so I think
in this moment of looking at the wallet, I thought, "Someone's gonna take that." And
then I thought, "Well, I'm the only one here." And then my mind leapt into the--. I guess
somehow touched on that old experience and my curiosity about the point of view opposing
I know my own point of view. I know what it's like to have a wallet stolen. There's nothing
interesting about that to me. But stealing it, that's interesting. So I thought, "OK.
I'm gonna just for a break tomorrow, I'm gonna start there. A woman sees a wallet and she
takes it."
And that's really all I knew. I didn't know who she was. I didn't know why she would take
it, what the context was. I just started there and started writing. And in the course of
doing it, I learned that she was actually, she was taking the wallet, but also she was
in her shrink's office later describing the experience of taking the wallet and what happened.
I learned that she was on a date. All of these things happened in the writing itself. But
the doorway in was a time and a place. And that's pretty typical for me.
>>Greg Sanders: That's interesting. And you just managed to, in your mind, you just managed
those threads. I mean, you had some, I think all this stuff had been--. You had some existing
narratives out there, right? There was a piece in the New Yorker.
>>Jennifer Egan: Some. Four of the pieces were older. Well, the New Yorker, they were
all published as free-standing stories as I worked. But, yeah.
>>Greg Sanders: Oh, I see. OK. That was gonna be my question. Basically, they weren't published
ahead of time and then you--. Did you have the novel in mind? The entire arc of the novel
when you published them?
>>Jennifer Egan: No. In fact, I never even really thought of it as a novel, honestly.
I had four chapters that were older that had been published in the '90s. And then I had
this new stuff that seemed exciting. I didn't really know how it would fit together.
I think the other element that's important is there's a time and a place and then often
there is some abstract questions floating around in my mind. Like, with my novel "Look
At Me," I had been thinking for a while how is mass media and image culture changing our
inner lives, our sense of who we are to ourselves, or has it?
So, that's pretty abstract. You wouldn't necessarily think that would lead to any kind of fun fiction,
but that coupled with some times and places evolved into a book. With "The Keep," I was
interested in--. I was basically interested in if or how our ubiquitous disembodied communication
because we're now in constant disembodied communication with each other, might mimic
the gothic experience in which people are remote places and there's this possibility
of the supernatural all the time.
Is there something supernatural about remote communication? I guess that was my question,
but then the time and the place, where a guy arrives at a castle in an unspecified European
country, in roughly the present day.
>>Greg Sanders: It might be the Czech Republic. It might be Germany.
>>Jennifer Egan: Yeah. They're not even sure.
>>Greg Sanders: They're not sure.
>>Jennifer Egan: So, with this one, I would say the abstract questions were, really it
was just one, which is what would a contemporary novel about time look like? And the reason
I was asking that question was that I had finally read all of Proust's novels. It took
me a while. I mean, I had read a couple of volumes in my early 20s.
Loved all the obsessive love stuff. Very bored by the time and the nostalgia.
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: 'Cause in a way, in the early 20s, who cares? But revisited it with a book
group around my late 30s when it all read a little differently. And so, we read the
novel over about five years, 'cause we were all doing other things. And actually, I think
we had five children among us in those years.
So, we had unfold in real time our lives passed as the book unfolded. And I thought, I mean,
it's a book that's explicitly about time, mimics the effect of time passing. It's just
exquisite in its execution. And yet, of course it's thousands of pages. And I thought how
could you do that and capture the feeling of time passing now in a more economical fashion,
which feels more contemporary.
That was the abstract question. The other thing is music plays a huge part in Proust's
novel, both as a plot element and as an organizational principle. I had wanted to write about the
music industries with journalists and begged and pleaded for an assignment for years because
I just wanted to learn about the industry.
The closest I got was an assignment to write about a pair of identical twin rappers, female,
called Dyme. D-Y-M-E. In the late '90s. And their album was just about to some out, supposedly.
So, this led to my most embarrassing journalistic moment when at a party for a Biggie album
release, I actually asked someone where Biggie was.
Thus leading to the reply, "He's dead." Which was a low point for me, journalistically.
But anyway, I love these, these were lovely women and very talented, but what I began
to realize as I was following them was their album actually wasn't going to be released.
I could just feel that it wasn't happening.
And of course, the industry was in trouble by then and I think they were a casualty of
that. As soon as I told my editor I don't think the album is gonna be released, of course
he said, "Well, you're off the story, so stop following them." And that was it. But a little
of their DNA I think did end up in "Goon Squad" because I have a sister group called Stop/Go.
>>Greg Sanders: Exactly.
>>Jennifer Egan: These women had an orange--. They lived with their parents and they had
an orange shag carpeted recording studio.
>>Greg Sanders: Basement studio, right?
>>Jennifer Egan: I guess I finally wanted--. They were actually very talented, unlike the
Stop /Go sisters. But anyway, so time and music as abstract interests converged with
this time and place, which was the present day. I think that one--. At the beginning
I did not think I was writing a book, I should say that. I just thought I was writing some
stories to kill time, or not really that, amuse myself while I waited begin this other
book. And what kept happening was that I wrote the first one. And in the course of that,
there's a brief mention of Sasha's boss, a record producer who sprinkles gold flakes
in his coffee and sprays pesticide to his armpits.
And I thought at the time, "Decadent music producer. They have such crazy habits." But
then after I finished it I thought, "Yeah, but why does he do that stuff?" That's just
a stereotype, but there's always a logic to it.
>>Greg Sanders: You find out he has his reasons.
>>Jennifer Egan: Yeah. So I thought, "I think I might write a chapter about him and just
find out why he does that stuff." So, I wrote what became chapter two. And what was fun
about it was that Sasha, the thief; it takes place earlier in time. She's still his assistant
and she's this opaque, secondary character.
And so, I thought I liked that movement from she had been so central and now she's peripheral.
It's at an earlier moment. And then, there was a brief mention in that chapter of Bennie's
ex-wife who's now an avid doubles player at a country club. And I thought, "Yeah, but
what is she like?"
I mean, she marries this music producer and then ends up a doubles player. What's that
about? So I thought, "OK, one more and that is it." So, I wrote a chapter about her, which
comes later in the book. And in a way, once I had written that one, I realized I was hooked.
But in terms of having an overall vision, I didn't except to say, and this was the analytical
side of me, what is interesting or fun about this for me? And it seemed to me that there
were three things that I wanted to keep doing as I moved through the material.
One was that each chapter would be about a different person. Two was that each would
be technically different from all of the others, so that they would not feel like one book.
The voice, if you will, of each would be different, which is another way of saying that technically
they would need to be different.
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: And then three was that each would stand on its own. And so, those were
my criteria. And I didn't meet them every time. I mean, there was stuff I couldn't use.
>>Greg Sanders: The third one is the toughest I think. It's almost like a program. I mean
to have each entity stand on its own. I mean, I think it works, but that seems--
>>Jennifer Egan: It was hard.
>>Greg Sanders: very, very difficult.
>>Jennifer Egan: But you know what I found? I didn't have any close calls. The material
either fit all of them or wildly missed on every count. So when they were bad, they were
really, really bad. It wasn't like two out of three, one out of three. It was always
zero out of three or three out of three.
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: With a lot of work. But there were some things that I really slogged away
on hoping that I could make work and could not. And I never knew why. But it seemed like
it just had to do with not being able to find a fresh angle or approach.
Not being able to find an interesting enough story about these people that would require
telling in a different way. And so, it had to go.
>>Greg Sanders: Did you have to re-tool any of the previously published stuff, or what
that pretty much--
>>Jennifer Egan: Very little in fact, because it wasn't just a matter of trying to work
that stuff in. That stuff led the way with various plot elements--
>>Greg Sanders: OK. That makes sense.
>>Jennifer Egan: in the book. So, once I realized that those four, which had no connection to
each other at all, were all gonna be part of this, it helped me form the landscape.
So, yeah, that was an odd, organic hole that seemed to have been existing in pieces without
my knowing it.
>>Greg Sanders: Very interesting. I wanted to--. We should probably do Q&A in a couple
of minutes. I just have one last question. 'Cause you're talking about Proust and you
have two chunks as the epigraph and one of them is, to quote Proust, "The unknown element
in the lives of other people is like that of nature, which each fresh scientific discovery
merely reduces, but not abolish."
And I thought that was and this is my interpretation we're now talking about technology, no matter
how connected we might seem to be, there's still that mystery of trying to understand
how people work, how to get inside their minds. Am I way off?
>>Jennifer Egan: It's so interesting. Well, no, of course not because it's out of my hands
if that's what you saw there. I wasn't thinking of that consciously, although I am very interested
in that.
For example, with "Look At Me," as I said before, I was interested in whether our inner
lives, whether the kind of disappearance of privacy or the will towards self-revelation
had changed the way we are in our deepest parts. And the very fact that I was asking
the question I think gives away the fact that I believe the answer was yes.
Like, we're not the same anymore. We're different humans than we used to be. But what I felt
in the course of writing the book, I actually came to exactly the opposite conclusion. There's
just something in us that cannot be revealed.
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: What's clear is there's, on the part of many people as a broader sensibility,
a desire to reveal more. And maybe even a desire to reveal everything. But it can't
be done, I ended up feeling.
There's just something about us that can't be known. In that, what I was thinking of
more, was what I hoped would be a fun aspect of the book, which was there are these people
that you see from a distance and then suddenly, you're inside their own minds.
Having a different protagonist in each chapter, I was hoping I think, to mimic that experience
of seeing someone out of the corner of your eye walking down the street and thinking,
"Huh, where are they going? Who are they?" Of course, you rarely find out. But I love
the idea of having that payoff 13 times.
>>Greg Sanders: That's exactly right. As the writer, of course, you can go in there and
create those. That was interesting. I guess we should do Q&A. If there are questions out
there you should come up to the microphones. Are there any? Yes.
>>FEMALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: Hi. I was wondering, since the process is so organic and took place
over so much time, how do you know when it's done?
>>Jennifer Egan: That's a good question. I mean, in a certain sense it never is. There's
a chapter I read aloud a lot where I have made a few improvements, I will confess. The
text has deviated from the one that's printed. So, there's a way in which it's never done.
I think that I'm always trying to reach various milestones that allow me to move on in various
ways. So, there's the point where I'm just writing it on my own. And then I have this
writing group, which is a very important part of my process. I often will just bring things
in to them and say, "Is it alive? Is there even a pulse?"
Which is an important thing to find out. I spent my very first attempt at writing a novel,
I was in a vacuum for two years and I wrote just a completely dead object, which without
a glimmer of interest or tension or anything. And I would prefer not to make that mistake
So, I try to get a sense of whether anything's happening at all. And then as I work more
on it, I'll show the whole thing to various readers, and each time revising. So, with
every one of those iterations, I'm moving through a process. Then there's the point
where the book is sold.
And then you do revisions. And then there are two or three sets of page proofs and each
time I'm making changes. Ideally, the changes are getting smaller and smaller and smaller.
But there does come that last point where I know I'm basically signing off.
And often, I'll have a weird vertiginous sense of, "Wait, that's all wrong. It should all
be changed." But I can't. So, I guess one moves closer and closer to a point when it's
not possible to change it. And yet, it actually is still possible because then you have further
editions and there are mistakes to be corrected.
So, the way I sometimes think of it is, it's two points that get closer and closer together.
And of course, the space between them can be subdivided infinitely, but they get close
enough that they're practically touching. And then you have to stop.
>>Greg Sanders: I think that's an asymptote. You have a line approaching one and getting
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #2: So, at first I think there's an interesting observation that
you made about writing, which applies to a lot of software engineers here which is you're
either getting it completely wrong or completely right. And there's no in-between. You can't
really do it.
>>Jennifer Egan: That's interesting.
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #2: And also, a lot of people here write the--. They use paper
and white boards to do ideas. You're at a computer all day and that's how you actually
push it out, but most of the thinking actually happens on notepads and stuff like that.
>>Jennifer Egan: Is that right?
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #2: Well, some people. But I think that's a big observation.
>>Jennifer Egan: That's fascinating. So maybe that's the organic connection.
>>Greg Sanders: You see white boards covered with all kinds of things.
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #2: Look around.
>>Jennifer Egan: Huh, interesting.
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #2: The question I have is, so this book has 50 characters or
something like that. So, when you're writing, do you have some sort of notepad where you
keep track of all that you've said about them and what their relationships are and when
they were introduced, that kind of thing?
Or, are you familiar enough with them all that they're all in your head like real people?
I mean, how do you keep track of your characters?
>>Jennifer Egan: It's a good question. I mean, I didn't, I had less backup than you would
think for this. I didn't find it that hard to keep track of them. And I had much more
trouble with my novel "Look At Me," which believe it or not is actually more complicated,
or somehow felt bigger, harder to hold in my brain than this one did.
The only thing that was challenging that I really needed to hammer out were--. In other
words, I knew all the things, but what I had to keep track of was when the reader knew
them. And so, and especially, well, the ages of people was very tricky because I don't
really nail down years overtly in the book, but I actually, there is a specific year when
all of this stuff is happening.
I just, especially with the technological element, I didn't want to get too hyper-detailed
about what was invented and used at what time. It can get a little fussy. But just what age’s
people were in relationship to each other, and in relationship to the reader at various
The order of the chapters was something I struggled with enormously, which I think it's
worth mentioning here, because in terms of when readers know things, the order of the
chapters is paramount. When I was working on it, I thought that the book would just
go backwards.
Because as I was writing the chapters, that's how they were emerging and it seemed really
fun. And I thought, "OK." It's not like no one has done this before. But I thought, "Yeah,
it's a reverse chronology." Rather soon, I had problems with that because I knew I was
going into the future.
So then I thought, "Well, I can't start with that." So, I thought, "OK, it goes backwards
and then it leaps forward." And I liked the shape of that. But one of the biggest disappointments
actually, happened when I read the book in that order, expecting a combustion that I
had hoped would take place all the way through.
And it was very flat. It just wasn't there. And that was really disappointing. And I thought,
"OK, so maybe this is just not gonna work in the way I hoped." I mean, writing books
is always like a chemistry experiment. In the end, people tell you whether anything's
happening or not.
And you can feel it, too. So maybe it just won't. But then I also thought, "You know?
This backwards chronology is really costing me a lot of opportunities for surprise, and
payoff for the reader." As one clear example, you mentioned that Bennie is in the car in
chapter two, reminiscing about his punk rock past.
It's just a paragraph, but it raises a question of what was that like? Well, in my backwards
chronology, we of course, don't get to 1979 until eight chapters later, because I'm going
backwards. So, by that time, when we hit the punk rock scene in San Francisco, the reader
has forgotten about that moment of Bennie reminiscing.
So, there's no immediacy to the payoff. And I realized that that was totally wrong and
that I needed to structure it much more intuitively. And in a way, a backwards chronology is just
as much of a strait jacket as a forward chronology. So, that was when I understood that I was
gonna be moving around and that my only criteria, really, were gonna be things like, what would
be the most fun to encounter now?
At that point, I started to be pretty systematic about what we already knew about people and
what the ages they were when we last saw them, because I didn't have that ramrod of a chronology
to orient me. But even then, it was like a two-page document with a list of chapters
and a few notes about each person.
It wasn't like a spreadsheet or anything, probably 'cause I don't know how to use spreadsheets.
Maybe that would've helped actually.
>>Greg Sanders: That's next.
>>Jennifer Egan: Actually, that was the one thing in PowerPoint I had to get my sister,
who's a consultant, to do the charts because I actually could not figure out how to use
>>Greg Sanders: Well, I was gonna ask you. Some of them require some data. There's some
actual graphs in there.
>>Jennifer Egan: I provided the data and I said, "Make it beautiful."
>>Greg Sanders: Right.
>>Jennifer Egan: But I could not--. That was just--. The learning curve appeared to be
too steep on that one.
>>Greg Sanders: Any other--?
>>MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER #3: So, you said that you wonder how a thief feels like and then
you also said that how does, why does a music producer do all the weird things. And then
what fascinates me is what you said after that. You said that "so I decided to write
about them" or "write a story on them."
So, what is the process that goes on within your mind? Like, when you're trying to understand
people who you're not connected to. Like, it's very hard to understand people outside
my domain. Like, I can't understand people who are in a different place or a different
profession. It's very hard.
So, what is the process? Is it just an unconscious process that happens when you write? Or do
you go through a systematic process like of reading about them and trying to understand
them? Or, what is the process that you have in your mind or in your habits? Like, how
do you do that? It's very hard to do it.
>>Jennifer Egan: Yeah. For me, the hard thing is exactly the opposite. What I am worst at
as a writer is writing about myself. I hate it. I find it dull and also I freeze up. I
don't want to give anything away. And that's no good as a fiction writer. So for me, it's
totally intuitive.
I just let it roll and see what happens. I guess I just make it up. Although, that sounds,
I don't know. Somehow that sounds presumptuous, but I guess in a way, writing fiction is pretty
presumptuous. I find it easiest with people who are farthest from my own life. So for
example, I love, I find it comfortable I should say to write about men because there's an
easy way to separate myself from them.
Now, it's not that I'm some great expert on men. I mean, I really am not. Like, I didn't
grow up in a family with a lot of brothers. I have no particular insight into men, but
I just--. I don't know. It's funny. It's hard for me to come up with an articulate answer
except to say I start writing and I see what happens.
And if it feels interesting, then I roll with it. And maybe that means we're just all more
alike than we think, but I don't even know. I'm not sure. One important component of feeling
that a character is working is a sense that I can hear them. Like, just having a sense
of how people talk which again, I experience rather passively.
I feel as if I'm taking dictation. Now, obviously on some level I'm also inventing it, but my
experience of it is one of being entertained by a conversation that seems to be just falling
out organically. It's not that I--. I mean, I've had characters that I really struggled
One in "Goon Squad" that I probably struggled with the most, two of them. There's a guy
named Lou who does a lot of really bad things. And I didn't feel like I was struggling with
him, but I struggled to find, I had to work to make the logic of his inner life available
to readers so they weren't just horrified by him.
Although, some still are. But there was a character named Rob in a chapter called "Out
of Body" and he's telling his story in second person. He was someone I really struggled
with. I was just finding it hard to feel the totality of this guy: his voice, the way he
looked, his experience.
It wasn't coming together. And yet, I really felt convinced that it could and had to. This
was, I think, the last chapter I wrote. Very hard. I had so many options that weren't open
to me anymore having written 12, 11 other chapters. The PowerPoint I wrote after this.
But anyway, a crucial moment in the crystallization of Rob in my mind, happened on the subway.
When I was sitting there on a crowded subway and I heard this guy talking. I think he was
talking about going skiing. And just his voice reminded me a lot of guys I'd grown up with
in San Francisco in the '70s. He just, I don't know, in a deep voice. And I stood up to look
at him and see what he looked like. And he had a reddish stubble.
He was a big, strong guy. And my Rob had been very slender and feminine. But the minute
I saw this guy I thought, "That's him," the face, the voice, the stubble. I was done.
I knew that I had him. And so, at that point, after that, I started writing with that image
in mind of Rob and in fact, his physicality is really an important part of who he is.
It turns out he's a former football player. His bigness is a part of him in every moment
of that chapter. And without that bigness, I couldn't make him work. But again, the closest
I could seem to come to actually using anyone from my life is literally grabbing images
of strangers on the subway.
So, it's an odd process. Where I have the most trouble, it won't surprise you to hear
after all that I've said is writing about someone who really reminds me of someone that
I know. Which I did in "Look At Me." A very problematic character because there's a connection
to someone I know and love.
And the result was that I gave this person way too much air time and people were just
numb with boredom because they thought like, "He never shuts up. Are you not seeing or
hearing how dull this is?" And I was not. I felt he was fascinating.
So that's an example of how my judgment seems to really be impaired by actual connections
to my real life.
>>Greg Sanders: The distance helps.
>>Jennifer Egan: It really helps. And clear boundaries seem to really help me. That being
said, actually the narrator of the PowerPoint I think is a lot like me, the twelve-year
I missed it because I was under so much pressure to write that chapter quickly and I was so
thrilled to have found a way to do it at all, but I think I sneaked in there without even
realizing it. But the peace-making, pre-teen who's a storyteller and a witness, I think
there's a connection there, but I didn't know it.
And that was what was important. I need to not know it until it's already done.
>>Greg Sanders: Great. Thank you. I think we're probably out of time. So, thank you
very much.
>>Jennifer Egan: Thanks so much. Happy to sign books.