Jennifer Egan talks to The National about how winning the Pullitzer for her book A Visit From The Goon Squad has (and hasn't) changed her career.
Author Jennifer Egan is one prized writer
In April, Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In a stroke, this modest 48-year-old American was elevated into the company of previous winners such as Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Ernest Hemingway and Harper Lee. It's no exaggeration to say she deserves it; A Visit From the Goon Squad is both a book that plays with the form of the traditional novel and genuinely does what the Pulitzer requires of its contenders - to represent American life in its myriad forms.
Since her win, Egan has become hot property. "I seem to spend more of my time talking than writing right now," she laughs. So you'd expect her to be well-versed in "selling" the merits of her fourth novel. The problem is, despite that Pulitzer Prize, she still finds it a struggle.
"It's never helpful when you can't describe your own book," she exhales. "But I'll give it a try. So... it's about a male music producer and his younger female assistant, following them backwards and forwards through time over about 50 years, reaching from the early 1970s to the near future. It also follows a number of characters peripheral to those events. And it's about time. And music. And it's structured like a concept album."
There's a brief pause. I wonder whether she's finished. To be honest, she doesn't seem sure either.
"You see! That is way too many sentences! And do I really conjure up the feeling of this book from that? No, I don't think I do. I don't think it's possible to actually do it. No wonder it was a hard sell to start with."
Not any more. A Visit From the Goon Squad sits happily in The New York Times bestseller list, having also beaten Jonathan Franzen's Freedom to the National Book Award and snaffled Egan the Los Angeles Times Book Prize as well as getting the promise of a television adaptation by HBO for which she has mooted Benicio Del Toro as an ideal cast member. "Did I really deserve more than one prize?" she chuckles when I mention her creaking mantelpiece. "I honestly feel I've been over-rewarded."
There's that modesty again. In fact, Egan actually did a pretty good job of describing the book, but to expand just a little, it consists of 13 connected stories introducing us to characters and situations that the previous chapter has alluded to. She started it not even knowing that it would be a novel, but began to be curious about the people and even locations in the margins of her stories.
"Like, one of my characters is talking about a trip to Africa," she explains. "But there's no mention of who he was with or what the circumstances were, and so I found myself thinking 'when, why, how, who with?' And it blossomed out from there. Usually, when I write, there's the sense of beginning to ascend a mountain of some kind. But because of the way this came about I never had that. What pulled me into it was just my own curiosity. That was the guiding principle, in the end."
And since even Egan didn't exactly know where A Visit From the Goon Squad was going, it gave her a freedom. "If you're going to write something in pieces, why not take advantage of that and broaden the range of what's possible to incorporate in one story?" she says now. Which is refreshingly ambitious. But not many Pulitzer Prize-winning authors have incorporated a chapter in their books consisting entirely of PowerPoint slides written by a teenage girl in the near future. Though that sounds decidedly tricksy, somehow it's one of the most moving sections of the book.
"When people call it an experimental novel I shudder a little," Egan says. "I mean, I'm all for experimentation but when you isolate that element it conjures in my mind a dry, academic exercise rather than a compelling story about people. It's true that in this novel and the two previous ones I have made strong choices about form. But really my reasons for that arose from the story I was trying to tell. The story should require those leaps.
"So you're right to point out that there's a kind of sweetness about that chapter, which I was able to get away with because it was in PowerPoint, as it's such a cold container. PowerPoint was like a wild card, but the irony is that the experiment allowed me to push as close as I dared to good old sweet, sentimental realism. I could write about this family without gagging at how conventional it all was!"
The PowerPoint chapter - available as a presentation on Egan's website - also offers another potential reason why so many people have begun to take A Visit From the Goon Squad to their hearts: as well as being clever, it's also great fun. There is another chapter where one of her characters, who works in PR, is employed by a nameless dictator to overhaul his image, with hilarious consequences. It was, initially, the section of the book with which reviewers had the most problems... until it was revealed that Colonel Qaddafi, the embattled Libyan dictator, had once done exactly that.
"As happens so often when you try to write satire in America, the reality quickly overtakes you," she says. "Ideally you would like it to seem true but not actually be true - because then it's not satire, it's just realism. My favourite part in that chapter is definitely when it's revealed the paparazzi are better at finding this dictator in his hideaway than all his enemies and assassins had been.
"But with this sort of book you have to have a lighter touch. I think if you're going to write about something as potentially heavy as time with a capital T, you had better find a mirthful, dancing approach to it."
It's the first time in our conversation Egan has suggested that there may be an overarching theme holding all the fragments of her stories together. The "Goon" in the title refers to a line in the book that says "Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?" Egan admits that she was heavily influenced by Proust's lengthy modernist epic In Search of Lost Time, but didn't want to create a similarly gigantic novel unfolding in real time. Instead, we're invited to fill in the gaps as the years pass.
"I was trying to render up the shocking effect of time passing in as many ways as I could," she says. "If you just say that, it sounds really dull, but this book is about the experience of looking at your life. But I really don't like it when books do the message thing. I guess I feel that if there is something really worthy it shouldn't really be revealing itself via huge signposts. At the heart of it I'd like my books to have some mystery to them, that people can draw their own conclusions from."
Of course, now that she's won so many prestigious prizes, some of that mystery will necessarily disappear. So how is she coping with the fact she'll be called "Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan" for the rest of her life?
"Right now, I'm thrilled. It's a gigantic validation from a brand that really means something. You know, people keep asking me whether I feel pressured now, but so far I really don't. I feel like I've been pressured my whole life to reach a certain level of achievement. So now I just want to relax and keep getting better, and I feel like this will make it easier rather than harder to do that. It may be that it's easy to say that right now because I do a lot more talking than writing right now. I mean, I can't promise that every book will be as good as this one, but I'll do my best."