The Rumpus Interview with Jennifer Egan

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Jennifer Egan is widely regarded, not pejoratively, as an “unclassifiable” novelist. Indeed, each of her books—Emerald City, The Invisible Circus, Look at Me, The Keep, and now A Visit From the Goon Squad—could have been written by different writers, so distinct are they in setting and style.

In person, as I found out when I interviewed her near her Brooklyn home, Jenny is a serious intellect fully engaged with the culture with almost scary DeLilloian intensity. She’s also funny, down-to-earth, totally cool, and, it turns out, a newly minted PowerPoint pro.

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The Rumpus: When we were e-mailing back and forth, setting this interview up, it seemed really important to you not to do an e-mail interview. Have we forgotten how to communicate in person, or do you need a break from typing?

Jennifer Egan: I think, from a journalist’s standpoint, which I know probably almost better than the other side, there’s nothing more convenient than an e-mail interview, because you don’t have to do anything, really. You write the questions, the interviewee spends a lot of time crafting their answers—they do all the work you would have to do, normally. I mean, transcribing is obviously a nightmare. But more than that, you have to shape the interview and cut out all the fat, and try to make it sound like speech while also being intelligent enough to read. So I understand the pros of the email interview, from the interviewer’s point of view. But I do think there’s something lifeless about online interviews.

Rumpus: You mean that whole “Twenty Questions” thing?

Egan: You can just feel that no actual conversation took place. And the writer’s just trying to sound articulate, of course—if you give a writer the job of writing answers to questions, of course they’re going to labor over them and polish them. But that’s not always the most readable interview, in my opinion.

Rumpus: There’s a big difference between spoken speech and written speech. I mean, some people write beautifully, but when they speak it’s all circumlocutions and stammerings (myself included). I don’t know if there’s a literary history of the relationship between writers and speech impediments, but I bet there’s a connection there.

Egan: I like spoken communication. I don’t write that way. Richard Powers dictates his books—I could never do that! I actually think, when it comes to an interview especially, there’s no substitute for communicating with a human being face-to-face. I honestly find that it’s just so boring to sit there and answer these questions in a vacuum. It’s so dull. So I guess I derive a little energy or excitement from talking to an actual human being.

Rumpus: Which is interesting, because your new novel begins with a Xanax-popping kleptomaniac, and ends with the fragmentation of language, with babies communicating via scary handheld gizmos and “people who stopped being themselves without realizing it.”

Egan: Even though I would be sad if all communication were reduced to the kind of T-ing I was creating, one thing that struck me was that there’s a kind of poetry to the fragmentation. That’s also the case with the PowerPoint chapter. Initially, I thought, I really want to write fiction in PowerPoint, but I also thought, it’s kind of sad that I want to write fiction in PowerPoint. But in fact, while I was using PowerPoint, I found that there was a kind of beauty to writing that way that was distinct from conventional fiction, and that I really believed in and enjoyed. While I have a kind of dread about where the culture is going, I feel like when I engage with the forces I dread in fiction I often end up finding more value in them than I expected to, intellectually. That said, I wasn’t thinking about the end of the book as a dystopian vision at all. I was just exploring the possibilities.

Rumpus: Is that what your were trying to reproduce, then—the destructive, broken quality some of the best rock-and-roll has?

Egan: Yeah, totally. That was my structural model, and that’s why the novel has an A side and a B side.

Rumpus: Speaking of the novel’s structure, it’s part short story collection, part novel, part PowerPoint presentation. Did that formal restlessness come about organically?

Egan: It evolved very organically. I started with the first piece, “Found Objects.” At the time, I was between projects and thought I’d just write a story. I had gone in to a bathroom and seen a wallet lying under the sink, and I found myself pondering the wallet and postulating an alternate version of myself who would take the wallet. Who would that person be? Why would she take the wallet in the bathroom? That’s where I started writing out of, and then there was a mention of the wallet-thief’s boss, Bennie Salazar. I write pretty instinctively, so it’s not like I was thinking about it much, but at the time I intended it as a humorous sketch about a neurotic record producer, who sprays pesticide under his arms and sprinkles gold flakes in his coffee as an aphrodisiac. You know, these decadent rock-and-roll habits. But then I found myself thinking who is Bennie Salazar? Why does he do that stuff? Which prompted me to write the next chapter. And the same thing happened again: a minor character would catch my eye, and I’d want to crack them open. I knew pretty early that it wasn’t a conventional novel, or a story collection—it didn’t fit into the standard literary genres that were available to me, so I thought, well, it’s a record album. The pieces all relate, they tell one big story, whereas often in a story collection—certainly collections of connected stories—there tends to be a sameness of tone and world, and I really didn’t want that. I mean, my God, would you ever have songs that were tonally the same on the same LP? That would be a disaster. There’s always this effort to contrast, to follow something really loud with something quiet. I love that, and at the same time, it’s an homage to a form that’s sadly gone—the LP, even the CD. Now we buy music in this atomized way which I find sad from the point of view of the musicians, because now they’re unable to conceive of large visions and have the general public engage with them on those visions. They can only sell their vision in defragmented form. Who sees the whole thing? I found that poignant, and since the book is so much about time and change, it’s a poignancy that seemed apt.

Rumpus: When you were writing Goon Squad, were you conscious of whether or not you were writing a so-called “rock-and-roll novel.” I mean, books like DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet, Hornby’s High Fidelity, Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments—it’s even been argued that Wuthering Heights is a “rock-and-roll novel.”

Egan: Did I think about that as a genre?

Rumpus: Yeah, but whereas most of the rock novels I’ve read don’t really capture the spirit of the music, Goon Squad strikes an authentic rock-and-roll vibe, I think.

Egan: You know what? I didn’t worry about that. I’m not really interested in what literary writers have to say about rock-and-roll. No offense. No offense. I just—I often feel there’s a yearning to be a rock star hidden away in there, and I think that’s sweet but uninteresting, and in a way kind of universal. Who doesn’t want to be a rock star? Actually I don’t want to. I have performance anxiety—and I’m not very musical. So no, I didn’t think, I’m going to write a rock novel. I just, again, unlike in every other one of my books, this one was not driven by a strong conceptual or philosophical vision. I really went about it very inductively and laterally. In fact, with this book, even the ideas I did have about how it would all fit together turned out to be wrong. I thought it would go backwards in time, then I thought it would go backwards and then into the future. And it would have been too intimidating to declare:   I’m going to write a Rock Novel. I just thought, I want it to be fun. In terms of literary history, I thought about it more as a novel about time, and I did think carefully about who else has done that and what they did, Proust being Number One. I thought about other literary novels about time and I wanted to be a part of that conversation. Maybe why I wasn’t too worried about whether or not it would work as a rock-and-roll book was because I was actually interested in technological change and its implications, using the music industry as a kind of lens.

Rumpus: When I was reading Goon Squad, I kept thinking of Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, another book that’s formally daring and that addresses the relationship between memory and time.

Egan: You’re hitting on something important. I think there’s a huge amount of tension around the issue of time, and especially chronology, in fiction, and we’ve been wrestling with that from minute one. Look at a book like Tristram Shandy, which is so crazily experimental in a way we still have yet to match. There’s such a desire not to just say:  this happened and then this happened and then this happened. The tension is between the incremental and inexorable passage of time and the leaping, stuttering quality of consciousness. The two do not match up. One result of that is that time is passing gradually, but we experience its effect as very sudden. Our perception of time is full of all these gaps. That really interests me, and I think it informed the fragmented structure of the book. I wanted to capture as many shocking discoveries of time having passed as possible, which is difficult to do if you’re just moving forward in time. I also was just really interested in gaps. Things that happen when you’re not looking. Again, I wasn’t thinking about this in a very conceptual way, but I think this is why I felt so driven to write in PowerPoint, even though I had never used PowerPoint. It allowed me to do, in the boldest way, the thing I was trying to do already: to write incorporating gaps and interruptions, to try to elude the straitjacket of chronology that writers always struggle with.

Rumpus: Is this all made worse by the technological developments at the end of your book, the hand-held gizmos the babies have?

Egan: I didn’t think too much about those devices and their relationship to time. I saw them more as radical measures of change and evidence of time having passed. I remember growing up, it was always important for older people to tell me what things I had that they didn’t have when they were my age, technologically. Like my mother would say, “We sat around and we listened to the radio.” Well, that was very boring to me as a kid. Who cares? Let’s turn on the TV. That was my view at the time. But it’s funny, I have that same urge now. I find myself saying to my sons, “Guys, I just want you to understand, that when I was little there were no answering machines. When you made a phone call, someone was either home, you got a busy signal, or the phone rang and rang and rang.” My younger son listened very carefully, and then he said, “Mommy, was there electricity when you were little?” And I thought, all right, I’m going too far with this. But I mean, the idea that all you could do to reach someone was call their house and hope that they’re there and not on the telephone—those are your only chances of talking to them. And now look at us—you can’t get away from people.

Rumpus: And email—there’s no letter-writing anymore, for the most part.

Egan: Exactly. I do not have and I do not want remote email, and I plan to stand my ground for as long as I can.

Rumpus: Because you don’t want to—

Egan: Because for me, psychologically, I don’t see any good reason I should be on email all the time. I’m not running a major corporation. I have a telephone. Anyone can reach me. But what I witness is people who cannot stop checking their email. I don’t want that. It feels compulsive, and I’m not looking for any more compulsions. But it’s interesting, I wonder how that is affecting time. I think a lot about how technology affects distance. I went to Europe at age eighteen with a backpack. I was completely alone in the world. If I wanted to talk to someone, I had to wait in line at a phone place to even call home, which I did maybe once a week, and if nobody was home I didn’t talk to anyone. And I felt really—it was a formative experience for me to feel so isolated and so disconnected. How do people do that anymore?

Rumpus: They don’t.

Egan: There’s no such thing as disconnected anymore. Personally, I think it’s too bad, although as a parent I’m thrilled. I don’t want my kids wandering around without a connection to me, and yet for them it’s too bad, because they’ll never have access to that human experience of being totally disconnected. How will that change them? How will it change us all? The feeling of time passing, for me anyway, is partly the sense of no longer knowing the people I once knew. You move through worlds, and now everyone is back in touch. How do you measure your own growth and change if no one ever leaves?

Rumpus: To get back to something we were talking about earlier. Genre. It’s something that’s on a lot of people’s minds these days. Does it still exist? And if not, what the heck happened?

Egan: Actually, I don’t really care too much about genre. I think it’s a selling tool. Basically, it creates a kind of shorthand that makes some people’s lives easier.

Rumpus: You mentioned Tristram Shandy. That’s one of the biggest genre-busters out there.

Egan: How about Cervantes? How crazy is Don Quixote? Even nineteenth-century novels, which are supposed to be so staid, they’re actually not. I reread Middlemarch recently. It’s narrated by a really flexible, intrusive, at times quite strange, overbearing, but also very funny and arch narrator, and it’s not even a first-person narrator. Although at times the narrator addresses the reader in the first person. I think if you did that now you’d be perceived as being a little out there. I mean, I do think we’ve gotten really quiet about pushing any limits, all limits, as fiction writers. I would love to see more craziness out there. The novel began as this completely weird outpouring of strangeness. It was there from the beginning. It’s inherent in the form. At least the possibilities are there, but I feel like we’re not exploiting the possibilities as much as we could be. I just want to feel some playfulness happening on the page, and if genre has started to hold people back, then it’s time for genre to disappear. Or change.

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[The end of this interview was conducted using PowerPoint. View it here. –Ed.]

Alec Michod is the author of The White City. He graduated from the University of Chicago and has an MFA from Columbia University. His work has recently appeared in Ben Marcus' Smallwork and The Believer, and he's interviewed Jennifer Egan and David Mitchell, among others, right here at The Rumpus. He’s been working on a new novel at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy. More from this author →