Jennifer Egan Wins Award; Gives Me Advice

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Elissa Bassist shares her personal notes after having a conversation with Jennifer Egan:

Hot news item: Egan Wins National Book Critics Circle’s Fiction Prize. “Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad bests Jonathan Franzen’s work. The nonfiction award goes to ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.‘”

Instead of mentioning how the Los Angeles Times reported this news with a picture of Franzen rather than of one of the stunning Egan, I’ll share some notes I took from Egan’s reading and our post-reading conversation.

On Writing A Visit from the Goon Squad:
-She was trying to write a different book and wrote this one instead.
-She started writing from “that moment” (for the first chapter, she imagined a woman stealing someone’s wallet in the bathroom; Egan began writing from “this moment,” and from it came clothing, humor, dialogue, and an ending [the thief will “get well”]).

Notes on characters:
-Establish “meaningful connection of shared experience” to “knowing each other too much.”
-The “yes/no smile”
-I’m changing, I’m changing, I’m changing, I’ve changed.
-Changes happen offstage (there’s always an inner logic).
-Care about minor characters.
-We never really know each other.
-Deliver up the past.

She set three rules for writing this book:
1. Every chapter must have a different protagonist.
2. Every chapter must have a different theme and feel.
3. Each chapter must stand alone.

She hoped to:
-Find little things and explore them deeply.
-Leap into lives of minor characters later in life.
-Insert dramatic possibilities so as make each chapter jump when read in succession.

Her process:
-Start with a time and a place.
-Be excited/surprised by the process (notetaker intrusion: I’m learning this; rather than be depressed and blocked by the process, why not be thrilled by it? Replacing “depressed” with “excited” has changed my experience of writing/living.)
-Avoid going backward instead of forward (so simple, and yet, so unyieldingly difficult).
-Start with as little as possible (this is the scariest advice I’ve ever heard–what about all my Word documents/false starts from seven years ago? What about all my scraps of paper with dashed-off brilliance? What about all the quotations I’ve retyped from every book I’ve ever read???)
-She numbers her drafts (sometimes 50 drafts)
-“Process” is what you learn (she said nonfiction forces you to learn faster–she writes both)

Re: outlining, she charts:
-What she has
-What she needs
-How to get it

On writing groups:
-She has one.
-Instead of emailing or printing drafts, each writer reads aloud and receives verbal responses on the spot. This way there is no homework or outside preparation. Also, when she reads aloud, she can see what matters and what doesn’t. (I have since tried this, and she is right. When you read your writing aloud, you find out faster when and where you should like an idiot.)

A brief reenactment of our brief conversation:
Elissa: “Hello, Jennifer Egan, my name is Elissa.”
Jennifer Egan: “Nice to meet you, Elissa.”
Elissa: [!!!] Elissa (again): “I recently co-edited this famous and important book, I’m sure you’ve heard of it, Rumpus Women, Volume I. It’s a collection of personal essays by women. I think women writing and being published and having their unique voices heard is the most important thing. I want to thank you for A Visit from the Goon Squad–it is like a guiding light in bookstore windows [kiss-ass, but earnest]–it’s one of the few hardcover books by a woman that is always there. Every time I spot your turquoise cover next to Franzen’s book, I think Anything you can do, we can also do.”
Egan: It’s good to know young women are thinking hard about the situation of women in publishing.
Elissa: But I have a question. How did you maintain the courage to create something out of nothing? What I mean to say is, if I pitched a book outlining the rules you made for your book (1. Every chapter must have a different protagonist; 2. Every chapter must have a different theme and feel; 3. Each chapter must stand alone), I think people would look at me like I’m crazy and say it cannot be done this way (unless there is a vampire, etc.).
Egan: That’s why you don’t tell anyone about it. Just write it. (Worked out for her.)

[And then we got married! Not really.]

Closing notes:
After her reading, when I was alone in my apartment, I opened my newly signed copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad. She wrote, “Keep the faith.”


Elissa Bassist edits the Funny Women column. She teaches humor writing at The New School and Catapult. Follow her on Twitter, and visit elissabassist.com for more literary, feminist, and personal criticism. More from this author →