Candy from Strangers: A Conversation with Jennifer Egan
In The Candy House, the much-anticipated “sibling novel” to 2010’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan imagines a future that lies just beyond our peripheral vision, where, as exciting new technology beckons, there is always a price to pay for those tempted to take a bite.
The Candy House, out now from Scribner, opens with tech mogul Bix Bouton, inventor of the revolutionary new technology “Own Your Unconscious,” which allows users to upload their memories to the cloud and, in turn, access everyone else’s. As buy-in accelerates, society begins to splinter, privacy edges toward obsolescence, and corporations employ “counters” to mine users’ digital data. Some people, called “eluders,” opt out, taking extraordinary measures to drop off the grid.
Like A Visit from the Goon Squad, which features a chapter entirely in PowerPoint, The Candy House dabbles in a range of narrative styles, from first-person plural to emails to a spy manual. Egan weaves together interlocking stories from the Goon Squad universe with a new cast of characters, all searching for connection, love, power, freedom, or authenticity, all trying to hold onto their humanity amid rapid technological change.
An icon of literary fiction, Egan is the author of several novels and a short story collection. Her 2017 novel, Manhattan Beach, a New York Times bestseller, was awarded the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Along with the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, A Visit from the Goon Squad won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was named as one of the decade’s best books by multiple publications. Also a journalist, Egan has written frequently for the New York Times Magazine and, from 2018 to 2020, served as President of PEN America.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Egan over the phone, where we discussed how it felt to revisit characters from A Visit from the Goon Squad, the performative nature of social media, and why her writing practice requires “layers of readers.”
The Rumpus: Why did you decide to return to the world of A Visit from the Goon Squad?
Jennifer Egan: In a way, I never really was away from any of it. It always felt very open-ended. There were four or so chapters I tried to make work for Goon Squad that I couldn’t make work, and because of that, there was information in those chapters that was still with me that readers didn’t have—knowledge about things that happen to people, for example. So, when Goon Squad was done and published, that automatically created a portal into some sort of additional material. I don’t like that feeling, even though my books are pretty open-ended, and some would say too much so. The truth is, if I know something, the reader knows it, too. I really don’t withhold information. That I knew more than the reader at the end of Goon Squad through the simple fact that I had failed to produce certain chapters that would have delivered up this information, automatically suggested further exploration and development of this material. I guess it just always felt like a world that I could continue to explore.
Also, the whole organizing principle of Goon Squad really was just my own curiosity about things glimpsed from the corner of my eye, whether it was a person or a peripheral character or an earlier situation we hear of. My curiosity was continuing to expand and catch glimpses of more things in that world that interested me, so it just felt natural to pursue those. It was never in question that I would continue to write about some of those people. The only question mark was, Would the result be a book? Writing fanfiction of my own work is not of interest to me; the question was, can it combine into something that is its own entity not concerned with the same things as Goon Squad, that is not interested in time or music, per se? Ideally, I also felt like unless I thought it was better than Goon Squad on some level, I would be hesitant to publish it as a book, just because it would naturally seem worse. If all I’ve done is hit the same target twice—I don’t know, is that really an accomplishment? So, I really had to feel excited about it unto itself.
Rumpus: When did you first start writing The Candy House?
Egan: The timeline was extremely long. I started writing the chapter now called “Lulu the Spy” before Goon Squad was published. So that was already in the works. Some people have said, Well, did you just think about trying to include it? No way. I could feel that it was part of a different project. It was a little too far out there structurally to combine with a book that included a PowerPoint chapter. I think its genre-esque-ness is what made it feel so outside the bounds of Goon Squad. So, I started writing that in 2010, and it was published in 2012 in The New Yorker as “Black Box” [Editors’ note: It was also released by @NYerFiction via Twitter]. Meanwhile, I was writing the beginnings of what became four chapters of The Candy House, while also writing the first drafts of Manhattan Beach. At that point, I actually had to put the book aside, not because I didn’t have the imaginative space exactly, but I just didn’t have the time. I still had kids at home, and I felt like it going to take all my energy just to try to acquire the knowledge I needed to write Manhattan Beach. It was only when Manhattan Beach was finished in 2016 that I finally returned to those chapters and typed them up, and then from that point on, I was working on it pretty consistently.
Rumpus: What would you say are the key themes and concerns of The Candy House compared to A Visit from the Goon Squad?
Egan: They’re pretty different. Goon Squad is interested in the passage of time, while The Candy House is not. The way I conceived of it was more as an exploration of space and the ways in which our increasing incorporation of the digital into our everyday lives has altered our perceptions of and our relationship to space. It’s interesting because, of course, I started writing the book long before the pandemic, but the pandemic has completely furthered my curiosity about space as a concept because it’s forced us to have a different relationship to space than before. I mean, I had never used Zoom before the pandemic. So, the interaction among our relationship to technology and our perceptions of space was one guiding idea. The other was the paradox that data collection makes manifest, which is that we humans are both easily predictable and categorizable and yet completely unknowable. Obviously, categorizing is problematic in a million ways. That’s how you get to stereotypes and all the rest of it, and yet, we are categorizable, we are predictable, and that’s what data collection is all about. If we don’t accept that that’s the case, then collecting data makes no sense. But at the same time, all our data collection and this information deluge don’t seem to be able to predict much of anything. We didn’t predict 9/11. We didn’t predict Trump’s win. I’m just fascinated by the many paradoxes that result from our move toward data-guided information and knowledge.
Rumpus: The Candy House also revisits themes from your previous work: media saturation, the quantification of human experience. Charlotte Swenson, protagonist of your 2001 novel Look at Me, even makes an appearance. Why do these ideas interest you?
Egan: Probably of all my books, that is the one that has really stayed with me the most. I think I’m the proudest of it. I recognize it’s imperfect, but I feel like I introduced a lot of ideas that have guided me ever since. It was really the book where I feel like I crossed over into doing the kind of work that I’m really interested in doing. Namely, work that it feels like I haven’t quite read it or done it before. It means a lot to me personally. even though I also recognize that a lot of people find it unreadable. Which, fair enough.
Rumpus: What? No! That’s my favorite book of yours, actually. I love Look at Me.
Egan: Maybe I should be sad that my favorite of my books was written twenty years ago. Come on, Egan! Let’s try to top it! But for me, it was a defining work. When I started writing Look at Me in the nineties, I had never been online, there was no social media. And what I was interested in then was what we would now call performative culture, whether image culture or media saturation, and how the resulting need to present ourselves as media products—and that is what I think of social media essentially as requiring—has changed our relationship to ourselves, our inner lives. The very fact that I was asking that question suggests I thought the answer was, Yes, and I think I had a negative idea about that. But in writing that book, I realized that the story it tells is the opposite, that in some ways we can’t reveal ourselves beyond a certain point, as much as we might like to, and the fact that this self-revelation is so performative underscores the fact that that’s as close as we can get. We can try to perform our inner lives, but we can’t actually reveal them. We can create a simulacrum, which is so much of what I see on social media, and that simulacrum is entertainment. It’s exciting because we all love the whiff of authenticity, and the more mediated our culture feels, the more we crave it, but we can’t actually give it away. We cannot actually break through the barrier of our individual aloneness.
I guess that’s why I referenced Look at Me in this book. I wanted to own the fact that this is not new material for me entirely, but it felt worth revisiting because of the incredible changes in technology since the nineties. I think it is heartening, actually, that there is something inviolable about us that is inherently mysterious, as much as sometimes we ourselves want to give that mystery away. And we’re mysterious to ourselves. I do have a kind of wonder at human beings, which I find very heartening, because we have such major problems. God knows, we cause unbelievable destruction, and we continue to. I mean, look at Ukraine. And yet there is something wondrous about what human beings can do. I do have a lot of faith in that, even amidst all the destruction and the worries and the dangers.
Rumpus: Beyond considering these themes, what research did you do for this book? What sorts of resources did you turn to, to ensure accuracy and flesh out your ideas?
Egan: This is practically an unresearched book. Compared to something like Manhattan Beach, this was a cake walk. First, I should say I always use a lot of readers. I have layers of readers. I don’t write autofiction at all, so I am always outside my area of expertise, and I have to consult with people who know more than I do about things all the time. I don’t even know if I would call that research. I would just call that due diligence. In the case of this book, the only research I did about tech was the terminology and the milieu I describe in Bix’s memories of the nineties, that moment when the internet was known to some but completely unknown to most, and what sort of language a person who did have that knowledge would use.
Rumpus: Aside from the research component, what does your writing process look like for starting a new book? Tell me about your personal writing practice.
Egan: I pretty much do it the same way no matter what I’m working on. I write my first draft by hand without a plan or an outline. There is usually a strong burning intellectual idea or question lurking deep in the background, but my actual portal into starting anything is always time and place, so extremely visceral, in a way, as visceral as it can get, because time and place are even more fundamental than character. I need to feel something in my body: When and where are we? And I know that before I know who is going to show up. So, I start with that, and I write very blindly in my first draft. I have no idea what is going to happen or who is going to be involved. Then I type it up, read it through, and try to figure out whether I can proceed. If the answer is, Yes, that’s when I make a plan for the first time. In the case of a novel like Manhattan Beach, I made a revision outline, but with something shorter, I don’t really need to use one.
After that, I start revising, usually by hand on hard copies. What I’m trying to do with all this handwriting is access my unconscious, very simply, and just kind of fly. My mind tends to work in abstractions, and that’s not really the part of the brain that is useful in coming up with good fiction, so, I need to circumvent that. By handwriting, I’m trying to turn off the thinking part of my brain and just blunder into an improvisational realm where I’m surprising myself. Handwriting is very useful in coming up with new material, which is a big part of my revision process. I’m getting rid of the bad stuff, replacing it with good stuff, and making the good stuff better. And I do many, many, many, many drafts. I also find it incredibly helpful to bring work to my writing group to read aloud at various phases, just to hear it for myself and to get their reactions.
Rumpus: I noticed that you dedicated The Candy House to your writing group as well.
Egan: Yes! I always seem to need a ton of feedback when I write, and I know other people who don’t, and I salute them, but I’m just lost without it. It’s been the same people in that group for about fourteen years, and a couple people I’ve been working with since the early nineties. We’ve gotten old together. It’s just invaluable to me to have them as a resource. During the pandemic, we started meeting on Zoom every weekend. I don’t think we missed a weekend that first year. I always knew how indebted I was to them, but I think I felt that debt even more profoundly during that period, so it was a joy to dedicate it to them.
Rumpus: What’s next for you? Are you going on a book tour?
Egan: I’m totally going on a book tour, and if I have to read in the street, I will do it! For me, interacting with readers and having this somewhat public element in the publication process feels essential. I don’t think I ever knew before just how much until I contemplated the idea of doing this entire tour over Zoom. And I just thought, No way. I always want to meet people who read and who care about books—I mean, those are my people. And because it takes me a fair amount of time to write books, having that moment of actually meeting readers, talking to them and hearing from them, is really the final step in the process. And I don’t want to let that go.
To some degree, I also find out what my book is about from those readers. I know I ask a lot from my readers, and I feel such gratitude for readers who stick with me. It feels really important to me to interact with readers and connect with them because my hope is always that they’ll stick with me. That’s why I use so many pre-readers along the way. I want to find out how my stuff is landing way before it’s out in the world. It’s critical. Because in the end I do look at this as entertainment. It’s supposed to be fun. It can include despair and weeping, if I’m reading that kind of a book. That’s not incompatible with fun at all—the fun is of being transported out of my life into another life, which I experience as a kind of transcendence, both as a reader and a writer. That’s what I’m trying to provide. But it is essential to be transported for me, and if I don’t do my job right, that transport won’t happen.
Rumpus: And that’s what I love about your books—they’re so transportive. You forget about the outside world while you’re reading them.
Egan: I hope so. God, we’ve never needed it more.
Author photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem