Jennifer Egan’s latest book, A Visit From the Goon Squad is a collection of short stories told in many different voices that come together to look at a group of people and the passage of time. Each story could easily stand alone, as did “A to B,” which was published in Dossier and “Safari,” which was published in The New Yorker. As Egan’s fans know, her style varies from book to book and this collection is a testament to her wide-ranging mastery of voice and tone. She takes on the voices of so many different characters in this book- thirteen to be exact- that range from little girls to old men. The title comes from one of the characters, Bosco: “Time is a goon,” and Egan shows us how people grow-up, fall in love, find success, become obsolete, stage comebacks, get old and die all in the course of one life. This is not the first book to employ this tactic of the collective narrator, but I think it is done in such an organic way where you really feel something pulling you towards these characters and start thinking about how lives are lived in groups. Egan was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about writing such a multi-layered book and what she is reading now.
Katherine Krause: How did you start writing A Visit From the Goon Squad?
Jennifer Egan: A Visit From the Goon Squad began as so many projects do: as a way of avoiding something else. I was having trouble approaching a novel I’d been researching for quite a while, and I was looking for an entertaining distraction. Around this time, I found myself washing my hands in a hotel bathroom on the Upper East Side. When I looked down, I noticed a wallet resting in a bag in plain view right below the sink I was using. Its owner seemed to be in the toilet stall. Having been pickpocketed and otherwise robbed somewhere around fifteen times in my life, I felt immediate anxiety about the vulnerability of that wallet. Then I thought: but there’s no one in the bathroom except me. Which led to the fantasy of taking the wallet…or rather, a projection into the mind of a woman who might do such a thing. I found it exhilarating to imagine myself on the other side of the robbery equation. I decided to begin working on a story the next morning, beginning at the moment that a woman takes a wallet from a bathroom. Three years later, I finished Goon Squad.
Katherine: It only took three years to write Goon Squad?
Jennifer: Well, about three years, but four of the chapters in it I’d written and published some years ago as stand-alone stories. They were in a kind of limbo in my mind; I wanted to revisit them, but wasn’t sure how to. Then, to my surprise and excitement, I found the new material sending out tentacles and attaching to that earlier stuff. Characters from those older stories began to reappear at earlier and later moments of their lives. So if you include the time I spent writing that older material, it ends up having been a longer process. But difficult to measure.
Katherine: So, the stories didn’t start out being connected to each other?
Jennifer: Each one would make me curious about a peripheral character, and then I’d begin a piece about that person. For example, in the first chapter, “Found Objects,” the wallet thief mentions in passing her former boss, a record producer who sprays pesticide in his armpits and sprinkles gold flakes in his coffee. When I wrote that, I meant it as a laugh line–a thumbnail sketch of a decadent music industry type. But after finishing that chapter, I found myself curious about the music producer and why he has those odd habits. So I began a story about Bennie Salazar, who turned out to be one of the main characters, and I began with no more information than the fact that he did those odd things. The chapter was an exploration of why he did them. And in the course of writing that chapter, several other peripheral characters caught my eye…and so on.
Katherine: Do you have a favorite character in Goon Squad?
Jennifer: It would probably be Bennie Salazer, whom I mentioned above. I loved him for his wild, neurotic eccentricities. He’s also plagued by shame memories, which is something that was happening to me at about the time I began his chapter. So we have that in common.
Katherine: Who was the first character you wrote about?
Jennifer: First Sasha, then Bennie. Then Bennie’s former wife, Stephanie, whose older brother turned out to be someone from one of the earlier stories. That one took the form of a celebrity profile, told from the point of view of a troubled, exhausted, harassed and ultimately violent man who attacks the starlet he’s interviewing. When I wrote about Stephanie, that character, Jules Jones, reappeared after his jail sentence.
Katherine: Which was the last story?
Jennifer: The last one was the second-to-last chapter, which is written in PowerPoint. I wrote that under a lot of pressure last summer, after I’d already sold the book. I was absolutely consumed by a desire to write fiction successfully in PowerPoint. But let me tell you, it’s not easy.
Katherine: Was that the hardest to write?
Jennifer: The PowerPoint chapter was the hardest technically. Second hardest would be “Out of Body,” which is written in second person. Also very hard to pull off.
Katherine: Was it difficult to switch back and forth between so many voices?
Jennifer: I found it refreshing to move from one to the next, in much the same way that I like to completely change the ground rules from one book to another. But it was extremely hard to find a unique voice, and world, and mood, for each chapter. It was hard to start fresh thirteen times and still have them all add up to one big story.
Katherine: Why did you choose to write Alison’s chapter in PowerPoint and footnote Jules’ chapter?
Jennifer: I knew I wanted to write in PowerPoint before I knew what that chapter would be about. I tried first to tell it from the point of view of a different character working in the corporate world–hence the PowerPoint. But found that a corporate frame was pretty deadening for fiction. I’d also toyed with the idea of writing about Sasha (the wallet thief) many years later, but I didn’t want to write another chapter from her point of view. Then it came to me that one of her kids could be the author of the PowerPoint, which gets around the corporate feeling. And I began to hear a kid of “voice” she would use in her PowerPoint, which was when I knew the gambit might work. As for the footnotes, I was trying to capture the desperate way in which writers of celebrity profiles try to elevate their pieces above the very low level at which celebrity profiles tend to operate. I felt so sympathetic to that attempt, but I also wanted to poke some fun at the result. I wrote that piece in the 1990s, when the David Foster Wallace/Nicholson Baker influence was pretty intense. There were a lot of footnotes around at that time.
Katherine: Is the book about the group of people or is it really about Sasha?
Jennifer: I think that’s really up to the reader. For me, it’s about different people at different times, and about all of them together, and about time itself.
Katherine: On your website, you have some notes about the genesis of your stories- do you have one you would like to share with us?
Jennifer: Sure, I’ll share some notes about the last chapter, “Pure Language,” which is one of my favorites:
Original Title: “Reach”
Where: In Prospect Park, after dropping off my son at Hebrew School, in a shrinking patch of sunlight on the grass, listening to bicyclists whipping past on the road behind me and wishing it were slightly warmer.
Music: The Frames, FOR THE BIRDS
History: My husband and I moved out of our apartment on West 28th Street in January 2001, three weeks after our first child was born. We made the jump to Brooklyn, a place I hardly knew except from trips to BAM. Before we sold our co-op, we learned that the two squat buildings east of us had been bought by a hotel company, which planned to build a skyscraper there. For years after we moved, nothing happened. And then, maybe three years ago, getting off the 1/9 train at my old stop on West 28th Street, I noticed construction beside our old building. The skyscraper was beginning to go up. Our apartment had four windows, all facing east; through one of them, where I’d placed my desk, I could look almost straight up at the Empire State Building. I remember that building so many different colors — a beautiful prong of New York, reminding me of why I’d come here in the first place, without family or job — with nothing more than a desire to be here. By now, that window must be covered up.
Last bit of history: It was only as I wrote about Alex not having seen the original World Trade Center that it struck me in a deep way that a whole generation of young New Yorkers has never seen those buildings — their experience of the city is purely post 9/11. Which of course is a strange idea for those of us who were here before. One of my first jobs in New York involved catering for the Port Authority; taking the 2 train from the West 69th Street apartment with the foam couch, getting off inside the World Trade Center and vaulting by elevator into a vast internal kitchen, thick with foody humidity, where (in my memory, anyway) there were mixing bowls the size of bathtubs. I wore a black skirt, dark tights and a white blouse, and my job was to arrange cookies on white paper doilies for luncheon meetings in the Port Authority offices. Naturally, I hated it. But I do find myself remembering that job, now and then.
Katherine: What are you listening to right now?
Jennifer: Well, my husband brought home a Madeline Peyroux CD last night and I was wild about it. He’s in the theater, and is actually the source of a lot of the new music I end up liking.
Katherine: How many hours a day do you write?
Jennifer: When I’m generating new material, I try to write 5-7 pages on a legal pad a day. I write by hand. Sometimes I can complete that job in an hour or two; sometimes it takes all day. Editing I can do for much longer periods. But honestly, I feel terribly far from all of it right now. I’m dying to reconnect with that part of my life.
Katherine: Do you have any rituals for writing?
Jennifer: Not really. The fact that I write by hand makes it easy to write anywhere. If I’m looking for a big new idea or direction, I’ll often go to a coffee shop. If I know what I want to do and just need to get to it efficiently, I’ll stay home. I try not to stop for very long once I start, because I’m trying to enter a sort of unconscious state outside of rational thought or planning. That’s where the good stuff comes from, for me.
Katherine: Could you provide a list for our readers of some favorite books of yours for summer reading?
Jennifer: Well, I don’t really think in terms of “summer reading,” because I tend to like the same kinds of books all year long. But here are some ideas:
-The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: fantastic gothic thriller. Impossible to put down.
-The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton: one of my favorites of all time. No one has more piercingly examined the relationship between beauty and commerce.
-Middlemarch by George Eliot: Such a glorious novel, and so strange. Better every time.
-Anything by Harold Q. Masur. His 1940s mysteries are unbelievably stylish (his “detective” is Scott Jordan, an irresistible–to women–lawyer). I believe his books are all out of print, but they’re worth tracking down for the sheer fun of it.
Katherine: What are you reading now?
Jennifer: David Copperfield. Can’t believe I’ve never read it before. It’s fantastically inventive; Dickens’ sense of how to put a scene together is thrilling.
Katherine: What do you want to read next?
Jennifer: Bleak House. I read this years ago but I don’t remember it well. I’ve gotten really interested in 19th Century fiction, and plan to focus mostly on that for the rest of this year.
Katherine: Who are some of your favorite authors working today?
Jennifer: Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, Susan Choi.
Katherine: What is one book you always refer to or read again?
Jennifer: Traditionally it’s been The Image by Daniel Boorstin, which was published in 1961 but essentially predicts, in accurate detail, the mass-media saturation of American culture and its bizarre consequences. That book should be required reading for every person living in America. But now I have a new one to add to the list: You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier. Lanier invented the term “virtual reality,” and was one of the early true believers in the positive power of the internet. Now he feels that things have gone badly awry, most of all because the Internet has ended up stifling creativity (and draining income from those who create) rather than spurring it. It’s a fascinating, necessary read.
Katherine: Who are some of your favorite artists working in a different discipline? Photography, painting, mixed-media, etc…
Jennifer: Well, I love Bill Viola, and his work has had a real influence on me over the years. I’ve been following the painter Vincent Desiderio for a long time. I’ve enjoyed the video installations of Toni Dove. My friend Eva Mantell stunned me recently with some strange and exquisite leaf rubbings that are so complex you have no idea how they were made. And another friend, Magaret Boyer, is doing fantastic large-scale color prints that remind me of a Cindy Sherman sensibility unleashed in the domestic realm.
Katherine: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
Jennifer: Good question. I could see myself as a doctor or an archeologist–both things I wanted badly to be at earlier points in my life. If I were a doctor and didn’t have a family, I would like to work with warring or refugee populations. I’d love to know that what I’m doing is directly helping people. That’s not a feeling you have often as a fiction writer.
Katherine: What are you working on now?
Jennifer: Blabbing about this book, mostly, but I’m fantasizing (hopefully the first step toward action) about writing another piece involving some characters from Goon Squad. Most of all, I want to tackle that big project I wrote Goon squad to avoid. I feel ready to approach it, finally–I hope it’s still out there, waiting for me.