If I won the Pulitzer I might never recover. When I compose a particularly lucid text message, I’m not sure how I’ll top it, so I can only assume a post-Pulitzer existence similarly nerve-racking. But 2011 fiction winner Jennifer Egan, though no stranger to anxiety, hopes to take her victory in stride.
Hailed as a rock and roll novel, Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, does pay homage to the record album, but that’s just part of its aim. Influenced by Proust and "The Sopranos," Goon Squad’s time hurdling assortment of interlocking stories may have captured the imagination of music fans, but its truly notable for its fearless defiance of literary conventions. But then what is rock and roll about if not fearless defiance?
Our Town Congratulations on winning the Pulitzer. Now what?!
Jennifer Egan In a way, I’m not in a position to fully answer--and maybe this is the answer--since winning, I haven’t had time to work, so I’m not sure of the impact. The danger is one sits down to write and thinks, “I’m a Pulitzer winner, where’s the genius?” My hope is I can just relax a little bit. Not feel pressure because, pressure to do what, win a Pulitzer? The ideal way to react would be to say, “ok I got the big award, let’s just keep writing better and also have some fun." I [also] tend to be a fairly anxious person, so I’m used to feeling anxious as I work and having to deal with a fair amount of worry in the writing process. So while the nature of the anxiety may change, I’m used to functioning amidst that feeling.
OT You were born in Chicago. Any specific memories?
JE I lived there until I was seven, when my mother and step-father moved to San Francisco but I visited my father every summer and I still have two sisters there, so I feel very connected to Chicago, even the tiniest details. I love the way the brick is tinted yellow. You don’t see that on the East Coast, it’s always red brick. One place that’s meaningful to me is the Art Institute where I went as a little girl, such a lovely scale with all kinds of nooks and crannies.
OT To what degree does a writer’s geography shape her work?
JE Place is usually my entry point, time and place. The sense of slightly rusty, industrial decay--much less present in Chicago now, is incredibly evocative to me. I did a lot of research on the history of Chicago when I was writing my novel Look at Me, which takes place in Rockford. I was very interested in the industrial revolution as it hit the Midwest; the disappearance of prairie, the railroad, the changing of the landscape. One reason all that fascinates me is my physical connection. When we moved, I remember immediately being struck by the aesthetic difference between Chicago and San Francisco. Feeling that I was somehow from and, in a way, of two such very different places with such different textures and histories and qualities has been significant for me as a writer. I tend to like to write about more than one world at once. My books tend to have at least two—Goon Squad has a lot more than that—very diverse and often opposing landscapes.
OT Speaking of Goon Squad, did you anticipate reviewers’ emphasis on the album aspect?
JE The album—a full vision composed of discreet units of music-- was something I wanted to honor. [But the book] seemed to have been regarded as a rock and roll novel more than I would have expected. There are lots of chapters that really have nothing about music in them [yet] the overall impression many readers walk away with seems to be of a book really steeped in music and the music industry. When it was published, I don’t think we made any special effort to reach out to that whole market of music related publications because I don’t think anyone was quite thinking of it that way. I have no problem with anything that people focus on. I feel like you write it and then people are going to make what they want of it and take what they want from it and that is the nature of writing books. I would never quibble with that, but I was surprised by it.
OT Can writing be taught?
JE It’s funny to me when people say it can’t. Visual artists have gone to art school for hundreds of years so why would that not be possible with writing? I belong to a writing group and we read work aloud fairly regularly, which is not that different than a writing workshop. I don’t like to work in a vacuum because I did that the first time I ever tried to write a novella and I ended up with hundreds of pages of unreadable dreck, and it was very disappointing.
OT Are there potential downsides to MFA programs?
JE I was never the teacher’s pet, so I feel sensitive to the plight of the kind of student who might be demoralized by getting criticism too early or who [isn’t] the one all the teacher’s love. When you are like that, it’s hard to hold onto the secret belief that you could do something interesting. That’s one reason it may be good I didn’t get an MFA, and actually the reason I didn’t, is I couldn’t get into any program. Instead, I had a scholarship to study in England and I traveled around the world. I guess the one other thing is, while knowing what’s working or not working is helpful (like if a manuscript is tanking but a few paragraphs feel really alive, it’s so helpful for the writer to know which ones those are because that becomes the blueprint for how to correct the rest), the approach to a writing career that relies on a professionalism right out of the gate is potentially limiting, depending on the person. I’m a believer in getting out there and seeing the world, pushing your comfort zone, being alone, doing things that are risky and adventurous at a time in life when you have the freedom to do that.
OT How much do you know about a book’s plot before you begin writing?
JE I have no idea where anything will go when I start. The Keep, my gothic thriller, is a little, tight crystal of a book and yet I wrote it blindly. I tend not to think about plot per say, although I am very wary of the book in which nothing happens. I come at plot from this point of view: Every unit of a piece of fiction, right down to a paragraph, you could even maybe say a sentence, has to tell its own little story- that’s what I always think. In other words, you want to emerge from whatever that unit is in a slightly different place than you entered. I think of each chapter as an individual unit telling an individual story in specific steps and each one has to move things forward, so I guess I end up being very careful about plotting but I never think of the word ‘plot.’ It’s not something I isolate as an element of craft that concerns me. The sense of forward motion is something I think about a lot and I think about it in terms of physical description. If you’re going to describe a person more than once you have to make sure the second description moves forward in some way. It can’t just be a repetition. Even peripheral characters-- every time we return to that person, our sense of them has to be advanced by what we see or what happens, otherwise there’s no reason to return to them, that’s just static, a lost opportunity. Why not show us something we’re not expecting? The ideal would be something that even contradicts or undercuts [what] we already know. I’m always thinking about working against what I’ve already done to create those complexities.
OT Back to music, is it part of your writing process?
JE For [Goon Squad] yes, generally not at all. People seem to think I must be some fabulous music nerd and I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I’m really not. I don’t think I’ve been to a live concert in twenty years. I tend to take on certain worlds just for the purpose of one book. [For The Keep] I really steeped myself in the history of gothic fiction, and was embraced by gothic readers and websites and groups, some of whom I’m sure were startled to find with Goon Squad there’s not a hint of the gothic. However, while working on it, music was critical. It helped me switch gears from one chapter to the next because it was difficult to change worlds and moods and tones as often as I did. It’s hard enough from one book to the next, but one chapter to the next? I found myself struggling for a voice that didn’t feel like any of the other voices, most temptingly the last one I had written in. Music helped me recalibrate.
OT What do you do that looks the least like writing but is most important to your process? For example, running or showering.
JE It’s so funny that you mention running and showering. I would say both. I haven’t been writing much in the last few weeks and I also have not been running. The two really go together. Running immediately can help me solve problems. Showering was oddly important with this book. I haven’t found that with other books, but this book was so much about finding and pursuing connections between and among people—those connections were often made in the shower, so I went through a lot of hot water!
A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by followingOur Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez