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Pulitzer-Prize Winner Jennifer Egan Talks Time, Technology, And Her Formerly Marginal Existence

Originally Posted: July 12, 2011

Thomas McKee

Go for "A Visit From the Goon Squad," with Pulitzer-Prize winner Jennifer Egan, this Friday at BookHampton East. (Courtesy Photo: Pieter M. Van Hattem)

East Hampton - Even after snagging the Pulitzer Prize in April, coasting comfortably atop The New York Times Bestseller's List for the past four months, and being courted by HBO for the development of a television series inspired by her book, "A Visit From the Goon Squad," author Jennifer Egan is adamant about her own former mediocrity. "I really have to say, I did not stand out as being exceptional. At any point," she began emphatically, during our early morning interview this past week. "I mean, I took workshops when I got to New York, but I don't think anyone would have picked me as someone who would necessarily do much of anything," she admitted while on vacation with her family, juggling our phone conversation en route to a "rock climbing scramble" with her two young children. This Friday, July 15, Egan will be reading from her award-winning work at BookHampton East, at 8 p.m. on Main Street.

"Ten million interviews," ceaseless "selling," and the finalist position for a PEN/Faulkner Award notwithstanding, her attitude is overtly gracious and illogically humble - hardly the countenance of a writer recently reviewed as "remarkably brilliant" by Bill Blythe of The New York Times, composed of "technical bravado," as heralded by Ron Charles of The Washington Post. Most well read literary zealots nod in recognition at any brief mention of her name, Egan being the agreed-upon authorial beacon in a new generation of e-Readers, ADHD, and cultural digitalization. "This kind of acknowledgment, it feels amazing, but very surprising. Sometimes I think about it anew and I'm shocked again," she said on a laugh.

The lovechild of two divorces in suburban, middle-class Illinois, Egan is no thoroughbred in a lineage of artists. As a child, she dreamed not of words and far-away distant worlds, but of "hacking people open and fixing their bones."

"I did not want to be a writer. My grandfather was an orthopedic surgeon, and I actually really saw myself as a future doctor," she said.

Nor did she follow the typical trajectory of the literary establishment, shirking off an MFA - "I didn't get into any programs, and actually applied to some" - for a Master's in English by route of St. John's College, Cambridge. There were no early accolades for the fledging writer, no external motivation that urged her forward - just that formless obstinacy that compels those of seemingly sound constitution to say to themselves, I am a writer, despite all tenets of real world rationality.

"I was never driven to do it by a sense that I had a gift, but more by a sense that I just loved it, and it was what made the world make sense it for me. The filter of my writing sensibility, it was a necessary ingredient for life."

And after more than 16 years as a professional writer, with three novels, a collection of short stories, and countless articles for publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker, this element of surprise, her own self-proclaimed un-specialness, kept surfacing throughout our conversation, like the consistent motif in a symphony's recapitulation. But her humility is far removed from anything maudlin - the same unpretentiousness saturates her simple, sneaking prose and characters as three-dimensional as your next-door neighbor. Effortlessly, she embodies the lives of strangers, constructing painstakingly honest plotlines as objectively as a journalist, and as penetratingly as a psychoanalyst.

"Time is a goon," in Jennifer Egan's best selling novel. (Courtesy Photo: Jennifer Egan)

In "A Visit From the Goon Squad," Egan finds her profundity in the manipulation of narrative structure. Characters - from damaged protagonist Sasha, balancing bouts of kleptomania with hopes of a stable future, to Dolly, a PR executive in the midst of a [literal] career meltdown, to Scottie, a "quasi-homeless person" fearful to accept his own fated musical greatness - are strung together by merit of fleeting acquaintances, precarious relationships, and circumstances as momentary as a ripple in a stream. Each chapter offers an accomplished short story in itself, as visceral and concise as the four corners of a painting, ranging in form from first-person accounts, to a celebutante journalism article, to a PowerPoint presentation (which Egan taught herself solely for the purposes of the novel). The story moves between characters as quickly as it jumps between place and time - in one moment, the reader finds themselves in a lonely NYU dorm, to a South African safari, to a decaying, angst-ridden Naples. Egan's meticulous mosaic of divergent stories is as much a construction as it is a deconstruction, a peeling back of the layers of an essential element of existence: the passage of time, as marked by her homage to Proust in the novel's epigraph.

"I love seeing the jarring contrast between the apparent totality of a moment, the universality that the present always seems to have, and the actual fact that it is utterly transient," she said. "This is the paradox that I find really rich…and in 'Goon Squad,' you see that contrast again and again."

The same contrast - from nothing to something - encapsulates her career, and is undoubtedly the crux of her success. "I thought my life would be much more ordinary than its ended up being. I feel most personally that time passing has been liberating almost every step of the way," she said. "I think I felt that I was kind of marginal, so for me, the passage of time has come with realizing that none of that is really true, and all kinds of things are possible."

The sentiment of possibility carries over to her feelings on the current technological landscape. Though a self-proclaimed "reluctant learner" of gadgets, and "the last remaining AOL customer," devoid of any desire to purchase a Kindle - "I tend to favor objects over virtual representations" - she does see unending opportunities for young iPad-toting writers, looking to experiment with digital platforms. "There are exciting possibilities technologically for fiction, I feel that very profoundly," she said. "But as a consumer, I am much less interested in technology. I guess it is more likely that I would be writing books in odd digital ways than it is that I would be using an E-Reader. So there's a real disconnect there."

This may comes as a surprise for an author who pens characters in a futuristic Manhattan, victims to a unique digital language on their handheld "T's," or who composed a novel that "mimics the experience of moving about online." But according to Egan, her writer's process is "unconscious," as must be her poignant commentary on the status quo of contemporary culture.

Equally as poignant is her two-fold wisdom for young authors.

"My advice is simple, and I only wish I followed it myself more often," she disclaimed. "Read at the level you want to write and not below it. And if you don't want to read the kind of stuff you think you want to write, then you may not want to write the kind of stuff you think you want to write."

"And the second thing, this is really huge: writing is like exercise, it should be like a habit. Get yourself to do it routinely, everyday, so that it feels stranger not to do it than it feels to do it. That's the ideal. And the way in which you can make that possible is to be willing to write very badly. That's something I really believe in."

Jennifer Egan will be reading from her novel "A Visit From The Goon Squad," this Friday, July 15 at BookHampton East, 41 Main Street, at p.m. For more information, call 631-324-4939.

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Updated: July 12, 2011, 12:25 pm
Appeared In: the arts >> top stories