Interview: Jennifer Egan on A Visit from the Goon Squad
We spoke to the acclaimed author of A Visit from the Goon Squad about her process of writing the book and its many themes and characters.
Can you talk about the creation of the book and how it came about?
I definitely did not think I was writing a book at first. For me, fiction usually begins with a time and a place, and not much more than that. I was at a hotel with my mother in the ladies room, and I looked down and saw a wallet. First I thought ‘Oh, someone’s going to take that’, and then I thought ‘hmm, what would it be like to take the wallet?’ It seemed like a really interesting opening into something and so I started writing from there. So then I thought ‘okay, I’m done with that, time to get back to business’, but I had this lingering question in my mind about the ex-boss of the protagonist who we learn sprays pesticide in his armpits and puts gold flakes in his coffee: at the time it was just a laugh-line really, evoking a kind of decadent record producer. But later I thought ‘yeah, but why does he do that stuff?’ It seemed so unsatisfying to leave it at that. And so I thought ‘okay, I’m going to take one more little break, and I’ll write about him’, and I wrote what became the second chapter. And in the course of writing that story there was a mention of the record producer’s ex-wife, and I found myself thinking about her! So then I was thinking ‘one more’, again earlier in time; now the record producer is an opaque, secondary character and the wallet thief is just a mention. And of course, having finished that, I realised ‘I’m not writing this other thing, I’m writing this’.
But I didn’t really have any kind of masterplan. In fact, one of the big decisive elements of the book is what the order of the chapters is, and I actually had that really wrong in the planning stage. I thought it would just go backwards, but when I read through a fairly finished draft in that order, it was very flat. So I ended up changing the order and that was one of the last things to fall into place. So really, it was a fairly blind intuitive process.
But it’s easy to see why people would assume there is a grand plan behind the book, isn’t it?
Not only do I see why they assume it, I share the feeling! If a work has a kind of order to it, the question is what is the artist’s relationship to that order? Do they see it all ahead of time and just execute it? I clearly don’t! It was the same for my last novel, The Keep. I knew that someone was going to die, and someone was going to be a killer, but I didn’t know which people would do those things. In retrospect there was only one way it could be, but I didn’t actually see that at the beginning. I think it’s something about the way I like to approach the shape, that involves not seeing it fully until it’s complete in some way.
When I started reading Goon Squad, my feeling was ‘how is this going to build a connection with me?’ as each chapter was taking me to a different person. You're asking for a lot of trust from the reader, and I wondered if you were aware of that as you wrote?
It’s a good question. I felt I had a worst-case-scenario; ultimately it’s a story collection, the hardcover doesn’t even have the word ‘novel’ on it in the States, I didn’t let them call it that. Of course now they’ve slapped it on the paperback because they want it to sell, and novels sell much better than story collections! They wouldn’t let me say ‘stories’; that was out of the question. So the worst case scenario is that it’s a diverse group of units that are hopefully all decent.
But I was aware I was asking a lot of a reader, and so one of my criteria was that each chapter had to stand completely on its own and not require any context to be enjoyed. Also, it seemed to me that structurally complete units would combine to create a better whole. It was a little like a chemistry experiment; all I could do was put the ingredients together and then find out what people thought about how they combined. One of the huge surprises to me is how much people seem to like the book. It seems to have worked better than I hoped, and I’m not sure why.
One thing that really impressed me about the book was how you created so many fully-formed characters in very short spaces. Where did all those characters come from? Are they just from your head?
Yeah, they really are from my head, I don’t use people I know at all. I really value the shorthand, the compression of suggesting a whole life while actually having to render up very little of it. I feel tired of exposition and back-story; the more you can suggest without spelling out, the more you can encompass in the same space. Fiction writing is always about compression and suggestion, even In Search of Lost Time is compressed! It is thousands of pages long, but it’s not as big as a whole life.
When I use people I know, all of my instincts seem to go dead, and if I’m getting anywhere near myself then I can’t do it. It’s actually a real weakness! I hate writing personal essays, I don’t think I’m especially good at it. I like just encountering [my characters], discovering them. I love the escape of just being surrounded by all these people who are nothing like people I know. But I don’t find it hard to be in the middle of a different life, with a different set of habits and way of thinking and talking. That seems to come easily to me.
You referred to Proust, and the quote from In Search of Lost Time at the start of Goon Squad suggests that we can never really know other people. But in your book you seem to really know these characters, which puts you in quite a god-like position, and I wonder how you feel about that?
Well, I never have that god-like feeling, because as you can already tell, I don’t have a great sense of control! When I talk to students occasionally they will ask things like ‘why does she do that?’ or ‘what do you think she’s doing now?’ They want me to account for my characters’ actions. And I will often say ‘well, I think it’s because…’ or ‘it might be that…’ and they’ll say ‘why are you saying it like that? You made them!’ But it never feels that way to me, it feels like I am seizing upon details that suggest to me a life I don’t necessarily know, but is out there and has integrity. I could pursue it if I wanted to, but my goal is to keep my eye on this larger vision. I’m content to let them be unknown to me beyond the parts that I’m sharing to the reader - I don’t know that I know much more than the reader does! But I have a sense that there is a kind of soundness to it all, and I’m happy to leave it at that.
Could you comment a bit on the connection between music and time, and how they came to be the central elements of the book?
Well first of all in Proust, music is huge, as a plot element and an organising principle, and music and time are deeply connected as we all know. These days we all listen to music constantly, and I feel very conscious of the ability of a song to make time vanish. There’s no way to even think about time now without thinking about technology; we have this sense of acceleration with technology, and the fact that the music industry is in a free-fall is something we all feel with terror. So in a way the book is a bit of an homage to the days when rock ‘n’ roll was so strong, when it seemed like the industry could never stop growing, and now it seems it will never stop shrinking. So there’s a nostalgic element to that.
Finally, music is important to the structure of the book. It’s a thing that happens in parts, and the parts are all totally different from each other and yet they combine - it’s a concept album! It’s Quadrophenia! I was a crazy Who fan when I was a kid, and Quadrophenia and Tommy are direct antecedents to this book.
In the last chapter of the book you make some pretty damning predictions about where the music industry is headed – is this just fun speculation or do you think it’s likely that music will ultimately be mass-marketed to the ‘pointers’?
With me, it's always fun speculation. I hate it when fiction is didactic; as a reader, I go cold when I get a whiff of preachiness. There are lots of ways I could have imagined the future in that last chapter, but when I followed Alex forward into his middle age, that vision is somehow what came to me. I never intended it to be dystopian. And honestly, I'm not sure it qualifies as satire anymore; have you watched a toddler use an iPhone lately?! That device hadn't yet come out when I was writing the final chapter, but now that it has, my satiric romp already feels a little outmoded.
Continuing the music connection, the app version of the book allows the reader to ‘shuffle’ chapters when reading. How do you feel about advancing technology and what it’s doing to books and publishing?
I'm worried about the publishing industry, and how its business model will survive in a digital world; what's happened to the music industry has, I think, sent a big shudder through all of us. As a writer, though, I can't help but be excited about the possibilities. The novel is an elastic, flexible form - capable of absorbing and using pretty much anything that's thrown at it, I think. This has been true from the beginning; the earliest novels are what we'd now call post-modern, full of invention and play. As for that shuffle feature, one thing I insisted upon was that it not be possible for a reader to shuffle the chapters until s/he had read the book my way first. There really is a best order in which to read the chapters, and I don't like the thought of sacrificing some of the book's quality in the name of technological trickiness.
In the final chapter Alex wishes that he could just text his wife to explain his feelings rather than speak – I think this is not an uncommon desire among us contemporary Westerners, but why do you think that is? Written messages are so much more open to misinterpretation, yet we seem to do all we can to avoid talking.
I think maybe the attraction is the one-sidedness of written communication; one is both alone and "in touch" at the same time. This isn't true in face to face communication, or even on the phone; then, there is the need to contend with a living, breathing, emoting, reacting human at the same time that you are communicating. You have to receive as well as give. Textual communication lets you *just* give. But, as you correctly point out, there is room for LOTS of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, in part perhaps because without a human being to immediately react to, one is more likely to be inadvertently insensitive to what that human might think and feel in response to one's words.
Lastly, I think Goon Squad will be a lot of UK readers’ first introduction to your writing – what should they read by you next?
My suggestion - in the spirit of Goon Squad - is that people go backwards. My books are quite different from each other, both in terms of form and subject matter. I like the thought of readers arriving, at the end, at a rather conventional coming of age story that sometimes makes people cry (albeit one including a long, crazy, stream-of-consciousness acid trip!).
Interview by Paul Gallagher. Find out more about Jennifer Egan and her work at jenniferegan.com.