Sunday, August 4, 2013

A visit from Jennifer Egan

The petty, immature, myopic part of me flamed with jealousy when Jennifer Egan visited Butler last spring. Cheekbones like cliffs, delicate features, porcelain skin. Willowy figure. When I saw her I thought Cheryl Tiegs. But Egan has something Tiegs does not, that accessory that goes with everything, a PULITZER PRIZE. My god. Last year, Jhumpa Lahiri, another Pulitzer winner, spoke at Butler. But while Lahiri—an introvert—was private, some might say guarded, Ms. Egan, was breezy and casual. Jennifer Egan had about her an informality that caused my envy to instantly melt away.

After reading the first chapter of “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” Egan went on to share the genesis of that story. Years ago her wallet was stolen, and someone from the credit card company called to confirm the theft and verify her personal information. After Egan got off the phone, she realized she'd been had—the caller wasn't an employee of the credit card company, but the thief. Some time later Egan looked down at the floor of a public bathroom and spotted a purse and wallet. This sighting rekindled her curiosity about the person who stole her wallet, giving her the seed for a short story that became the first chapter of Goon Squad.

Egan said that this short story prompted ideas for more stories, and she began each new piece featuring one of the characters from the preceding story. And so the novel began, each chapter written in a different tone, employing different structures, techniques, and standing on its own. Egan said she didn't know what these stories would become or under what genre they might fall, but had an epiphany when she changed the headings in this collection of stories from Part One and Two to Part A and B. What she was writing was the literary equivalent of a concept album. Something about the collision of tones, styles and moods contributed to the story as a whole.

The day after her reading a handful of grad students, including moi, got to chat with Ms. Egan about all things literary over Bazbeaux pizza. Topics included her book club, her writing group, and her love of epic poetry. “Byron's 'Don Juan,'” she said, “is inspired and is the funniest adventure story you'll ever read.”

Egan participates in a writing group that began in '89. The members submitting work don't send it to the group to read ahead of time, but instead read their submissions aloud at the meeting. This, Egan said, has the added benefit of putting the critiquers on the spot—they can't fudge their responses. She said that if readers haven't examined a piece closely enough, they may concentrate on the less important parts of the text. (With this comment I remembered the many times I fell into that particular trap, giving my classmates' pieces short shrift, and I'm sure my face flashed bright pink.) Her group asks the question: Does the writing have a pulse? Egan admitted that it's a difficult process for her. Even though her animosity is short-lived, she hates it when people criticize her work. And even though it irks her when members of the group come up with solutions to problems in the text, it's useful because it makes her focus on those issues. “A good solution solves more than one problem,” she said. “And once in a while the solution is actually right.”

Egan genially answered questions about her writing process, and about writing in general.

How does she begin a story or novel? “With time and place,” she said. She starts with a “where,” an atmosphere, a sense of place to which she can attach a longing memory.

She writes her first drafts by hand without making any changes along the way. This keeps her in a “continuous present.” “Reading these first drafts is terrible,” she said, but she reads them to give herself a sense of what she has. Then she goes back and develops an extremely detailed outline of revisions. For her novel “The Keep,” her outline—single lined, 10-point font—was 80 pages long.

Egan spoke about voice, which she compared to the stock of a soup. When she wrote “The Keep,” she had been using the voice she used from her last book, which she finds is often the case. “That old voice scorned the new text,” she said. She kept writing, struggling to find “The Keep”'s true voice. Out of frustration she wrote in her notebook the phrase “I'm writing a book,” and it was when she reread this that she found the piece's voice and realized there was a first person narrator behind the third person narrator of the book.

Her writing advice? “Push everything to show as much as possible about the character. Every structural unit—every story, chapter, paragraph, even sentence—has to tell a story.”

Egan peppered our discussion with fun anecdotes. In a fascinating bit of literary trivia, she told us that the original manuscript of Proust's “In Search of Lost Time,” began not with the now iconic madeleine, but a “biscotte.” Who knew?

Butler's wide array of visiting writers is fabulous, and my goal is to learn everything I can from each and every one. The authors always bring their A-game, although when a Pulitzer Prize winner has a casual sensibility, the learning comes with a certain ease.

“I have to have fun when I'm writing,” said Egan. “It's critical to the reader. I really believe in fun.”