in conversation with Meagan Day

A Visit From the Goon Squad is by far the book I recommended most in 2010. And it’s a testament to Jennifer Egan’s daring formal approach that I still find it hard to say when or where A Visit From the Goon Squad is set, or even who its protagonists are. The book centers loosely on successful music producer Bennie Salazar and his kleptomaniac personal assistant Sasha, but these characters don’t appear in all of Goon Squad’s thirteen chapters.  Much of the action takes place in the San Francisco punk scene of the early 1980s and often enough in Manhattan circa the present, but Egan also sets stories in Naples, on an African safari, and in a Latin American dictator’s citadel.

The New York Times gives us this list of Egan’s accomplishments in Goon Squad, which is perhaps more efficient than my attempt at summary:

“Make a moving narrative out of a PowerPoint presentation? Check. Write about a cokehead music producer who demands oral sex from his teenage girlfriend during her friends’ band’s performance? Check. Narrate another chapter from the perspective of the above girlfriend’s best friend, standing at the same performance on the other side of said producer? Check. Compose a futuristic vision of New York? Check.”

We caught up with Egan and spoke with her about editing in labor, identical twin rappers, suspected drug flashbacks, the relationship between music and time, David Copperfield, iPhones, and hipster organic farmers.

Let’s start at the beginning. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I didn’t know as a very young person, though my favorite games were always imaginary ones, and I was pretty controlling about the plots — to the aggravation of my friends’ parents. But I was also a very science-y kid; I loved chemistry and biology and dissection, and I thought I wanted to be a doctor for many years. Gradually that morphed into a wish to be an anthropologist or archeologist — to study people of other cultures, past and present. I took a year off between high school and college and worked in a café to earn money to go to Europe. I went alone, with a backpack, and began traveling around with a Eurail pass. I was quite lost in many ways — my mother and stepfather were in the middle of divorcing, and I felt alienated and lonely — like I was on the run from trouble. Never a good way to travel!

I began having terrible panic attacks, although the term “panic attack” wasn’t widely used at the time in the way it is now. Having read Go Ask Alice, I thought I was having drug flashbacks and beginning to lose my mind. Somehow in those weeks of careening around Europe in a state of quasi-terror, not even trusting my own thoughts, I realized that writing was the thing that held the world together for me, and gave it meaning. Wretched as that period was, I think it revealed to me something that might have otherwise taken many years to figure out.

Where and when do you write?

I write fiction by hand on yellow legal pads, so I can do it anywhere. I like being outdoors when it’s warm out and I also like working in public places. I have a home office that’s very light and very quiet — my two major criteria — but of course it’s also full of photos I’m trying to paste into family albums and all kinds of other domestic detritus. When things are going well, I write in my office, but when I feel stuck, it often helps to go somewhere else. Once I’m in the editing phase (which I also do by hand, on hard copies), I tend to work more in my office. My best writing time is the morning, but once I’m deep in the editing phase, I can work under almost any conditions (I’ve edited in elevators, on escalators, and while in labor).

Are you a careful plotter or do you tend to let the story develop as it pleases?

I end up plotting carefully, but after I have a first draft. The initial “take” and most of the big moves emerge spontaneously and organically. I like the sense of surprise as I write — having no idea what will emerge and sensing the arrival of material that feels alive. When I’m working steadily I hold myself to five handwritten pages a day. I’ll let myself go to eight pages if I’m really cooking, but not more, because then I’ll be drained for the next day, and a steady rhythm is more important than a marathon day here or there. Once I have a first draft, I type it into the computer, print it out, read it through and try to understand what I have; what it feels like it could be — and then map out very systematically a strategy for getting it there. I make very detailed outlines — tens of pages long — to guide me through my revisions.

Each chapter in A Visit from the Goon Squad features a different protagonist. The characters are not always central to each other’s lives, but they are part of an intricate lattice of connection. Did you sketch their stories separately and then build the connections in afterward? Or did peripheral characters catch your eye and demand stories of their own?

Almost always the latter. I was led by my own curiosity about various peripheral characters into exploring them more fully. There is only one exception: I inserted the quick encounter between Stephanie and her boss, La Doll, into “A to B,” to better pave the way for the chapter about La Doll, “Selling the General,” which follows. I was also curious to catch a glimpse of La Doll in her towering glory, since otherwise we only see her after her demise. But in every other case, I glimpsed the peripheral character first, then followed an impulse to explore him/her more fully. I should add that there were a number of peripheral characters I wanted to write more about but wasn’t able to successfully.

Why did you choose music as your backdrop? Are there qualities particular to the recording industry that allowed you to explore questions that were on your mind?

Music was integral to the story right from the beginning. I think there were lots of reasons that it felt essential: first of all, Goon Squad is obviously a book about time, and time and music are deeply connected; music has a way of cutting through time like nothing else can. There’s a lot of music in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, too — the primary inspiration for Goon Squad. Also, any contemporary book about time has to be about technological change too, and I’m not sure any creative industry has been more brutally impacted by technological change than the music industry.

I should add that as a journalist, I’d always wanted to do a big story about the music industry but it never seemed to work out — the closest I got was beginning to research a piece about a pair of identical twin rappers called Dyme, whose album was supposedly going to be released… but after following them for a couple of weeks, I began to realize that their album actually wasn’t going to get released. I could just feel that nothing was happening. At which point, of course, my editor pulled me off the story! But some of Dyme’s DNA ended up in the Stop/Go sisters, so that failed assignment ended up being useful in the end.

What are you working on now? In our preparation for this interview you mentioned a daunting nonfiction piece.

I’ve been working for some months on a piece about Lori Berenson, the American who was jailed in Peru in 1996 for helping a terrorist group, and [who was] recently paroled. It was incredibly challenging for a number of reasons: chief among them the difficulty of trying to write about 15 years of history — personal, political, historical — in 8000 words! Or maybe I was just rusty from having not done much journalism in a couple of years. Whatever the reason, I found it incredibly time consuming. The other thing I’m working on is actually another shortish piece about a character from Goon Squad. It’s pretty wacky, so we’ll see what happens — it may never make it out of my office.

I read elsewhere that you prefer not to write about yourself. Meanwhile I know plenty of writers who make whole careers out of memoirs and personal essays. Do you find autobiography challenging or uninteresting or both?

Both. The root problem may be the uninterestingness of it; I write to be lifted out of my life into the lives of people who are nothing like me. Needless to say, that doesn’t really happen if I’m trying to write about my own life! A dull feeling comes over me, and that dullness leaks into the writing itself, so that I tend to do a mediocre job at best. I am pretty sure that if I were only allowed to write about my own life I would not have become a writer. Maybe I’d be a doctor after all!

Have you read anything lately that blew you away?

I haven’t read much contemporary fiction for the last year (I was a National Book Awards judge the prior year and had to read everything that came out, so I guess I was in need of a break). I’ve been on a real 19th century kick; recently I read David Copperfield and Bleak House for the first time. Not sure why I’d neglected these two, but I really love Dickens. His stuff is like catnip — you can’t put it down — and it’s technically daring in ways we’d call “experimental” today (authorial intervention; freewheeling verb tenses; multiple points of view; switching from first- to third-person). It’s also bristling with ideas and a big, full, empathetic engagement with the world. It’s rare that a single writer or book can do all of that.

The last chapter of Goon Squad (“Pure Language”) is set in a near future where everyone, including children, interacts with the world primarily by means of social technology, which results in a mass congregation around a pop star whose music no one has ever heard. Sounds dystopic, but am I wrong in taking from Goon Squad that you look upon the future with a kind of cautious hope?

You are correct. When people call that vision dystopic, I find myself thinking that they haven’t looked around them very carefully lately. In fact, since writing that chapter I’ve been ghoulishly fascinated with the way little kids using their parents’ iPhones (which hadn’t come out yet when I wrote “Pure Language”). Let’s face it: the constant mediation has already happened. The only question on the table is whether we’ll begin to imagine or yearn our way out of that mediation. And one step in that process, I’m imagining, would be the lionization of people who seem to represent the antithesis of mediation. Scotty epitomizes that. And when I look at the emergence of hipster organic farmers or musicians using old instruments and techniques, I see it happening in reality in all kinds of ways too.

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad hits shelves in paperback on March 22nd.