Author Jennifer Egan: Making Her Own Rules

How she wrote bestseller A Visit from the Good Squad.

Posted Mar 25, 2011

 Visit from the Goon Squad is "odd" (as author Jennifer Egan says) in the most fabulous and entertaining ways. Here's more from Jennifer about she created-and broke-rules for writing this poignant and hilarious novel:

Jennifer Haupt: One of the many things I love about A Visit from the Goon Squad is that each chapter reads like a short story. Was that your intent from the start? And did this novel grow out of one or several short stories?

Jennifer Egan: When I first began the book, I didn't realize it was a book; I was trying to avoid working on a different book! So at first I thought it was just a single short story ("Found Objects," now the first chapter) about a woman, Sasha, who impulsively steals another woman's wallet while on a first date with someone she's met online.

In the course of writing that first story/chapter, I became intrigued by a character who is mentioned in passing: Sasha's boss, a music producer who-she tells her date-sprinkles gold flakes in his coffee and sprays pesticide in his armpits. I thought, Why would he do those things? What is the inner logic of those bizarre actions? So I wrote a second story about the ex-boss, Bennie Salazar. And in the course of writing that, I because intrigued by Bennie's description of his ex-wife, and found myself writing a story about her. At that point I faced the fact that I wasn't going to write the other book; I was going to write this odd new book.

JH: How did you organize this truly unique book?

Viking Press, used with permission
Source: Viking Press, used with permission

JE: I created a set of rules that seemed to capture what was interesting about what I had done so far, and which guided me as I continued to do it: 1. Every chapter had to have a different protagonist. 2. Every chapter had to be technically different from all of the others; the mood, tone, and feel of the chapter had to be unique within the book. 3. Each chapter had to stand completely on its own, and not require any of the others around it to make sense and be enjoyable.

JH: While I love Sasha and Bennie, some of supporting characters are actually my favorites. (Okay, Rob is my favorite... I read that chapter three times, and it still makes my nostrils tingle to think of it.) Did you start this novel with the characters or the plot?

JE: Usually I started with the characters, in the way described above: someone peripheral would catch my eye from anther part of the book, and I'd find myself wanting to create a world in which that person was the center, and his or her private life was opened up to the reader.

Rob was actually an exception to that rule, though; I wanted badly to write about Sasha in college, and I couldn't figure out how to do it without making her the protagonist a second time. So I actually tried to write about Sasha in college from her point of view. It was a disaster. (That's what I got for breaking Rule Number One!) But the single interesting part of it involved Sasha's memories of traveling in Asia, and a guy she met there named Leif. Leif was nothing like Rob, but he was the origin of Rob; I moved Leif to NYU, where I named him Bobbie and struggled to see and hear him clearly in his new environment. It was a big problem; the chapter is told in his voice!

One day, on a crowded New York Subway, I saw a guy with reddish stubble talking to his friend. He was very masculine, and I thought, "I'm not writing about Bobbie, I'm writing about Rob. And there he is." I didn't even look at the guy again, but I held his image in my mind, and that's when the chapter began to finally come together.

JH: This novel takes place in a number of locations. Are you much of a traveler? Have you been on Safari in Kenya?

JE: I did go on safari in Kenya when I was 17, with my mother, stepfather and little brother, and I kept a careful journal of the experience that was very helpful in terms of my sensory impressions of Africa. I have traveled quite a bit at distinct times in my life, though now that I have kids I've settled down.

I began traveling at 18, when I was taking a year off before starting college. I worked in a café, saved my money for most of the year, and in summer, bought a backpack and flew Freddie Laker Airlines to Europe, where I traveled with a Eurail pass. It was difficult-I felt isolated in a way that I guess no one feels anymore, we're all so fused by technology-but that isolation was also what helped me to realize that I wanted to be a writer. And I used my own itinerary, which I described thoroughly in my journal, in my first novel The Invisible Circus, about an 18-year-old who goes to Europe to try to understand why her sister committed suicide there at the end of the 1960's.

JH: Music is a big theme, and how music has changed during the past 40-some years. Tell me more about why you wanted to tackle this theme.

JE: Many reasons; first of all, the book is clearly about time, and time and music are deeply intertwined-nothing makes time fall away like music, especially the music we loved as teenagers. Proust, my big inspiration for Goon Squad, uses music a lot in his novel, both in terms of plot and structure. I liked the idea of doing the same thing, which is one reason I structured Goon Squad as a record album, with an A side and a B side, that's built around the contrasting sounds (if you will) of the individual numbers in it.

Also, writing about time nowadays means writing about technological change, and the music industry has of course been decimated by those changes. I guess I wanted to honor the rock and roll music industry's glorious past, and also use that as a lens through which to view the staggering changes technology has wrought on our culture.

JH: What are the songs that you most remember from your teen years? What do you listen to now?

JE: I listened to classic rock and roll, and punk rock. Goon Squad provides a pretty accurate playlist of my teenage years, though it leaves out The Who, which was my absolute favorite band. (I had a consuming crush in Roger Daltry!) I also loved the music of Iggy Pop, especially his album The Passenger. Punk rock-wise, I listened to the Sex Pistols, the Stranglers, Negative Trend...I don't listen to much of any of that now, though I do have some Who songs on my iPod.

Nowadays I'm more interested in what you'd call alternative. Via my husband, who directs plays and is always listening to new stuff, I keep finding new great bands. Lately we've been listening to a lot of Mumford & Sons, and Jenny Owen Youngs. I'm also pretty crazy about the Kings of Convenience a Norwegian band that's been compared to Simon and Garfunkel.

JH: The end of Goon Squad is hysterical, poignant, true... everything a last chapter should be. When did you know the ending - from the beginning of the book, or farther into the writing of it?

JE: Once I had a sense of how the book would unfold-peripheral characters becoming central characters-I knew I'd want to revisit Alex, Sasha's date from the first chapter, in middle age. Since he's quite young when we first encounter him, I knew that I'd have to push out into the future to write about his later life. At that point I had the idea that the book would go backwards, chronologically, so I thought that the chapter about Alex would have to be Chapter one.

I spent several weeks trying to write chapter one, agonizing all the while because I didn't think it would make a good opening chapter. Then a brainwave occurred in the shower (the site of many Goon Squad brainwaves, for some reason): maybe "Pure Language" isn't the first chapter of the book but the last. So my new idea was that the book would move backward in time until the very end, when it would swoop forward. I liked that idea. From then on, I knew that I was working toward "Pure Language," and that knowledge made me feel anchored. In the end, though, my backward structure didn't work, and I ended up having to give up chronology altogether.

JH: What's the one true thing you learned from your characters in Goon Squad?

JE: Hang in there. If things don't go your way in this round, they may very well the next.

Jennifer Egan is the author of The Invisible Circus, which was released as a feature film by Fine Line in 2001, Emerald City and Other Stories, Look at Me, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2001, and the bestselling The Keep. Her new book, A Visit From the Goon Squad, a national bestseller, won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and is a finalist for the Pen Faulkner Award and the LA Times Book Prize, as well as a longlist finalist for the UK's Orange Prize. Also a journalist, she writes frequently in the New York Times Magazine.