> Zed Book Club / Jennifer Egan, Who Loathes Genre Labels, On How ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ Led to ‘The Candy House’
Photo: Pieter M. Van Hattem
Jennifer Egan, Who Loathes Genre Labels, On How ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ Led to ‘The Candy House’
In a Q&A with the Pulitzer Prize winner, the New York author equates an imaginary memory platform called "Own Your Unconscious" to Facebook / BY Rosemary Counter / April 4th, 2022
Since American author Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad in 2011, she’s been missing her characters from the experimental work so much that she had to write a sequel. Whatever the genre — Novel? Overlapping short stories? Something else entirely? — The Candy House is finally here, and with a twist. In this world, Own Your Unconscious is an externalized memory platform that lets everyone see everyone else’s memories if — and, only if — they upload their own. Zoomer called Egan in Brooklyn to discuss why categorization sucks, Pulitzer Prizes are no big deal and whether or not she’ll be reading her own reviews.
This is a real honour, as I don’t think I’ve interviewed a Pulitzer winner before.
Really? In New York, we’re all over the place!
We don’t have too many in Toronto, I guess.
It’s been long time since my last visit, but I really love Toronto. It’s a great stop on a book tour, and I’ve been to the festival [Toronto International Festival of Authors] at the Harbourfront a few times, but not for quite a while. I only wrote one book in between, actually. I’m a very slow writer.
Were you working on The Candy House that whole time? Or were you contemplating whether or not to write a follow-up?
It’s not that Goon Squad didn’t feel finished, but I didn’t feel finished with the characters. The whole structure was so open-ended, that it invited imagination far beyond the confines of the book. Even when I was on the book tour, I was already working on chapters from this book. Then I got distracted by another book, and I had young kids at home, so I had to put Goon Squad material on ice. I didn’t go back until 2016 and I started typing it up.
Typing it up? Do you write by hand?
I do, actually. Not all the time, and not if I’m writing non-fiction or journalism or something that requires a lot of research, but when I’m just trying to tell a story, I tend to write on paper. It’s a meditative tool that leads me to material that I can’t come up with consciously. It’s a challenge to figure out what process leads to your best work. I wrote my first novel as a lone wolf, and I thought it was amazing, but unfortunately it was absolutely unreadable. Worse than bad. I realized that in order to not make that mistake again, I needed the practice of sharing. I joined a writer’s group of peers where we only read aloud, which forces me to attend to the voice and rhythm of the language. That, to me, is crucial. You can get away with a lot as long as you’ve got a good voice.
I went down the Google rabbit hole about what genre your books are … Naturally, there’s no consensus.
Well, we love labels, and they serve a purpose for sure, but not a creative purpose. Marketing, academic, diagnostic — yes. But creative, no. This time, after I refused to let them on Good Squad and it really confused people, the publishers printed “a novel,” right on the cover. People seem to like to have a designation before they pick up the book.
I’d hope that once they’re reading, they stay. The New York Times described your writing as having a “dwarf-star density,” which I totally get. If you skip a paragraph, or even a sentence, you miss out.
That’s true, and I realize I expect a lot of the reader. I try to also give a lot and compensate for what I’m asking. I like that description though, and thanks for telling me, because I don’t read reviews often. Not because I don’t care, because I do care. Anything I’m told is mean-spirited, I don’t read. And that’s not to say I’m not open to criticism, because I am and that’s why I’m so grateful to my writer’s group, but once the book is done, it’s just not helpful to me. There’s nothing I can do to change it and there’s no point in making myself feel crabby.
Your characters are all so different and interesting — I’m thinking about the math geek with OCD and the kleptomaniac. How do you get into their heads?
As you can imagine, after our conversation about labels, I don’t ever diagnose my characters. Diagnoses are helpful for treatment, but not fiction. So I don’t know if they have those diagnoses, because I didn’t look it up, even though I have the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] right here. I arrive at my characters by starting with a time and a place, then putting them right in there to see how they’ll feel and react.
That brings us to Own Your Unconscious, which you can read as a utopian or dystopian future. I was going to ask you which is it, but I’ve since learned how you feel about categories.
You’re right, and I’d say it’s neither utopian or dystopian. I’m much more interested in the way in which any invention creates the possibility for both. Think about the automobile: It was tremendously freeing, people moved around like never before, but it did so much damage to the earth that we’re now trying to figure out how to undo it. This tends to be true of most seismic inventions. But if people see a dystopia, even though that’s not how I think of the book, that’s fine, because the book’s not really mine at this point. It’s out there in the world for people to read however they want.
For whatever it’s worth, I didn’t read a utopia or a dystopia but a reality that’s already here: “Own Your Unconscious” sounds like Facebook to me.
You are 100 per cent right, and I found myself thinking that more and more as I wrote. Scientifically, we’re nowhere close to externalizing consciousness — we don’t even understand how the brain works. But, in another sense, we’re already doing it. So if this book feels familiar, it’s because, in some ways, it’s already happened.