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Jennifer Egan Talks Awful Temp Jobs, Writing from the Subconscious and Her Pulitzer Prize

Screen shot 2012-04-25 at 2.45.24 PM.pngWhen an author's achievements include best-sellers and a Pulitzer Prize, it's easy to assume that the path was always easy, always clean, and always gaining upward momentum. But for Jennifer Egan, the Brooklyn-based author who won the Pulitzer last year for her delightfully original A Visit From the Goon Squad, her route to success was paved with all of the bumps, disappointments and general unmoored-ness that any twentysomething faces when they leave college and move to a big city like New York. Fortunately, her days of temping and working in the World Trade Center catering kitchen (more on that later) have been replaced with a robust writing career that, in addition to her prizewinning novel, has produced The Keep, Look at Me, Invisible Circus and Emerald City and Other Stories

Along with writing, touring on behalf of her books, and taking care of her two sons, Egan is gearing up for the PEN World Voices Festival, a six-day multimedia fest starting on April 30th that brings together writers from around the world to celebrate literature. The author will be interviewed as part of a dialogue series and has also curated a bookbag selection of twelve novels on behalf of PEN that will be placed in each guest room in The Standard, New York and The Standard, East Village. Amidst all this, she found time to talk to us about writing from the subconscious, working for a Spanish countess  and what advice she would give her twentysomething self.

I read that you're being interviewed at the PEN festival on the subject of "How to Create Your Own Rules" -- do you have any self-imposed rules or schedule?  What is your writing process like?  
I find that my good ideas seem to happen without my thinking too hard. My whole writing process is geared toward harnessing the subconscious -- the part that I'm not in control of.  I also write fiction only by hand because I find that if I'm typing, I'm looking at what I write on a screen, seeing that it's bad and needs fixing, and then going backwards and not forward.  What I'm trying to do is write in a fairly meditative, automatic state in which I'm not really sure what I'm writing as I write it. The ideas that I have if I just sit down and think are the ideas anyone would have. There's nothing exciting about them.

How frequently -- if ever -- do you find yourself putting anecdotes from your own life into your stories?

Absolutely never. I really don't use anyone I know. For me, the fun and thrill of writing is the feeling of escape and of being lifted out of my own world. If I start having reference in reality, the whole process breaks down. I'm no longer escaping anything -- I'm just revisiting.  Occasionally I'll body-snatch. If I've got someone that's missing the proper physicality, I will sometimes see a person or hear a person that seems like the right type.

Any examples?
That happened in the chapter in Goon Squad titled, "Out of Body." I was having a lot of trouble with the narrator Rob's physicality. For a long time, he was this slender, fragile-looking person named Bobby and I knew I was having problems when I read this chapter to some friends and they thought the narrator was female for fifteen pages. When I saw this heavyset, strong guy with a stubbly beard talking on the subway, I suddenly thought, "Oh my god, the problem is that he's too slender and fragile. He needs to be the opposite of that." I found that when I held that image of the guy in my mind and also remembered the sound of his voice, suddenly the writing became much easier.

There's a major music motif running throughout Goon Squad -- are you a big music person?

Not as much as you might think. I feel like I really took that on for this book. I love music and I certainly listen to my share of it, though.

What are you listening to now?
I really like M83. I love Cat Power. I like some Adele songs a lot. I'm always looking around.  I fell in love with The Weekend Players recently and there's this song of theirs, "Jericho," that I'm really crazy about.

Do you listen to music while you write?
It was only when I worked on Goon Squad that I did that. I found it very helpful for that book but in general I find that when I most love to listen to music is when I'm walking or running -- especially running.

I want to touch on another theme from Goon Squad: the idea of paths and trajectories. It felt like many of the characters in the novel had nine lives. What was your own path to becoming a writer? I read somewhere that one of your first jobs in New York was working as a caterer for the Port Authority?
When I first got to New York, I was flailing around and I was working as a temp in an array of areas -- one of which was this catering job and I hated working there. It was deep in the bowels of the World Trade Center. The kitchen was so huge and the mixing bowls were the size of desks. I've never seen cooking on that scale -- it was incredible. Anyway, I loathed that. I temped all over the place. Usually I ended up in office jobs because I'm a very fast typist so that seemed to be the one area where I could really shine as an employee. I really wanted to be a waitress but I could never get a job because I would always admit I had never waited tables.

You were too honest!
I know! They'd say, "We need someone with experience." And I'd think, "How do you get experience if no one will ever hire someone who hasn't worked?" Finally years later someone was like, "You LIE, Jenny!  You've been telling them you've never worked tables before? Are you out of your mind?" Anyway, that wasn't meant to be. For the first couple of years I was here, I was temping and scrambling. I don't recall considering leaving New York but I have no idea why I never considered that because there was really nothing holding me here. I had no family here or even close. Few friends. I was completely an unmoored person in the city. I guess I'm just so stubborn I thought, "I'm not going to leave on these terms. I have to find something better before I make this decision."

Jenny1991.jpgA twentysomething Jennifer Egan c. 1991

Speaking of being unmoored in New York, what do you think of the HBO show Girls? Have you seen it?
I have not seen it but I want to watch Girls. I'm really curious about it. New York is a hard city to move to and if you don't have any support system, it really is brutal. Eventually I got a job working for a woman who was the Countess of Romanones. She was American-born but married a Spanish count after WWII but he had died so she would come back-and-forth between here and Spain. I was a private secretary for her and she had been a spy during World War II and was writing quasi-memoirs about her experiences but there were a lot of inventions in them. I worked for her from one p.m. to six p.m. and she paid me enough to live on so that was really a godsend. And I had from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. to write every day. I worked for her for two years and in those two years I wrote my story collection and probably started The Invisible Circus. Then things became more stable because I was having, on a tiny scale, some literary success and I had a fairly steady job and I was supporting myself. Later I started writing for the New York Times magazine. My career progress has been so incremental that until now, there really haven't been any sharp twists or turns. Each book did a little better than the last. They usually had mixed reviews.

Do you pay attention to reviews?
I try not to pay attention but it's sometimes hard not to. One thing that was a huge distraction to me was this idea that if you didn't get famous really early, you were doomed to be a nobody. It's such a trap. You can become very preoccupied with who's doing what and not see that it truly does not matter in the sense that it has nothing to do with what you're doing.  Do good work!  Give it your best shot, no matter where you are! There were times when I felt really overshadowed and crowded by the meteoric successes of one sort or another, which I don't even remember the specifics of now because...who cares?

And now, many years later, you've won the Pulitzer for A Visit From the Goon Squad.  I was curious to hear your thoughts about a comment that 2012 Pulitzer winner Quiara Hudes made about finally "feeling free" now that she's won an award. Has the award made you feel freer, creatively-speaking?
I definitely have felt freed in the sense that, "Well, what if I take ten years to write another book. Who cares? I won the Pulitzer! What do you want from me?" But at the same time, because I think my writing method so deeply relies on repudiating what I've done before -- really turning my back on it stylistically, thematically, in every way -- I just don't want to repeat myself. But having received so much love for a book has a tendency to make that book seem a bit authoritative. I often find that when I'm trying to work on a new book, I feel a hangover from the prior one and in this case, that hangover is really profound.

I heard news that HBO may be turning Goon Squad into a series?
That's their hope. They have writers working on a pilot but we're a long way from a series.

Do you know anything about the pilot?
I think that HBO's hope is to hold on to the loose feeling of the book but, of course, they'll have to make some changes and do things to create a greater sense of continuity.

Now that you've had such success, do you have any advice for twentysomethings starting out or, for that matter, your twentysomething self? 
I think that the number one thing that I didn't understand when I was younger was that everything would change constantly. I think there was this misconception that the moment is forever and therefore when things weren't going well, I was just in a state of active despair and I feel like I suffered more than I needed to during years when, in fact, I was unfettered and should have been having the time of my life! What was the big deal? Looking back, I'm just like, "Why didn't I read 50 more books instead of spinning my wheels the way I did."  Everything will change and I think the other big point is "don't worry about the industry, just keep getting better." 

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