By Patrick Thomas Henry
|Egan delivering her keynote speech |
in Rochester, NY, on March 16
The attendees of this year’s Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) convention appreciated Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan's quirky and candid keynote address about her writing process. She delivered her talk on March 16 at Rochester’s Artisan Works, a museum and events hall featuring nearly five hundred thousand art objects. This unusual location was an apt venue for Egan’s talk, entitled “Experimentation in Fiction: Notes from a Reluctant Practitioner.”
William Waddell, NeMLA’s president, introduced Egan by echoing Madison Smartt Bell’s accolade that the award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad is “refreshingly unclassifiable.” So which genre—story collection or novel—is this thing, anyway? Egan was quick to address this bugbear, and she would agree with what Story Prize Director Larry Dark put forward on the blog last April. He argued that Goon Squad “falls into both camps: First it’s a story collection, then it’s a novel. As you read the stories, the connections among them strengthen and create a satisfying whole.” Egan told the NeMLA audience, “It’s not a novel, not a short story collection, but who cares?”
Egan did note that Goon Squad began as a short story about a woman, Sasha, who copes with her kleptomania. Yet, this story introduced Sasha’s boss Bennie, a music producer who sprinkled gold flakes in his coffee. When Egan asked herself why Bennie had this quirk, she could only answer the question by writing another story, which produced its own questions that she had to resolve.
Egan writes her initial drafts longhand, and she suggested that this process forces her to stay in stride with her intuition, her impulses about characters, and their values: “I harness my unconscious and let my intuitive side lead the way,” she said. Writing, for Egan, is about following these instincts. She directed the audience to the outcome of trusting whims: the twelfth chapter of Goon Squad, which is a PowerPoint slideshow. In 2008, media outlets reported Joel Benenson’s PowerPoint presentation to David Axelrod and other members of then-Senator Obama’s campaign staff. Egan at once recognized the potential of PowerPoint as a narrative strategy. Egan requested PowerPoint slideshows from friends. Watching the slideshows’ overwhelmingly corporate feel put her off, leaving her uncertain of who could narrate this way, aside from those in the cold, corporate world.
That chapter did not enter into the novel until after Knopf accepted Goon Squad. Reviewing the manuscript, Egan had an epiphany: One of Sasha’s children could “write” the PowerPoint, a way of revealing Sasha’s life post-Bennie, post-record industry. A child narrator avoided the clammy and unemotional feel of a slideshow by presenting a narrator deeply concerned with (and judgmental of) Sasha, while still hinting toward what Egan termed “the corporate desert” that PowerPoint represents.
As the chapter suggests, Egan strives to explore how conventional and experimental elements can meld. “Both categories,” Egan said, “seem less satisfying than a synthesis of the two.” She advises fiction writers to be “open to every possible way of rendering the story” and to “avoid categorization at all costs.” What matters most, according to Egan, is producing fiction that can reflect the reader’s reality—and any form, even a PowerPoint, can tell a tale.