Jennifer Egan talks about her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, dedications, and getting inspired in the shower

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Jennifer Egan and Jacob Weisberg (Rachel Krantz)
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Ask Pulitzer Prize Winner Jennifer Egan a straight question, and you get a straight answer.

That much was clear when Egan joined Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg in conversation at the PEN World Voices Festival on Friday. Weisberg wasted no time getting to the juicy questions.

“So. Who is Peter M. And why did you dedicate your book to him?” Weisberg asked.

“I’m just going to come out and answer that. He’s my long-time therapist,” Egan answered to audience applause. “Somehow, especially because the book opens with someone who’s in therapy, it just seemed like the right moment to honor him.”

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The book Egan is referring to, of course, is her 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit From The Goon Squad.  Because no prize was given for fiction this year, it looks like Egan will be getting another victory lap. It’s a book that’s often called experimental and genre-defying, perhaps because Egan never intended to call it a novel.

“I’m still reluctant to use the word novel to talk about the book,” Egan told Weisberg. “But when the hardback didn’t sell for four months, the publisher informed me we were going to call it a novel when it came out in paperback. And that it wasn’t a question, it was a fact.”

So you can imagine Egan’s amusement when her short-story-collection-turned-novel was proclaimed revolutionary.

“The only thing that’s unusual is the chapters don’t feel like they’re part of one book,” Egan said. “My feeling was, if it’s going to be in parts, why not make the parts as different from each other as possible? I thought, why not try to have it be tragic and farcical? To try to encompass all of that in one book seemed fun.”  

Egan described the sense of calm she felt changing her short stories to work together as one book.

“It was this sense of these islands that were completely far apart, and beginning to sense a land mass under them that connected all of them,” Egan said. “It was actually a very exciting process. A lot of it took place in the shower, oddly.”

But lest you think Egan has no need for that therapist, she assures you there’s plenty of neurosis to her process. She is a writer, after all.

“I don’t have a clear plan when I start. On some level, I’m basically incompetent at the beginning,” Egan told Weisberg of her writing process. “I often have a sense that it will just be a disaster.”

And now that Egan is trying to follow the first major book of her career, that fear has only intensified.

“I can already feel with this new [book] it’s going to be, 'Oh my God I won this prize, and it’s completely ruined my writing ability. Now I’m just a has-been,'” Egan said. “We find ways to torture ourselves.”

“For some reason I find that kind of insecurity essential to good writing,” Weisberg replied. “We all know bad writers are usually a lot more confident than good writers.”

Weisberg pressed Egan for details on her next book.

“Where are you with it, and how is it going?” Weisberg asked.

“I would say I don’t have a voice yet. I thought it would be really fun to write a book set in the past but constantly flowing back and forth to the present. But that idea has been revealed as a kind of Goon Squad hangover,” Egan said. “So I know what I’m not going to do. Now the question is, what am I going to do?”

“Do you have a central image or shape to organize the book?” Weisberg asked hopefully.

“Not really, no. It’s like I’m throwing nets everywhere, but I can’t encompass what I’m trying to do,” Egan replied. “It’s like an inversion of what you hope for, which is small things suggesting something much larger. What I feel when things aren’t working is often a frantic evoking of something big, but I can’t even seem to get all the way around it, and I just end up using a lot of words. It’s not a fun moment, but you just have to get through it.”

“You’ll be in the shower one day soon and it will occur to you,” Weisberg reassured her.

Egan laughed. “Well, I’ve been using a lot of hot showers, waiting for lightning to strike.”