Jennifer Egan talks tech, freedom at Jerusalem Writers Festival

The author of a body of work that includes A Visit from the Goon Squad, Manhattan Beach and The Candy House, sat down at the Jerusalem Writers Festival.

 JENNIFER EGAN at the Jerusalem Writers Festival. (photo credit: CHEN WAGSHALL)
JENNIFER EGAN at the Jerusalem Writers Festival.
(photo credit: CHEN WAGSHALL)

“I’m just not interested in myself, and I don’t mean that I don’t like being myself, but just that, for me, writing is all about getting beyond oneself,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan, a guest of the Jerusalem Writers Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, which runs through May 11.

“I’m just not interested in myself, and I don’t mean that I don’t like being myself, but just that, for me, writing is all about getting beyond oneself.”

Jennifer Egan

The author of a body of work that includes A Visit from the Goon Squad, Manhattan Beach and The Candy House, and a former president of PEN America, she sat down to discuss how she creates her unconventional, highly acclaimed fiction, just before speaking at an event called The Right to Write: A Foundation Conference of PEN Israel.

“When I feel like I’m on familiar ground, it feels like I’m failing somehow.... I’m not letting that magic work,” she said.

The magic she was referring to her is her brilliant, idiosyncratic prose and dazzling, unpredictably imaginative storytelling.

The writing of award-winning novelist Jennifer Egan

Egan, a Chicago native who has been living in Brooklyn for many years, has had enormous success with two books that defy categorization, A Visit from the Good Squad and The Candy House. A Visit from the Goon Squad, the 2011 book for which she won the Pulitzer, has been described as a novel in linked stories that looks at characters in and around the music industry over a period of decades. Her 2022 novel, The Candy House, also uses this format to tell connected stories of several characters, some of whom appeared in the previous work, but who are concerned now with the hi-tech industry, in which several of them work, trying to create new social media platforms and apps that may change the fabric of our lives.

Hi-tech (illustrative) (credit: JERUSALEM POST)Hi-tech (illustrative) (credit: JERUSALEM POST)

As Dwight Garner wrote in The New York Times, “...[S]he knows where she’s going and the polyphonic effects she wants to achieve, and she achieves them, as if she were writing on a type of MacBook that won’t exist for another decade.”

Based on these two books, you might pigeonhole Egan as a writer who gravitates to certain industries and technologies and a multicharacter, multistory format, but in 2018 she published Manhattan Beach, a more conventionally plotted novel. It tells the story of a young woman who works building warships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II. Eventually, she decides to become a diver and is drawn to a powerful gangster at the docks who may hold the key to the disappearance of her father.

Egan, who describes her method as “improvisational and totally inefficient,” said she used whichever style she felt worked best for the story she wanted to tell.

Speaking about how The Candy House seems in some parts to be prescient about the concerns raised by the development of AI today, she said she approached the subject from a literary, not a tech, point of view, and that she is not a technologically oriented person. “I’m not attracted to technology. To me it always feels like it’s going to be a slog and I’m going to have to learn how to do it, and then I also am very fearful of its impact, which I see all around me.... The degree to which we are all succumbing to the forces that are trying to make this stuff addictive – it’s really scary.”

Scary, but fascinating, Egan admitted, saying that she can see the positive sides of the tech revolution, and that she particularly enjoys audio books and is “reading more books than ever” now.

Addiction – to technology and to drugs – is another key factor in The Candy House, and while working on a Times article about pregnant women addicted to opioids, she found herself thinking about addiction. Asked whether she had struggled with this issue herself, she said, “No, thank God, I have not, but I have been surrounded by it, absolutely. My father had a very serious drinking problem and got sober luckily at a certain point, and my brother had a drinking problem.... A couple friends from high school really fell into addiction.”

She relates in a more personal way to the struggle to break addiction to technology, she said. “As a person, I’m pretty down on technology, but as a fiction writer I’m very curious about it, and I would not be writing about it if all I thought of [and] all I felt about it was negative; it wouldn’t be a good subject matter for me, because I’m not interested in moralizing or teaching lessons or warning people – to me that’s boring.” Conventional wisdom can lead to “groupthink,” she said, which she regards as unhelpful and studiously avoids.

Since, no matter what story she is telling, she is not writing about herself or her acquaintances, she does extensive research for all her work. She began to develop the plot for Manhattan Beach when she was working on an oral history project of the Brooklyn Navy Yards and became interested in the women who worked there during World War II, and how gangsters were part of life in the yards. “I don’t think there was a single oral history interview in which the word ‘gangster’ was not uttered; everyone knew a gangster. Gangsters were just part of everyday life; it was a job description and not an entirely unacceptable one.”

For her, the challenge of writing a period novel was not about how the characters dressed or what they ate, “but understanding what people thought, what they were remembering, what they were nostalgic for, what they were collectively afraid of, what had happened recently, what were the big events in the minds of a 20-year-old, a 40-year-old, an 80-year-old. That is the stuff that’s really hard.”

Asked about television adaptations of Manhattan Beach and A Visit from the Goon Squad reportedly in the works, she said, “I don’t go near screenwriting; I have no interest in that.... Everything is always being turned into something.”

WHEN ASKED to talk about characters she felt particularly close to, she mentioned Bix, a black tech entrepreneur who made a brief appearance in A Visit to the Goon Squad and who has a more central role in The Candy House, which led her to muse on the trend of people criticizing authors who write about characters who are different from themselves.

“Bix is a character in Goon Squad and he has a small role, and I remained curious about him, and so it felt very natural to follow up with him,” she said, noting that she wrote a Candy House chapter about him in 2011 or 2012, “ it preceded a lot of the more recent racial outcry in America. I think I probably would have been more hesitant to write about him now, but I had already done it....

“I hate that kind of self-censorship.... I think it’s really bad for fiction. I think... that a lot of people are terrified to write about anything that didn’t happen to them, because they think they have no right to do it; and that, I think, is really bad for the [literary fiction] genre. But it’s also the world which we live in, but I think we have to really push back. Toni Morrison repeatedly talked about how the first thing she would say to her students was ‘Forget your boring lives and imagine you’re someone else. I don’t want to hear what happened to you.’ I really agree with that, so I’m really hoping that we can move out of this constraint, because the genre already is imperiled, you know, by all of the distraction.... If we then are writing crappy books because we feel like we aren’t allowed to tell stories that are anything other than what we’ve lived, that’s not good for the genre, and I want to keep the genre strong because I think it does things nothing else can do.”

As much as she is concerned about literature, Egan is also focused on what is going on in the world and is interested in the current anti-judicial reform protests in Israel.

She has spent time in Israel before, when her husband had a Jerusalem Fellowship, and so she felt comfortable attending the Saturday night protest in Tel Aviv.

“It was exciting,” she said. Compared to the anti-Trump protests in the US, “it felt more joyous. I loved it. It felt so alive. Obviously there was a lot of anger... but I felt there was also a celebratory quality to it, and it was a little bit different and really wonderful,” she said, before heading off to speak at the PEN event.