November 4th, 2011 | Published in Google Books
We were pleased to host Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, for an Authors@Google event in our New York office this August. I had the pleasure of moderating the talk with Egan in front of a group of Googlers.
Although the cast of characters spanning Goon Squad is vast and raucous, Egan is most interested in the sometimes self-destructive, sometimes tender-hearted protagonists, a music producer and former punk-rocker, Bennie Salazar, and his klepto assistant, Sasha.
The book has received much press focused on the nonlinear nature of its narrative. Rather than flowing predictably from past to present to future, the chapters are ordered either to trace the threads of the characters' lives – to lend credence and nuance to their current state of mind – and sometimes as needed to maintain the plot’s tension. For example, we're led back in time to the formative days of West Coast punk, then thrust a decade or two into the future of lower Manhattan, all with interesting effect, especially as regards Egan's take on technology. Yet I found other aspects of her novel even more intriguing.
First, as a fiction writer myself, I was impressed with the control and narrative prowess Egan exhibits in Goon Squad, including the numerous voices and styles she employs to tell her story. I was particularly interested in one "future" chapter, told by the sister of an Aspergian child, called "Great Rock 'n' Roll Pauses," that presents its narrative in the form of a series of graphs and charts. (Makes us wonder how data narratives will fit with straight-up storytelling in the future.) In addition, she clearly grants her imagination broad license. I wanted to understand how she manages her creative process, and wondered if she had a model that was generalizable for writers and engineers (remember, this is Google) alike.
To prepare for the role as moderator, I made a mental map of the narrative arcs that intersect across the chapters; I read the book a second time and took notes on character names, places, plot points, settings, etc. I then began generating potential points of discussion. When I felt I had a critical mass of questions, I typed them up on index cards (see a sampling) using a manual typewriter. Egan, I discovered in my research, writes all of her early drafts in longhand. This would prompt at least one question I'd ask her: does the mode we write in influence the content we write?
The discussion with Egan was fast-paced and improvisational. She clearly enjoys expanding on the themes of her work – technology, music, the perception of time, the nature of memory – and is refreshingly open about the process she goes through while writing a book like Goon Squad. Take a look for yourself.
Egan speaks at Authors@Google in our New York office
Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad is available as a Google eBookstore, as well as other novels by her (available in certain countries):