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Storytelling through Powerpoint and Twitter

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Jennifer Egan. - PIETER M. VAN HATTEM
  • Pieter M. Van Hattem
  • Jennifer Egan.

Critics and book lovers still haven't stopped talking about Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the LA Times Book Prize. Each chapter of the book features a different character, though each character usually turns up in other chapters at a different point in his or her life. Subtract linear chronology and add one chapter that's a PowerPoint presentation, and you can understand why the book has fascinated readers.

Egan's other novels include The Invisible Circus (which was adapted for film), Look at Me (nominated for a National Book Award) and The Keep (a bestseller). She's published a book of short stories and writes non-fiction for the New York Times Magazine.

Egan will read from A Visit from the Goon Squad March 20 as part of Butler University's Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series. She spoke with NUVO about her use of form, her love/hate relationship with technology, and what she's reading now.

NUVO: Goon Squad was celebrated in part for its unusual form, and your story "Black Box" was written in sections of less than 140 characters and tweeted by The New Yorker. How do the story you want to tell and the form that it takes come together in your writing process?

Jennifer Egan: I think the answer is on a wing and a prayer. For example, with PowerPoint, I was interested in it for a long time before I found a way to use it. Some of the problems I had were practical: I didn't own it, I didn't have enough memory on my laptop to hold it, and I was too cheap to buy it. Also, I didn't have a story that wanted to be told in PowerPoint. What I mean by that is not something touchy feely, but just that if a story can be told in any other way than by using a radical structural form, then it should be - because structural stuff will just come off as gimmickry. I initially thought, "Well, who tells a story in PowerPoint? A corporate person." Then, I suddenly had a brain wave, and part of what gave me the brain wave was a different problem Goon Squad had. When you think about it, without that PowerPoint chapter, the latest point we meet [the character] Sasha chronologically is chapter one, whereas with [the character] Bennie, we see his future life as an older person. That asymmetry seemed to privilege Bennie over Sasha, but I couldn't find a way to get near her that seemed interesting. The brain wave was this idea of one of her children narrating the PowerPoint. As soon as I had that idea, I had an inkling of what the voice might sound like and also, I had a sense of atmosphere: a sense of a time and a place and how it could be evoked in that form.

Similarly, I was interested in using Twitter, but it took a while. There was a moment when I suddenly thought, "What if a story is told in the form of the lessons a person learns from each step in the action?" But as you've probably gathered, there are a lot of failures that have participated in the few successes that I've had with using radical forms.

NUVO: As a writer you have an interesting relationship with technology.

Egan: I think there's a paradox in my relationship to technology. I'm obviously pretty interested in it as a writer, but I'm averse to it as a consumer. And I would say I'm out and out at war with it as a parent. I absolutely abhor video games, to a degree that I realize is neurotic. If I could just get rid of screens all over the world, I would do it, from a parental point of view. But of course, then I never could have tweeted my fiction or used PowerPoint. So how do you reconcile that? I think it's easy, actually. I'm interested in these technologies as a writer, because they have such a massive impact on human beings. But as a mother, I deplore much of that impact, which I think at the very least takes time and energy away from more worthy things, and potentially does even more damage in terms of concentration. But I realize I sound like a total old fogy as I say that. My job as a writer is really not to judge; there's nothing worse than didacticism in fiction. Being a writer gives me free license to let my curiosity lead the way.

One of the things I was very surprised by, with the reception of Goon Squad, was that young people seemed to really like it. I assumed this would be a book for people forty and over. I thought, "What do younger people care about time? What does it even mean to them?" Well, it actually seems to mean a lot to them. People who are 25 now look at 15-year-olds and see that they are growing up in a different way, technologically, than the 25-year-old did. I think that makes all of us more aware of time passing.

NUVO: Goon Squad plays a lot with music and its relationship to memory. How did you capture that?

Egan: The book was directly inspired by Proust, and I make that pretty clear. Music plays a huge part in that novel [In Search of Lost Time], too. While the famous madeleine is the memory touchstone in Proust, I think music is the real madeleine, especially in the Western world over the last 60 years. The music that we came of age with as teens is in some way defining. As music consumption has changed radically in recent years, I feel more aware than ever of the nostalgic impact of music, because I have my own playlists, like all of us, and a lot of the songs that I have on my iPod are songs that have meant something to me at other points in my life. I thought of music not so much in its relationship to memory, explicitly, but more in its relationship to time and change. I was thinking specifically about the industry itself, and its relative collapse as a result of digital technology, which was so unforeseen and so rapid.

NUVO: Is there anything that you're reading or listening to at the moment that you love?

Egan: I recently read Call It Sleep by Henry Roth - an amazing masterpiece. Also, Jack Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City. It's a really beautiful book; I think it's much more accomplished than On the Road. It gets at some of the cultural dislocations brought on by World War II.

It's been really fun to revisit certain classics, which I find I read in a different way now. I recently reread Anna Karenina and Middlemarch. I find myself often wondering why naturalistic narratives from the 19th and early 20th centuries seem so compelling. They're like catnip. Why is that so hard for me to do? Those always feel like nourishing books to read, because they are both so rich with ideas and so hard to put down. It's the holy grail of a combination. It's so hard, and yet they do it with such a light touch.

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