Jennifer Egan exudes energy. When we speak, she is in the middle of a book tour to launch her new novel The Candy House, sitting in her sister’s basement in Chicago (“I shouldn’t say basement, it’s a beautiful guest room, it’s just a little bit under the ground, so that makes me worry about the wifi”), and talking to me ahead of a live stream event (“so you’re my guinea pig”) while eating breakfast and discouraging the household dog from joining the chat.
But she is not flustered, seems in fact to thrive on this sort of busy way of being. It’s an energy readers of her novels will recognise, particularly from her breakthrough novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and dazzled readers with its buzzy energy, multi-format structure and interlocking characters. Her new novel is described carefully by her publishers not as a sequel to Goon Squad but a “sibling novel”.
Not all authors like the promotional circuit, of course, so is Egan different? Does she, I wonder, prefer the writer’s life – living in your head most of the time – or the public engagement element, being on show? Martin Amis said that writers are “most alive when alone”.
“That’s a very reasonable quote,” she says. “I do think that the moments where I find myself really wanting things to continue often seem to be when I’m alone, which is terrible.” But, “I do this as a choice. I’m lucky that anyone wants me to do it. You know, my career has been very incremental, and I know how hard it is to reach a point where anyone gives a damn what you do.”
So maybe the energy and enthusiasm she exhibits is less because she loves doing this than because she understands the value of it. She gives an example. “When my first book was published in 1995, my publisher made a physical postcard with all the readings on it. Remember those? And I went to every friend I had in the world – I wasn’t even on email yet – I called people, and said, Can you give me a list of addresses of all your friends in every city I wanted to go to? Then I mailed handwritten postcards to every friend of my friends with a handwritten note saying, I’ll be in your city on X date. And it may have been a sympathy attendance, but they showed up and I sold books. So I felt, okay, this works, I’m going to keep doing it. And each book did a little better than the one before.” And, she adds, “if I don’t sell this book, who will?”
She works, in other words, just as hard after the book is written as she does before. Is this unusual? “I’ve become an informal adviser,” Egan says, “to many first-time novelists who are surprised at the amount of work I suggest they do in this direction. Because there’s no reason not to. The worst that can happen is you’ve spent a little energy on something that didn’t result in you being a bestseller.”
Now, perhaps, with Egan being a “name” author, it’s a question of maximising her audience, and reaching people who haven’t read her before. To that end, does she think it’s okay for people to settle down with The Candy House without reading – or rereading – A Visit from the Goon Squad?
“For sure,” she says firmly. “I myself didn’t reread Goon Squad until I was almost done with The Candy House. And I was astonished to find I made a lot of factual errors. In a couple of cases I had to revise biographies that I’d created in Candy House, because they directly contradicted Goon Squad. In fact I have a feeling that for someone who hasn’t read either, starting with Candy House might be the best way to go.”
And what about the book itself? If Goon Squad was loosely centred on the music industry, The Candy House focuses on that innocent project we all love to hate: social media. There is more going on in the novel than we have room for in this interview, but at its centre is entrepreneur Bix Bouton, who uses algorithms developed by Miranda Kline (both characters from Goon Squad) to develop Own Your Consciousness, a platform where people can upload their memories – and browse other people’s.
In this sense The Candy House is like Egan’s other books: it looks out at the world at a time when the trend in fiction is to look inward, typically in autofiction. In her own way she’s a descendant of those big-hitter novelists of the 1980s and 1990s like Don DeLillo and Martin Amis. (The latter, she interjects, is “a big favourite” of hers. “A big influence, in terms of humour.”) So does she think it’s important for a novel to, as it were, get out of the house?
“I would never,” Egan says quickly, “give advice of any kind about what a novel should be.” But? “We’re all trying to go where the heat is, get to material that feels alive. [And] for me, if there’s an opposite to an autofictionalist, I am that, because I have no interest in writing about myself. I do it badly. I go cold. I’m bored. And I want to get back into another world. So I’m bemused by the trend toward autofiction, partly because I just can’t relate to it.”
We can see in The Candy House how Egan makes things interesting for herself – and the reader – when she tells a chapter in tweet-length bites, or another in emails. The thing everyone still talks about in Goon Squad, I say, is the chapter as a PowerPoint presentation.
“I’m always trying to push myself,” she says, “partly just for fun. I have a list of things I want to try, cultural things I’m interested in that could somehow be routed into fiction.” But, she continues, “I do think I get a little more credit than I deserve for being innovative.” The chapter in emails, for example, is just “epistolary, as old as the novel itself – Clarissa, an absolute masterpiece. [Or] Tristram Shandy, which has graphical elements.” As for the PowerPoint chapter in Goon Squad, “I’m telling the story I could never have told otherwise. [That] chapter would be an absolute non-starter written conventionally, it’s sappy, there’s no action, nothing happens. So I get a big payoff if I bide my time and find some way to tell a story in some unusual form.”
On social media itself, the book takes a balanced view. On the one hand, the title refers to the fact that “nothing is free! Never trust a candy house!” – in other words, as they say, if the product is free, then you’re the product. But Egan also understands that these services are successful only because they appeal to something in us.
“I’m interested in the paradox,” she says and, as we discuss how our digital-native children use technology differently than we do, she adds that “I’ve learned so much from watching my kids use technology. My younger son loves to watch streamers, people who play video games and you’re looking at the game as they play it.” Her initial thought was, “You’re kidding! We’re not going to argue about you playing a game, we’re now going to argue about whether you watch someone else play a game!”
But, “when I get through all the judgments, which are so boring, so unhelpful, and immediately identify me as a boomer – suddenly my curiosity kicks in. Why is this so interesting? And then I got it: this is doing exactly what fiction does: it gives him the feeling of looking out through someone else’s brain. How fascinating!”
Her next event is almost upon us, but before we go, I’m bound to wonder about a fine Irish-derived name like Egan. Did she know, for example, that at the top of her Wikipedia page it says “For the Irish sprint canoeist Jennifer Egan, click here”? Any relation?
“Oh!” she laughs, “I would love to be related to an Irish sprint canoeist! My understanding of where the Egans came from is that we seem to be concentrated in the Strokestown area. I remember vividly going to a graveyard in Roscommon and it seemed like two out of three people had my last name spelled the same way, which was incredibly thrilling.” And that, with a quick affirmation that she’s “thrilled to have some love from an Irish newspaper” is that, and she’s off, to her next event, with just as much energy as we began.
Jennifer Egan will appear at the International Literature Festival Dublin on May 25th