Jennifer Egan exudes energy. As we speak, she’s on 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 nice room friends, it’s just a bit under the ground, so it makes me worry about wifi”), and talking to me before a livestream event (“so you’re my guinea pig”) while taking the breakfast and discouraging the house dog from joining the cat.
But she’s not flustered, actually seems to thrive on that kind of busyness. It’s an energy that readers of his novels will recognize, especially from his groundbreaking novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and dazzled readers with its buzzing energy, multi-format structure, and characters. nested. His new novel is being carefully described by its publishers not as a sequel to Goon Squad but as a “sister novel”.
Not all writers like the promotional circuit, of course, so is Egan any different? Does she, I wonder, prefer the life of a writer – living in your head most of the time – or the element of audience engagement, being exposed? Martin Amis said that writers are “more alive when they are alone”.
“That’s a very reasonable quote,” she said. “I think the times when I find myself really wanting things to continue often seem to be when I’m alone, which is terrible.” But, “I do this by choice. I’m lucky someone wants me to. You know, my career has been very progressive, and I know how hard it is to get to a point where nobody cares what you do.
So maybe the energy and enthusiasm she shows is less because she loves doing it 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 all the friends I had around the world – I didn’t didn’t even have email yet – I called some people and said, ‘Can you give me a list of all your friends’ addresses in every city I wanted to go?’ handwritten postcards to all my friends of friends with a handwritten note saying I’ll be in your city on date X. And it may have been a sympathy visit but they showed up and I sold books So I was like, okay, it works, I’m going to keep doing it. And each book did a little bit better than the last. And, she adds, “if I don’t sell this book, Who’s gonna do it ?”
In other words, she works just as hard after writing the book as before. Is this unusual? “I’ve become an informal adviser,” says Egan, “to many beginning novelists who are surprised at how much work I suggest they do in this direction. Because there’s no reason not to. The worst that can happen is that you spent some energy on something that didn’t make you a bestseller.
Now, maybe Egan being a “named” author is all about maximizing her audience and reaching people who have never read her before. To that end, does she think it’s okay for people to settle down with The Candy House without reading – or re-reading – A Visit from the Goon Squad?
“Of course,” she said firmly. “I didn’t reread Goon Squad myself until I was almost done with The Candy House. And I was amazed to find that I had made a lot of factual errors. In a few instances, I had to revise bios I created in Candy House because they directly contradicted Goon Squad. In fact, I feel like 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 focused on the music industry, The Candy House focuses on that innocent project we all love to hate: social media. There’s more going on in the novel than we have space for in this interview, but at its center is the entrepreneur Bix Bouton, who uses algorithms developed by Miranda Kline (both Goon Squad characters) 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 at the world at a time when the trend in fiction is to look inward, typically in autofiction. In her own way, she is a descendant of such best-selling novelists of the 1980s and 1990s like Don DeLillo and Martin Amis. (The latter, she adds, is “a big favorite of hers.” “A big influence, humor-wise.”) So does she think it’s important for a novel to get out of at home ?
“I would never give,” Egan said quickly, “advice of any kind on what a novel should be.” But? “We’re all trying to go where the heat is, to access material that feels alive. [And] for me, if there is an opposite to an autofictionist, I am, because I have no interest in writing about myself. I do it wrong. I’m cold. I am bored. And I want to go back to another world. So I’m perplexed by the autofiction trend, partly because I just can’t relate to it.
We can see in The Candy House how Egan makes things interesting for herself – and for the reader – when she narrates one chapter in tweets or another in emails. The thing that everyone still talks about in Goon Squad, I say, is the chapter as a PowerPoint presentation.
“I always try to push myself,” she says, “partly just for fun. I have a list of things I want to try, cultural things that interest me that could somehow be channeled into fiction. But, she continues, “I think I get a little more credit than I deserve for my innovation.” The email chapter, for example, is just “epistolary, as old as the novel itself – Clarissa, an absolute masterpiece. [Or] Tristram Shandy, which has graphics. As for the Goon Squad PowerPoint chapter, “I tell the story that I could never have told otherwise. [That] the chapter would be an absolute non-starter written conventionally, it’s sappy, there’s no action, nothing happens. So I get a big payout if I bide my time and find a way to tell a story in an 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 confectionery! – in other words, as they say, if the product is free, then you are the product. But Egan also understands that these services only succeed because they appeal to something within us.
“I’m interested in paradox,” she says, and as we discuss how our digital native kids use technology differently from us, she adds, “I’ve learned so much watching my kids use technology. . My youngest son loves watching streamers, people playing video games and you watching the game while they play it. His first thought was, “Are you kidding! We’re not going to discuss you playing a game, we’re now going to discuss you watching someone else play a game!”
But, “when I go through all the judgments, which are so boring, so unnecessary, and immediately identify as a baby boomer – suddenly my curiosity kicks in. Why is this so interesting? And then I realized: that’s exactly what fiction does: it makes it feel like it’s looking through someone else’s brain.
Her next event is almost upon us, but before I go, I’m bound to wonder about a beautiful name of Irish descent like Egan. Did she know, for example, that at the top of her Wikipedia page it says “For Irish sprint canoeist Jennifer Egan, click here”? A report?
“Oh!” she laughs: “I would love to be linked to an Irish sprint canoeist! If I understood correctly where the Egans came from, we seem to be concentrated in the Strokestown area. I vividly remember going to a graveyard in Roscommon and it seemed like two out of three people had my surname spelled the same, which was incredibly exciting. And that, with a quick affirmation that she’s ‘delighted to have some love from an Irish newspaper’, that’s it, and she’s off to her next event, with as much energy as we have. start.
Jennifer Egan will appear at the Dublin International Literature Festival on May 25