Jennifer Egan’s Organic Writing

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Good Squad, Pulitzer Prize, writing, novel

Jennifer Egan (photo: upload.wikimedia,org – David Shankbone)

For a long time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan hadn’t consciously intended to pull together the stories that eventually formed A Visit from the Good Squad into a novel. A recent Glimmer Train interview with talks about the completely organic way of writing she employed in doing so.

The set of stories that form the book’s chapters focus on people who circle the lives of the main characters—Bennie Salazar, an aging punk rocker and recording executive, divorced, and trying to connect with his nine-year old son, and Sasha, a kleptomaniac who has worked for him. Thus, we learn about Bennie’s and Sasha’s past indirectly through these confederates.

Each of these individual stories is told in a unique, technically different way. It wasn’t a matter of just selecting a character and some different approach to telling their story, it was more the challenge of creating stories that actually required different manners of telling. As a result, for example, one is written as a slightly cheesy news story (“Forty-Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens Up About Love, Fame, and Nixon!”), and another, in the unsettling second-person, begins, “Your friends are pretending to be all kinds of stuff, and your special job is to call them on it.”

Janet Maslin in The New York Times called the book “uncategorizable.” It wasn’t until Egan had the idea of treating the book like a concept album that its ultimate form suggested itself, she says. She had no desire to write a set of linked short stories with “a similarity of mood and tone.” (An example is Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which won the 2009 Pulitzer for fiction.)

“I wanted them to sound like they were parts of different books,” Egan says. “Because I felt if I could do that and still have them fuse, that it would be a much more complicated, rich experience.” Sticking with the record-industry theme, she says, “You would never want to listen to an album where all the songs had the same mood and tone.” The group Chicago comes to mind.

Chapter 12, structured as a PowerPoint presentation titled “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (you can read it here), plunges into previously uncharted literary territory. This unlikely format her interviewer calls “destabilizing,” as well as beautiful and haunting. The challenge in using it, says Egan, was that it is basically a discontinuous form being manipulated to create a continuous narrative. In another writer’s hands, such a deviation from the expected might seem gimmicky, but in Egan’s view that particular chapter demanded to be told in a fragmented way, which PowerPoint enabled. Something unlikely to happen again, she says.

While the books experimentation was praised by critics and has baffled readers, Egan believes that the only legitimate way to experiment in writing is to let the content dictate the form. And that’s where the author’s creativity has to come through. Otherwise it’s an intellectual process laid on top of a story, which from the discerning reader’s point of view, never works.

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