Jennifer Egan, Winning

jennifer-egan-goon-squad.jpgYesterday, I wrote an item for Shelf Awareness about the launch of the Goodreads Book Club, which will feature Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I spoke to Egan for the piece, and it includes some reflections on her own involvement with book clubs as both an author and a reader, but I’d also spoken with her about the books she’s been reading lately, including Jessica Hagedorn’s Toxicology, The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer, and Emma Donoghue’s Room. “I thought it was spectacular, really, deeply unsettling,” she said of the Donoghue. “I felt one of those seismic shifts inside me reading it, which is rare for me.”

“For a long time before that, I was actually reading nineteenth-century novels,” Egan added. “I reread Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, and Bleak House in the last few months… One thing that I’m really interested in is the way that the nineteenth century has come to be regarded as this bastion of convention—when people mention the conventional novel, they’re often alluding to the nineteenth century—and yet, those books aren’t conventional at all. They were very loose and flexible and they had lots of things that I think would almost be regarded as experimental now. I’m kind of curious about that, and I definitely want to read more, but there’s a lot of recent stuff I want to catch up on, so I’m going to do that first.”

We also touched upon the possibility that her interactions with the Goodreads book club might rehash the backlash against her post-Pulitzer remarks, when she described the books from which Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarized as “very derivative, banal stuff.” It was, she said, exactly the kind of thoughtlessly casual remark that, with her journalistic background, she should have known better than to say in conversation with a reporter—but which may now linger on the Internet and continue to be seen as her position on the subject. “I have nothing to defend in what I said,” she said. “I really wish I hadn’t said that, and was incredibly and immediately sorry that anyone was hurt by it. I don’t blame anyone for being mad about it.” Though she does believe there’s an interesting conversation to be had about genre and gender and literary culture, she doesn’t see her comments in that interview as any kind of effective contribution to that discussion. “I’m all for criticizing; I’m not saying that no one should ever criticize anyone else,” she continued. “But if you’re going to criticize, you should do it intentionally and thoughtfully and carefully and know whom you’re criticizing and for what. And I didn’t meet any of those criteria.”

But that’s a small blip on what has otherwise been a season of great attention for Egan’s novel—not just the Pulitzer, and the book club pick, but the National Book Critics Circle award and a Los Angeles Times prize, too. How is she dealing with the new fame? “I don’t know if I feel it in the huge way that I think I’m supposed to,” she admitted. “My life seems basically the same. Of course the basics of one’s life are always the same, especially if you have kids. I’ve still got laundry to do. I still feel extremely joyful and lucky on a daily basis. I tend to be a worrywort, that’s where my mind often goes, and I feel like there’s less to worry about right now. Good things are happening, and that’s just a joy. I’m also really aware that this kind of luck happens rarely even once in a career and probably, almost certainly, not twice, so I feel an urgency about enjoying it and appreciating it. I know some years from now I’m going to look back and say, ‘How the hell did that happen?’ And I’m probably also going to think, ‘How can I make it happen again?’ And I’m not going to know how, because this kind of luck comes when a lot of other forces align. I don’t really feel that it’s something I’m responsible for—I’m proud of my book, but, come on. I’ve been around long enough to know that this is really about a lot of other things lining up in the right way. And I want to enjoy that, because it’s not in my control, and it’s very unlikely to happen again. And I am enjoying it. I really am.”

11 May 2011 | interviews |