Jennifer Egan, yes, that one, the one who won the Pulitzer Prize for her terrific 2010 book “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” would like the students to whom will be speaking at Texas State Oct. 17 to know something.
She, right now, is in pretty much the same boat they are.
“The questions I get the most from students are about how they can do the best work that they can do,” Egan, 51, says over the phone. “We want to do something good. We want to bring the best out we have to offer. We want to figure out the things we can’t control and access the things we can. And I say that as one more person struggling to write a decent book, same as they are.”
Egan won the Pulitzer in 2011, but since then, she has been slowly working on her next novel and promoting the heck out of “Goon Squad.” One must strike while the proverbial iron is hot, and the iron does not get much hotter than winning a Pulitzer.
“I spent a lot of time selling the international market and doing an unbelievable number of interviews,” Egan says.
She didn’t have to. A lot of writers don’t. But Egan says she thought it over and made the choice to capitalize on the opportunity to reach more readers.
“All it takes is my time, and it doesn’t take anything else from me,” she says. “I’m also a journalist, I don’t find the interview format alien.
“And when something like (a Pulitzer win) happens, you shouldn’t really assume you are going to have a chance to follow through at a later point,” Egan adds. “It was fun and interesting, and I am glad I did it.”
She also learned a lot about the book, which is a collection of linked short stories that weave together over roughly 30 or 40 years to form a nuanced, insightful work.
It is also about rock music, about the communities and people who orbit it. Egan absolutely swears she did not see this coming.
“I didn’t think of myself as writing a rock ‘n’ roll novel,” Egan says. “I didn’t think it fit the qualifications. But somehow it has ended up reading that way. That is something my American readers taught me.”
In some ways, “Goon Squad” wasn’t exactly the book Egan thought she was writing. “But that is the fun of writing a book,” she says. “You find out, in part, what it’s about when you publish it.”
She sees the writing process as a dialectic between blind exploration and refinement. “I think I know what it’s about, and then I am trying to write to that and there’s hopefully a more refined exploration,” Egan says. “But then there is a larger perspective when the book hits the world. My readers saw more in the book than I did.”
Egan found, much to her surprise, that this perspective translated internationally.
“Globalization really seems to have done its job; there is a likeness of perspective in youth culture that seems to cut across different nationalities (like) the approach to music,” she says. “The awareness of time passing, the sense of these imagined selves that one has to reckon with and move past as one gets older, whatever you end up doing— all of that seemed to really resonate outside of America.”
Egan says she has always been into “casting off” the book she has just published in favor of the one she is working on now. With “Goon Squad,” that means casting off a lot, including all of the technical innovations that have gone into it and its extraordinary reception.
“It is very clear to me whatever I do next is going to be perceived as not as good.” Egan says. “No book gets the love that ‘Goon Squad’ gets or have the luck that it had, the luck of somehow managing to satisfy a cultural appetite that I myself was not aware of.
“Luck is great and you can appreciate it and you should,” she adds. “but you can’t take credit for it, and you cannot expect it to be replicated.”
All of this engagement and promotion was not without its cost. Egan feels profoundly behind on her next book, which she says will be set in 1930s and ’40s New York City and required a tremendous amount of research.
“This is the first book I have written that takes place outside of my lifetime,” says Egan, who generally doesn’t write about herself or work from her own life, but relies on her life for context, for time and place, for atmosphere.
“Right now, I feel like I an empty cup, and I am trying to make the cocktail and there is nothing in there,” she says. “It is not enough to know that there were no ballpoint pens and what cars looked like. You have to know what the past was to people then, what they were remembering.”
This means a lot of reading oral histories, academic works, Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep” and “The Man With the Golden Arm,” and interviewing people who are now in their 80s.
“I find that I really did rely on intuitively knowing all these aspects of a cultural moment,” Egan says. “My intuition doesn’t function without that deep knowledge that I am unthinkingly drawing on.”
And a little Raymond Chandler doesn’t hurt. “I am finding him enormously helpful,” Egan says. “There is a kind of sadness that really echoes through his books even if there’s almost no backstory in them.”
Maybe this will work, maybe it won’t. “Maybe (the new book) won’t be so good as a result,” Egan says. “Maybe I will hit a wall and I find out that I am not good at doing this outside of my lifetime. Obviously, I am hoping this is not the case.
“What I tell myself is that it will be perceived to be not as good, but I really hope that I think it is better. And even if it is a disaster I will consider this time well spent because I am enjoying this education so much. That’s a great feeling.”
Which brings us very nicely back to where we started, with talking to students about how to write well.
“I am back to square one here,” Egan says. “Students are wondering how to write, how to do something good, how to tell a story. They’re asking exactly the questions I am wondering about myself all the time.”
Jennifer Egan will read and speak and sign books at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the Wittliff Collections at the Alkek Library on the campus of Texas State University in San Marcos. Egan will also read at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Texas State’s Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center in Kyle.