not as critics, but as participants

“For some reason—who knows why we do what we do?—JP started drinking again.”

The margins of nearly all my notebooks are lined with names of books, authors and quotes meant to remind me of specific conversations or to read certain essays. Usually, it works. The quote above is from Raymond Carver’s essay “Where I’m Calling From,” which was published in The New Yorker in 1982.

In attempting to write a story this summer that told “the whole truth” in a short amount of space, I was curious about Carver and where he was in fact calling from. It seemed like that aside in the above quotation held the whole truth of the story because it’s such an evergreen question. Why do any of us do anything that we do? And if we think about it too long will our heads float off into another dimension, or will we find the answer?

Last night Goodreads hosted an hour-long chat with Pulitzer Prize winning author Jennifer Egan. A majority of the questions were fan questions—people wondering what her favorite chapter was in her prize-winning book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, or people curious about what she would do next with the characters. She briefly mentioned the pilot that was being shot for HBO, emphasizing that it was in its early stages and could go anywhere, even absolutely nowhere, and talked about everything she knew about the characters. She said she had so much more to say on them but also mentioned that she wasn’t a fan of sequels or prequels, which was really wonderful to hear as a reader. If the story decided to come out in some way, or another (she is a fan of unconventional storytelling–one chapter in Goon Squad is told through PowerPoints and she just wrote a short story in the form of a to-do list), she would not fight it.

When the questions became more technical, she revealed that A Visit from the Goon Squad was written as individual chapters, which is easy to believe. Some of the chapters were released as essays long before the novel came out. I know of at least two: one in Granta and the other published in January 2010 in The New Yorker.

The New Yorker essay, “Safari“, was easily my favorite chapter in the book and was the reason why I wanted to tell a story that had everything in it from these characters’ points of view. Jennifer Egan has a knack for putting her reader in one very specific situation then giving them a sudden glimpse of the character’s entire world in a single sentence. This then colors the rest of the story. I wanted to do that—still want to do that. “Safari” is still available to read online if you want to get a glimpse of Egan’s style.

Because Raymond Carver’s essay is almost thirty years old, it is not supposed to be available online anymore. When you click on the link for it, it takes you to an abstract explanation of what the story is all about. But when you click it to read more, instead of asking you to supply login information or to buy a pass, it takes you to the complete text. Every time I flipped the virtual page I was sure that an error would pop up and it would leave me hanging, but it never happened and I was right about the aside: he’s telling it all in that moment.

Being able to interact and listen to Jennifer Egan last night was absolutely amazing and insightful, especially when she seemed to be reiterating what my professors have said. My favorite piece of advice came on the back-end of an answer she gave to the one question I submitted. In old interviews she’s mentioned how essential it was for her to be a part of writing communities, so I asked her about that and she directed me to The Paris Review’s slush-pile before saying the greatest thing ever, which (and I’m simplifying here) was that setting up a situation in which you can thrive is absolutely essential.

Really simple and obvious, I know, but having it stated was kind of an a-ha moment and will probably serve as a great reminder.

“It’s hard to pull off anything, take as long as you need”

In Goon Squad there is one chapter that I think tells the whole story of the novel and that’s the PowerPoint chapter. You see, everything ends – we all know that, but there parts where we think it’s all over, pauses.

“The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”

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2 thoughts on “not as critics, but as participants

  1. i love this. first of all, i just finished A Visit From the Goon Squad and was blown away (big surprise) and it’s great hearing someone else talk about it. second of all, i can’t believe you got to virtually interact with J. Egan. i need to start using my goodreads account more! third of all, i love the advice about setting up a space where you can thrive. ahh, beautiful.

    what did she tell you about The Paris Review’s slush pile? i “met” (aka saw) the new editor once, and he is super sexy. literarily sexy.

  2. hahaha, “literarily sexy” is such a great phrase. She just started taking advantage of the event invitations they’d post and interacted with the writers at these events. From there, she got involved in writing circles and that’s when she was able to get great feedback and actually improve her writing. So, I guess those are the steps to win the Pulitzer Prize

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