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Author Jennifer Egan: On Writing and Surprising the Reader

Friday, April 27, 2012
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan, a Distinguished Visiting Professor to the School of Arts and Sciences on April 26, shared insights on her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and her writing process during a lively question and answer session with the Marymount community.

Her award-winning book is about time and music – the relationship between them and the significance of pauses. It’s also about people – their foibles, their relationships, and their interconnectedness and disconnectedness through time. Egan describes the novel as “vivid short bursts of experience with big gaps.” The arrival of the digital age also plays a role, with one chapter written as a PowerPoint slide diary.

Egan explained that she was inspired by Marcel Proust’s In search of Lost Time and the television show The Sopranos. An unlikely duo! Regarding The Sopranos, she remarked on “the strong storytelling and peripheral characters who became important.”

One MU student asked why the book isn’t in chronological order. Egan responded, “Sticking to any kind of timeline would have deprived readers of surprises – the movement of curiosity.”

Egan also talked about her writing process. “I write fiction in longhand, so I don’t self-edit,” she explained. “I like to write in a kind of subconscious way and let writing lead.” Egan added, “I also rely enormously on a writing group.” She said that they read aloud to each other and then the group responds. The only question that she asks the group is, “Is it alive? Where did your interest lag, and where did it lock in?”

Asked about her characters, Egan said, “I enjoy writing about characters who aren’t like me. But I have to feel a lot of empathy for them. They may make bad choices, but they [the decisions] make sense for the character.” In addition, Egan pointed out that time and place are really important to her.

Responding to a request for advice for aspiring writers, Egan made four points:
  • “Read the kind of stuff that you want to write. You have to be inundated with it.”
  • “Writing routinely, regularly is really the basis. It needs to become a habit.”
  • “Keep your goals realistic. Set a number of pages or length of time to write. I do pages – for example, five to seven pages a day.”
  • “Give yourself permission to write badly. It clears the way for better work.”
A reception and book-signing at the end of the discussion gave students, faculty, and others in the MU community a chance to chat further with Jennifer Egan.
PHOTO 1 - Jennifer Egan signs books for Marymount seniors Kelly Whelan (center) and Megan Kennedy, both English majors.
PHOTO 2 -  Freshman Emily Wambolt, a Nursing major, chats with the author.
PHOTO 3 - Jennifer Egan shares advice for aspiring writers.
PHOTO 4 - The author signs books for Dr. Nyla Carney (center), associate dean of MU's School of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Lillian Bisson, professor emeritus of Literature and Languages.
PHOTO 5 - Dr. George Cheatham, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, presents Jennifer Egan with the Distinguished Visiting Professor certificate.