Jennifer Egan At McNally Jackson
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1. McNally Jackson’s own Steve, & nonfiction and literary criticism writer Walton Muyumba. Muyumba says that Egan is one of the best, most interesting contemporary writers out there, along with others like Junot Diaz & Edwidge Danticat. 2. Jennifer Egan & Glenn Kurtz.
Last night McNally Jackson hosted “Conversations on Practice,” which is “an interdisciplinary discussion series exploring how artists go about their daily work,” and was moderated by Glenn Kurtz, the author of Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music. The speaker was Jennifer Egan, who first read a section of “Selling the General,” a story which is included in her newest book, A Visit from the Goon Squad. The story is about a publicist with a very difficult client. To make this client appear less malevolent, the publicist instructs him to wear a fuzzy blue hat. At first, the strings attached to the hat are bow-tied under the client’s chin, with less than favorable results: the client looks like a fat baby with cancer. But the publicist insists on the hat, although she instructs her client to cut its strings so that the hat has the intended result — and then it does! Publicity genius.
Kurtz said, as the talk with Egan began, that cutting stings off a fuzzy-blue hat seemed like an apt metaphor for writing, and the rest of the talk functioned like a fiction-writing crash course, echoing many of the wisest things my MFA professors have said to me — like that the best stories go places that are both surprising and inevitable. For once, I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was scribbling furiously into a notebook.
1. Painter Alexandra & Adam, who writes plays and fiction. 2. Jenny, who is a fiction writer and will be applying to MFA programs in the future.
Egan’s writing process relies heavily on the more intuitive subconscious mind. She begins with a sense of time and place, and hand-writes drafts on a legal pad. Next, she types it all up. Her writing is so messy and cryptic that occasionally she can’t even decipher it — which is sometimes good. Then, she prints out a hard copy to read, which can be painful because she finds the writing to be bad, and full of cliches. This is where her analytical mind comes in, and often, she has to “lop off” large sections. Her work goes through numerous drafts, and she numbers each one — in her novel Look at Me, certain chapters went through 70–80 different drafts.
Egan is part of a reading group whose members have shifted over time, though the group has existed for over twenty years. This reading group is unique because the work is read aloud, which has many benefits over a traditional workshop. First of all, there’s no homework, since you’re all listening to the work at the same time. You also don’t have to come up with comments that make it appear like you’ve read the work more carefully than you actually did. Egan says that she is also able to really hear where the language works, sense where the story is slowing down, and where it is really engaging. The listeners are also unable to get caught up in the little things, and due to all of this, this reading circle produces the highest quality feedback that Egan has ever experienced.
1. Jeff LeBlanc of Out of Print Clothing & Chris. Chris says Egan has made him hate PowerPoint a little bit less. 2. The McNally Jackson Cafe ceiling. HOW MANY TITLES CAN YOU RECOGNIZE?
We also got to hear specifically how Goon Squad was written. In its inception, Egan knew the shape of the book — that it would be told my numerous people, would be about the record industry, and would be very similar to a record, a concept album in particular. She also knew that she would be playing with time a great deal. Initially, she intended the book to be told in reverse chronological order, but later realized that this diminished its power. When she let go of the constraints of chronology, the book reached its full impact.
We also learned about “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” which is a story told entirely in PowerPoint. Egan sold the book without this story, but was later hit with a “demonic” determination to write it. She was pleased with the result: the story lifted the book up. I definitely found this story to be one of the most moving in the whole collection, which is obviously an accomplishment given its format. This led into talk about technology and writing, and Egan said she is both afraid and excited for tech impact on written works. It’s important that people still pay attention to a contained narrative, she said, but also interesting to figure out how she as a writer can utilize the impact.
–Julia Jackson is working on her MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College, and is a regular contributor for Electric Dish.