Have you read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan? It was one of those books that when it came out it felt like everyone was reading it. It moves across time, linking characters not necessarily directly or chronologically but in some tenuous way. Almost like a reminder that the marginal characters in your life are the heroes in theirs; roles that are interchangeable in every moment. The power lies not in the characters but the moment, which Egan denotes as the goon: “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?”
I went with Sam to see Jennifer Egan interviewed as part of Guardian Book Club, where she spoke mostly about A Visit from the Goon Squad (the idea behind the event series is that an author will have a new book out, but they’ll be asked to talk about an older work. That way no one has to apologise for accidental spoilers).
Jennifer Egan is so clearly brilliant and so effortlessly warm. Even when talking about the way she works; at one point she stopped herself to apologise for speaking as if her writing appears fully formed on the page. It doesn’t. She writes entirely long-hand, and her latest novel Manhattan Beach eventually ended up as 14,000 handwritten pages where some characters had different names throughout just because she’d lost track. But as I listened to her I couldn’t help thinking that the lessons she’d learned as an author made really good marketing advice:
There are many ways to tell a story, but make sure the medium fits
If you have read Goon Squad then you’ll know that the penultimate chapter, Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake, is told as a PowerPoint presentation. Egan had never used PowerPoint before writing this chapter (to get a primer she had asked her sister, a consultant at Bain, to send her one, telling her it was research into the corporate world. When she received the file she couldn’t even open it, as she didn’t even have ), but had the feeling that the setting, a desert, might just work with PowerPoint atmospherically.
But it’s a radical form, and the only way she felt she could access the character of Alison Blake. “I wouldn’t have used it if there was another way to tell that story,” she said. “Hopefully I got some emotion through without over-sentimentality.”
The last two chapters of Goon Squad are set in the future– a future that’s now our present and that was dreamt up before everyone had an iPhone. Egan didn’t shy away from how outdated these chapters already are: “All these ideas were vaguely ahead [in 2010] and now they’re behind.”
The speed of technology and innovation is still increasing. If you want to be ahead, you’ll have to be quick.
Define what you do
When Goon Squad was published the New York Times called it “uncategorizable”. Is it a novel, or a collection of short stories? Jennifer Egan wouldn’t let her publisher put ‘A Novel’ on the cover of the hardback edition. And I mean, I get it. It’s easy to think that by leaving something open, you let your audience think for themselves. You let them decide, to participate.
But that isn’t what actually happens. What happens is that your audience, not knowing what you’re offering them or why they should care, move on. Good Squad sold poorly when it was first released.
Define what you do so people can decide whether they’re interested in it or not.
Sometimes it’s luck
The movement through the stories of Goon Squad works a lot like you would move across the Internet, jumping through hypertext to related but separate material. Did that effect contribute to the success of Goon Squad (it won the Pulitzer in 2011), making it timely and narratively appealing?
If you get an idea, try it. Sometimes you do things and they’re relevant. Dream it up and see where it goes.