Jennifer Egan: "Goon Squad" could have been better!

She may have won the Pulitzer for her latest book, but the novelist knows too much applause is dangerous

Published January 27, 2013 4:00PM (EST)

Excerpted from "Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do"

When I’m not writing I feel an awareness that something’s missing. If I go a long time, it becomes worse. I become depressed. There’s something vital that’s not happening. A certain slow damage starts to occur. I can coast along awhile without it, but then my limbs go numb. Something bad is happening to me, and I know it. The longer I wait, the harder it is to start again.

When I’m writing, especially if it’s going well, I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now, which I enjoy very much, and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about. I don’t think my husband can tell. It’s a double life I get to live without destroying my marriage. And it’s heaven.

Especially when I’m writing a first draft, I feel as if I’ve been transported out of myself. That’s always a state I’m trying to achieve, even as a journalist — although when I’m working on nonfiction I’m almost never actually writing. I do months of research and then write the piece in a few days.

When I’m writing fiction I forget who I am and what I come from. I slip into utter absorption mode. I love the sense that I’ve become so engaged with the other side, I’ve slightly lost my bearings here. If I’m going from the writing mindset to picking up my kids from school, I often feel a very short but acute kind of depression, as if I have the bends. Once I’m with them it totally disappears, and I feel happy again. Sometimes I forget I have children, which is very strange. I feel guilty about it, as if my inattention will cause something to happen to them, even when I’m not responsible for them — that God will punish me.

When the writing’s going well — I’m trying not to sound clichéd — I feel fueled by a hidden source. During those times it doesn’t matter if things are going wrong in my life; I have this alternate energy source that’s active. When the writing’s going poorly, it’s as bad or worse than not writing at all. There’s a leak or a drain, and energy is pouring out of it. Even when the rest of my life is fine, I feel like something’s really bad. I have very little tolerance for anything going wrong, and I take little joy from the good things. It was worse before I had kids. I appreciate that they make me forget what’s going on professionally.

Anticipation trumps reality

This is an interesting moment to consider why I write, because I’m not writing now. When I’m where I am now, and I haven’t yet started the next book, boy, is that next book going to be great! It’s lots easier to think that than when you’re actually writing it. Fantasy provides its own satisfactions.

I can’t begin a new novel while I’m working on anything else. I’m desperate for traction with fiction, and I can’t get it till I put pen to paper. Now I’ve got my sights set on the new year. Before that it was September. Before that it was summer. It’s definitely time to get involved in a large project. I feel that keenly. All I ever have to begin with is the when and where of a novel. I have a good feeling about those elements of my next one, but in the end, when and where is not a book.

The girl with the throwaway novel

My first attempt at writing a novel was horrible. I had to throw it away. But I stuck with the idea, which is what became "The Invisible Circus."

When I was 29 I got an NEA grant, which gave me a year to work on "Circus." I finished the first draft and sat down to read it, hoping I’d find it to be fantastic. Instead I read it and found it to be really weak. I didn’t get far in my reading; I went crazy before I could even get to the middle. How far it seemed from something you could sell or want to read was really scary.

I went into this three-day panic attack that was quite extreme. This was before I’d ever had therapy. I was pushing 30. I’d quit my job as a private secretary when I got the grant. And now the NEA money was running out. I had to find another job, and I had no professional track record except as a temp.

All those worries flared into a mania when I read the draft. I really went haywire. I was walking around the East Village having the worst panic attack I’ve ever had. It was harrowing. I was calling people, apologizing for saying I’d ever be a writer. I felt very unstable, like my whole life had no point. It was a genuine existential crisis. I didn’t eat for four days. I was like a gaunt specter of terror lurking around the East Village in a trench coat. I’d just started living with the man who would become my husband. He’d come home from rehearsal and I’d pounce on him, needing to be resuscitated. I imagined him thinking, “Oh, God, what have I gotten myself into? This girl is out of her mind.”

Somehow I managed to get out of this nutty behavior. In four days I was back at work on the novel. I tore the thing apart and put it back together. Amidst all that hand-wringing and moping and weeping, some other part of my brain was thinking about how I could improve the manuscript. It wasn’t long before I wanted to enact those improvements. And once I was back in it, making it better, I immediately calmed down. All that wheel-spinning, all that agony resulted in a clear logistical plan.

That’s how it seems to work for me. I can be wigging out, but I’m also working.

Look at me: cross-eyed

Working on "Look at Me" was the most painful experience I’ve had as a writer. It was a huge struggle. I’m not quite sure why I suffered to the degree I did while working on that book, but I do know that my work up to that point had been fairly conventional, and I didn’t know if anyone would accept this kind of book from me. It was almost as if I thought I’d be punished for it. I felt afraid as I worked on it. I thought it was terrible, that I was reaching too far.

At the same time, some of the most exciting moments I’ve had as a writer were during the writing of that book, even with all those worries and that feeling of doom. One day I read the first six chapters of the book in one sitting, and I tore out of the house and went running, and I had this sense that I’d never read anything quite like that before, that I’d done something really different. That was such a thrilling feeling — a rarity as I was working on it.

On the other hand, writing "The Keep" and "Goon Squad" were only difficult until I’d arrived at a voice for each of them. From then on, they were sheer fun. Once I got the voice, I was in heaven. "The Keep," especially, was a romp.

It’s all about seeing what’s wrong

One of my strengths as a writer is that I’m a good problem-solver. I write these unthinking, ungoverned first drafts. The project for me always is to turn that instinctive stuff into pages that work.

I want all the flights of fancy, and I can only get them in a thoughtless way. So I allow myself that. Which means that my next step has to be all about problem-solving. My attitude cannot be, Gee, I wrote it, it’s good. I’d never get anywhere. It’s all about seeing what’s wrong from a very analytical place. It’s a dialectic.

Once I have a draft I make the plans, edit on hard copy, and make an extensive outline for the revision. The revision notes I wrote for "Look at Me" were 80 pages long.

Winning the Pulitzer: priceless

The response to "Goon Squad" has definitely made me a happier person. There’s a deep joy and satisfaction in getting external acknowledgment of that magnitude. Winning the Pulitzer, specifically, feels like a thousand wishes being granted. All these years I’ve had a longing for some kind of massive approval — not thinking I deserved it, but just wanting it. I never thought it would happen.

This is a big change. I don’t think it’s changing me, but it’s a change I feel on a daily, hourly basis in a very positive way. If you can’t enjoy this, my God, it’s really time to go back into therapy. It’s delicious!

In 100 years, if humans still exist and if anyone remembers the name Jennifer Egan, they’ll decide whether I deserved the Pulitzer or not. The question doesn’t preoccupy me. I’ve judged a major prize, and I know how it works. It all comes down to taste, and therefore, luck. If you happen to be in the final few, it’s because you’re lucky enough to have written something that appeals to those particular judges’ tastes.

I think my book is strong, and I know I did a good job. I also know it could have been better. There are plenty of books out there that are also good, and those writers could also have had the luck I had. Deserving only gets you so far. Winning a prize like that has a lot to do with cultural forces; with appetites at work in the culture.

Honestly, I prefer "Look at Me." Maybe I’m just being stubborn because "Goon Squad" gets so much love, but "Look at Me" is the one that’s stayed with me imaginatively. "Goon Squad" may have ended up being more ambitious than I thought it would be, but for whatever reason, "Look at Me" dug into me. That doesn’t mean it’s better. It probably has more flaws than "Goon Squad." But "Look at Me" is my favorite child.

Winning the Pulitzer: dangerous

The attention and approval I’ve been getting for "Goon Squad" — the very public moments of winning the Pulitzer and the other prizes — is exactly the opposite of the very private pleasure of writing. And it’s dangerous. Thinking that I’ll get this kind of love again, that getting it should be my goal, would lead me to creative decisions that would undermine me and my work. I’ve never sought that approval, which is all the more reason that I don’t want to start now.

I’m curious to find out what influence this will have on my writing. I won’t know until I start another book. A scenario I could easily envision is the following: I start the book, feel it’s not going well, and start to freak. My rational side says, Let’s get one thing straight. You’re going to hate the next one. The whole world’s going to hate the next one. I have no idea why this one got so much love.

But part of me thinks, They liked my last book. Hurray. Now we move on. That moving on will undoubtedly involve massive disappointment on the part of others. It never happens this way twice. In a way, I find that sort of freeing. My whole creative endeavor is the repudiation of my last work with the new one. If I start craving approval, trying to replicate what I did with "Goon Squad," it’s never going to lead to anything good. I know that. Stop getting better? There’s no excuse for that.

I hope I can just start the next novel, engage in that alternate world, enjoy myself, and accept and internalize the expectation that the book will not be perceived as being as good as "Goon Squad," and who cares. I'm lucky to have a book the world loves this much. Most people never have that experience.

We all have such a tendency to think the present moment will last forever. Maybe when I’m not the flavor of the month anymore I’ll be devastated and shocked, and I’ll forget everything I’m saying this minute. But my hope is that I have the tools to handle it.

Excerpted from "Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do," edited by Meredith Maran. Copyright 2013. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

By Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan is the author most recently of "A Visit From The Goon Squad," as well as "The Keep," "Look At Me," and "Invisible Circus." She lives in New York.

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