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World Voices Festival #3: Jennifer Egan

I arrived at the dialogue session without any expectations as—dare I admit it—I have not read any of Jennifer Egan’s books. I think she would have approved of my open spirit as I listened to her answer questions about craft and non-linear musical structure. Unlike Dickens, Irving, and others, she has no idea where she is going when she begins and doesn’t much care about classical form. One story in her new book, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” is written in power point.

Is she supremely self-confident? A renegade? Having won prizes—the Pulitzer, the National Book Award—Egan’s apparent self-confidence might be understandable if it were not an illusion even to herself. “I have a catastrophic imagination,” she said. That woke me up and also sounded familiar. So, too, her decision to dedicate “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” to her therapist.

Goon Squad came together as a consequence of avoiding another book that was not going well. Suddenly, she said, disconnected stories felt connected, as though a large land mass was sitting under them and keeping them together. So she began to fool around with other stories, evolving characters, and obsessions that might work in a sequence. Often they didn’t and she put them away. “When do you stop working on a story?” she was asked. “When it no longer interests me,” Egan replied.

She relies on her writer’s group—it has been meeting for twenty years—to let her know if a story is alive or not. But even if they say it is, she may not agree, especially if she feels exhausted by revision. That means something has gone wrong.

I found Egan honest and inspiring and came home eager to begin writing some fiction again myself, but I also wondered if the PEN World Voices Festival will ever include writers in a discussion who have not won important prizes—which is most of us—thus liberating the event from the power of celebrity and the market driven universe in which we all work.

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