Jennifer Egan at UCA | Rock Candy

Jennifer Egan at UCA

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Jennifer Egan image University of Central Arkansas
  • Pieter M. Van Hattem/Vistalux
  • EGAN

Last week, as part of UCA’s writer-in-residence series, over 100 people gathered in Conway for a reading and Q&A session with Pulitzer Prize winning author Jennifer Egan.

Egan has written four novels, two works of fiction and all sorts of reporting for the likes of New York Times magazine. She’s perhaps most famous for her latest novel, “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” for which she earned the 2011 Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The usual suspects were present: English major and MFA candidate types, professorial types with receding-hairline-ponytails and hipsters, including girl with lime green hair and ironic tattoos, who cross-stitched beforehand.

Egan began her talk by describing the genesis of the project. Before she started writing, she was in the process of neglecting a historical novel that “just wasn’t working.” After a dinner with her mother at a NYC hotel, Egan said she saw a wallet resting on top of an abandoned purse in the hotel bathroom. This brief encounter with another woman’s wallet reminded her of a time she was robbed (which Egan says has happened all too frequently in her life) hours before she was scheduled to get on a flight. Without money or identification, Egan frantically tried to save her trip and stop any money being stolen from her account. Luckily, a woman from her bank’s fraud detection service quickly called to report activity on her accounts and to try and save the day. After giving the woman her pin number, account number, and all other pertinent information one gives to banking types who are trying to save one from the distresses of fraud, they ended the conversation. Only later did Egan realize that the woman on the phone was not from the bank but rather was the actual thief who had stolen her purse. So after getting all the necessary information from Egan, she proceeded to rob her blind, leaving Egan “levitating with despair.”

Egan eventually made it to San Francisco and was able to recover her money, but she for years had remained fixated on the thief, wondering what the experience was like from her perspective, and oddly enough, wondering what the thief must have thought about Egan.

Fast forward to the author staring down at a vacated purse with a wallet on top. This time, perhaps as a respite from the historical novel she was supposed to be writing, she said she decided to take a short detour to try and pursue what it is like for one woman to steal from another woman, written from the thief’s perspective.

Chapter 1—“Found Objects”, which Egan read to the crowd, is that story. The chapter/story introduces us to Sasha, a young kleptomaniac, who is talking to her therapist about her problem. Not coincidentally, the story begins with Sasha recounting stealing a wallet from a NYC hotel bathroom as the wallet’s owner sat peeing a few feet away. It weaves us through the psycho-somatic reactions Sasha has during the thefts: The cumulative tension she feels between the mixture of shame, thrill, apathy and exhaustion during these various episodes. She remembers when she feels drawn to the shiny screwdriver in a plumber’s tool belt, as the man fixes her bathtub with his back turned to her or when she steals an intimate note out of a man’s wallet, with whom she has just had sex moments before, as he bathed in the same tub the plumber was earlier fixing. The particular scene is Egan-esque, as people, places, time and objects all have an inter-connected narrative of which usually only the reader is aware.

After she finished that particular chapter, Egan said she felt drawn to a minor character in the story — the eccentric music executive Bennie Salazar, who Sasha had worked for as an assistant. Salazar, memorably, sprayed pesticide under his armpits and sprinkled flakes of gold in his coffee. Egan wanted one more brief break from the historical novel to explore Bennie.

Once she realized that she was now writing a new book, Egan told the crowd that she imposed three rules on the writing: 1.) Each chapter will feature a different character, 2.) Each chapter had to be different in mood, tone, and feel, and 3.) Each had to stand on its own, having its own payoff. Halfway through the book she realized what genre she was subconsciously writing in: The concept album. She cited David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and The Who’s “Quadrophenia” as inspiration. For Egan, the concept album allows for a “collision of styles, tempos, and sounds” along with “shifting points-of-view.” The concept album uniqueness is not the only peculiarity in the making of the book. Four of the chapters were stories she wrote in the ’90s for various publications. She said that while writing the book these old stories were “sending tentacles—attaching themselves to the story she was now writing.”

All in all, the night was a success. Egan proved to be unassuming and genuine. She was a lively reader, self-deprecating (though not pretentiously so) and patient with the questions asked. When Egan answered regarding her writing process, she did an excellent job letting the young writers in the audience in on her decision making process and her particular methods for writing, drafting and revising. UCA’s Creative Writing Program should be applauded. Bringing in an A-lister like Egan was quite a coup.

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