Pulitzer Winner Visits Campus
Egan stopped by Dickinson’s campus on Wednesday, April 4, to promote her new book “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” A collection of short stories, Egan’s book “traces the lives of several characters connected by the common thread of music, this novel tells a story of self-destruction and redemption, about how ‘rebellion ages, influence corrupts, habits turn to addictions, and lifelong friends fluctuate and turn.’” Egan also wrote the popular book “The Invisible Circus,” which has been made into a feature film starring Cameron Diaz. Another one of her books, “Look at Me,” was a finalist for the National Book Award of Fiction in 2001, and “The Keep” was a national best seller.
The event, held in ATS at 6 p.m., was part of the Morgan Lectureship, sponsored by Student Senate, the Department of American Studies, the Women’s Center, Political Science, Women’s Gender Studies, the Belles Lettres Literary Society and the Department of English. The auditorium was packed with only a few seats left. The people occupying the room ranged from students to teachers to fans of the author herself. Egan told the crowd how she discovered the idea for Pulitzer-winning novel: the story drew on her pick-pocketing experience in New York City. She realized that she wanted to write a story based on “the punk rock scene of San Francisco in the 1970s” and this interest, combined with her experience in New York, became the catalyst for “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Egan then read the first chapter aloud to her audience. Not a sound was heard as the crowd listened, enraptured, to the beginning of the novel.
A question and answer session was held after the reading, where students and faculty interrogated Egan. The questions ranged from why she picked the title to her writing process. In response to one of the students’ questions about why she wrote fiction, Egan explained, “To use empathy/extrapolation to get inside peoples’ heads and to make us understand why people do what they do.”
Egan also noted that she doesn’t “really think of [the book’s characters] as quirks,” and added, “Everyone thinks their family is quirky.” She talked about the importance of “empathy and extrapolation” when writing about characters, saying that, “[I have] to feel urgency in their choices, otherwise it’s pointless to write about them.” When asked how she determined the book’s chapter order, she told the story of her initial “big error” of strict reverse chronological order. When she read the book that way, she felt it was “draining energy out” of the plot. To determine a better order, she asked herself at the end of each chapter, “What is the thing that would be most exciting to encounter now?” This allowed her to create “a chemical reaction” of excitement for the reader. She later described her process for writing fiction as nearly “opposite” of her process for writing non-fiction. While she writes fiction by hand and revises it frequently during the writing stage, she writes non-fiction on a computer and waits to write until she feels “a brief expertise” in the subject after months of research “and not writing at all.” Egan further explained that she thought of “A Visit from the Goon Squad” as a “good title” for a book before she had written it, and had to “wait for the book to arrive.” She knew that the book had arrived when she wrote a character saying, “Time’s a goon, isn’t that the expression?” The question and answer section soon ended and a book sale and signing took place in the ATS lobby.
Egan’s campus visit was largely organized by Professor Claire Bowen of the English Department. Bowen commented, “[I’ve] been following Egan’s career as a novelist and journalist for years.” Bowen included “A Visit from the Goon Squad” in a “senior seminar investigating…the generation in modern and contemporary literature,” adding that “generational effects” including technology, assimilation, and 9/11 shaping “the novel’s inventive temporal structure and characterization.” This prompted her to “explore the possibility of bringing her to Dickinson,” with support from “colleagues and students across departments.” Bowen added, “My timing proved fortuitous,” as she first contacted Egan’s agent “the day before Egan won the Pulitzer Prize…last spring.” During the visit, Bowen found Egan “incredibly gracious and….keenly interested,” in Dickinson’s sustainability measures and “intellectual culture.” Bowen noted, “[Egan] got a kick out of hearing that students…recently dressed up as punk rockers for a group presentation,” on her book. The feedback Bowen has received following the visit has mainly consisted of, “When can we invite her back?”