Jennifer Egan on the Fascinating Interactions Between Technology and Inner Life
This Week on the Talk Easy Podcast with Sam Fragoso
Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi.
Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso is a weekly series of intimate conversations with artists, authors, and politicians. It’s a podcast where people sound like people. New episodes air every Sunday, distributed by Pushkin Industries.
In this episode from May 2022, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad) joins Talk Easy. She describes the structural pulse of her new novel (4:00), why she’s drawn to nonlinear storytelling (6:33), and what The Candy House reveals about authenticity (7:40) in the digital age (14:26). Then, we revisit a formative trip to Europe (21:21) that inspired her to write (26:30) and move to New York, where she worked as a secretary to a countess (32:16) and rediscovered her creative voice (34:12).
On the back-half, Jennifer reflects on her late brother Graham (36:57), his courageous battle with schizophrenia (38:30), and his lasting presence in her work (40:13). We also discuss the role of luck (50:02), the value of pushing past boundaries (52:00), and how she continued to write in the face of loss (55:57). To close, she reads a healing passage from Manhattan Beach (57:22).
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From the episode:
Sam Fragoso: In regard to The Candy House, the idea of participating in a shared consciousness would essentially eliminate all privacy. It would give people access to your inner thoughts. It would also give you access to other people’s most inner thoughts. The book has been described as “imagining a world that is moments away.” If something like this is moments away, do you believe people would participate in a shared consciousness because maybe now more than ever, we’re searching for connection?
Jennifer Egan: I think that the way in which it feels moments away is the way in which it’s already here. The reason this feels familiar is that the internet, to some degree, is already doing this. You know, we can know so much more about everything in the world, but certainly about what other people are thinking, than we ever could before just by being online. The truth of the matter is we don’t understand the brain enough in order to do anything like this anytime soon and probably ever. And what would it even mean? What does it mean to view someone’s consciousness? But the question of whether people would participate, I have a feeling that they would. I even feel like I might participate.
Sam Fragoso: You, Jennifer Egan, would?
Jennifer Egan: Well, first of all, I would certainly want to externalize my consciousness—because I am a curious person. My whole job is to indulge my curiosity about the inner lives of other people, and in order to do that I rely very heavily on my own unconscious. The ideas that I have as a conscious person are not good enough to write fiction that would meet my standards.
So, my whole methodology is geared toward accessing the stuff that I can’t consciously think of. I have all kinds of ways of doing that—I write fiction by hand, I try to write without stopping, I don’t read over what I’m writing. It’s all about putting aside the analytical part of my brain and getting at something deeper. I am a big believer in the fact that we all know much more than we realize we know.
Sam Fragoso: When you’re writing long form, what happens to you in that process?
Jennifer Egan: The closest thing I could liken it to is probably improvisation, either musical or theatrical, although I say that having never done either. I’m starting with a time and a place, and I’m looking to fall into a line of action or narrative that feels alive, and then keep pushing in that direction. The goal is just to generate a lot of material, so that I can choose among that and pick the best and then try to find its organic shape—and through endless revision, fulfill whatever that thing seems like it could be. But the bottom line of what I’m looking to be is surprised.
Sam Fragoso: Surprised by yourself?
Jennifer Egan: Surprised by whatever improvisationally happens. It feels a little like it’s not me in control of it, but it can feel kind of transcendent in moments to feel like things are happening on the page that I don’t anticipate and am delighted by. Those are great moments that I remember forever. The norm is that I feel like ugh, I feel like this is terrible, I just want to be done, when will I be done writing these five pages—or whatever it is I’m trying to do.
Sam Fragoso: Once you do get it onto the page, at least when it comes to the pages of this book, there is this recurring conversation around authenticity. How are you thinking about that—both in this book and in this moment we’re in?
Jennifer Egan: I think of authenticity at this point as a kind of construct that is the natural consequence of mediation. This thinking is not original. A book that had a huge impact on me is called The Image by Daniel Boorstin. It was published in 1961, before mass media as we know it, before the Vietnam War was televised. Boorstin talks about the fact that mediated experience feels fake.
It feels artificial because it is, to a large extent. People are creating events for consumption, and they’re being presented often as natural events. That artificiality is something the viewer can detect, and it leads to a natural craving for authenticity as an antidote to that artificiality.
Mass media tries to satisfy that craving by providing us with further mediation that feels more authentic, often through ever greater feats of artificiality. And this equation, if you will, explains so much of what has happened in our mass media right to the present. Certainly reality TV, but all the way to streaming and TikTok videos. The lust, the hunger for authenticity is so deep. The only way the media can fulfill that hunger is to do its thing and try to give us mediated experience that feels unmediated. As a writer, I’m endlessly fascinated by interactions between technology and inner life.
Jennifer Egan is the author of six previous books of fiction: Manhattan Beach, winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction; A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Keep; the story collection Emerald City; Look at Me, a National Book Award Finalist; and The Invisible Circus. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Granta, McSweeney’s, and The New York Times Magazine. Her website is JenniferEgan.com.
Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, a weekly series of conversations with artists, activists, and politicians. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and NPR. After conducting seminal interviews with icons like Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, and Noam Chomsky, he independently founded Talk Easy in 2016.