As of a few months ago, you could be forgiven for thinking that 2010 had spawned only one beautifully written polyphonic novel about musicians, compulsives, and postmodern American despair. That novel, of course, was Jonathan Franzen’s much-hyped Freedom. And then Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad began beating the Time cover boy in awards contests coast-to-coast. Egan’s sprawling novel-in-stories, every chapter a different experiment (a celebrity profile, a second-person essay, a PowerPoint presentation), won a National Book Critics Circle Award in March, then the Pulitzer Prize, and, a week after that, an option from HBO for a series. Naturally this was followed by stirrings of the usual Phase II of a Cultural Phenomenon: backlash. Chick-lit writer Jennifer Weiner, last seen lambasting the press for its sexist Franzen idolatry, tweeted angrily about a quote Egan had given The Wall Street Journal on the day she won the Pulitzer: In exhorting women writers to “shoot high,” Egan had called out plagiarist Kaavya Viswanathan for stealing from “very derivative, banal stuff” — i.e., chick lit. Sitting still for a wide-ranging conversation in the Brooklyn restaurant Olea — which is where she found out about the Pulitzer — Egan made some apologies, pondered the highs and lows of exposure, gave a rousing defense of journalism, brainstormed some HBO casting, and put to rest vicious rumors that she’s some kind of music geek (except when she’s running).
Congratulations, on everything. I just want to read one of your quotes back to you from a few years ago: “Of course everyone wants success, but I’m just wary of things that make it hard to write. I don’t think the world is out there looking for the next genius female fiction writer, they don’t tend to think genius is going to come from the female side and so the chance of being over-valued is much less.”
Oh, it’s so painful to hear your own words. So what is your question?
Do you feel differently now?
Yeah, I now think I’ve been over-rewarded. I can’t help but think that the book is probably overvalued at this point. It’s not that I’m not proud of it, but what does it really mean to earn that many things? It’s hard for me to believe that this book has earned those things more than every other book. I think a lot of it is luck. Things for some reason have lined up in its favor and I’m incredulous of the degree to which they have. And very grateful. The heart of what I was saying there, I think, was that it’s important not to get distracted in what you’re trying to do by whatever is or isn’t happening to you on the outside. That certainly applies for me now because now a lot has happened, so the question is, can I keep getting better? Can I just satisfy myself and continue to grow and do new things? I certainly hope so, I don’t see why I wouldn’t be able to expect that; since I’m not actually writing, this is all theoretical. What I spend a lot of my time doing is still trying to sell Goon Squad, which I want to push as much as I can, because I haven’t had a book that really, really, really sold and I just think it would be a helpful thing to have happened.
You don’t have to write another magazine profile for ten years, probably.
Hah! So no, I guess the question would be: As I sit down to work, do I feel somehow overshadowed by this or afraid that I can’t top it or, since I’m really a fake, as we all kind of believe we are, that that falseness will be revealed in the next thing? That’s a thought, but I’m pretty used to working amidst fear, so I can’t say that I’m deeply concerned that the success will ruin my writing. The other worry is: Is the book just overvalued to a degree that will make people read it and not like it now?
Well that’s part of the natural life cycle of any cultural phenomenon, the backlash.
It’s out of my control, and I think there’s a serious danger of that. When I pick up a book that’s, you know, wreathed in laurels, I expect a lot, and that doesn’t give the book its best chance to shine.
You once mentioned being reluctant to read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth during all its hype.
I actually thought it was fantastic, but I waited until the hype had somewhat died down. Sometimes there’s a sense of the book being too hot, literally. It just feels hard for me to have a private experience of an artifact that is so spoken of, so much in the culture in a particular moment. What’s imperiled is that deeply private sense of discovery, but of course there’s a huge gain, which is that a lot more people might actually pick it up than would have before.
And talk about it
Yeah I mean, what we want — readers! So again, do I regret any of it? Of course not, it’s just another — it’s another version of the adventure.
And then you have Jennifer Weiner tweeting about your lack of graciousness and feminist solidarity.
The No. 1 thing I feel is just horrible regret about what I said. It’s not that there isn’t an interesting conversation to be had there, because there is — about genre and gender — but unfortunately I lurched into it without clear knowledge or clear intent. I wasn’t even sure whom I was talking about. That kind of vague criticism is not even a good way to begin a conversation. It makes people angry, it insults people, and it’s just not a solid step toward a conversation, so I felt horribly about it. But it was a strange moment. I literally found out 30 minutes earlier that I had won the Pulitzer and I truly was not thinking. I just feel like you say something stupid, you’re going to take a hit for it and I did. If there’s a question about my supporting other women writers — which I think is the thing that’s most painful to me — I have to hope that my actions past and present will contradict that. I blurb a lot of books by women and I’m eager to provide encouragement and support for young women. The irony is that’s what I was trying to do in that moment and the thing that was so agonizing was that I did the opposite. I don’t blame her for being angry at all.
But what’s wrong with criticizing chick lit for being shallow?
You know, criticism is fine and conversation is fine, but the person who’s criticizing should know what they’re saying and whom they’re criticizing. I was just vague on my facts. It was one of those thoughts that should have gone unspoken on my way to a positive point and I blabbered.
Do you feel
because you’re a woman you should support all women and their efforts to write?
But I don’t know that that’s exactly what was being asked of me. Again, I’m not really a Twitter person so to some degree this maelstrom was not something I experienced firsthand. I also happened to be on kind of an off-the-grid farm in New Hampshire with my kids when the whole thing erupted. So no, I can’t believe anyone would say that I should do that or that anyone should, but I think it’s more what I should not do, and what I should not do is what I did.
It’s kind of funny that Weiner, last seen complaining about Jonathan Franzen, cast the deciding vote for you — and against Freedom — as winner of the Morning News’ Tournament of Books.
Well, there was, each judge wrote a piece for the tournament, which is all on their website. I did happen to notice that hers began colorfully with the analogy of Sophie’s Choice — having to pick between two children she hates. Which I actually thought was really hilarious. My sense is that one thing she does that I think is really positive is that she gets mad and she screams and yells about things and it creates a conversation that can be useful. So, you know, I like her outspokenness even though I’m not reading her on Twitter, because I’m not on Twitter.
You and Franzen have been set up as the big rivals this year — implicitly with the Pulitzer and explicitly at the National Book Critics Circle Awards, which you also won. Do you know Franzen?
I do. I wouldn’t say that I see him regularly, but I like him very much and I love his work. We have a good friend in common and I always found him to be a totally lovely person to spend time with.
So what do you make of this binary opposition?
I think he was a little bit set up — not intentionally, but there was such a kind of almost a canonization when Freedom came out, that I think that made it a big deal if he didn’t win everything after being on the cover of Time magazine. That’s always hard, when you’ve been lifted up that way. You know, to some degree I guess I would be in that position now. It’s time for me to just fade away for a while. People are going to be really tired of hearing about me and from me.
A perfect time for a Vulture Transcript!
Exactly! Well, at least it’s online. They can click or not click. You know, none of these binaries really exist. These are media phenomena that are kind of fun to read about and think about, so I don’t really feel like it’s Franzen versus me, ever. There were tons of books out there, why did it line up in this way? There are always a lot of external factors that are difficult to isolate. Honestly, I can’t figure out why my book has won so many prizes. I expected it to be a pretty quiet publication, because it’s so idiosyncratic and I was completely ready for that. It initially sold horribly even with the good reviews, and I was even surprised that the reviews had been so high-profile. Why does a book like this become such a big deal? I mean, it’s a huge question.
Do you have any theories?
I think it’s not a theory specific to this book, but there’s always some Zeitgeisty need at that moment or kind of collective wish that that particular book seems to answer in some way. What that is I think is hard to say, because we’re still right in the middle of it, but I really do believe that ultimately a lot of other forces are acting on these situations. Is it just that this book is so much better than every other book published this year? Absolutely not.
Do you think there’s a book that was better this year?
I would prefer any book over mine at some point, I’m so tired of mine. In the last few weeks I read Room by Emma Donoghue, which I really thought was exceptional. I loved it.
One last thing about this Franzen-Egan binary — false as it may be. Usually, women are typecast as writing more conventional, domestic fiction, men as being more ambitious and experimental. With you and Franzen, I think the roles are a bit reversed. Is it nice to know you might play a part in changing people’s expectations?
If I can do that I will feel that my life was worth something. I really mean it. That would be, if I have any part in helping to change that, I will feel like I’ve really made a difference in the world. I will say I have not read Freedom — partly, again, because I want to engage with this book when I can just engage with the book. So I can’t really comment on its convention or lack thereof.
But you do feel like there is a perception about women’s writing that needs changing?
I do. For me, the big book in which I felt like I changed my goals — or at least broadened them to an extent where it felt like a change of kind rather than degree — was [my 2001 novel] Look at Me. I just felt like I didn’t have a clear model anymore. I had lots of questions about whether I would be allowed to do it and whether I would look stupid for trying. I don’t know for sure that it had to do with being female, but I feel like it might have a bit. So I would always hope that women would take all the big chances. Again, back to my ridiculous remarks, that really is what I was trying to get to. Just think big — really. Just try it. I think there are ways in which we censor ourselves, that’s the most dangerous kind of censorship — that’s how hegemony works. That’s the kind of thing I’d want women not to feel. Again, I don’t know for sure that they do feel it. I can say personally that I believe I did.
Until Look at Me.
Through Look at Me. Writing that book was just absolute agony. There was this terrible sense of doom or shame attached to it. I felt a kind of harsh chorus telling me that I was ridiculous to be doing this, and it did feel specific to being female in some sense. Look, my mother loves me and has supported everything I’ve done. It’s not like anyone’s been telling me, “You’re a girl, you can’t do that.” But in some subtle way, I think that I did feel that. If other women feel that and if I can help them not feel that I will be very happy and proud.
There was a terrorist in Look at Me, and your book seemed prescient when it came out — the week after September 11, 2001. Does bin Laden’s death bring it all back?
I was cutting out things about him from the Times back in the mid-nineties, when he was just one of many rich Saudis suspected of funneling money into terrorism. It’s very strange and kind of intense to feel that’s over, that particular arc.
Were you trying to be prescient again with Goon Squad, with those two chapters set in the future?
I really did just want to catch up with Alex, the Internet date from chapter one, as he approached middle age, and I couldn’t find a way to do that without going into the future. The timeline is pretty carefully wrought. So I thought, How far do I have to go to, like, catch him as he’s pushing 40? There’s no way to do this in present-day, it throws everything else off. So I was reluctantly dragged into the future by Alex, but I didn’t think too hard about the guesses I was making about future life and I think I just did it rather impulsively, which is how I come up with most things. But that made me less self-conscious about doing it than I might have otherwise been — kind of a lark. I didn’t feel the pressure that I might have if I had said, “Now I’m going to address the future. What will the future look like?” I just kind of followed the sky and looked around and imagined what was there. With Look at Me, it’s not that I imagined bin Laden or anything. My terrorist sleeper ends up completely converting to the American dream, if you will, but he does fantasize about blowing up the World Trade Center because he feels it was done so poorly the first time, in ’93. I think the reason I thought of that was that I actually worked at Tribeca Film Center at that point so I was actually two blocks away, facing south, when that first bombing happened. So I remember just being very aware of it.
You’ve described all of Goon Squad as a lark — a diversion from a long historical novel, which nonetheless turned into an acclaimed best seller. Do you think that playfulness actually made the book stronger?
Possibly. I don’t know. Of course I can’t judge its merit. But in a way the whole writing process of this book had a kind of wandering feeling to it. It felt very lateral and unclear, there was no clear direction — that was part of the fun — and it may be that there was a kind of heft or scale to it that I didn’t feel self-conscious about undertaking because of the way I did it. I don’t want to make it sound like I was goofing around and then by a miracle something decent came out of it. I was completely consumed by it; there were moments where I felt a quite profound excitement. But the fun quotient was a lot higher than, for example, Look at Me, when I felt so crushed by the sense that I wasn’t qualified to do what I was trying to do and that even if I did, no one will want to hear it from me. I didn’t have any of those thoughts with this one and I think one reason is that I didn’t psych myself out with the thought that I was trying to execute a grand vision. It happened so inductively. That was partly just due to the structure of the book. It would be hard to do that with other kinds of books that were more centrally aligned.
On the other hand, you had to plot things out very carefully.
But I didn’t plot anything — even with The Keep, which appears to be a very tightly plotted book. I wrote it exactly the same way. I don’t know what will happen in advance. I get it wrong sometimes and have to figure out later how to do it right, but the initial impulses are all just impulses.
Is music important in your life?
Not as much as people tend to think from Goon Squad. I don’t listen to it while I work — or all that much, period. I do have an iPod, and I love to listen to music while I run. That’s probably the time when it’s most important because something kind of meditative happens while running, and having the right music to accompany that is so important. Like if my iPod doesn’t work, I do not run. It is not an option.
What do you listen to when you’re running?
Pop music, for the most part. A lot of music from my own past, which seems to be important for reasons I’m not clear on. New stuff, too. I have a lot of Eminem on there — my son is a crazed Eminem fan, he’s downloaded a lot of Eminem’s music, some of which I really like. I listen to Lady Gaga, but, also, there’s a Dave Brubeck song called "Unsquare Dance" that’s really great, which has a lot of clapping and drumming in it. So a huge range. I can’t explain the logic of why I want to listen to what I do at particular times, but it’s important. It’s not like just anything will do. The wrong thing is just not helpful.
In keeping you motivated.
More. When I go running, I’m often trying to mentally solve problems in fiction, and so I’m looking for the right music to help me do that. I don’t know why certain things are right or not right and I don’t think I ever know that. Basically what I’m going for is a sort of euphoric feeling, honestly. And certain songs give me that and then I’ll listen to them repeatedly. Sometimes I’ll unfortunately wear them out for myself.
So you go for a run and you listen to the right music and then you solve the problems in your books?
Sometimes, but sometimes nothing at all happens. I haven’t gone running in probably two months. I’ve also not really been writing, and the two are very intertwined. But yes, there’s a feeling of kind of hope and excitement I’m going for, even when I just walk. Like if I’m walking to pick up the kids at school, I want to listen to the right stuff to get me in that mood. For some reason the last few days it has been Lady Gaga, from last summer. No idea why.
"Telephone" and "Let’s Dance," especially "Telephone." They’re not good songs, I know that, but it’s not really about quality.
There’s a singer who induces mass euphoria, or at least hope, in the book. Do you know what he would actually sound like?
No, I don’t really know what Scotty sounds like. I don’t even fully know what his slide guitar would sound like. There was a way in which I wanted to leave that sound unconnected to the real world. With all the bands in the book — I guess I have a sense of all of them, but not like I’ve sat down and written songs for them.
But your title — that is an Elvis Costello reference, right?
It was not a conscious one, in the sense that I really fell in love with that title before there even was a book. At an earlier point, when I thought it would be a story collection of some kind, I was consciously interested in people who felt like they had fallen through the cracks of mainstream life in some way. So that’s sort of an idea. So I didn’t know that it was actually a book that would have anything to do with the music industry, which is why I don’t think the Elvis Costello allusion was conscious. Of course I listened to that song, but I wasn’t a huge Elvis Costello fan.
Nobody in the book ever says "a visit from the goon squad," but two characters do say "time is a goon." Is time a goon in the Elvis song?
I don’t know, I doubt it. Actually there’s a rap group called Goon Squad now. I did stumble upon that when I wanted to make sure someone else had not called their book “A Visit From the Goon Squad.” If you Google “Goon Squad,” that’s probably what you’ll find first.
Reading the book, I guess I was half-expecting a music geek.
There is that tendency to think that. I was on a panel for the Brooklyn Book Festival with Colson Whitehead and Steve Almond — two genuine music geeks. I sat there thinking, Okay, there’s a danger of my sitting here and saying nothing. I took that on for this book, basically. But that’s typical of me. I do really change the world of each book a lot. So you might appear to have more permanent connections to that particular book than you really do.
Maybe that’s the journalist in you. You’ve been writing magazine features for years. Does that help you as a novelist? So many fiction writers seem to look down on it, like it robs them of distance or perspective.
I don’t know why they would think that. I feel like exactly what I want is perspective. There’s such a danger with fiction of living in a bubble of your own creation, and if what you’re writing about is your own life, which in my case it isn’t, but for many people it is, that just potentially
What writers are living in a bubble?
I have no idea sorry. You should have gotten me before I talked to The Wall Street Journal! But, no, I’m really speaking about a possibility for myself. Writing fiction, creating a world, has nothing to do with interacting with the world. When I think back over some of the most enriching experiences I’ve had in my life as a writer, certainly in my adult life in New York, a lot of those occurred while I was doing journalism. It’s just been really fascinating. Because I don’t write about my own life, I need input and perspective and knowledge of things that have nothing to do with my everyday world as a person living in Brooklyn. So for me journalism is like a lifeline to everything else. I really don’t know what I would do without it. I think it’s been critical for me and I stumbled into it.
How did it happen?
It was about fiction right from the beginning. I couldn’t get access to the fashion world to write Look at Me. I kept calling modeling agencies — because the protagonist is a model — and saying, "I want to learn about your world, I want to learn the life of a model in New York," and they would say hold on and they’d never call back. It meant nothing to them. But guess what? Writing for the Times Magazine, with Nan Goldin as my photographer, you bet they picked up the phone. Even if I didn’t write fiction anymore, I would want to go deeper into journalism and make an even bigger contribution there. I believe in the enterprise.
Yet one of my favorite parts of Goon Squad is a fake celebrity profile written by a journalist who assaulted one of his starlet subjects. Must have been fun to write.
I do remember that I was sitting in a café, on a counter facing a window, and having so much fun working on it that a friend walked by and looked up and saw me, and she was thinking of coming in to say hello, but she saw that I was writing and grinning. She thought, “I’m just going to let her continue.” And it was that piece. It was the same way I felt about the PowerPoint chapter, which I wrote years later. I wanted to create fiction in a particular form, and in that case it was the celebrity profile. I don’t think it was so much because I had written one, although that was certainly instructive, but it was more just reading them and feeling the straining efforts of the writers to come up with some way to make the material fresh and then — equally affably — the efforts of the subject to elude those exact efforts. It just seemed so potentially, dramatically explosive.
Have you had moments in reporting or writing profiles where you’ve felt, God, what am I doing here?
Yeah, I think that’s just part of the enterprise. I experienced this even recently with my Lori Berenson piece for the Times Magazine. She’s a very private person, so on some basic level, she would rather not be talking to me. I think that can be demoralizing on some level.
Would you write a nonfiction book?
I’ve thought about it, absolutely. I mean, I would have to find the right topic, but I think it would be a great thing to do. Yeah, I would love to actually.
If you did, would any of you be in it? Would it be first person?
I don’t know, that’s always one of the big technical questions. One of the things that’s so fascinating about Adrian Leblanc’s book Random Family is that she never once uses the word “I.” And that’s a very radical extreme, because she was clearly deeply intertwined in these peoples’ lives. There are advantages and disadvantages to that choice, and I think she was probably right, so that’s one extreme. The other extreme is when the writer’s a part of the story. I highly doubt I would go that route.
But you must know memoirists. Do you feel constitutionally just different from them?
No. Writing about myself isn’t fun. It’s not exciting. It feels crummy and dull. For me, writing is about a sense of discovery — literally about the feeling of being lifted out of my life. I feel like my instincts are kind of asleep when I’m writing about myself. None of it seems to work as well, and I’ve often had the thought that if this were what writing was I would do something else. I would not want to have that job if it meant writing about myself all the time. I do like the thought of writing a kind of life story eventually, but not for a long time.
You mean an entire autobiography? Do you think there’s good material?
Yeah, I think there’s good material in there. I mean, it is boring now. A writer living in Brooklyn? Hello, there are 10 million of them with a husband and two kids, that’s not very exciting. But age 0 through 25 is pretty good. Almost half my life.
Which brings up another question. There are a lot of middle-aged characters in your book and a preoccupation with losing one’s youth. Is that something that came out of you reaching a certain age?
Probably. The fun thing about middle age is that you can start to really measure change. First everyone’s a kid then everyone’s a teenager, then you’re in your twenties so that’s kind of a big change. And then we accept that adulthood has occurred. But for some reason, at around 40 it somehow seems possible to look at peoples’ lives and see what they have become. Until then it felt like anything was possible still. But then, it felt to me like it was fair to say — what have you done with your life? And physically, people really started to change. So I found myself thinking about all this, and then I started rereading Proust with a group of friends. I think that the reason we were drawn to reread it was the point that we had reached in our lives — it’s all about the crazy, cataclysmic changes and reversals brought by time. Another real surprise for me about Goon Squad is that young people seem to feel connected to it. To me, it was clearly skewed toward middle-aged readers. Why does a person in their twenties care about time or change? I didn’t. I’ve had the thought that it’s because technological change is happening so quickly. When I taught at NYU a year ago — these were seniors — they expressed a kind of insecurity technologically, because people five years younger than they were had grown up on Facebook, whereas these guys hadn’t. So I wonder — this is just kind of a wacky theory and no more — but whether young people are more aware of time passing, per se, than I was at their age because there’s such a clear way to measure it technologically and there wasn’t before. Who knows.
But every generation feels usurped by the next one.
That’s something you learn with age. I remember in my twenties feeling that certain people were real and certain people weren’t. That was the way I posed it for myself and used it in Goon Squad, where the protagonist Rhea is very concerned about that. She wants to be real — that’s pretty much lifted from my own teenage years. My first novel, The Invisible Circus, is literally about this — about a girl whose older sister commits suicide, and she believes her sister was literally more real than she is. For me, I think that feeling extended into adulthood when certain people got successful early, and I thought, Oh I get it, okay, so they’re real — and not understanding this incredibly important thing, which is everything keeps changing. There’s no way to know that as a kid. And in a way, there’s no way to know that until you’ve watched a number of cycles and realized everything is in flux.
So was this a book that you could have written when you were younger?
No, no, no way. The whole axis of it is change over time, something that I didn’t believe occurred as a young person. I think I had a very schematic view of the world when I was younger. I really believed there were leaders and followers, winners and losers, real people and unreal people, and I feared I was in the losing side of all of those — those dichotomies. So no, I absolutely could not have, no way. Coming to New York and feeling like a struggling, broke temp, whereas other people — older people — had figured it out and were writing books, I didn’t feel like I would ultimately get to where they were.
Well, you must feel pretty real now, what with all the prizes.
But I’ve always thought of prizes as the things you hope for but don’t get. I mean, I know people that have won prizes. It’s not like I thought it was impossible to do it, but it didn’t seem conceivable I would. I think part of it is, honestly, I think sometimes it’s hard to imagine things that haven’t happened already. For all the information we’re all saturated with, it’s actually hard to predict what will happen for a country or anyone else. It feels like the big things almost always blindside us, and I feel that on a personal level too.
When you accepted the NBCC prize, you called critics — who choose the award — your “guardian angels.” That’s not a sentiment you hear often from novelists.
On this book, I felt that way. I haven’t always felt that way. But what I meant was that the book really and truly was tanking at the start, and I felt like the only thing that kept it alive were these really very generous reviews. So in this case, I felt like it had a second chance, it hung around, because of those reviews and really nothing else, because the public was not connecting with it.
Sales were slow in hardcover?
Yeah. So far paperback’s been doing very well, but in hardcover — it came out in June, and I was signing first editions in October. That’s a long time. I was lucky to be signing anything in October. But I also hung in there with it; we all kind of hung in. And it took time for me. I feel like I’ve been promoting this book for almost a year now. Literally. But it takes me so long to write these books, and I felt like it’s really a good investment of my time. People were still coming to readings, and I think it was because of these great reviews.
Judging by some of the issues raised in the book — about hype and integrity, or lack thereof — I wouldn’t think you were all that comfortable with marketing or self-promotion. But in real life, do you feel writers should just deal with it?
You can’t make someone comfortable with something. Speaking personally, I started out acutely uncomfortable in the sense that I really had a rather severe public-speaking phobia. Even if it was at a dinner party, and the table fell quiet, I could not address that table. So that’s where I started. But I knew when my first novel did not sell for a lot of money, there was no heat on it at all, and I knew that if I didn’t get out there and promote it, it was never gonna sell. I mean, why would it? I tend to think in terms of having to do things for myself, so I guess I just feel, if you want your book to sell, it behooves you — no matter what your level of discomfort — to find a way to do what you can. I think most writers know that, and I see everyone out there hustling; we’re all really trying. I’m certainly not against marketing. This is the world we live in, we have to do it. I’ve certainly become much more comfortable with it, which is great, just because it used to cost me so much personally to do it — so exhausting, so scary, so consuming. Now it feels pretty natural. I can’t believe I’ve reached that point. I actually took beta blockers for a number of years when I would speak in public. After maybe a year or two, I still needed to have the beta blockers with me, but I found that I was very rarely taking them. And then at a certain point, I looked at the package and realized they had expired three years before.
So HBO wants to turn Goon Squad into a show, and you’re a consultant. What’s your dream cast?
I have never thought about it. Let me think about it right now. For me, it’s that problem of having imagined things a certain way and feeling that no one is quite like the person I imagined. So I don’t know! God. I literally have not thought about this until this moment. Who would be Benny [the main character, a Latino music producer]? Wait, I’m actually thinking of someone. I’m also terrible with actors’ names and kind of out of it when it comes to Hollywood. He was in Traffic, but I never even saw Traffic.
Benicio del Toro?
Yeah. I think he could be really good as Benny. Now that I’m thinking of him, I’m really liking that idea. I’m looking for a kind of, a feeling of power but also the possibility of flying out of control. Driven by emotion and yet also pretty steely, but ultimately the emotion wins.
How are they going to put all these disparate strands into one story line?
I have no idea. If they’re having these conversations, I’m not privy to them. In a way, I don’t want to be. I just want to try and write another book in under five or six years. So I don’t know if I could really do that if I’m also worrying about all these things.
It’s fun to think about these things, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. But as you can tell, I have not really addressed it. I’m now thinking about Sasha. I’m really out of it in the world of youngish actresses. I know that when I originally — this will show you how long ago I was writing about [flameout celebrity] Kitty Jackson — I was thinking of Cameron Diaz.
Really? I was thinking Lindsay Lohan the entire time, for obvious reasons.
You know, people had mentioned her to me. I don’t know a thing all that I know is she’s this person who’s always drunk on the covers of magazines. She never crossed my mind, since I did invent that character in the nineties. It was more around the time of There’s Something About Mary. So I was just imagining this bright-faced, lovely, hopeful person. And I think in my mind it was Cameron Diaz.
HBO seems to be working hard to sweep up some highbrow material.
For me, it has a bizarre symmetry, because I felt very inspired by The Sopranos, which I was watching as I was reading Proust. There’s definitely some Sopranos DNA in Goon Squad.
You mean structurally?
Yeah, just the lateral feeling of it, in the sense of enough time not to have to always be focused on the forward thrust. There were whole episodes where you had no idea why this was going to be important in the bigger scheme of things, and yet it was fascinating, and I loved the idea — the question of the logic of those choices and the possibility of letting it feel meandering even as there’s always this sense of forward motion. I found myself thinking, How would you do that in a book? Proust has the same kind of meandering feeling, almost a feeling of unfolding in real time, which is so true of The Sopranos. If you look back to the beginning, my God, Tony Soprano looks totally different, so all of those — that sense of that pivot of change, that before-and-after feeling, you know — both of those works seem to have the same pivot in a certain sense.
Do you watch any other shows? The Wire? Mad Men?
No. Everyone recommends them, but I haven’t watched them. We don’t have any, like, TiVo or any of that, so I literally sometimes put in my date book — “Watch TV” — but then I forget to do it.