Writer Jennifer Egan Shares “Lateral Curiosity” With UT

Jennifer Egan turned a stolen wallet into a Pulitzer Prize.

Egan had just moved to New York City when a thief lifted a purse containing her wallet. Shortly after, she received a phone call from an employee at Citibank. The bank employee comforted the distraught Egan and helped her change her passwords and PIN numbers. But shortly after Egan gave the employee her old PIN number, the call ended abruptly.

She hadn’t been speaking to Citibank. She had been speaking to the thief who had her wallet. After they got off the phone, he or she rushed to an ATM and drained her accounts.

“I kept thinking about who that person was,” Egan told a full house at UT’s Avaya auditorium on Thursday night. “Who was she? Why did she steal and why in this way?”

A decade later, her curiosity took shape in the form of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, A Visit From the Goon Squad. One of the book’s main characters is a kleptomaniac who steals a woman’s wallet.

Widely praised by critics and readers alike, Goon Squad also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. In short, there’s hardly any major literary accolade the book hasn’t received.

The book has been widely praised for the way it bucks the conventions of genre: it’s neither a novel nor a short story collection. Thirteen chapters are each told from a different perspective, each spanning very loosely interconnected characters and events over 40 years. There’s even a chapter written entirely in PowerPoint, and yet Egan is never gimmicky, always fresh.

Egan, who also wrote The Keep, Invisible Cities, and Look at Me, told the crowd that the best analogy for the book is that of a concept album—a series of riffs on a theme.  It’s a fitting comparison, because much of Goon Squad is about the music industry.

“I initially thought the book would go backwards in time,” she said. “But then I realized that wouldn’t work. It jumps all over the place chronologically. I realized that the book is based on a lateral curiosity—things that are mentioned peripherally in one place appear more centrally in another.”

“Categories like ‘novel’ and ‘short story’ are artificial,” Egan said. “The point is to write interesting stories, and who cares what we call them?”

Photo by Matt Valentine


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