LOS ANGELES — Jennifer Egan was not built for the spotlight. "When I was a teenager, one of my sources of angst was that I felt like I was not an actor, I was always a spectator," she said by phone from New York. "Later, I realized that that's just who I am. That's actually my job."
Lately, Egan has been much more than a spectator in her own life. Her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad, a fractured narrative about time and connection that stretches from 1970s punk rock San Francisco to a futuristic desert home, was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Before that, it picked up a prize from the National Book Critics Circle.
"I thought the book would resonate most with people in their mid- to late 40s who are feeling the actual fact of time passing," says Egan, 48. "I think the real surprise to me is that young people seem to respond to it."
Egan writes long-form journalism as well as books — a short-story collection and three other novels. They include The Keep (2006), a modern psychological gothic, which was a national best seller, and Look at Me (2001), a finalist for the National Book Award.
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But it's A Visit From the Goon Squad that has been putting Egan front and center. The book has been a sleeper hit — released last June, its reviews were strong but sales were low. Yet it has endured; it returned to best-seller lists early this year. "I feel incredibly lucky and joyful," Egan says of the book's success.
The echoes of her life experiences surface in Goon Squad — struggling to find a place in a challenging city, a gritty apartment with the bathtub in the middle of the kitchen.
Sometimes called an experimental writer — a designation she isn't sure fits — Egan is ambitious in her approach to storytelling. As with acclaimed British novelist David Mitchell (number9dream, Cloud Atlas), she uses structure to create surprising connections. She plays with form: One chapter in Goon Squad is written entirely in PowerPoint slides. Before she decided to try that, she'd never used PowerPoint. She had to learn the program before getting to work.
Egan was born in Chicago to parents who divorced when she was 2 — "I don't have any memories of them together," she says — and at 7, she moved to San Francisco with her mother and stepfather, an investment banker. It was 1969. Egan's family was separate from the counterculture, which she observed with unarticulated longing.
"I was really unhappy and uncertain of who I was, what I should be doing. I felt a compulsion to travel. I felt like I had seen nothing and done nothing," she says. "Does anyone have an easy adolescence? I think mine was manifestly uneasy." She worked for a year to earn the money to go to Europe, all on her own.
"I was only in Europe for seven weeks, maybe, but it felt like a lifetime," she says. "I was struggling, and I think that always makes time seem to elongate."
Although she was deeply moved by her experiences, she was filled with a building anxiety. For a traveler in 1981, talking with someone back in America meant standing in line for a pay phone to make a collect call — and if no one was home, that was it. The extreme isolation led to panic attacks she couldn't name. "I thought I was going crazy," she says.
In her backpack, she carried a journal. "I wrote frenetically the entire time," she says. "I came out of that understanding that I wanted to be a writer."
When writing fiction, Egan blends deep intuition and careful control. "I don't sit down and think, 'I'm going to write a book about X,'" she says. "At the beginning, that first draft is unpremeditated, almost blind and intuitive." She often writes at home, sitting in the same chair, even drifting off to sleep. "There may be an overlap with dream life there," she says. "In a way, what I'm looking to do is release unconscious impulses and connections and leaps."
After getting an English degree at the University of Pennsylvania, she got a scholarship to study at Cambridge in England, where she met fellow student David Herskovits in 1986. The two are married and live in Brooklyn with their two sons.
Moving back to New York in the late 1980s, on her own at first, Egan had "the obligatory horrific first apartment experience," paying rent for a couch. She had a master's degree, but the best work she could find was with a temp agency. Taking whatever jobs they'd give her, and without a computer at home, she'd go to an all-night computer center on Broadway to learn the programs used by the office where she had to work the next day.
"One thing I really believe is that setting your sights beyond what you can do at a particular moment is a great way to force yourself to keep learning," she says. "To this day, I start a book and I think, 'Oh, no, I can't do it.' It's pretty scary, and it can be depressing to realize that you're working beyond your skill set. But hopefully, by the time I will have finished with it, I will have figured out how the hell to do it. That's the challenge. That's how you grow."