Jennifer Egan, THE CANDY HOUSE

Jennifer Egan, THE CANDY HOUSE

Zibby is joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan to discuss her latest novel, The Candy House, which is linked to her 2010 bestseller, A Visit from the Goon Squad. The two talk about Jennifer’s journey to becoming a successful writer and how she’s glad in some ways that she wasn’t famous sooner. Jennifer also shares what her writing process looks like, the experience that changed the course of her career path, and how to tell if you are cut out to be a writer.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jennifer. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Candy House.

Jennifer Egan: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: This is such a thrill. I’ve been a fan for a long time. Delighted that you could come on. Would you mind telling listeners a little bit about The Candy House and, particularly, how you carried Bix through from The Goon Squad and when you knew that he would return?

Jennifer: The Candy House is like A Visit from the Goon Squad, which, by the way, is not a prerequisite. In no way do you need to have read Goon Squad. In fact, I think it actually might work better going the other way, starting with Candy House. If I had to choose, that’s how I would probably advise people to do it. Like A Visit from the Goon Squad, for those who have read it, it’s about a loose grouping of people that are linked in various ways. I follow them over time. In this case, the earliest story is 1965. The latest is 2035. The range is even greater than Goon Squad. You could say that, in some ways, the through line of The Candy House is an invention created by a guy named Bix Bouton who is a tech wizard. This device allows people to externalize their memories and their consciousnesses, really, onto sleek, beautiful, luscious for their own perusal and edification because we know so much more than we know we know. One ancillary possibility with this device is that people can share it online to a collective, which is their price of entry if they want to view the contents of other people’s consciousnesses. It’s pretty much exactly analogous to something like Napster or DNA information. If you enter into that conglomerate and want to know if you have half siblings or whatever, you offer the same access to other people.

That’s a kind of spinal column, if you will. The stories are wide-ranging. People have various different relationships to this technology, in some cases, no relationship at all. In terms of Bix, he, like many people in The Candy House, is such a small character in Goon Squad that a lot of people would not even remember him. That’s true of a lot of the people in Candy House. In fact, some of them are only mentioned by name in Goon Squad but never actually appear. In a way, I never really saw Goon Squad as being finished, exactly. I reached a point where it felt like it had an arc and it was sort of the best I could do at that point, but I never felt I was done with any of that because the principle of the book is the following of my own curiosity from one curious sighting through the corner of my eye to the next. It was natural that I was imagining beyond its borders even by the time it was published. I just followed that same principle of curiosity into the new material.

Zibby: It’s sort of like a Robert Altman film where you take one character and then you follow the next one off and the next one. You know what I’m talking about?

Jennifer: Absolutely. I was fascinated by his work right away when I even first saw it, and I think because I was interested in using that kind of storytelling in fiction.

Zibby: Awesome. Jennifer, you have been writing and producing the most amazing fiction and stories for years. Tell me how you got started and when you knew you were a writer. Did you see this all coming? Is this where you wanted to be with your writing? Tell me a little bit about that.

Jennifer: That’s a lot of questions. I’ll start with the last one. I feel very lucky to even have a career doing this. In a way, I do feel like I’ve had the best luck I could possibly have. I feel so grateful for that. I never assumed that I would have any success. I think sometimes people are moved to write because they read other people’s work and they think, ugh, I could do better. This isn’t that great. I never thought that. I felt more in awe of the work that I read and thought, I can never do this. What really got me writing in the first place — I’d always enjoyed writing and always enjoyed reading, but I was kind of a science-y kid. I loved chemistry. I loved biology. I loved dissection. I really thought I would be a surgeon. My grandfather was a surgeon. I loved hearing him talk about his work. I loved his medical books, which I looked at in a pretty ghoulish way, in retrospect. I was very interested in the body in the most ghoulish sense. I wanted to dig up dead people and see what they looked like. I was that kind of person.

Interestingly, when I hit puberty, that totally changed. I developed a kind of squeamishness about blood. Dr. Freud can, I’m sure, have a good time figuring that out. The bottom line was, suddenly, medicine did not seem as appealing. Then I wanted to be an archeologist. That’s actually what I thought I would do when I applied to college. I wanted to go to UPenn in anthropology. They have an amazing anthropology department. I took a gap year. During that gap year, the first thing I did was that I went on a little archeological dig in Kampsville, Illinois. This was not as exotic as I had been hoping for. I was thinking more along the lines of Africa, Greece, Turkey. It turned out that I couldn’t be hired to go on a dig like that. I didn’t have the knowledge to understand that people actually pay to go on digs. I paid three hundred bucks to go to Kampsville, Illinois, and dig for Mississippian Indian remains, which was very interesting, but it showed me immediately that I was not as interested in archeology as I had thought.

Zibby: Did you find anything?

Jennifer: Oh, yeah. We were looking for projectile points, what I had always called arrowheads, and pottery. It was everywhere because we were digging in, basically, a garbage heap. I had imagined pulling big, beautiful pots out of the earth. Of course, that’s not the state that they’re in when they’ve been underground for tens of thousands of years. I just realized that I had a fantasy of archelogy that in no way matched the reality, which was hot, somewhat dull, I thought, very limited in scope. I had one square meter of earth. It was a wake-up that I think so many people have when they confront their fantasy in a very tactile way. Anyway, what I ended up doing that year was mostly just working to earn money. Then I got a backpack and went to Europe, where I had never been. Growing up in California, it was a really long way away. I started traveling in Europe. I began having what I now realize were panic attacks, but I had never heard that term. This was summer of 1981. All I knew was that I actually thought I was going crazy. It will tell you something about my high school years that I actually thought maybe these were drug flashbacks and that I had destroyed my brain through my bad behavior in high school. I was kind of a wreck. I think it’s fair to say that I was a wreck. What I discovered through that adversity — it really ended up being a very hard trip. I ended up having to come home early, which felt like a real failure at the time.

What I found was that writing was the thing that really tethered me to the world around me, whether I was having a great time or whether it was hard. I realized how essential it was. It sort of closed the loop of my cycle of relation to the world me. I got to college really knowing that I wanted to write. I have to say, honestly, I’ve never really waived even though my success has been extremely incremental, partly because I was honestly not a very precocious talent. I was okay, but I was not anything special for a long time. Although, I felt like I was not being — of course, one always thinks everyone else is getting all the good stuff, and I’m not. I don’t think I really deserved it. I think I didn’t get any less than I deserved. I’m really glad I didn’t get more than I deserved, which a lot of people do. Our culture works that way. We’re looking for people to raise up. If that happens too soon, it’s very hard for the person who’s been raised up because sometimes there’s not as much to follow it up with. There’s a kind of self-consciousness that comes with feeling like there are expectations that maybe one can’t meet. All of those things can interrupt the natural and often gradual evolution of one’s own approach and voice. Because success was incremental for me, I felt like I was able to keep developing slowly. I was lucky in that I was able to publish books. Each one did a little better than the one before, but I was never one of those people who was thrust into the public eye at a young age. Although, in the moment, I was seething with envy for the people who did have that. In retrospect, I think it’s probably the thing I am most grateful for.

Zibby: Do you think that if you were your younger self starting publishing today — I just feel like there’s so much pressure to have your first book do really well now.

Jennifer: It even starts before that. There’s a pressure to have a huge sale because then you’ll have the push that might result in the book doing really well. There’s no difference. Even with social media and all the things that exist now that didn’t exist when I started, that pressure was still there, very much so. There are immediate rewards, but I think there’s a big price to pay sometimes. Of course, we never see that in the moment. That’s what The Candy House is all about, really, the allure of immediate satisfaction. It’s just something deep about us humans. We almost never stop and say, wait a minute, what’s the cost of this? It’s just not how we’re built. We run toward the candy house. I think that fame is a candy house of sorts. First of all, no writer is famous in the way that fame exists in other realms in American culture. I think if you went to any movie star, and I don’t really know any, and said, is there any downside to being so famous? I would be flabbergasted if any of them didn’t say, oh, yeah.

Zibby: I’ve interviewed a few authors who hit it really big early in their twenties. Now they’re in their forties. Even with a big, successful first book, the pressure of the second book, but then especially over time — I just heard about this movie that’s being filmed that’s exactly about this, a twenty-five-year-old literary superstar and what happens in her forties.

Jennifer: Oh, how interesting. I’m fascinated someone’s making that. That’s very interesting to me. Anything that makes people interested in literary production I think is a good thing, so I’m really glad that’s coming out. I want to keep people reading, not even just for self-interested reasons, but anything that keeps people engaged and smart and empathetic. By the time I really had a hit, which was A Visit from the Goon Squad, I was pushing fifty. I was not a kid. I had published several books. I really had a sense of the literary landscape. By the time I won anything — I had never won a raffle in my whole life. By the time I had won a prize, I had already judged a prize. I understood so well that it’s not a judgement from on high. It’s the best compromise five people or however many people can come up with. If you’re lucky enough to be that compromise, you should just kiss the ground and hope that your good luck doesn’t run out too fast. That’s all it means.

Yet it seems so iconic once it happens. I knew all that. I think it helped me to at least not get a big head, I hope. It still was very hard to write another book, very hard. It was seven years before I published another book. That difficulty tells me that a person in their twenties, or let’s just say what I would’ve gone through in my twenties, that might have been it. I’m not sure I actually would’ve had a career if I had had so much good luck early. I don’t know. I guess it’s a test of how strong I am. I don’t know. Sometimes I don’t think I’m actually — I just don’t know if I would’ve had the inner rudder to guide myself through all that external input and those expectations to continue to develop. If you can’t keep getting better, things start to plateau and then go down. You’ve got to keep getting better. It’s really hard to do that.

Zibby: I was going to say, how do you — you can identify, yourself, a huge shift in quality, perhaps. I don’t know if other people — we’re always our own worst critics. How do you go from where you began to winning prizes? What do you do to get better? We can practice. You can take classes. Some people don’t, necessarily, get better. How do you make sure you keep improving? That’s really my question.

Jennifer: That’s a great question. The answer is we can’t make sure that we keep improving. The way I think of it is, none of us really knows what we’re capable of. We’ll only ever know looking back. The way I look at it is trying to create optimal circumstances to get as good as I can. I don’t know how good that is because we never know. Part of the challenge for anyone is identifying those optimal circumstances. What do I need to do this work at the best possible level that I can? It’s so different for every writer. Of course, one thing that I think is true in any practice, a sport or any other skill, is just doing it again and again. Anyone gets better. A lawyer, a doctor, the more times you do it, the better you get. Just continuing to produce — that’s another reason that being stymied in the way that I was after Goon Squad was so successful and the way I think I would’ve been even more so in my twenties — being stymied has a real cost. If fifteen years pass and I’m not publishing because I’m stuck, those are maybe three books or four books that I would’ve produced that would’ve helped me to improve and learn more that I’m not actually creating. That’s an immediate loss. Another way that I really try to get better is by not repeating myself. Some of this is just temperamental.

Because I don’t write autofiction — in fact, the opposite. I’m allergic to anything that smells of me or my life. I feel bored immediately. I really like to write as a kind of escape. I’m looking for another world to live in in addition to my life, not my life twice. In a way, for me, the feeling of freshness and novelty is key because if I feel like I’m doing something I’ve done before, that is sort of like writing about myself. Again, I just have this sense of dullness. Just trying to challenge oneself to do new things I think is another way of getting better. If you just keep doing the same thing, you could argue that you’re getting better and better and at doing that thing. This just may be one of those temperamental differences. The other thing is, for me, listening to feedback is very crucial. I don’t mean reading reviews, necessarily. I don’t look to reviews to tell me how to become a better writer, but I try to do a huge amount of due diligence before I ever have a book in the hands of a reviewer. Layers of readers are part of my entire process, starting with a writing group, which I dedicated The Candy House to.

Zibby: I saw that.

Jennifer: They’re hearing stuff very early, sometimes before I even know what I’m doing. Just to hear it as they hear it — we only read aloud — see whether it feels like it has a voice, if it feels alive is sort of the basic question. They all read my books at a much later phase when I actually have a whole manuscript that I’ve been through several times that I’ve sort of taken as far as I can. They read it. Then I have additional readers, quite a few, who read things at different phases. For me, finding out how what I’m doing is landing, whether it’s working, honestly, is crucial. Again, I would never say you have to do that because I know other writers who really don’t, and they keep getting better. It really does come down to identifying the circumstances that lead us to do our best work and give us the greatest chance of getting better at it. That’s all we can do.

Zibby: I like this idea of showing lots of readers. It’s like launching a product, like a new perfume without anybody smelling it. You want to make sure before you invest all this effort and time and everything to market the product, that you have the best product you can possibly have. Yet because it’s creative, I think people are protective over their work.

Jennifer: Yes, for sure, but sometimes that’s appropriate because for some people, it would be the wrong move. It would be fusing or confusing. For me, I know what I’m trying to do. What I don’t know is whether I’m doing it. It’s critical for me to find out whether I am doing that and where I am not doing that. I cannot imagine publishing books without many, many readers, but I also know people who do not work that way, which is so fascinating. In their case, there may be other conditions that lead them to their best work. They need to make sure to honor those conditions. That’s one of the big challenges, is just finding out what one’s own process is.

Zibby: I think that can apply to many things in life. How do you set yourself up for success? Were there any parts of The Candy House that materially changed because of your reader feedback?

Jennifer: Oh, my god, absolutely, yes. I don’t just mean the kind of due diligence of, this is someone who knows more about X, Y, or Z than I do, which I have to do a lot because I’m never writing about myself. Just to give a tiny example — this, I did kind of late. I start with this conversation of a bunch of academics. I am not an academic. I’ve never sat in on a conversation like that, truth be told. At a certain point, I showed that chapter to a friend of mine who’s a tenured art history professor. She immediately said, “There’s some stuff here that is not the way people would talk.” She gave me tips. I do that all the time. I never do it enough. There will be things. For example, with Manhattan Beach, which has a lot of technicalities in it about deep-sea diving and merchant sailing and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I was all over that stuff, but there were all kinds of things that were wrong about Catholicism. I forgot to consult — I’m, allegedly, a Catholic, but it was a measure of how non-active a Catholic I am that there were just certain basic things that I had wrong. I had to keep making changes once the book came out. That may happen with this too. There’s due diligence. That’s, in a way, not what I’m talking about because that’s something really anyone should do. That’s sort of obvious.

Zibby: That’s fact-checking.

Jennifer: For example, there were some areas where I thought that by saying very little, I was suggesting a great deal. One of my readers pointed out that the way it actually was reading was that there was no feeling at all around this thing. By saying very little, I was just glossing over something and suggesting that it was meaningless. In a way, the impression I was making was precisely the opposite of the one I thought I was making. Those are the kinds of things where I really want to know. One thing also, I just want to know, where is your attention captured? Where is the heat? Where is it cold? Those basic questions are really helpful to know. What feels repetitive? What feels exciting? I don’t really need people to tell me how to solve problems. I just need them to tell me where they’re having problems. Sometimes people do also tell me how they think I should solve them. The whole process, I should add, is agony. It’s agony. I never want to hear that anything is wrong, ever. This is a self-induced period of suffering that I undergo to achieve a result. It is awful. Every single time I hear that anything is wrong, my first thought is, I can’t fix it. It’s over. This book sucks. I don’t mean to make it sound like this is just a marvelous, fun process. It’s not. It’s very uncomfortable, but I do it. It’s like going to the doctor. No one wants to go. It takes a lot of time. It’s unpleasant. You don’t want to hear a lot of what you’re going to hear. You have to do it to be healthy. I want my book to be healthy. I have to take it to the doctor repeatedly, all different kinds of doctors, specialists.

Zibby: Specialists, yes. Oh, my gosh, now you need insurance. Your insurance are the support group for the — this is so funny. I love that. Of course, you don’t want to choose the opposite. Not writing is not an option, it sounds like for you, not to do the whole process.

Jennifer: If that’s the best option, then it’s time to start thinking about a different career. I could imagine that I would reach a point, maybe, where I would just think, I can’t do this anymore. I’m nowhere near there. I want to do it very much. For me, not to engage in that kind of rigorous feedback process would be tantamount to saying, I don’t think I do this anymore, because it’s really an inherent part of the process for me.

Zibby: Wow. Amazing. If somebody were starting out today, you would suggest that they do this, or is it only if they have complete, strong commitment to it? What would you say to someone starting out?

Jennifer: You mean to write fiction?

Zibby: Yeah, to write fiction, someone who’s twenty-five years old today. If you’re twenty-five and listening to this, we’ve been talking about you the whole time. No, I’m kidding. This person starting out, it’s hard. It’s agony. Yet the search for the passages that are alive, even when you talk about it, your whole face lights up. Finding the heat and what’s alive, you get so excited. What would you say to someone who’s starting, how to get it and how to keep it going? Should they even try?

Jennifer: Sometimes I think that a sign of having found one’s vocation — by that, I mean a job that really is enriching and would be worth spending one’s life getting better at. I feel like one sign that you may have found that is that the drudgery and discomfort, which is part of every job at one point or another, and even the discouragement, which is also part of every job, is a spur rather than a hinderance. If that is happening, if being discouraged, if being uncomfortable makes you want to just try harder and overcome that, to me, that’s a sign that this is the right path. If getting feedback is agony and misery and is making life worse, that might be a sign that this isn’t the right realm. There’s no right answer for everyone. It’s hard enough to find the right answer for anyone, for anyone to find their own right answer. In a way, the only way to really find out is to give it a try. There’s a lot of discouragement early on. In something like writing fiction, even achieving the highest level of success is not going to bring the money, the fame, or the cultural currency that a lot of other realms might. You’ve got to do it because you love it. For example, I was rereading James Baldwin’s novel, Another Country, recently. I was laughing because there’s a point where this guy starts writing a novel just to make money. He’s kind of a sellout, really. He’s just going to go ahead and write a novel. It’s like, oh, my god, things have really changed since the 1960s when that book was written. That is not really a surefire way to increase your income.

I think there are so many great reasons to write fiction. If you love it, it is the best escape in the world. While it does not have the cultural currency that it had even in the 1960s, much less the nineteenth century when fiction writers were like rockstars and movie stars combined, it does something that nothing else can do. That is, it gives us access to the interior lives of other people. Nothing that is image based is doing that. If you are looking at a picture, you are not experiencing someone’s internal life. You’re experiencing their simulation of their internal life. I include streamers playing video games. The fun of watching that is the simulacrum of being inside someone’s consciousness, but it’s performative. Fiction actually put us there. That’s what it does. There are no pictures. It is specific. It is unique. As long as nothing else can do that, as long as no one actually invents Own Your Unconscious, then we are doing something that’s kind of cool and provides a sort of escape and sort of transport of one’s own life that nothing else really can. I will say, it’s a muscle that requires exercise to really be strong. People who don’t generally read long-form fiction who pick a book expecting to achieve transportive liftoff, it’s not going to happen right away. You have to become a good reader. It doesn’t take that long. It’s a little more work than looking at a picture, but the reward, in my opinion, is a lot greater.

Zibby: I totally agree. That was very well-said. I could not agree more. The power of books to escape, especially when things in the real world are very frightening, which they have been over the last couple years in particular, is the balm.

Jennifer: We feel like it’s so hard to concentrate. It can be. I think one thing the last two years have really shown us is human beings are incredibly adaptable. We will embrace and do our best to thrive in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. All of that is to say that if you put your phone in another room and sit down with a physical book, it is amazing how quickly checking that phone does not feel essential. I say this as someone who can be completely phone-addicted. Some of it is just training ourselves. We are like seals to be trained. We have to get the fish out and give ourselves a fish at the right time and move away the distractions. It’s not as hard as we think.

Zibby: It’s true. I was reading this weekend. My husband kept being like, “You want to watch this? Let’s do this.” I was like, “You don’t understand where I am right now. This is so intense. Hold on. I got to finish this before I can do this.”

Jennifer: I know. That feeling of just being so lost in a narrative without requiring a machine, to me, it feels like a kind of independence and a kind of self-sufficiency that I don’t ever have when I’m relying on a device for my entertainment.

Zibby: True, yes. My TV never works. It’s ridiculous. Forget it. If I can ever decide what to watch —

Jennifer: — There are too many clickers. That’s the problem.

Zibby: I just cannot get it to work. Now I don’t even want to know. Books are much easier. I agree. You open and shut. Thank you so much. Thank you for all your time today and for chatting with me and sharing your love of —

Jennifer: — It’s such a pleasure. It really is.

Jennifer Egan, THE CANDY HOUSE

THE CANDY HOUSE by Jennifer Egan

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