Poured Over: Jennifer Egan on The Candy House
“In the end, all the good ideas and sort of fancy craft approaches get you absolutely nothing if there’s no emotional content. That’s what it is. I mean, fiction is about going inside other people’s minds and consciousnesses and looking through their eyes and living their lives in a way and that’s all about emotions.” Jennifer Egan challenged the way many of us thought about how (but not why) we tell stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad—which went on to win the Pulitzer. She joins us on our 100th episode of the show to talk about her latest, The Candy House, which she describes as a “sibling novel” to Goon Squad, along with truth and time and space and memory and nostalgia, the interplay between tech and story (including finding poetry in elliptical, 140-character tweets), finding inspiration in slightly unexpected places like baseball and Dungeons + Dragons, returning to characters she never really left (including the peripheral ones), and much more with Poured Over’s host, Miwa Messer. And we end the episode with a TBR Topoff segment featuring Margie and Marc.
One of Our Best Books of the Year (So Far) for 2022.
The Candy House by Jennifer Egan
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
The Three Pigs by David Weisner
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, introduction by Jennifer Egan
Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Poured Over is produced and hosted by Miwa Messer and mixed by Harry Liang. New episodes land Tuesdays and Thursdays (with occasional bonus episodes on Saturdays) here and on your favorite podcast app.
Full transcript for this episode of Poured Over:
Barnes & Noble: I’m Miwa Messer, thank you so much for joining us on Poured Over. I am so ridiculously excited to have Jennifer Egan here to talk about The Candy House. If you are a reader like me, A Visit from the Goon Squad was one of the most incandescent, exciting, smart, fun, weird reading experiences you’ve had. And The Candy House is described as the sibling novel to A Visit from the Goon Squad. When did this start? How did this start? Did you know you were bringing these people back? I have so many questions.
Jennifer Egan: Well, in a way, it never really ended, in the sense that goon squad always felt like kind of the best I could do, but never felt fully resolved. And in a way the whole structure of it is such that it can’t be fully resolved because every chapter is from a different point of view, and each person’s world is unfolding. By the time I was on my book tour for Goon Squad, I was already writing what ultimately became a chapter of this book, which is now called Lulu, the spy, the nature of Goon Squad was that it was constructed around my own curiosity, following my curiosity wherever it led, and seeing if I could make good fiction out of that. And again, it didn’t always work, which added to the unfinished feeling of it. So my curiosity was still alive about these people. And with every new point of view, there were more potentially interesting peripheral characters in that person’s world. So it was kind of natural to just proceed. I think the one thing I wasn’t sure about until much later is whether I would really make a book out of those meanderings. Because it’s not enough to have a certain number of pages. It really has to be its own thing. And I have pretty high standards about what I expect, especially as a book related to another book that was lucky enough to be beloved to readers. So I was very strict with myself about what I would require before I decided, yes, this is a new book.
B&N: Okay, what are some of those requirements? Because the emotional payoff throughout Candy House is really significant. It’s fantastic.
JE: Well, that’s great to hear if that’s probably I would call that requirement one. In other words, you know, in the end, all the good ideas and sort of fancy craft approaches get you absolutely nothing if there’s no emotional content. That’s what it is. I mean, fiction is about going inside other people’s minds and consciousnesses and looking through their eyes and living their lives in a way and that’s all about emotions. So one was just do I have powerful stuff here? Another requirement was, Is this really a different book than Goon Squad? I’m not interested in just a shadow fan fiction to myself. This has to be its own thing. Is it about different things than good squad? Am I doing things here that I didn’t do in Goon Squad? And when all of those answers seemed like they were Yes, which obviously took a long time since goon squad came out. 12 years ago, that was when I thought, okay, let’s do this.
B&N: You have a line in Candy House, actually, that did make me laugh out loud, which frequently happens. But in that very dry, deadpan way you have you said, there’s nothing original about human behavior, and yet, have every single piece of this book, you find a way to turn your characters on their head. And obviously, we’re going to stay away from a few of the details. But there are characters that do come back from Goon Squad, but then their are children. And this is one of the pieces I love like Sasha’s son and Sasha’s daughter, who are tiny people in the first book, oh, no, they have figured out what their parents are up to. And they’re trying to make their own lives. And Chris Salazar, who’s Benny and Stephanie’s son, and Dolly’s daughter, Lulu, the most deadpan nine year old on the face of the earth, is now an actual adult, and she has a lot going on. It’s absolutely great how you brought this cast back, but you’re noodling around these characters, you’re thinking I’m not done yet. I want to do something new. Part of that is structural. I mean, this book is broken out into four pieces, you’ve got build, break, drop, and build, again.
JE: I wasn’t sure what the structure would be. That was actually one of the last things to fall into place with Goon Squad because in a way that content is what suggests the structure, it’s really hard for me to go the other way. And with Goon Squad, I actually had thought it would all be in a backwards chronological order. And that was actually dead wrong. When I read it that way, it was really without any power. It didn’t build anything with this one, I sort of knew that I wouldn’t know that and I let it be unknown. But there came a moment where I was reading something about electronic dance music and the structure around which it is built, which is a kind of build break drop cycle, because drop then leads to build and the idea is really just that one rhythm. Ultimately, there’s sort of a bridge and then it yields to another, another song just kind of interjects and it feels a little like going through a portal, which is an idea that comes up a lot in The Candy House moving among, in some sense, sometimes sort of imaginary worlds, or virtual worlds through a portal. So I like the idea of that structure. And it also was a kind of gentle link to Goon Squad, which is structured like a very traditional basically like 1970s concept album. There’s not much music in The Candy House, I didn’t want there to be, because it’s so central to Goon Squad, but I like the idea of using a different musical structure to suggest the different sets of interests in these two books.
B&N: Technology is sort of the center of everyone’s story here. I mean, Bix seems to have invented social media only it’s much more literal in your case than it is what we think of when we’re on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook or what have you. Can we talk about Bix’s invention for a second?
JE: Sure. Well, Bix is such a minor character in Goon Squad that a lot of people don’t remember him at all. At least we see him though there are characters in The Candy House that we’ve only heard by name and Goon Squad, but Bix, we do meet, when we meet him, he’s a grad student. And he’s sort of that guy who was online before anyone else. I was like one of the last people to go online. But I remember some of those people. They were often guys, I don’t know why. So he at one point says to two of the other characters, that in the near future, everyone we’ve lost, we’ll find and they’ll find us. And as soon as I wrote that, I thought, Oh, I think Bix invents social media. And so I knew that about him. And that’s the kind of knowledge that made me think I needed to go on with this material. Because I don’t like to be left with knowledge that the reader doesn’t have, that always feels not right. Anyway. So when we visit Bix, again, and this is one of the first chapters that I wrote another very early first draft I wrote in 2012. When we meet him again, he’s already invented social media. He’s a tech icon, but he’s not sure what to do next. He’s it like so many of these tech icons. He’s a very young man who is worried that he has nothing new in him. And so he does some pretty wacky things to try to get his imagination going, namely goes in disguise, because he’s hyper famous to a group of academics who were having kind of low key very bookish discussion group. And he attends and sort of waits for inspiration to come. And funnily enough, it kind of does for a long time, as I was working on The Candy House, I didn’t actually know what Bix’s invention would be, I knew it would be important, but I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t think of it, then it sort of came to me through other chapters, when I began to have a sense as I was writing into the future, which I had to do, as you point out, I want to watch some of the kids in Goon Squad grow up. Well, if I’ve got a kid in 2020. And I want to see that kid grown up, I don’t really have much of a choice but to plunge ahead into the 2030s. So in one of those chapters, there were references to some sort of way that Lincoln, it’s someone we meet as a boy and goon squad who has now grown up and he’s in love with one of his colleagues at the tech firm where he works. And he is trying to figure out what will make her fall in love with him. And because he’s a very actuarial analytical data oriented guy, basically taking a kind of data driven approach to making her fall in love with him, which doesn’t really work. But one thing that he mentions in passing is that of course, he could go to the collective and look at her thoughts in her memories. If you wanted to know, like, say what her sexual appetites and proclivities were things like that. But he mentions it as something he would never do, something that isn’t at all allowed and very frowned upon. So I just wrote that in passing, but once I thought about it, I thought, Ah, okay, so we’re in a world where you can actually view other people’s consciousnesses. And it was sort of a long and winding road toward realizing, okay, that’s Bix’s invention.
B&N: And Bix needs people though, to make that happen. It’s not just the tech that he’s playing with. If it weren’t for that conversation in that apartment up by Columbia, he wouldn’t have had that moment. When you’re writing a piece of the story like this, and obviously, he’s only one of the voices in The Candy House. Are you working in a linear fashion? Are you just letting the other pieces of the narrative fill in where you need it to? I mean, did you have everything in this chapter, The Affinity Charm, as you were setting out, or did you realize later that, oh, wait, there’s another piece here When Sasha speaking and here’s another piece, when Myles is speaking?
JE: I would say that my writing process initially is very kind of organic and spontaneous. So I don’t tend to have any plans when I begin, and I write longhand with fiction. And it’s only after I type up what I’ve written, which can sometimes be after a very long period, like for example, The Affinity Charm, which had other names along the way. But the chapter about Bix, which I wrote in 2012. I didn’t even type that up until 2016. I barely remembered what was there. I mean, and the world had changed. I wrote that chapter with Obama President and I typed it up under Trump. So it was interesting too. revisit these very spontaneous thoughts and imaginings after those years. But it’s only after I type it up that I start to think about what it could be and improve it. In the case of a book, like The Candy House, I’m improving it individually. But I still don’t know how it fits into the larger scheme. And I certainly didn’t write the chapters in the order that they appear, which is also of course, not chronological. Curiosity seems to be the thing that really structures the way that I work on, especially on books like this, because it was, you know, seeing Bix do all this and thinking about certain things that come up in that chapter, in particular, an anthropologist named Miranda Klein, whom we don’t meet, but we know that she’s had a very important role in mixes fame, because he was able to purchase an algorithm that she created to describe human affinities in a very specialized monograph that she wrote for the academic world. But he was able to purchase this and use it to monetize attention. I’m obviously you know, making this up. And that’s what makes him a gigantic success. And so rich, and it’s interesting, you mentioned that he’s isolated. And the thing is that one reason he’s isolated is because he’s so famous everyone, kowtows to him, they say what he wants to hear. And what he wants is to think something new. But all that happens is that everyone tries to figure out what he wants them to say. And that’s really why he goes in disguise to have the experience of being someone else. But interestingly, the invention that he ends up coming up with ultimately is an invention that lets people externalize their consciousnesses. And if they want to share them to an online collective, which literally lets people become someone else as it were, by going into someone else’s mind and looking out through their eyes, it leads to a rebellion in the form of eluders, who say, we don’t want to be part of a world in which our identities are just shared freely in this collective and they shed their identities, they leave them behind, one person equates it to an animal and a trap gnawing its leg off as the price of escape, they leave those identities to the collective, they take on a new identity, and they vanished. So there’s a left disguising and disappearing in this book.
B&N: There is but humor is also one of the markers that the people who are tracking the eluder use, because it’s so hard to measure. And then on top of it, they’re out there in the world saying, okay, so we think we may have found this person, but hey, you know, there are writers out here, and they’re pretty good at figuring out who’s a proxy, who’s living. I mean, there are moments like this throughout the book, where you just get to have a really nice laugh. A lot of this echoes how we live right now, yes, you have made up spectacular devices and wild situations, and we’re going to get to a couple of them. But at the same time it hits because we’ve all seen people share. Or let’s say overshare on social media, and it’s like, wow, I am sitting in the back of your brain. And I don’t actually know you in real life.
JE: You’re exactly right. I think one reason that this device, this imaginary device was so appealing to me is that it felt like just a slight exaggeration of what we already live with. So it sort of gave me a way to write about the internet without reading about the internet, which to me feels kind of old at this point. So I wanted to avoid that. But this seemed like a more fun way to do. And you mentioned humor, I don’t know somehow that seems to have become important to me as a writer. It’s strange, because I would not say that I’m a very funny person. And a lot of funny writers are funny people like I was interviewing Gish Jen recently, and I’d never met her before we were on stage. And I said, your books are just there’s so much humor here, you know, how does that happen? You know, and she said, Jenny, I’ve just funny and that our interview went on to prove that but I can’t say that of myself. I’m way funnier on the page than I am in person. I’d like to be funnier in person. It’s just not sort of who I am in person.
B&N: But I love the idea that your characters are interacting with tech in a way that changes their sense of memory and also messes with their sense of time. Because when you can play with someone’s memory, you can impact how they experience time as well. And that’s something you’ve played with obviously, in Goon Squad as well. But is this book in conversation with proof still, or did you add a new layer to the narrative in Candy House.
JE: I love the brought this up. Goon Squad clearly is a book about time as In Search of Lost Time is and it’s in direct conversation with that I thought of this book as being about space actually, which is so closely linked to time they’re inseparable. That was my focus. And in a way you could say equally that Goon Squad is about space because any book that is playing with perspective, that is putting us inside the mind of someone that we just saw through our corner of our eye. And another chapter is playing with the kind of spatial relationships between people and points of view. But I feel like space, in a way is an even more relevant thing to think about in terms of technology right now, even then, time I think time felt more relevant in the first decade of the 21st century, when I was working on Goon Squad, you know, we all had playlist, the iPhones invited nostalgia, I feel like we all kind of know that now. But if there’s anything that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that our relationship to space is no longer really connected to physical space, what it means to meet, you know, what it means to visit or go somewhere is changing. And I even though I had the idea of writing about space, per se, before the pandemic came, it felt like a very relevant corollary to the exploration of time that I made in Goon Squad.
B&N: I think, too, it’s easy to forget that novels play that role for us that novels allow us to travel through time and space, and through defect laters. And it’s one of the upsides of the pandemic has been watching people come back to physical books, and watching people talk about books on social media in a way that’s new to them, but not so new to those of us who have been doing this for a minute. It’s just nice to see again. And hear again.
JE: So true. And I also think one reason there may be a little bit of a return to physical books is that we’ve pushed this screen life to a point and we’ve had to, to a point where even the most screen loving humans, like my two sons would say, you know, enough, this is boring, actually, it’s funny, you know, I have this idea of the eluders long before the pandemic, but I sort of feel like to take a physical book to move away from any electronic device and just sit down and read, that has become something close to an act of resistance at this point. I mean, that is how interconnected and screen adjacent we mostly are. And I feel like people are ready to do that, to some degree, like, let’s actually remove our attention from the attention economy for this moment and interact with an artifact that is not counting anything, and not monitoring anything, and not photographing anything. And that is an act of real freedom. It’s hard to do it sometimes. But it’s amazing how I find and my kids told me this too. It’s amazing how quickly you just stop wanting to grab for it. If you know it’s actually not within your physical reach.
B&N: It is absolutely huge. But why are we clinging so hard to memory, if we know it’s fallible? It’s one of those things where it’s like we cling to these ideas of what has happened or what we think should have happened. And it all kind of gets tangled up into this giant Gordian knot.
JE: Well, I think in a way that knowledge, that frustration that you describe is exactly what leads Bix to invent his device, he comes at it not with any sense of wanting to create a collective consciousness, but out of frustration over his own inability to revisit an event outside of that Gordian knot of the very limited memories he has of it. And the event, which is a huge one, in Goon Squad, is when a kid at NYU undergrad drowns and Bix is one of the last people to see him, although he wasn’t close to the kids. And he sort of a little bit of an accident that he’s with them. It’s such a major event that it really stays with him. And so when he returns to the place where that happened, which is the East River in New York, he is struck by something that I feel a lot in my life, which is a kind of shopworn quality to my memories, this feeling that I seem to return to the same, I want to get around the corners of them and see all the rest. And I can’t do it. Because I think the more times we remember something, and in a way photographs interact with this, the more solidified it is as being remembered that way. So he has a wish to just have it all, to be able to see it all differently, to get at the truth and not have the memories be flawed and fallible. And that’s what leads him to do it. And I have to say it’s kind of an appealing prospect.
B&N: The tools in the tech for storytelling have changed with the invention of Bix’s machine, as it were. But that’s not the only change in tech that we as a culture have experienced. And there’s a chapter, Lulu the spy 2023, that when I first read it, I thought, Oh, right. There was a short story that you had written as a series of tweets that The New Yorker then published, and this is obviously not that exact story, but it was so exciting when you did it and everyone was kind of sitting on the edge of their seats and you have in previous interviews talked about about how you love the idea of technology and what it can do for storytelling. But can we dig into Lulu for a second because one, I love this character, I love her evolution into an adult. But also, this piece of the book works so well. And the stakes get really high. And it’s 140 character lines.
JE: That, in a way, I feel like that chapter is what gave me the book, because that was the one that I was working on immediately. And it’s been really interesting to think about the various strands that led me to it, because it helps me to understand how many things any writer is drawing on. I think it just happens that in this case, for some reason, because it’s so extreme, I know what those things are that I was drawing on. So I’ll just mention a couple of them. They’re very domestic, it really shows you that you know, we make art out of anything. So my kids were relatively young. And I was reading them again and again, this amazing book by David Wiesner, which is the kind of meta view of the three pigs and it’s probably not for teeny kids. Although it was amazing how much my kids love the meta aspect of it. And Wiesner is an incredible illustrator. The concept is the three pigs are their story is unfolding. It’s beautifully drawn, the wolf blows down the house of straw and the pigs escaped by jumping out of the story, out of their book. And the wolf is very perplexed. He has blown the house down and there’s no pig, he’s looking under the doormat, the pigs run around, and they enter different stories all drawn by Wiesner in totally different styles. I mean, you could really say that this is basically the template for The Candy House. I have to write to David Wiesner and thank him. I don’t know the man but boy, is he good? Anyway, at one point, they go into a book of nursery rhymes, the pigs, it’s drawn in a very cartoonish way. And the pigs appear cartoonish. When they’re in that story. When they leave the story. They take a cat with them, which was the cat playing the fiddle in Hey Diddle, Diddle. And when the cat leaves, the nursery rhyme, it appears to be a naturalistic cat, just as the pigs do when they leave their story. So you get the idea. They’re going in and out of stories. And they’re drawn in different manners depending on the genre of the visual language that they enter. As I read this again, and again, and again, and again, to my kids, I kept thinking, this is genius, I have to find a way to do this. And what I met by do this was take a character drawn naturalistically, and draw them as it were, in a more stylized genre form and import them to genre story. And I somehow knew that the person I wanted to use was Lulu because she’s a little bit safer like in Goon Squad, we meet her twice deadpan nine year old and a kind of pretty bright, sparkly cipher in her early 20s. And we don’t know much about her. So I liked the idea of using Lulu. So I had that wish. And then there was another element of my domestic life that played into this, which was I finally got an iPhone and like 2011 ish, and I immediately started making lists on my iPhone, and one of the lists was called Lessons Learned. And it was where I gathered up all the things I wanted to do differently. So it was things like buy a narrower Christmas tree. That was because when we had a really wide one, it blocked off life from the window, and one of them was put a train ticket in bag night before, ALWAYS, all caps. And I love that one because the minute you see it, that’s all we need to see there’s a story, the story is she got to the train station, and her ticket wasn’t in her bag. So I started thinking about that kind of inadvertent storytelling of lists generally, but especially a list something like Lessons Learned. And I thought, could I have a narrator just narrate the lessons learned from each step of the action instead of giving us the action. So that was the second influence. The third influence was just Twitter, Twitter at 140 characters, which was very different from Twitter today, which is much more like regular paragraphs, but Twitter at 140 was kind of elliptical, people had to work hard to find a way to say things, and 140 characters and there was an, I thought, a kind of inadvertent poetry sometimes to these utterances. So that was another thought. So somehow, all of that brewed away for a while. And finally, I sat down to write at the same point that I always do, which is when and only when I have a sense of time and place because all of these notions and concepts are very abstract. And that’s not where fiction lives. We talked about emotion. The emotion for me starts with the time and the place of feeling and the people sort of follow, although I kind of knew it was Lulu somehow had this notion of the Mediterranean, a kind of contemporary Mediterranean scene for a spy story. And I started writing in the form of lessons learned by Lulu who’s never named, although she was in my original draft, as she impersonates basically a sort of high class prostitute to spend time with the various characters who the US government believes are fomenting bad deeds for America, and her job is to record what they say and photograph what they do. And she’s able to do all of this because she has, and this is the advantage of writing into the future. 2032. She has recording equipment inside her body.
B&N: It’s a wild story, but it’s also very human. I was always very, very clear that a person was running this through, it wasn’t a computer repeating something, it wasn’t AI. And you’ll see these moments as you read it, and you do kind of have to do it in one sitting. The payoff is fantastic if you do it in a single setting, because you can see the beats and later this brings us to the epistolary chapter, which I am absolutely wild for and brings back a whole host of characters and storylines, but also gives us a Lulu we’ve never seen before and misses a raw Lulu, a vulnerable Lulu, a Lulu who’s not entirely sure of herself, but thinks she is. She’s messy. She’s really messy. So she’s got one of the biggest evolutions in this book.
JE: My first thought was, you know, I wrote Black Box, and it was published and I thought, if I’m going to write a companion to Goon Squad, it has to contain that piece, which was kind of a tall order, because the piece itself was novella length, although I did cut it some for the book, but the question was like, Okay, but how do you how’s that? How do you how do you enclose that in something that is more than just a kind of frame for it, but like, uses it to do other things? One of the biggest challenges of the candy house was what do I do to link up with that chapter in a different way? What else can I do with Lulu? And it seemed like the only possible answer was, we need to see her after she returns from her spy mission. There’s nothing else we can do. We’ve seen Lulu before her spy mission, but she’s gone through something pretty scary and brutal. And even though she’s a kind of genre character, as we see her in that tweet chapter, we now need to see what the human toll of this is. So I struggled unbelievably, to find a way to do that. I initially thought Lulu can’t stop thinking in tweets. And so I’m going to write that another chapter in tweets that will dramatize her struggles to re-acclimate to life back at home, I thought, Oh, this is gonna be so fun. It was so not fun. It was so dreary and dreadful. And whereas the tweet format had given me a feeling of elasticity and pleasure and freedom in Lulu, the spy, I felt like I was handcuffed trying to use it again. So I had to let that go. Then I thought, Okay, this is going to be in the form of notes from Lulus therapist over a series of visits. I thought, Oh, this is going to be great. I’ve never done anything like that before. Haha. Oh, my God, again, dead on arrival. So I had to sort of let all of that go. And then first of all, I love epistolary writing, it’s very old. It’s, you know, back to the 18th century novel. Clarissa Samuel Richardson, longest novel written in English is epistolary, and I didn’t use it Goon Squad. So I love the idea of doing that. I love the idea of sort of using a slack like communication where it’s very casual. It’s kind of flying in multiple directions. It’s maybe it’s email, but we don’t really know. So I took another swipe at Lulu in her afterlife, sort of post mission life using the epistolary form, and with way more humor, and much bigger cast of characters, not just inside Lulu’s head, but Lulu and a cast of many, and that finally I had a sense of freedom and possibility and pleasure, which is what told me I was on the right track, but it was such a winding road to get there.
B&N: Is that ultimately your favorite piece of The Candy House?
JE: I don’t know that I have one. I didn’t have one in Goon Squard either. There are certain moments that I feel really proud of and relationships and definitely one of them is in there, which is the relationship between Kitty Jackson, who’s a movie star that Lulu and her mom, that we meet in Goon Squad and various modes, and she has a very kind of loving but extremely combative relationship with her assistant that I really enjoyed writing so that was probably my favorite part of that epistolary chapter. But there you know, throughout there are moments that make me happy. They’re usually the moments when things are the most extreme and yet somehow also plausible. That seems to be my happy place if I can push things as far as they can possibly go and then a little further, but we’re still in the realm of credibility. That’s what I love.
B&N: Sasha has a not dissimilar link, Benny’s former assistant who he fires because he finally realizes that she’s stealing stuff. She’s great. I thought she was reading my mind. Oh, she’s been stealing my stuff. And Sasha is now, we see her living her artist’s life out in the desert. She’s married Drew, they have a couple of kids. Alison is the creator of the PowerPoint chapter from Goon Squad, but Sasha has really evolved and has this wild compassion that I wouldn’t have expected from her. And you also go back in time a little bit, she disappears to Naples, Italy, and her uncle is sent after her and they have kind of a wild exchange. And she lifts his wallet because it’s Sasha, how can she not lift a wallet? But it’s charming to see how much she did not turn out to be the person you would have thought.
JE: Yeah, I mean, I guess one of my principles, that it’s not really a principle because it’s not something I decided on, but I guess it’s sort of an aesthetic habit, which may or may not be a good thing is once I’ve established something, or once I’ve established either a situation or something about a person, I don’t really like to repeat it. So just watching things be fulfilled and watching them do what you would expect is exactly the opposite of what interests me. So if we see Sasha, as we do in Goon Squad, most of the time we spend with her she’s a bit of a wreck, she’s you know, stealing, she can’t control it. It’s really a compulsion. She’s lost her job. She can’t seem to sustain a relationship. But we do have an inkling that her future life improves, there’s a leap into the future where we see her with her kids, but I guess I just felt like, okay, but then what, there has to be something that you don’t expect, but it feels inevitable. And again, I never arrive at this in a cerebral way. But I remember there was one moment with someone in my writing group, and I dedicated The Candy House to them. So it’s sort of like telling this anecdote back when I was reading them, that original chapter about Sasha stealing. She said, she’s kind of an artist, you know, she’s collecting all these things together. And they don’t really make sense. But they have meaning to her. And I guess that always stayed with me, because I found myself thinking she’s starting to dabble in making things out of the detritus of everyday life in the PowerPoint chapter and her, her daughter mocks her she calls it mom’s art in quotation marks. And so Sasha still is a kind of delicate figure who doesn’t really seem to be productive in a professional way. But I thought, but why not? Maybe she takes it further, I loved seeing her that way, it just felt like the right thing. And The Candy House ended up being a lot more optimistic than I would have expected, in part because there were a lot of people that I left in a sort of fragile or even trending downward state in Goon Squad. And again, because I’m really not very interested in just having people fulfill the the destinies we expect. And because I feel that very often people don’t, I find people very surprising. I liked reversing a lot of that. And so that kind of moved us over into the positive column, I think.
B&N: It is ultimately a very hopeful book, which I don’t know if I was surprised by that, or if I just enjoyed it. But the emotional payoff of Candy House and what happens to these characters and the decisions they make is really satisfying.
JE:I’m so glad to hear you say that. I mean, it’s funny because I often find with fiction, and this is partly just because I’m such a improvisational writer, really, even though I do take ownership of everything and control it and maniacally. But what it’s saying and doing I don’t feel like I really have control over. It’s more like dreaming in that way. And I guess I often find that what I end up saying is not what I expect to so for example, I have a lot of dread about the future. I really do. I’m obsessed with the climate crisis. I’m deeply concerned about so many things. And I don’t know whether I’m actually more hopeful about some of these things than I realized, or whether I’ve just a little bit tired of fiction that just ratifies the dread that I already feel and eager for some imaginative pathway out of that. I’m not sure, maybe all of the above. But for whatever reason, I ended up writing a book that was more optimistic than I often feel. And I can’t quite tell you why. Maybe I’m more optimistic than I thought. I do have a lot of faith in human beings. And the pandemic has only strengthened that I feel like people can do unbelievable things. We’re incredibly adaptive creatures. We’re incredibly strong. And for all of our predictability as data points, we are utterly unique and utterly specific and infinite as individuals and if we are pushed, we’re capable of really great things.
B&N: I think, too, our capacity for love is usually pretty surprising because there’s a lot of stuff we get wrong, but your characters do have a lot of love in them, for each other, not necessarily themselves all the time, but certainly for the people around them. And it’s really lovely to see that unfold in the context of some really wild storytelling but yet that basic humanity, that empathy that love that compassion, that understanding that Hmm, well, this is not where we’re planning on being. But this is where we are. So let’s work with this. There’s a character called Myles, who is Sasha’s cousin who, wow, a lot happens to Myles. And Sasha really shows up for him in a way that well, we know Myles wasn’t expecting.
JE: No, I probably wouldn’t have done it for her. Yeah, Myles is like he’s just really not a nice guy, but his world blows up. And he is greatly humbled and actually really stymied. I mean, he feels like he has no path forward and is really kind of at a loss and Sasha, who was always the family mess, and maybe it’s for that reason that she that she sympathizes, but she offers him charity and sympathy and he gets her house. And I mean, things go so wrong so fast, that there isn’t much time for her to even express her sympathy before without giving anything away. Myles is in extremis, along with everyone else. But I guess one reason it made sense to me that Sasha was that way is that family is kind of what rescued Sasha from her pathologies, you know, she’s created this little family, and it’s strong, and Myles is somewhat alienated from the family. And so there’s a point where she and her husband have some tension. He’s like, What the hell is this guy doing here? And she says, He’s family isn’t that enough. So to her that is really a value and a healing component. And it turns out, it actually kind of works in the end for Myles, to some degree.
B&N: And they’re not the only set of siblings that have that. I mean, Stephanie’s brother, Jules, makes an appearance in a slightly surprising way, as well. I mean, I know I keep coming back to this idea, but it’s just it was so refreshing and fun to see all of these people just sort of emerge on the page and do whatever they were going to do. Proust obviously, has been a huge influence for you. You’ve talked about Zola, you know, George Eliot, you’ve written introductions for Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. Who are some of the other influences that you find hopping up in unexpected ways in your work?
JE: Well, I think for The Candy House, some of the influences are, you know, maybe a little unexpected. I think this is as close as I may get to a novel about parenting. It doesn’t really look like that’s what it is. But I never write about myself. I’m like the opposite of an auto fiction writer. Two of the really organizing principles for this book, I think, really came out of my experience as a parent of two boys. One is baseball, which I knew nothing about when I gave birth. But I can say that I have a fairly you know, thoroughgoing sense of what it’s like to be at a game, score game. I’ve been to a lot of stadiums, I’ve thought a lot about baseball. And one of the things that fascinates me about it is how, how numerical it is how quantifiable it is, even as it’s also a game of human beings with histories and lives and all of that. But it’s also simply, it’s a game of numbers. And interestingly, Dungeons and Dragons, which was something my other son really loved is also a very numerical game, they both kind of forced you to examine the relationship between quantifying a numerical storytelling and more narrative storytelling. And I think those two influences were actually really, really important here. Also, Dungeons and Dragons got me thinking a lot about, you know, what they call world building. You know, I was fascinated by the way when I would watch Dungeons and Dragons games, you know, a world drawn on a piece of graph paper was riveting. And going through a portal meant entering a different world. And I read some Dungeons and Dragons related fantasy with my son. And one thing I loved about it was just the freedom to just imagine anything, sometimes it feels like I mean, as a literary fiction writer, I haven’t felt that so much. I felt like wow, some great a sweeping swaggering approach to storytelling. We can go anywhere, we could do anything. So I like that thought of portals and moving between worlds and that made me think about a book that I loved as a kid, Prince Caspian, which involves jumping into various pools and each time you jump into a pool you’re in a different world and you know, if you think about it, so much of children’s literature is about going through a portal into another world. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Wizard of Oz, I mean, it’s always about passing through the through the looking glass passing through a membrane crossing over into another land and I guess those kinds of influences, children’s literature I was thinking about a lot. The title, of course, alludes to Hansel and Gretel. I love The the kind of mythical collective quality of those literary texts. And of course, you know, the collective consciousness is a kind of play on Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious, which draws on things like fairy tales and myths. So I guess that was where my imaginings converged with actual psychology, you know, traditional psychology classic texts. But that was the realm, the literary realm in which I felt like I was operating here, myths, fairy tales, children’s literature, fantasy, and somehow also baseball.
B&N: It all works. I’m not sure how the math sorts itself out. But honestly, as a story, it works. And the not having a linear time frame for me was just not an issue at all. I was so invested in the characters that I honestly, I didn’t mind jumping around. So I’m hoping people come to this with an open mind because it is really kind of fun to suddenly realize where you are in a story and say, Oh, it’s you. This is wow. And it’s such a nice treat to be surprised like that. But what’s next for you?
JE: Well, I feel a little tingling of imaginings beyond this book, partly as with Goon Squad through failures, like there were things that I wanted to do, but I couldn’t do and so I’m still thinking about that. And there are a few peripheral characters who intrigued me. So I may, in a very slow burn, continue to think about this material. But I’m also thinking about I get, you know, because times and places are so critical to me, what the way I tend to define projects is that way, which sounds a little weird, because it doesn’t sound very exciting when I say I’d like to write a novel set in 19th-century New York. Okay, well, and? Obviously, that’s not much, but for me, it feels sort of like an appointment that I’ve made in my imagination, and I’m waiting to see who will show up to meet me there. This is kind of a wish list. I love detective stories. And I’ve been reading very widely in kind of the original detective stories. So I just reread all of Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes straight through fascinating people like Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were really important to me in working on Manhattan Beach. So I was already sort of interested in detective stories, I would like to try to write one I don’t know if I can, we’ll say and I also I like the thought of pursuing the characters of Manhattan Beach forward in time and sort of thinking about, um, that takes place during the World War Two and sort of the rise of American superpower I love the thought of following that trajectory into the present in a series of books, I’m not sure how many or even if any, but it feels like I what I’m really doing there is kind of looking at the arc of American life in my life span, even though Manhattan Beach takes place, you know, 20 years before I was born, it still feels pretty much within reach the story of American life in those years is it only gets crazier. And then, you know, technology is always in the mix, of course, because that’s the great story I’ve witnessed in my lifetime as a technically, I guess, the youngest of the baby boomers, you know, to get to age 18, with no telecommunications development that I was aware of other than call waiting. And now to talk to someone, even someone in their early 20s will say, Well, you know, people younger than I am grew up so differently. It’s like, you’re 21. What are you talking about? You are the young person, but from their point of view, technologically, no. It’s all about who grew up with what and anything that’s current that someone else grew up with, and you didn’t makes them feel like the aficionado. And you feel like the old crank, even if you’re 21. So I’m fascinated by all of that.
B&N: And that sounds like a very cool conversation I can’t wait to have with you, whenever those books come out, whether it’s more of this or more of Manhattan Beach, you know, that’s the beauty of fiction. It just shows us where we are, who we are, and hopefully maybe where we can go without knocking down too many trees in the process.
JE: I’ve been thinking more and more of fiction as basically the the dream life of the culture around it, that in it’s sort of like an artifact that emerges from this kind of collective cultural moment. And it contains a lot of information. I learned that while I was researching Manhattan Beach, we learn a lot from fiction about mores and rules and cultural touchstones collective memories, nostalgia, that tells us more about a period in the end than what people smoked and what they drove. That’s the stuff that really gives us the mindset of a moment. So I feel a lot of gratitude in a way for fiction as a reader because it can tell me what it was like to live in the 19th century for example, what it was like to live without electricity, cars, recorded music telephones or electric lights. It’s amazing like we know, we don’t have to wonder. It’s thrilling.
B&N: And those stories and memories are what get us to Bix and his machine and get us to Miranda and her book and the entire set of stories and characters in The Candy House. Jennifer Egan, thank you so much. The Candy House is out now and we cannot wait for readers to experience this book.
JE: It’s been a delight. Thank you.