Author Jennifer Egan had a particularly memorable Vineyard visit three summers ago. While working on revisions to her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, she decided to add a chapter in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. As a result she spent her vacation pouring over computer slides, running from Aquinnah to Oak Buffs to print out and ship her work — and then running, literally, to the beach.
“It was tough because of course the last thing I wanted to be doing was sitting indoors with PowerPoint,” she recalled. “Sometimes everyone would go to the beach without me and we only had one car, so I would have to run to the beach, and it was a really long way it turned out! I thought I was going to expire. I’m going to die in the heat for PowerPoint, and I don’t even know if it’s going to work. It was pretty comic.”
The idea was successful, to put it mildly. The novel, which weaves through time and has a different structure and point of view in each chapter (including chapter 12, composed of printed PowerPoint slides), won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Ms. Egan, who is also a journalist and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine, will speak on Thursday at the Chilmark Community Center as part of the summer author lecture series. This is her first speaking event on the Island, but hardly her first visit; she and her husband have been vacationing on the Island for about 20 years and her in-laws have a house in Aquinnah. They now visit every summer with their sons.
“I grew up on the West Coast so I had heard of Martha’s Vineyard growing up, and it sounded like this exotic place,” she told the Gazette a week ago, speaking from New York city. She was set to join her husband and their sons on the Vineyard late last week. “I have just such a strong feeling for it and I’ve really loved getting to know it over the years.”
The Vineyard is a particular hit with her sons, ages 9 and 11.
“Oh my God, they absolutely adore it, they talk about it all year,” she said. “They anticipate the particular delights... of course they move in and out of phases, but they still ride the carousel in Oak Bluffs. We’ve gotten really into fishing, we do a lot of fishing.”
Ms. Egan doesn’t leave her writing behind when she comes to the Island, though she said it can be tough finding a quiet moment to work when staying in a small crowded house.
“I feel like if I can get a little bit of silence around me, it’s a great place to work,” she said. “I remember when I was working on [2006 novel] The Keep, there was a scene I needed to write. I didn’t really know what it would be yet, so I just grabbed the car... and drove up to the little Aquinnah cliff point, and went down to the coffee shop there, and sat down, and had this sort of amazing discovery of what was going to happen in the book.”
“I have some strong memories of important things for various books happening in Martha’s Vineyard actually,” she added. “I always find it a great place to sort of take a step back and think, and that, of course, is very useful.”
A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was published in 2010, tells the story of Bennie, a former punk rocker and music executive, his assistant Sasha, and the network of people around them. The novel’s chapters hopscotch through time, and are told in different ways. Ms. Egan said she stumbled upon the novel’s style.
“It’s usually pretty spontaneous at the beginning, I don’t really have clear sense of what I’m going to do ahead of time and often it’s the writing itself that kind of reveals the bigger picture to me.”
She wrote the first few chapters thinking she was playing hooky from another project. “What I found was I liked the kind of angular indirect relationship of the chapters to each other, it seemed sort of fun to me, and a little bit different. I really liked the fact that they were written in very different ways.”
Each chapter is told from a different perspective: Sasha’s 12-year-old daughter Alison’s PowerPoint presentation titled “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” which tells a family story; a chapter in the form of an article written by one of the characters, and the final chapter takes place sometime in the future when people use ubiquitous handsets and send “T” messages like this one: “no 1 nOs abt me. Im invysbl.”
The patchwork approach was not an easy feat, Ms. Egan said. “Having decided that every chapter had to have a totally different technical approach, I had set up a difficult task for myself. Because it’s not that easy, to have a totally different technical approach for every single chapter of a book. At a certain point you’ve run through your bag of tricks.”
There was an attempt at writing a chapter in the tone of playwriting, and another in the form of epic poetry, “which would have been amazingly fun. Unfortunately, it was amazingly dreadful because I’m a dreadful poet. That was a case of a fun idea, absolutely terrible execution.”
The idea for the PowerPoint chapter came to Ms. Egan when she realized that PowerPoint had become a generic form of discourse. Incorporating this form into a novel first came off as too cold and corporate, she said, but she eventually found the right tone. The chapter is “a sweet sentimental story about people who love each other and struggle.” The chapter also lets the reader see Sasha, whom the reader first meets as a single woman in her 30s, when she is older and has a family.
“The coldness of PowerPoint, the very thing I was worried about managing at the beginning, I think offset or balances the sweetness of all that love swirling around in that family and makes it not so cloying and sentimental.”
Ms. Egan continues to experiment with different writing forms, and recently teamed with the New Yorker magazine to tell a serial story over Twitter. The story, Black Box, recreates the character of Lulu from the Goon Squad, and follows in the tradition of serialized novels, such as those written by Charles Dickens and George Eliot.
While Ms. Egan said she hasn’t wholly embraced Twitter as a social media form, she was intrigued by the medium’s potential for story-telling. “I began to hear a voice that I thought was kind of intriguing in small bursts,” she said. Twitter messages are limited to 140 characters.
“I was really interested in just the way [Twitter] worked as narrative, these small bites and how oddly poetic they sometimes sounded and how much a good tweeter can actually do in that small amount of space.”
The story was told in 10 nightly installments on Twitter, starting with this one: “People rarely look the way you expect them to, even when you’ve seen pictures.” The story later appeared in complete form in the New Yorker.
For the story, Ms. Egan, who writes her work longhand, purchased a Japanese notebook with eight rectangles per page, and set about writing the story as she does others, “five pages of rectangles a day.”
The key to this “wacky” structural approach and others, she said, is “they only end up working if there would be no other way to tell the story. With Black Box, just try for a second to imagine that story narrated in a straightforward observational way. Disaster.”
Ms. Egan said she was especially excited that the New Yorker, “this very traditional, esteemed and authoritative magazine which has remained committed to fiction” signed on to get involved.
So what stories, in what forms, will Ms. Egan be working on this year? She’s reluctant to divulge the genres she wants to tackle — there is no guarantee they’ll work out, she’s quick to add — but she will be busy on the Vineyard and beyond.
First, there’s the project she played hooky from when she started the Goon Squad; a traditional novel about New York in the 1940s. But she also might not be done with the Goon Squad, especially after writing Black Box, she said.
“It feels so open-ended, and there were a number of characters I wanted to write about and couldn’t pull off in that book.” She might attempt to create a “sibling volume” to the book that will pursue some of the other characters.
“The challenge will be to employ a similar methodology successfully, that’s already going to be hard, and to a completely different end, which I don’t know yet. So all I can say is, wish me luck.
“I really begin books without any sense of what they really will be like or be about. So it often feels like it is truly a crapshoot whether they’re going to work out, much less be what I thought they would be.... I’ll be ecstatic if they even both work out. In no way does that seem like a certainty. It’s always an adventure, and I feel excited to be starting a couple of new adventures.”
Jennifer Egan will appear Thursday, August 2, at 7:30 p.m. at the Chilmark Community Center. Admission is $10 or pay $15 and receive a ticket and choice of one of Ms. Egan’s books. Tickets are available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven, at the Chilmark Community Center office between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m., or online at ticketsmv.com.