Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan packs the Newhouse with “Goons”
Published: Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 06:04
On Wednesday, Feb. 28, the Susan and Donald Newhouse Center for the Humanities hosted acclaimed author Jennifer Egan at Wellesley as part of its Distinguished Writers Series. Over 100 members of the Wellesley community and surrounding area listened as Egan read an excerpt from her 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad” and engaged in a discussion with Professor of English Yu Jin Ko.
Afterwards, audience members were given a chance to pose questions during a question and answer (Q&A) session. The discussion and Q&A session covered topics ranging from the unusual structure of her novel to the influence of music on each chapter.
“A Visit from the Goon Squad,” composed of thirteen interconnected short stories, has not only won the Pulitzer Prize, but also the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Egan’s other notable books include “The Invisible Circus” (1995), “Look at Me” (2001) and “The Keep” (2006). Aside from being a successful novelist, Egan is also a notable journalist, who writes frequently for the New York Times Magazine. Her articles have won the Carroll Kowal Journalism Award and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Outstanding Media Award for Science and Health Reporting. With such impressive credentials, her arrival on campus attracted a large audience beyond the seating capacity of the Newhouse.
When the event began, the room was filled with excitement as people packed into the Newhouse Center to hear Egan talk about her latest book. After every chair was filled, people still filed in, choosing to sit on tables or stand.
“We are so delighted to have so many people here,” said Carol Dougherty, director of the Newhouse Center, in an interview with The Wellesley News. “as we continue to represent unique voices in contemporary America, who come from different backgrounds. We are especially interested in bringing in artists who enjoy talking about the process of writing, but who are also very much readers and it’s easy to tell that Jennifer Egan is one of those artists.”
Egan, indeed showed herself to be an artist who enjoys talking about reading and the process of writing. During the event, she revealed that one of her inspirations for “A Visit From the Goon Squad” came from a discussion about pauses in music from the book “So You Wanna Be A Rock And Roll Star” by Jacob Schlichter, drummer for the band Semisonic.
Egan discussed literary and musical motivations behind her work, as well as her writing process. “My writing process,” she said, “is grabbing reality, synthesizing it and changing it into something else.” She then elaborated on how she does this: “I always start with time and place—those are the most important things for me—a bathroom, a wallet, 2006, go!”
Ko, who taught “A Visit from the Goon Squad” in his Comparative Literature class, was pleased to be able to host the event. “It was a very generous act on her part to come for what we offered,” he said after the event.
While teaching the book in his class, Ko found that it spoke quite directly to his students. “I love the way in which you see characters who are, in different ways, troubled or damaged and struggle to give meaning to their lives in ways that really resonate with the contemporary audience,” he said.
During the discussion with Egan, Ko praised the ability of her writing to connect deeply with readers, noting, “Great novels that deeply engage us continue to be written and they continue to illuminate and help us make sense of our lives.”
Audience members, many of whom were from out-of-town, found their trip to Wellesley College worth their while. “I had a great time. I thought she gave a nice introduction that filled in a lot of the holes about where the book came from to her personal experiences,” said Kirsten McDonough, from nearby Natick.
Jeff Hall, who heard about the program through his mother, Senior Lecturer in the Spanish Department Nancy Hall, also enjoyed the event. “The program exceeded my expectations. It was particularly interesting to hear about the process that led to the book. The explanation for for how she arrived at a book of this unique structure was very intriguing.”
Wellesley students, who made up the majority of the audience, appreciated the chance to finally meet the author. Cassie Hoef ’15, who studied “A Visit from the Goon Squad” in Ko’s class, said, “I’ve been looking forward to this event since last fall.”
Students also appreciated learning about the writing process from an acclaimed author herself. Lena Smoot ’13, who is majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing, said, “My favorite part was hearing about the genesis of how it was originally a short story and how it became a longer work.”
The Newhouse Center hosts several writers throughout the year and gives these artists an opportunity to discuss their work, their lives and their writing processes. In the past, it has hosted writers such as the award-winning author Maryse Conde and the revered travel author Pico Iyer. On March 13, the Center will host Leah Hagar Cohen, a non-fiction writer and frequent contributor to the New York Times book review, and award-winning fiction writer Jim Shepard.