Jennifer Egan Egan is the author of six previous books of fiction, including: Manhattan Beach, winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction; A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Look at Me, a National Book Award Finalist.
The Candy House is a “sibling novel” to A Visit from the Goon Squad—an electrifying, deeply moving novel about the quest for authenticity and meaning in a world where memories and identities are no longer private.
Interviewed by Terese Svoboda
Terese Svoboda (TS): Your rendition of millennial New York City was so accurate as to being total recall. I especially admired the verisimilitude of the Lower East Side, but I imagine you have admirers from Chicago and San Francisco and LA who were equally impressed. Even contradictory details contribute: “Apparently they mowed their lawns at night in San Antonio.” In a story about amassing and distributing memory, precision of this kind lends authority. How much of such intricate world-building was culled from your personal experience vs. research?
Jennifer Egan (JE): Ah interesting question. I do almost no research about places…in fact times and places from my own life are my only clear biographical connection to my work. I rely almost entirely on my memory, which—luckily for me—is sharp and specific when it comes to little details of place and period like the ones you mention. Place is essential to my writing process; my portal into whatever story I’m working on, whether short or long, is almost always a sense of WHERE it starts (and to some degree when). I begin with just that—a sense of atmosphere—and the question of who is perceiving that place comes next, and is a first suggestion of character. Sometimes the place I’m remembering isn’t real; when I wrote The Keep, a gothic thriller, I was remembering an imaginary place—the gothic— familiar to me from books and TV shows and movies.
TS: Writerly constraints – that bondage – seems to excite you: the 140 characters in a tweet, the two-word sentences in A Visit from the Goon Squad, characters from both books tangled in an enormous web of backstory, the use of PowerPoint, the conceit of an email exchange (really one of tone since it’s epistolary) are among the many formal fences you’ve put up for yourself. Do you find that constraints goad you to explore places you wouldn’t normally go, or do you just enjoy the challenge?
JE: I do love constraints, because when they work (and usually they don’t), the reason they work is that I’ve landed on a story that can’t be told without that particular form. Which means that I’m breaking new ground for myself, and that’s exciting. A good analogy would be the sonnet form: constraint that yields results that couldn’t be achieved any other way. In the creation phase, though, it’s not a good sign if I feel constrained. When I’ve hit on a form that I can use to tell a particular story—the epistolary, as you mention, or a story narrated as “we,” in the first-person plural, or a spy narrating her actions in the form of short thought-bulletins—I feel an unexpected sense of freedom and possibility and discovery. If I have a sense of limitation and confinement in the writing, that inevitably means that I’m trying to do something that isn’t organically sound and therefore isn’t going to work. I have a very high failure rate with my first draft material.
TS: Titles can be difficult. The candy house is mentioned just twice. Was it a meta-inspiration all along, or did you have to search for a place to mention it? Were there two miraculous moments when the title dropped in naturally? Or was the title selected after the book was finished?
JE: Sometimes titles come early; sometimes they even predate the book itself (as was the case with A Visit From the Goon Squad), but with The Candy House, I had a bunch of not-so-great working titles along the way. The phrase was already in the text in a silly context: two young women trying to save the music industry from collapse consider mounting a billboard campaign using the phrase Never trust a candy house! The idea was that drivers would see those billboards along the highway and suddenly realize that the music they thought they were getting for free through Napster isn’t really free, and would stop using it. At some point I chuckled over the absurdity of that anecdote, and then reflected that the phrase The Candy House really stood for the whole book. Ideally a title resonates in a multitude of ways, and I like the fairy-tale resonance of the candy house, and the fact that it suggests something alluring and dangerous. I immediately did a search, expecting to find multiple novels with that same title, but to my amazement I just found a bunch of craft kits for making little decorative houses out of candy! I have a major sweet tooth, so that added to the appeal.
TS: Having lived in Palo Alto during the rise of dot.com I very much appreciated Bix’s craving to discover the next big thing. All those garages lit late at night with inventors slaving away inside, sure their lives will be ruined without it. Victoria has them now too. Did your acquaintance with Steve Jobs have any influence in exploring the tech of The Candy House? Or are we so steeped in tech that you can’t avoid contemplating it as an aspect of contemporary life?
JE: Knowing Steve was most helpful in giving me some sense of the daily life of a tech giant—the power and access and influence and responsibility that such a person routinely manages. Beyond that, I think I just absorbed an enormous amount from our culture. Tech icons are so amply represented in popular culture that one doesn’t look far to have a feel for them. The tech itself I made up completely…in fact I knew that Bix would invent something important long before I figured out what the invention would be. The clues to its capabilities came from the stories themselves…Bix invented the machine that let me tell the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.
TS: Midway through reading The Candy House, I was struck by how the Russians, especially Tolstoy, seem to have influenced you, which puts you in line with Woolf. It isn’t just the proliferation of names but your feeling for family, plumbing the mysteries of cause and effect, how the kids come out. Or am I wrong, and you’re really a Dostoevsky nut?
JE: Hah—both! I love 19th Century fiction generally: Zola; Elliot; Trollope; Gaskell. But you’re right that Tolstoy did a lot of the things I’m consciously trying to do—namely find a perspective lets me go both very wide and very narrow. I love the way, in War and Peace, we’re witnessing broad battle scenes one moment and watching a general polish the brass buttons on his uniform the next. All of that motion, that playing with perspective, and above all moving in and out of particular consciousnesses—is fiction’s superpower. The 19th century writers tried to do everything; I think their cultural centrality (and the demands of writing serially) must have motivated them to take every kind of chance. I like to try to channel their narrative entitlement—the sense that there are no rules as long as we can pull it off.
TS: As a novelist myself, I’m very familiar with the feeling that other people are real but I’m just a kind of VR of writerly composites. You’ve written that the book’s trope of downloading consciousness for public use is really just a tech way of offering fiction to the world – “the collective dream life of the culture” – though fiction has the added advantage of organization toward meaning. What is the most outlandish analysis of the meaning of The Candy House thus far?
JE: I don’t really read reviews, positive or negative, because there is just no reason to, and the negative ones can reverberate in ways that are unhelpful. From what I hear, though, The Candy House seems to have a pretty Rorschach quality; one reviewer apparently criticized the book at great length for being too optimistic and full of “winners,” but many reviews characterize it as “dystopian.” I will say this, though, and I mean it 100%: All of them are right. The book isn’t mine anymore, it belongs to the readers. It’s no one’s job to like my work, and a disappointed reader is a reader I have failed. I want it all to be fun for everyone, but of course that’s impossible. There is a lot of chemistry to this stuff.
TS: Your work has been termed “a postmodern mobius strip.” How did you find your way to the last chapter, written in the POV of the aspiring writer Gregory, the son of the media mogul, Bix, the character who begins the book? Was there a lot of shuffling and recasting, or did you have a New York City fairytale ending in mind from the beginning?
JE: Like A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Candy House is structured around curiosity rather than chronology: What would be the most fun and surprising thing for the reader to encounter next? is the question that underlies the chapter order. We see Gregory briefly in chapter one as a still-nursing three-year-old who tartly informs his father that he has no intention of weaning. So the question as I worked was: Who does that little kid grow up to be. Whether or not the reader is actively curious about Gregory and his future, I hoped that there would be satisfaction in not only finding out who he becomes, but in seeing his father—whom we know well, and whose invention has powered the novel—through that three year old’s grown up, and often critical, eyes.