Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan avoids tech, but imagines it for her characters

In Israel for 11th Jerusalem Writers Festival, writer says of her latest book, ‘The Candy House,’ that she lets her sense of curiosity guide her

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan in Israel for the 11th Jerusalem Writers Festival May 8-11, 2023 (Courtesy Chen Wagshall)
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan in Israel for the 11th Jerusalem Writers Festival May 8-11, 2023 (Courtesy Chen Wagshall)

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan is a self-professed technophobe who writes her fiction in longhand.

And yet, in her most recent book, “The Candy House,” Egan dives into technology with connected tales of a founder of a social media empire who creates a tech tool that allows users to download their consciousness.

It’s part of how Egan, a celebrated writer and occasional journalist, works. She creates worlds that grow out of curiosity, turning her back on preconceived notions or anything else that she may be familiar with from her own world.

Egan is in Israel this week for the annual Jerusalem Writers Festival, and the launch of PEN Israel, part of the international PEN network. Egan is a former president of PEN America.

It’s not Egan’s first visit to Israel; she spent time here several years ago with her husband. After arriving Saturday, Egan went straight to Tel Aviv’s anti-judicial reform protest, an event she described as surprisingly joyous.

Ditto for the Writers Festival.

“It is so thrilling and heartening to be in an environment where the single passion is a love of literature. It is just a joy,” said Egan. “I think literature nourishes in a way that endless scrolling does not.”

At the PEN Israel launch, Mishkenot Sha’ananim director general Moti Schwartz (far left), writer Jennifer Egan, Polish writer and Nobel literature laureate Olga Tokarczuk, Jerusalem writers festival artistic director Julia Fermentto-Tzaisler and PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel (Courtesy Chen Wagshall)

And yet, while technology often feels like it’s killing creativity, it’s also generated a lot of fodder, said Egan in the hotel restaurant of Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim cultural center Sunday morning.

“As a person, I’m pretty down on technology but as a fiction writer I’m very curious about it,” she said. “I would not be writing about it if all I felt was negative — it wouldn’t be a good subject matter for me. I’m not interested in moralizing or teaching lessons or warning people, to me that’s boring.”

Egan, 60, has lived in New York for most of her adult life, writing fiction and occasionally long-form reporting after attending University of Pennsylvania (where she famously dated Steve Jobs, who installed a Macintosh computer in her bedroom) and then earning a master’s at Cambridge University.

She’s known for novels that don’t hew to an expected chronology and pace. Her 2010 “A Visit From the Goon Squad” sometimes feels like a novel and other times like a loose collection of connected stories.

Jennifer Egan’s latest book, ‘The Candy House,’ which she’ll speak about at the 11th Jerusalem Writers Festival, May 8-11, 2023 (Courtesy Amazon screengrab)

Ditto for “The Candy House,” her latest novel (not yet out in Hebrew), which isn’t a sequel but does revisit some “Goon Squad” characters, and also undercuts traditional chronology and storytelling.

Its characters live just a couple of decades or so beyond us, in some sort of ChatGPT and AI reality that is only imagined for now, yet with enough references to current times that it feels well within reach.

A New York Times review described the book as “a social network, the literary version of the collaborative novel written by your friends and friends of friends on Facebook or Instagram, each link opening on a new protagonist. It is a spectacular palace built out of rabbit holes.”

In fact, the relationship between data and storytelling was something Egan began thinking about more than a dozen years ago, when she was encouraging her older son to read a book and he was insistently perusing baseball statistics.

“He said, ‘I am reading a story and he narrated the story using the numbers,'” said Egan. “All this thinking melded and when ChatGPT came along, it felt like the real world embodiment of a lot of these ideas I’d been thinking about.”

Egan still hasn’t used ChatGPT herself, and even the mathematical system that she created for “Candy House” character Chris Salazar isn’t completely understandable to her, she said. It’s only her imagination at work.

When ChatGPT was released in November 2022, Egan thought, “Oh, that’s what Chris Salazar’s company was doing,'” she said. “It closed a circle for what I was imagining.”

Egan’s style has been described by literary critics alternatively as genre-bending, postmodern and metafiction. For Egan, it most certainly isn’t about her own life or people that she knows.

“I don’t write about myself,” she said. “It’s not interesting and therefore creatively dead. If autofiction [autobiographical fiction] is all we get, I’d just pivot to journalism.”

A kernel from one of Egan’s reported pieces will often make its way into a book, such as her 2018 piece for The New York Times Magazine about children born in the US during the opioid epidemic. The time she spent reporting in methadone clinics generated material that naturally found its way to “The Candy House.”

“I am drawn to remembering how hard life is for some people,” said Egan. “If I pay attention to my own curiosity it tends to lead me correctly. If I feel incurious about something, it’s not a good bet for me.”

Jennifer Egan will appear for a conversation with Haaretz writer Chen Lieberman at the Writers Festival on Tuesday, May 9, 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem.

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