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Pulitzer winner Jennifer Egan comes to Albany with 'The Candy House'

We're excited to welcome novelist Jennifer Egan back to the NYS Writers Institute for two events, 4:30 and 7:30 pm Thursday, March 23. Egan previously visited in 2003 upon publication of her novel Look at Me.

The Times Union published an advance story with Egan on March 16, reprinted below.

Thursday, March 23

4:30 p.m. — Craft Talk, Multi-Purpose Room, Campus Center West

7:30 p.m. — Conversation / Q&A, Campus Center West Auditorium Both events at the University at Albany, 1400 Washington Avenue, Albany NY 12222

Free and open to the public. No registration required.

Pulitzer winner Jennifer Egan comes to Albany with 'The Candy House'

By Jack Rightmyer, first published in the Times Union March 16, 2023. Reprinted with permission

Many readers were enthralled with Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad when it was released in 2010. The book consisted of 13 interconnected stories with a large cast of characters, all associated in some way to Bernie Salazar, a record company executive.

“I never really stopped working on that material, even on my book tour for Goon Squad, I was always working on a chapter," Egan said. "Every chapter was about a different person, and every new chapter brought me new plot possibilities. I wasn’t sure if this new material would add up to a book.”

Egan’s new book, The Candy House (2022, Scribner), which has been named one of 2022’s best books of the year by numerous national publications, has just been released in paperback. Minor characters from Goon Squad come back in more significant roles in her newest novel, with major players in the 2010 novel returning with smaller cameos.

She will be a guest of The New York State Writers Institute on Thursday, March 23.

“The characters I’m still thinking about the most are the ones that feel unfinished. I don’t see The Candy House as a sequel. I see it as an equal,” she said. “I didn’t want this to be an extension of the Goon Squad world, and I discovered it was a book when it had its own organic soundness and that seemed to be about technology and authenticity.”

Both books are not chronological, and they skip around from the past to the present and into the future. “Lou Kline is the only major character in both books. A lot of people despised him in Goon Squad. He was such a destructive force, but he felt unfinished to me, and in the new book I tried to discover what had pained him. That intrigued me. I’m interested in seeing how characters turn themselves around after a major failure.”

The Candy House begins with Bix Bouton, a technology icon and the creator of the company Mandala, the builders behind Own Your Unconscious, a cube that lets a user upload their memories and tap into the collective unconscious of others. It’s a way for people to connect with others and to feel like they are living a more authentic life. “We look for authenticity in our world today through social media, which is ironically depriving us of it. When we fetishize something like authenticity, that usually means there’s a scarcity of it,” Egan said.

Some of the characters in her new book are also obsessed with data, which comes out of a concern Egan has for how the current study of humanities today is in a free fall. “Everyone wants to be a data scientist and make a lot of money, but data on its own is nothing," she said. "The usefulness of data is in the interpretive phase. It’s our human ability to create a narrative from the data. We had all the data that 9/11 was going to happen, but we did not have the narrative. It’s the same problem we’re having with polling today. Data means nothing in its raw form. It’s the human mind that creates the narrative and the meaning of the data.”

With the machine Own Your Unconscious, people share their unconscious with others, but according to Egan, the only way you can really do this today is by being a writer and creating a novel. “I’m a very curious person, but even I don’t want to sneak into someone’s mind. The job of a fiction writer is to bring us inside the minds of others, but these are people we’ve created.”

Egan does see how something like sharing your unconscious state could be very attractive for many. “A technology like that could actually solve many mysteries, but as some of the characters in my book discover, we might not want to know what most people are really thinking.”

She sees this machine as a more extreme version of today's internet. “The internet contains more information about ourselves than we probably want, and the pictures people often present of themselves are often not very realistic,” she said. “This is why social media is so hard on young people. When I was a kid there was no social media, and I might imagine that I was left out of something, but today there could be a photo online, visual evidence, that I was left out and that would be crushing.”

Egan is not sure she would be a writer if she was growing up today. “I discovered my joy of writing while being in solitude, and I’m not so sure many people have real solitude today. I certainly don’t have it. As an 18-year-old, I went backpacking through Europe and was completely cut off from my family and friends. Out of that discomfort came true solitude and that was a revelation to me. It allowed me to discover who I really was, and it gave me my first feelings of wanting to be a writer.”

Since she published The Candy House last year Egan has been noticing how much of what she was writing about is beginning to occur. “The real world is catching up to this book, especially with ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence chatbot that has the ability to even write TV episodes. This is exactly what my character Chris Salazar was doing with his tech company and the way he used algebraic equations to create dramatic plots for entertainment.”

Egan is well aware that reading The Candy House can be a challenge with so many interconnected characters. “I don’t want people to feel they have to keep track of everyone. That is not required. To enjoy this book one should read every chapter and let it stand on its own. Nothing hinges on carrying prior knowledge of the character with you.”

She also believes it’s not necessary to read “Goon Squad” first. “It might actually be better going in the other direction," Egan said. "The superpower of fiction is that it takes us deep inside other sensibilities, and that can be a strange and discomforting experience. I’m so grateful when readers come along on this journey with me to discover who these people are, and I’d like to think our journey together is worth it.”


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