Writer Jennifer Egan at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Photo by Claude Peck.

A novel she wrote soon after college was "truly awful," Jennifer Egan said. After working on it for two years, she began sending it around, mostly to friends and family.

After receiving it, she said, "people would tend to fall of ouf touch."

"Like who?" asked Kerri Miller, of Minnesota Public Radio.

"My mother, for one," Egan said.

The exchange was part of an hour-long talk Egan gave Wednesday night to about 750 people at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. It was the opening event of the Talking Volumes book-club series that is sponsored by the Star Tribune and MPR, in collaboration with The Loft.

Egan's lack of success with her writing didn't last. She has published four novels and a story collection. Her most recent novel, the bestselling "A Visit from the Goon Squad," won a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. The story moves back and forth in time, with each chapter devoted to a different character and written, Egan said, "with a different sound."

Though open-ended, the book's final chapters, including one written entirely in the format of a Powerpoint presentation, explain some of the connections between a record producer, a washed-up musician, a recovering kleptomaniac, a spectacularly failed PR person and others.

A wealthy record-company executive, Lou, is mostly despicable, tearing through wives and romancing and giving cocaine to underage girls. When creating a character like Lou, Egan said, "I don't care about likeability. Judging him as bad is easy. I like to look at someone like him with empathy, see why he does what he does."

She cited "empathy and extrapolation" as key to her creative process, insisting, "I don't use my own biography or those of people I know" as sources.

While "Goon Squad" has a lot to do with rock music and the record industry, for example, Egan said she doesn't think of herself as "a giant music geek," though she loved the music of her youth, esecially groups like Patti Smith and Pink Floyd.

She said Proust was a big inspiration for her latest novel. She became interested, as Proust was, in the influence of time on characters. In "Goon Squad," she played with giving readers foreknowledge of certain characters, "to infuse the present with information from the future."

Egan described the writing of a novel as "a mysterious alternate universe." She begins not with a plot or fully formed characters, but with a time and a place, she said, and she writes her fiction in longhand first. Egan said she could imagine another novel in which some of the "Goon Squad" characters reappear.

Asked about the events surrounding her Pulitzer win earlier this year, Egan said that "the phone rang, and it was a shocking bit of news that made me cry. It was also transcendentally great -- I still find myself in disbelief that I intersected with that." 

Her earlier novels include "The Keep," "Look at Me" and "The Invisible Circus." Egan also has a story collection, "Emerald City." Her talk will be rebroadcast on Minnesota Public Radio. Star Tribune writer Kristin Tillotson recently profiled Egan. 

Talking Volumes continues with Stacy Schiff (Oct. 5), Colson Whitehead (Nov. 2) and Chuck Palahniuk (Nov. 17).

Updates on Twitter: #talkingvolumes or @claudepeck.

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