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April 10, 2024 26 mins

Minnie questions Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist (A Visit from the Goon Squad, Manhattan Beach, Candy House, and more). Jennifer shares how fondly she looks back on sharing a crowded hotel room in Ireland with her family, why she doesn’t write about love, and Minnie tries to find a way to be a character in Jennifer’s next book.

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Speaker 1 (00:02):
Ninety three was like my jam like, so I'd like
I fully like, I'm like, oh ninety three, I could
have been at this party, like literally, I was living
in New York. I could have been there. I probably
was there. I bet I snog bis I am in
her book.

Speaker 2 (00:18):
Maybe you are exite.

Speaker 1 (00:22):
Hello, I'm mini driver. I've always loved Preust's questionnaire. It
was originally in nineteenth century parlor game where players would
ask each other thirty five questions aimed at revealing the
other player's true nature. In asking different people the same
set of questions, you can make observations about which truths
appear to be universal. And it made me wonder, what

if these questions were just the jumping off point, what
greater depths would be revealed if I asked these questions
as conversation starters. So I adapted Prus's questionnaire and I
wrote my own seven questions that I personally think are
pertinent to a person's story. They are when and where
were you happiest? What is the quality you like least
about yourself? What relationship, real or fictionalized, defines love for you?

What question would you most like answered? What person, place,
or experience has shaped you the most, what would be
your last meal? And can you tell me something in
your life that's grown out of a personal disaster? And
I've gathered a group of really remarkable people, ones that
I am honored and humbled to have had the chance

to engage with. You may not hear their answers to
all seven of these questions. We've whittled it down to
which questions felt closest to their experience, or the most surprising,
or created the most fertile ground to connect. My guest
today is the multiple awards winning writer Jennifer Egan. I

try not to fanger on this podcast. It is hard,
but usually I can hustle my stammering enthusiast into another
room and present a slightly more implacable version of myself.
I didn't really manage to do that with Jennifer because
her work, her words, and characters, live so presently in
my own life. Her bullet Surprise winning novel A Visit

from the Goon Squad lives permanently on my nightstand, and
I constantly reference it when I can't sleep, when I'm
stuck with something i'm writing, or when I'm turning over
the idea of a character I'm going to play. Jennifer,
like a lot of the characters she writes, has this
kind of briny brilliance. Each answer she gave to a
question I asked hinted at a far bigger mechanism at play,

and I literally could have asked her a million questions more.
She has a brain you want to spend time in,
and a way of speaking and writing that cuts precisely
to what is most revealing and to me, most interesting.
Her books are fantastic. I encourage you to read all
of them, by the way I just said it, and

I now think that that is exactly what I'm going
to That's not my new fantasy. I was actually in
your book.

Speaker 2 (03:04):
I bet we passed each other.

Speaker 3 (03:06):
We passed each other on Avenue Age countless times.

Speaker 2 (03:09):
I'm sure I'm.

Speaker 1 (03:11):
Going to get in trouble if I keep asking you
questions like can I come over? Do you think I
was in your book? It sounds like I was, but
the answer is yes, come every time. We know that excellent,
I will. I'm going to get on and ask you
these questions because I also want to know what you
think about these. So my first question to you is

where and when were you happiest.

Speaker 3 (03:37):
I mean, it's always hard, it always feel a little
artificial to pick one moment, and so I usually go
with the first one that comes to mind, because I
guess I'm all about trusting instants in first drafts. So
I'm going to say when I went with my husband
and kids to Galway in Ireland in the summer of
twenty eleven, and we were staying in a little bed

and breakfast, and we were actually all in one tiny room.
It was much tinier than we had expected. Our beds
were almost jammed together, and our kids were eight and ten,
and there was just something about that intimacy and that closeness,
that feeling of our bodies just being so close together
that it was like we were one being that I

absolutely loved. And maybe because they were eight and ten,
I thought that would never change, of course, but you know,
they're twenty two and twenty now would be pretty weird
if we were still sharing rooms that size, et cetera.
And so I think there was just this sense of
the preciousness of that proximity, of that sense.

Speaker 1 (04:39):
Of I was going to say, what is it about
proximity that is the engenders that feeling of deep, abiding
peace and happiness. Is it because you think you had
a subconscious idea that there was a timestamp on it.

Speaker 3 (04:53):
I think it probably was just that I never had
that in my nuclear family. My mother and father, I
have no memory of them together. They divorced when I
was two. I grew up apart from my father, and
there were more children.

Speaker 2 (05:05):
On both sides.

Speaker 3 (05:06):
But that sense of being physically linked to a small
unit and deeply bound to that unit and having them
all around me, I don't think I had actually ever
experienced it, So it was just so moving. And I
also just think the fact that we were in Ireland
was important too, because I had never been there, but
my father was proudly Irish American. And on that same trip,

we went to the town where some of my ancestors
had come from, and we went to a graveyard where
it seemed like every other name was Egan spelled the
same way. And so the sense of connection to my
own past, coupled with this tremendous physical proximity to my
immediate nuclear family, was just intoxicating and so beautiful.

Speaker 1 (05:53):
I love that. I love that you going to a
place where you're seeking to reconnect and finding that, but
also just being packed into a little tiny room like
a wolf pack. I think that's really beautiful and I
really like that. I must say that pack feeling, not
having had physical proximity much as a kid either, that's

the feeling that I love with my dog, my boyfriend
and my son.

Speaker 3 (06:19):
There's something about the bodies together that is so immediate.

Speaker 1 (06:24):
I wonder if that is like reptilian brain, which is like,
when we are all together, we're safe. The sabertooth tiger
can't get us. The rock is rolled in front of
the cave, nobody's out, we're here. Everybody smells right, and
it's sort of hermetically.

Speaker 3 (06:38):
Sealed exactly, and you're not doing that tiny calculation that
I think we all do all the time of where
is so and so and where is so and so? Well,
I didn't have to ask that question because I could
reach out and physically touch every person in the room.
And I remember there was one point where we were
all lying in bed. Each of us had our own book,
and we were lying there in silence in this tiny

little room and it was just it was heaven God.
I love that.

Speaker 1 (07:03):
I just love the little, tiny, sort of maybe cultural
stereotype about Ireland.

Speaker 4 (07:09):
Like this, this teeny weeny.

Speaker 1 (07:13):
Beds just all packed in together, the baby sardines.

Speaker 3 (07:19):
Yeah, it's true, and it was just a wonderful little interlude.

Speaker 1 (07:22):
It really was how lovely. What quality do you like
least about yourself?

Speaker 3 (07:33):
That's a tough one because there's so many choices. I
think that the quality I like least is my tendency
to compare myself to others. Because it's one of these
exercises that feels useful. It's actually self denigration disguised as
information gathering.

Speaker 1 (07:52):
That's very good. I'm writing that down, so.

Speaker 3 (07:55):
It's like, what are other people doing? But that's not
really what I'm asking. What I'm looking for is a
way to undermine what I am doing and have done. So,
just a one tangible example, every time I have a
book come out, I pick some other book that's doing better,
because there always.

Speaker 2 (08:14):
Is a book that's doing better, usually many.

Speaker 3 (08:16):
And I basically deem my effort a failure based on
that success. And it's so arbitrary that later I sometimes
you can't even remember what book I was using as
my instrument of infliction.

Speaker 1 (08:31):
You flatch a book.

Speaker 2 (08:33):
Exactly long ago.

Speaker 3 (08:35):
I would look at Amazon reviews, for example, a terrible mistake,
and I always would obsess over the mean ones, and
of course a lot of them are mean because I'm
not the audience for those reviews. They're writing for each other,
and as well they should, that's what it's for.

Speaker 2 (08:52):
And I'm seeing a therapist then, and he said, I
think you should call this what it is.

Speaker 3 (08:58):
When you go on Amazon and you read those, you
are going to read bad reviews.

Speaker 2 (09:02):
That's why you're going. So you have to ask yourself
before you do that, why am I doing that?

Speaker 3 (09:07):
And I have to tell you I have not looked
at an Amazon review. It's got to have been fifteen years.
So I'm trying to work on this quality of mine,
but it's difficult to eradicate it is.

Speaker 1 (09:18):
It's the worst, It's the absolute worst. I read a
review once of something I did, and I just said,
mini driver dash tripe explanation point, which has now become
how can you respond? It's now become like whenever anything
goes wrong, I do sort of say, rather sadly to myself,
mini driver tripe, like from dropping a bottle of ketchup

to larger and more important things. But I think sticking
away from them is a very good idea. Let me
ask you this, When you're comparing yourself, do you honestly
tune out the accolades and the reviews and all the
other stuff, like you've won a pulitzerprise.

Speaker 3 (09:59):
I think in that negative state of mind, whose goal
is self undermining, any accolades feel like good luck and
things that I can't match, in other words, expectations I
could no longer fulfill. So they actually add to the
sense of in this state of mind, all the good

things from the past just feel like more evidence that
the present is falling short, like I can't match that.

Speaker 1 (10:28):
I so feel that.

Speaker 2 (10:30):
Yes, So that's the hard party.

Speaker 3 (10:33):
Nothing helps in that mindset because the mindset is leading
the way.

Speaker 2 (10:37):
That's another part of the trick.

Speaker 3 (10:39):
It feels like, well, I'm just looking at hard evidence
that I'm drawing my conclusions. Not at all, I am
looking in a slanted way at my achievements in life
and deeming them all insufficient, because that was always the
conclusion I was going to come to, because the conclusion
led the discovery.

Speaker 1 (10:58):
God, that's some really clever, awful self battery right there,
and I recognize it fully, really interesting I'm so glad
you've said that out loud. I'm going to share that
with everybody and then listen to it back when I
feel like doing the same thing, or if anybody does.

Speaker 3 (11:13):
I don't know what the solution is though. For me,
I just I think of it as weather. It's like, okay,
it's that kind of day. Okay, So all of my
thinking is going to be like that, and I'm going
to try to just think about other things if I can,
and then I wait for it to pass.

Speaker 1 (11:28):
I think looking at it like whether, yes, a friend
of mine was blue and we were talking about that.
Sometimes you just have to stay the course. You just
have to put your raincoat on and go below deck
for a minute. That's it. I'm wait. But I think
naming it is really good too. I'm just going sometimes

I do this thing. It looks like this. It gets
rid of all of this other thinking because I think
it's so recognizable. I think we all do it.

Speaker 3 (11:57):
Yeah. I think if I were someone who meditated, that
would help, but at this point I'm not sure that's
ever going to be me. But for me, reading is
a huge help because it somehow occupies more parts of
my brain than most other activities. So if I can
really engage with that, I can let go of some
of that thinking and noticing. Okay, this is just a
day where every thought ends on this negative node.

Speaker 2 (12:20):
Sometimes it's not even.

Speaker 3 (12:20):
Comparison, it's just failure, a feeling like I could have
done this better, I could have done that better, and
then I just wait for that to pass.

Speaker 1 (12:28):
Do you prescribe that to your kids? Have you said
that to them? Just wait it out, just hold on
and see where you are at tomorrow.

Speaker 3 (12:38):
Luckily, they're not this as much this way as I am,
which is really good, or at least not so far
good for them. But I do try to remind them
in moments where I feel like their anxiety is really
what's dictating their perceptions, I'll try to point to the
fact that in this anxious state, the anxiety looks for

something to kind of dig into, and so just know
that because you feel like this thing is going terribly wrong,
but in fact, all that's really going wrong is that
you're terribly anxious and you've found a thing to express that.

Speaker 1 (13:14):
Yeah, to hang it on. God, that really is so
exactly what I've been trying to put it into words.
It's good. It's like descaling your brain, actually hearing somebody
else say things that you haven't been able to put
into words.

Speaker 2 (13:24):
I like descaling the brain. That's cool. I need a
good descaling.

Speaker 1 (13:29):
Seriously in your life. Can you tell me about something
that has grown out of a personal disaster?

Speaker 2 (13:51):
I can so.

Speaker 3 (13:52):
I mentioned my father earlier, the Irish American guy whom
I loved so much, but I really didn't know him
well because my mother and stepfather moved moved with me
and my little brother who was their son, to San
Francisco when I was seven, and my father remained in Chicago.
He had three more kids. They're much younger than I am.
I knew them when they were little, but then for
many reasons, I really didn't know them at all after

a certain point, and I really had almost no contact
with my father's family. I did see him now and then,
but there was a bit of a chasm there.

Speaker 2 (14:24):
And my father, when he.

Speaker 3 (14:25):
Was actually younger than I am, he had just turned sixty,
he was hit by a truck while he was bicycling
and he was killed. And so I was reunited with
my now adult siblings, and it was obviously just so
unexpected such a catastrophe.

Speaker 2 (14:43):
I mean, he was going to be.

Speaker 3 (14:44):
Running in a marathon the next week. He was in
the peak of health, and it was a disastrous loss.
And for me, it really meant that I would never
really know my father. But I did reconnect with my
siblings and we have been close ever since. Really, and
that was nineteen ninety six, So wow, it's meant that

our kids know each other. They are a big part
of my life. And in fact, that brother that I
moved to San Francisco with, the son of my mother
and stepfather, ended up passing away very early in his life.
So these are my siblings and I'm so grateful to
have them, and I'm not sure that reunion would have
happened without this absolute catastrophe of my father losing his life.

I mean, I wish you were here. I wish he'd
gotten to do all the things he missed. I feel
so sad for him when I think that he never
saw his youngest child graduate from college, he never met
a grandchild. I mean, it's bad, but you know, there
are some good things at least we've been able to
enjoy in the wake of that.

Speaker 1 (15:47):
God. Yeah, I have a strange siblings who, Yeah, not
even the death of my father was enough to bring
us all back together. But I do wonder about them
an awful lot. Maybe one day. I like the idea
that there's I think everything is possible. I really do.
That's my most hopeful thought.

Speaker 2 (16:05):
As long as we're all here, As long as as
long as.

Speaker 1 (16:07):
We're all here, everything is possible. Truly, sometimes I find
that to be a really edifying thought, like when things
are particularly dark, so everything is possible. Yes, everything awful
that you're currently thinking about, but also the turnaround and
the slightness of a solution to a gigantic problem. It's
never commensurate. Again, I don't remember whoever said that to

me when I was younger, but it was true. The
solution to a problem is never commensurate with the size
of the feeling around the problem. Hm.

Speaker 2 (16:36):
Yes, it's true.

Speaker 3 (16:37):
I feel so sad about those kinds of chasms and divisions,
given just how short life is and how hard it is.
It feels so unnecessary, like it's sort of bad for everyone.

Speaker 2 (16:51):
But I also know that.

Speaker 3 (16:53):
Sometimes people just cannot overcome these bad feelings.

Speaker 2 (16:58):
I don't know.

Speaker 3 (16:58):
My disposition is always to try to connect with everyone.
That's always my thought like, let's see if we can
work it out. But I know that's sometimes simplistic and
it doesn't always solve things. But I'm just a believer
in trying to, I don't know, try to find as
much joy together as we can while we're here. I
can't think of any more useful philosophy than that.

Speaker 2 (17:23):
In a way, like here we are, who knows exactly,
Let's try and have fun and make each other happy if.

Speaker 1 (17:29):
We can, exactly, Let's do as much as we can.
What relationship, real or fictionalized, defines love for you?

Speaker 2 (17:42):
So funny. I'm one of these people who's not great
at talking.

Speaker 3 (17:45):
About things like love because it always seems corny. But
I guess this is a very American of this moment answer.
But I can't help but think of Rosalind and Jimmy
Carter because super insanely long marriage which both real doers
and believers, you know, this long, rich, varied experience in

which they both remained so relevant kind of culturally and
to each other. I guess there's just an a liveness
about that in every conceivable way that is really exciting
and inspiring to me.

Speaker 2 (18:23):
You know, I hope to live a really long life.

Speaker 3 (18:25):
I hope my husband will live a really long life,
and I hope we can be that way.

Speaker 2 (18:30):
But they're a role model there, really are.

Speaker 3 (18:32):
I mean, it's just extraordinary, and I love she at
a time when men didn't necessarily, certainly not presidents, privilege
and prioritize their wives' views so much, she really had
such a strong voice. And I also love the way,
even though he was a one term president and sort
of ended in humiliation in a certain way, they just

use that as a starting point to do the kind
of work they wanted to do, and they did that
individually and together forever, and I just what more can
you really ask for from a love?

Speaker 2 (19:04):
I'm not sure, No, I agree.

Speaker 1 (19:06):
I agree that there was such dynamic humility in their
relationship that was pretty astonishing, because you're right where it
ended was just the beginning of what their life's work
was actually going to be. In actual fact, his presidentship
was the addendum to what was this unbelievably full, amazing life.

I mean, remember when they put the solar panels up,
Remember when there was the whole kind of ecoization of
the White House, and how that was just sort of
torn down at the end of his presidency, but they
carried it all on. I think you're right. I think
that's a really beautiful testament to love. I love that
you think love is corny.

Speaker 3 (19:45):
That's so funny, well talking about it, I mean as
a subject, it's just not something I would ever say.

Speaker 2 (19:52):
I'm writing about love.

Speaker 1 (19:54):
I can't wait because I bet you do. Oh my god,
I really want you to write about love. Now, come on,
it would be He's so good. I'll be in it.
I'll be in your awful, corny book about love. I'll
be a minor character.

Speaker 3 (20:08):
Please come and inspire me Mannie, because right now I
got nothing.

Speaker 1 (20:13):
Oh I got I love. I just keep trying to
insert myself in your books. It's really weird and great.
I think that's cool. Everybody writes about love. I like
that you don't want to write about it. The thing is,
I keep thinking that you have written about love, like
when I think about Goon Squad, like it's full of love. Yeah,
love is there, right, But you're not writing about love

and people being in love as it were.

Speaker 3 (20:36):
Yeah for me, I mean, of course, anything that anyone
thinks my work is about is true. You know, it's
in the hands of the reader. But in my mind,
love is something that happens while you're writing about other things.

Speaker 1 (20:50):

Speaker 2 (20:52):
I don't know why, but that's how I think of it.
It can't be a subject unto itself. It almost feels
like it's not interesting enough.

Speaker 1 (20:59):
Huh, has to.

Speaker 3 (21:00):
Be there alongside something more complicated, more challenging.

Speaker 1 (21:06):
Yeah. I mean maybe it's because love isn't a thing.
It's an amalgam of all these different things, which I
only realized that quite recently.

Speaker 3 (21:15):
You know, my husband and I had in exchange when
our older son was really little, and I said, he said,
I love you, And I said to my husband, but
I don't think he knows what it means.

Speaker 2 (21:26):
And my husband said, do you.

Speaker 1 (21:30):
Oh my god, your husband said that to you. That's hysterical.
Your husband's funny.

Speaker 2 (21:35):
Who is so laugh about it. He's very funny.

Speaker 1 (21:38):
It's really funny.

Speaker 2 (21:39):
So now they'll say, I love you, but I don't
know what it means.

Speaker 4 (21:42):
Which is true?

Speaker 1 (21:57):
What person, place, or experience most altered your life.

Speaker 3 (22:02):
I think it would be New York City actually, because
I'm from the Midwest. I was born in Chicago, and
I grew up in San Francisco. I knew I wanted
to move to New York before I'd ever been to
New York. And I've lived here really my whole adult life,
and it's just the perfect place for me.

Speaker 2 (22:19):
I mean, I'm very curious. I'm nosy I would go
that far.

Speaker 3 (22:22):
I love street life, I like watching people. I like
to be invisible and just watch the rest of the world.
It's just full of life. It's full of so many industries,
and ninety percent of them or more couldn't care less
about the publishing industry, or rarely even know that it exists.
And I love that that there's so much happening, and

there's interesting stuff everywhere I look and listen. And I've
also gotten very involved in New York history, and I
think some of that was a result of nine to
eleven because I lived here and during that time and
actually heard one of the planes hit.

Speaker 1 (23:00):
Oh my God.

Speaker 3 (23:01):
And I think that led me and many others to
think about what it was like to live in New
York during World War Two, and that led me down
a massive research rabbit hole, and I ended up writing
Manhattan Beach. Now I'm interested in nineteenth century New York,
so I think it's fair to say that New York
has kind of become a muse for me.

Speaker 1 (23:20):
It's pretty extraordinary to have known that you're going to
move to a place like do you think that that
is a prescient knowledge that if we tune in hard
enough we can find these guide posts, that they're actually there,
these signposts, and we just maybe don't listen to them.

Speaker 4 (23:35):
I don't know.

Speaker 3 (23:36):
There must be some that I didn't listen to, or
that I did listen.

Speaker 2 (23:40):
To and were wrong.

Speaker 3 (23:41):
But there's just something about New York. It feels inexhaustible.
And I'm a very place driven person. Like even in
my work, I really start with a time and a place,
not people or any kind of plot.

Speaker 2 (23:57):
So physical circumstances mean an enormous amount to me.

Speaker 3 (24:02):
And somehow New York with its depth of history, which
we have so much less of here in the United
States than, for example, you do in Britain. But in
New York there is actually enough history on this place
that you can feel it in the buildings, in the streets,
there are cobblestones sort of coming up here and there,

and I like that sense of embedded history in this place.
I mean, by the way, what I just said ignores
the fact that there is a long history of Native
Americans in what became the United States, whose presence we
eradicated by essentially destroying them. So obviously what I'm talking
about is the history of Western Europeans here and not

the original inhabitants of America.

Speaker 2 (24:50):
But New York holds a lot for me.

Speaker 3 (24:52):
It holds a lot of its own history, and then
also my personal history because it's a relatively small place
where I've now lived since the late eighties, and I
feel my own memories embedded in all of its different neighborhoods,
and then I also feel this kind of collective memory
of so much life that's happened here, really for hundreds

of years.

Speaker 1 (25:14):
Now. Ah, Jennifer, thank you so much for talking to me.
Thank you so much. I mean, I could honestly ask
you a goodjillion more questions, and I will when I'm
next stalking you in Brooklyn.

Speaker 3 (25:25):
I'm going to look for you in my neighborhood and
we'll have some tea and we'll feel be.

Speaker 1 (25:29):
Having coffee, and Jennifer, Hi, it'll be like the end
of Saltburn. If you haven't seen that, I can't believe
that you get your coffee here.

Speaker 3 (25:40):
Well, then you're going to come over and you're going
to enter into my book.

Speaker 1 (25:44):
Hoah, got a plan. So excited. Thank you really, thank
you so much.

Speaker 2 (25:49):
It was such a pleasure.

Speaker 1 (25:53):
Mini Questions is hosted and written by Me, Mini Driver,
Executive produced by Me and Aaron Cole from Me, with
production support from Jennifer Bassett, Zoe Denkler and Ali Perry.
The theme music is also by Me and additional music
by Aaron Kaufman. Special banks to Jim Nikolay Addison, O'Day,

Henry Driver, Lisa Castella, Annick Oppenheim, a, Nick Mueller, and
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