Jennifer Egan C’85, the Pulitzer Prize winner profiled in the July|August 2011 Gazette, recently participated in a unique storytelling event. Every evening from May 24-June 2, the New Yorker‘s fiction department (@NYerFiction) tweeted installments from the author’s new story, “Black Box,” which she had written in Twitter-friendly paragraphs of 140 or fewer characters.
On the day of the first installment, the magazine asked Egan what had inspired her new story’s structure. Here is her answer:
Several of my long-standing fictional interests converged in the writing of “Black Box.” One involves fiction that takes the form of lists; stories that appear to be told inadvertently, using a narrator’s notes to him or herself. My working title for this story was “Lessons Learned,” and my hope was to tell a story whose shape would emerge from the lessons the narrator derived from each step in the action, rather than from descriptions of the action itself. Another long-term goal of mine has been to take a character from a naturalistic story and travel with her into a different genre. Jon Scieszka first put this idea into my head with his spectacular meta-fictional picture book, “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!,” in which the three pigs move through picture books drawn in radically different styles, transforming visually into the style of each world they enter. I wondered whether I could do something analogous with a character from my novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad”: create a cartoon version of that person, for example—or, in this case, a spy-thriller version. I’d also been wondering about how to write fiction whose structure would lend itself to serialization on Twitter. This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one—because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters. I found myself imagining a series of terse mental dispatches from a female spy of the future, working undercover by the Mediterranean Sea. I wrote these bulletins by hand in a Japanese notebook that had eight rectangles on each page. The story was originally nearly twice its present length; it took me a year, on and off, to control and calibrate the material into what is now “Black Box.”
Missed the tweeting event? You can read “Black Box” in full here.
(Photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem/Vistalux)