Most writers of historical fiction look at primary documents and speak with experts when they research a historical setting about which they wish to write. Most, likely, would not try on a 200-pound diving suit from the era in question — but Jennifer Egan is not like most writers.
Egan, an award-winning novelist, visited Yale on Tuesday afternoon to discuss her creative process, goals as a writer and most recent novel at a Davenport College Tea organized in collaboration with the Lustman Foundation.
The tea, which drew over 60 students, faculty members and other attendees, was moderated by Head of Davenport College John Witt. Egan, the winner of a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her book “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” described the origins of her new bestseller, “Manhattan Beach,” a work of historical fiction that opens in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the Great Depression.
Egan explained that the way she begins to write her novels sets her apart from other writers. Whereas other authors first think of a plot or a set of characters, and mold the rest of the story around those components, Egan begins by considering time and place, she said. For “Manhattan Beach,” this first spark of inspiration came to her in 2004, when she was reflecting on “the kind of militarization” of New York in the months following 9/11.
This initial interest led her down a path of “vague, experiential” background research that slowly allowed her to construct a setting for the novel. Her research entailed reading letters from a woman who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and later touring that site’s remnants with the woman’s family, participating in an oral history project to learn more about the Great Depression and World War II era and trying on the aforementioned diving suit.
Egan also gave the audience a glimpse of her drafting and revising process. In her first drafts, she seeks a “meditative state” that she can achieve only through writing by hand. Egan’s first draft of “Manhattan Beach,” which took a year and a half to write, spanned 1,400 handwritten pages and 27 legal pads, she said, which she later whittled down and shared with her writing group.
“I’m hoping to get out from inside of my conscious brain and be surprised by what happens on the page,” Egan said. “I’m trying to get at something more unconscious or intuitive … My method is all about just barrelling forward.”
Additionally, Egan spoke about her goals for her books and her view of the novel as an art form.
With her novels, Egan said she always looks “to find intimacy with the readers right away” — an effect she believes is achievable only through fiction.
“I feel like the novel was really invented to be a kind of grabby, pushy, playful form that could absorb all kinds of discourse in the culture and bend it to the use of entertainment,” Egan said, “while also doing this kind of freaky job of putting us inside of other people’s heads and giving us this strangely intimate access to the way that other people think.”
Attendees at the event said they gained a variety of insights from Egan’s remarks.
Wai Chee Dimock, a professor of English and American Studies, used the tea as an opportunity to reflect on her own writing, which is mostly scholarly and employes a more organized, “journalistic” model.
“To know there’s a totally different other way of writing that is basically forward-looking … that is just so different for me,” Dimock said. “That just makes me wonder — maybe I should experiment with this other way.”
Ryan Wepler, the associate director of writing and tutoring at Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning, said Egan’s descriptions of her research process allowed him to understand the text at a deeper level because he now knows “the research that went into it and the real people that she interviewed to set the time and place.”
Another attendee, Charlotte Killiam ’18, said that she appreciated the opportunity the tea provided to delve into Manhattan Beach in a non-classroom setting.
“You don’t really have the motivation to critically think about a novel that you’re reading for fun,” Killiam said. “I think that it’s interesting to have that experience outside of class with the author.”
“Manhattan Beach” was published in October 2017.
Asha Prihar | email@example.com