Last Tuesday, I sat down with Jennifer Egan to discuss her latest novel, “Manhattan Beach,” set in New York City during the Great Depression and World War II. “Manhattan Beach” is Egan’s first novel since she won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for “A Visit From the Goon Squad.” It follows Anna Kerrigan, whom we meet as an 11-year-old girl and encounter again almost a decade later trying to become a deep-sea diver in a time when women were not allowed to dive. The novel takes us through multifarious worlds — from the tense atmosphere of the Brooklyn Navy Yard geared toward war, to the shadowy networks of organized crime, to the unfathomable deep sea.
Egan was born in Chicago and grew up in San Francisco. Since her first novel “The Invisible Circus” was published in 1995, Egan has made waves in the literary world for her witty dialogue, experimental techniques and unflinching portrayal of human nature.
In this conversation, we talk about her writing process, the extensive research she conducted for “Manhattan Beach” and future projects that her readers can look forward to.
Q: The last book you wrote was “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. How was it like moving forward from that to write “Manhattan Beach?”
A: I knew that I wanted to write a historical novel next and I had been doing research actually for a while, although not very targeted research because I don’t really know what my books are going to be about until I start writing them. … But in fact, winning the Pulitzer made for a long delay before I got to it because there was a lot of travel and exciting opportunities that I didn’t want to squander. So I spent longer than I normally would promoting “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” … So, the long and short of it was that when I started writing “Manhattan Beach” in 2012 I felt pretty rusty, so that was probably the first impact. …
At first that didn’t really matter because I was working on the first draft and my first drafts are very blind and I’m kind of discovering the world that I am writing about as I do it and that was very exciting. … Certain things about the story that came into play right away seemed really fun to me, and surprising, which is what I’m always hoping for, so I felt pretty happy for the first not-quite-a-year. And then I began to feel like I couldn’t seem to pull the story in. It just seemed to get bigger and when the Merchant Marine element started to come into play, when I sensed that there would be shipping and survival and sea and things like that, I was both really excited by that, which is why I even thought I might be writing about it, but also really cowed by how much research I knew that would take and worried that on some level I was just setting myself up for a really huge failure with this book.
It just felt like I was so far out my comfort zone. … It took so much knowledge to really feel conversant enough in all the worlds I was dealing with to start moving around and doing what I do as a writer. For a long time there was a stiffness about the book; there was just a way in which it seemed to not be loose … and then I would say that was when the Pulitzer started to really be a trouble because I just thought, “Oh my god, how can I be writing this stinker of a book when I just won the Pulitzer Prize.”
But over the course of struggling with that for about a year and a half, I made my peace with the idea that maybe this book would stink or maybe I wouldn’t even publish it, or maybe I would never publish again, and that the world really wouldn’t end over that for anyone, and that I would find other things in my life to do that felt worthwhile. And when I really was able to embrace that, that really helped.
Q: You did a lot of research for this book, collecting a lot of oral histories, and I’m sure that the sheer breadth of how much information and stories you collected was overwhelming. How did you marshal that information into a narrative that was useful to you?
A: Because I don’t have a story until I start writing and I never outline until I have a whole first draft, all I could really research were areas, or worlds. For example, I had gotten pretty into the deep-sea diving stuff. I was talking to a lot of deep sea divers. … It didn’t take a genius to see that people in their 80s might not be available five or ten years later when you’re finally ready to interview them, so that added a kind of urgency to it … but there was nothing targeted about it. I was just hearing stories and I guess I was accruing information although I wasn’t really keeping it in an organized fashion. … I guess the turning point came when I found that what I needed to know seemed to be there, or it seemed to leap to mind on its own. That’s what I was really hoping for — to create a bank of information that simply was mine at a certain point.
I was taking a very glass-half-empty approach, which was, “I don’t know anything!” But when I started to calm down I was like, “this is what I need to know,” and little by little it started to come to me spontaneously as I imbibed more and more information. I do think my experience as a journalist helped me a lot with this because of the sheer lack of preparedness I had — I knew nothing about anything that I was going to write about. … But as with journalism, you always start out ignorant and your job is to become an expert, albeit briefly, and synthesize the world or a complex topic for the general reader. I felt like on some level that synthesis happened for me and made me able to make those worlds my own.
Q: What inspired you to start on this gargantuan journey?
A: I think, like many things, if you really knew how gargantuan it would be you probably wouldn’t start. I always start with a time and a place. That’s always my entry. And then within a book I’ve often been guided by time and place. In other words, I don’t know who my characters are or what will happen. That part is very spontaneous, but what I often do sense is where convergences or things will occur, and I’m kind of writing toward those convergences in those places. … [for] example, just even knowing that I wanted Anna to dive — which I was very set on — but I could not figure out how to get her into the water, because there were so many reasons for her not to be allowed to do it and I was nauseated at the thought of resorting to some cliched and totally fake thing like, “Oh! she passes a test and they all say, ‘Wow you’re so amazing! Sure we’ll let you dive!’” No! That’s not going to happen. So that was also really a challenge. I thought, “I don’t know if I can actually get her physically in the water. I don’t know how I’m going to do that.”
I don’t think I really knew the enormity of this [book]. I started with New York during World War II, and it felt like it just kept ballooning. … I think what … made it take a turn for the negative was the feeling that it kept ballooning, that the project just felt uncontainable, like I couldn’t seem to find its edges. I would say to people that I feel like I’m throwing out more and more net, and I want to have that feeling that I’m pulling it back toward me and I kind of have this sense of what’s in it, and that I’m beginning to take control of that but I said, I feel like all that keeps happening is the net keeps going out, and I didn’t feel any confidence that I was ever going to pull it back in. It felt too big for me. It really did.
I hate that cliche that “the characters took on a life of their own,” but in a way it’s completely true. I wouldn’t describe it that way … but I think we’re all talking about the same thing. I do really believe that a sound work of art has a certain organic shape and you really sort of have to find that and honor it because if you start hacking away at it and making it do what you want, you might write something that is fun to read but it’s not going to really have that depth and power and mystery, which is the thing I’ve come to value more and more in my years of writing. In the end, something shouldn’t really be explainable or exhaustible, and if it is, it’s not very deep. It’s thin. So to really find something that holds that mystery that sort of suggests the totality of all of the complexity of life and yet ultimately can’t really be explained — there is an organic quality to that and my job is to feel that out and try to work with it and enhance it and do all that stuff but not really change it.
Q: I wonder if we can zoom out into your journey as an author. How did that begin and when do you think you really knew where you were going as a writer?
A: I don’t know if I’ve ever had that feeling exactly. I knew that I wanted to write — basically by 18 I knew that. Although I hadn’t known it growing up; I had a lot of other things I wanted to do. I guess, in a way, now is the first time I feel I have several projects that I see ahead of me. I’ve never really felt that before. So that’s kind of nice. I feel like I really have a lot of plans. The uncertainty of what am I going do—that feels like it’s gone. In fact my problem has shifted 180 degrees from “What should I do?” to “How can I stay alive long enough to do all that I want to do?” Maybe this is just something that happens when you hit 55. It sounds insane, I’m sure it sounds nuts to you, because I would have even thought it was nuts ten years ago. It’s as if you’re Cinderella and you do realize the coach is going to turn back into a pumpkin at a certain time. We don’t know what time but you’re crazy to pretend that that’s not going to happen. And because I’m someone that likes to plan very much, I don’t like to get taken by surprise by a deadline, let’s say. So I’m thinking I’m planning to live to be 117, because I want to beat the Italian lady. But I don’t know if I’ll be writing at 115, let’s say. So I’m just trying to plan carefully and wring the maximum productivity out of myself while I’m extremely energetic and in good health. I want to get a lot done, that’s kind of what it comes down to. … Right now, I feel sort of like I know what I have ahead of me.
Q: What’s your next big project we can look forward to?
A: Because I was delayed in starting “Manhattan Beach” and I didn’t like that feeling of rustiness and I kind of felt like, you know, this is all just taking too long, I decided to work on two first drafts at once. … I didn’t always get all that much written on both [projects] everyday but I did end up with a fair amount of material for what I hope will be sort of a companion volume to “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” I don’t want to say sequel because I think some of it will happen earlier. I just want to see if I can write another book with some of the same organizing ideas but have it be independent and not about the same things. So we’ll see if I can do that, but that’s the hope.
Ko Lyn Cheang | firstname.lastname@example.org