Jennifer Egan Brings Us To a Forgotten New York
The author of “Manhattan Beach” on switching genres, loving research, and writing about whatever she wants
Aging rock musicians, New York fashion models, teenage backpackers. Italy, Illinois, an African safari. The breadth of Jennifer Egan’s narrative scope has been extraordinary — and extraordinarily successful, garnering a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Guggenheim Fellowship, among others. So no one should be surprised that her latest novel, Manhattan Beach, takes yet another different form from her previous books, this time historical fiction.
When we met for coffee in her neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Egan told me she was aware that her readers might be surprised, and not always happily so, at how different Manhattan Beach is from her last novel, the modern and experimental A Visit From The Goon Squad. Writing “straightforward” historical fiction wasn’t the plan, she said, but Egan doesn’t do things by halves, and Manhattan Beach embraces its form, fully immersing readers in the noirish world of New York City during World War II. At the center of the book is Anna Kerrigan, a young woman who is determined to become one of the sole female divers working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Anna is still haunted by her father’s sudden disappearance years earlier, so when she has a chance encounter at nightclub with a man who has clues to what happened, she’s determined to discover the truth about her father and the life he lived.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Egan about switching genres, why she’ll stick with a project, and doing extensive period research on everything from 1940s dive manuals to the strange lives of New York City’s piers.
Carrie Mullins: I took the B train to get here, and as we crossed over the East River from Manhattan I was thinking about how we’re not actually that far from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But before reading Manhattan Beach, I wasn’t aware that it was there, or of its role in World War II.
Jennifer Egan: I know, most people aren’t. I wasn’t!
CM: How did you become interested in it?
JE: I think it started when 9/11 happened. It seemed like such an important step in the life of New York and the story of American power that I found myself starting to think about the beginning of America as a global superpower, and that led me naturally to World War Two. And I was thinking a lot about how it would have felt to be in New York at that time. I started looking at a lot of pictures, and this was really ages ago, I mean I had a one-year-old and a three-year-old and now they’re both taller than I am, so this was like 2004/5. I started looking at a lot of images of New York City during the war, and what was so striking again and again was the omnipresence of water. It was all about the water, and that’s just not true anymore; well I guess it’s a little more true now than it was when I first got to New York because the waterfront has been revived so beautifully. When I got to New York in the late ‘80s, it was a weird period where the waterfront revival hadn’t happened but there wasn’t really any commerce on the water in Manhattan. I used to live on West 28th Street and run along the west side and see all these rotting piles and piers.
CM: Oh yeah, they were totally decrepit. I grew up in the West Village, a few blocks from what’s now the incredible West Side Highway bike path, but at the time it was just trucks and drug dealers and prostitutes.
JE: Right! The piers have had all these sorts of strange lives, and that was interesting to me. And when I started researching, I immediately stumbled upon the Navy Yard, which was the epicenter. Then I thought yeah, that’s still there, so I had someone who was helping me research, and he set up a tour with their archivist. They had just hired her, she was from Pratt, and she was so great and took me around and showed me all this stuff. I was pop-eyed because it was so cool and I’d never had the slightest inkling that it was there. I was shocked by how enormous it was — it feels gigantic.
CM: You get that sense in the book, which kept striking me because I’d never even heard of it.
JE: It’s really big but it feels kind of hidden. It still is; it’s an industrial park but it’s somewhat invisible from the outside. So that’s sort of how it progressed: war, waterfront, Navy Yard.
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CM: Did you know when you started researching that you wanted to do a work of historical fiction?
JE: I sort of did, though I didn’t think it would be as simple as ‘we are in the past.’ I thought there would be a little more dynamism to the movement between past and present. I had done a lot of that in Goon Squad, and I thought that’s kind of fun and supposedly I’m good at that (laughs), but I tried and it did not work in this context at all. I have a writing group I meet with, and they were so irritated with me. It was just not appealing whenever I tried to move around in time, so I just kind of let all that go. I don’t think of it as quite as straightforward as I think it’s interpreted as being, but that’s OK. It’s so clear to me that we’re in the present reading about the past, and that awareness is on my mind all the time. But when I tried to wink openly at the reader about that and threaten that illusion, they found that aggravating, so I stopped doing that. But you know there is a lot of stylization — I’m thinking a lot about movies, all of that is intentional, part of a way of having a little fun with the fact that we’re reading and writing this now.
CM: Was it a challenge to get all the historical details right? The cars, the venues, the outfits…
JE: I mean that stuff is pretty easy honestly, because of Google.
CM: My big fear is that I’m going to write something based off of Google and it’s going to be totally wrong.
JE: [Laughs] Well the hard part was the mindset. What are the people remembering? What are their pasts, their parent’s pasts? I didn’t have to research just World War Two but the Depression, and then back, and back, I was going all the way to the Gilded Age. The amount I felt I needed to know to start inventing turned out to be a lot greater than I thought.
The amount I felt I needed to know to start inventing turned out to be a lot greater than I thought.
CM: I know you did some interviews with people who lived through that era. Were those helpful in that regard?
JE: Yeah, I did a lot, and that was the best part, being able to speak with some remarkable people towards the end of their lives.
CM: What was the most surprising thing you learned from those interviews?
JE: That’s a great question. For the women who worked at the Navy Yard, it was striking how vivid that time still was for them. It felt like they’d had an experience that hadn’t been replicated since, which was very moving in a way. And a lot of them would say, oh no, no men ever whistled at us, they were such gentlemen — but I found myself a little skeptical. I think because we were creating an actual oral history, a historical record, and they would be part of an archive at the Navy Yard, I think they were guarded and very careful about the down and dirty of it all, which was frustrating. There was one woman who kept alluding to some incident that had occurred at a New Year’s Eve party but no matter what angle I came at it from, I couldn’t get it out of her. I think that guardedness is also left over from that time, this worry about saying something out of turn or seeming to complain. They felt very grateful a lot of them, to have had that opportunity.
CM: Is your approach to writing a project like this, where you’ve done a lot of historical research, different to something like say Goon Squad, that’s set in the present?
JE: Not really no, I pretty much did it the same way. It’s harder to do it when you need a lot of research because I don’t really start with a story or characters, I focus on a time and a place. I do what I guess some people would call automatic writing out of that, and try to write 5–7 pages a day. I just want to see what comes up. In a way, Goon Squad was the best suited book to my method that I’ve written, and maybe that’s why it was the easiest book I’ve written. I haven’t actually thought of that as a reason until just this second, but I think that’s really true because the fact that I wrote it in small pieces means that I didn’t end up with the hundreds of pages of handwritten material which I normally do, so it felt more manageable all the way through. And I guess the fact that all my books are so different from each other made it extra fun to make every part of that book different.
I would say this book is the worst suited to my methodology and the reason is that because when I don’t know what the story is and I don’t know what the characters are, it’s very difficult for me to research ahead of time. I mean I did some — I had a vague sense of the milieu but I didn’t know what I needed to know, so there was this weird sense of trying to build a bridge as you’re trying to walk across the bridge. It felt so hopeless in moments, so what I did was to do some slapdash research in the moment just to be able to go forward. I would do some research, and then I’d hack my way through something, but then at the end of the day I had twenty-seven legal pads of terrible writing that was poorly researched and I had to deal with that. It was a year and half of work. I had to type it up, which is always hard, and then read it, and then I thought so seriously about quitting.
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CM: Why did you stick with it?
JE: Two reasons. One is that there was nothing else I really wanted to do, which in a way sounds passive but it’s important — if there is nothing else pressing on me then it means I haven’t resolved the thing I was doing. And then in a way the bigger motivator is that the research itself still felt incredibly enthralling. That was such a pleasure. I thought, why am I so excited to be reading a 1943 diving manual?
CM: I often have this anxiety about what I call the authenticity police, the idea that people want to see some kind of personal connection between the author and their work even though, at the end of the day, it’s fiction and by definition it’s all made up. Did you feel that at all, writing about a topic that you didn’t experience first hand?
JE: Going on the Liberty Ship in San Francisco was essential. I don’t know what I would have done if I couldn’t visit. I’ve been there repeatedly, and I went on a little cruise on it. I went to the National Archives, which are down at the old Custom House in Manhattan and it’s a pretty amazing building. I’d never been in there. But the nightclubs, the restaurants — a lot of it is movies and descriptions in fiction and frankly, in my prior life, a certain knowledge of nightclubs of my own. So I worked all that together and extrapolated.
There was a long time when I felt really stiff, I felt a little stymied. I think the challenge is to know enough that you feel comfortable. Even though this has been vetted very thoroughly, I’m sure people will still catch mistakes. And it’s like, really, who cares? I finally reached a point where I felt confident, but that took a long time.
CM: Some writers also seem to get more penalized than others for writing outside experiences that they’ve lived themselves.
JE: I’m lucky, I don’t feel like I’ve been penalized for that. On the whole, I’ve been pretty much welcomed into these other realms, so I guess it is possible. When I was working on Look at Me, I was afraid that I was overstepping my boundries in some way, that I was going too far, whatever that means, but no one had ever said that to me. I think one of the most dangerous things about prejudice of any kind is how it’s internalized and becomes a type of self-censorship. The work is potentially not even getting made.
I think one of the most dangerous things about prejudice of any kind is how it’s internalized and becomes a type of self-censorship. The work is potentially not even getting made.
CM: So many characters in the book read mystery novels — Chandler, Ellery Queen — and there are noirish aspects to the plot. Have you ever thought about writing a straight-up mystery?
JE: I would love to, but it’s so hard to do it well. Often unveiling the murderer requires so much feinting and darting that it’s hard to have real psychology. It’s a genre I think a lot about, and if I could find a way to do it well, I’d love to.
CM: Well I love that you’re writing across the bookshelf so to speak. A lot of fiction writers get hemmed in. The publisher says, this is the book that did well, let’s see five more like that.
JE: No publisher has ever said that to me, thank God, but I have moved publishers and I think that’s partly because a publisher buys one book and that’s what they like. There is no way I could find a world and stay in it, it’s just not going to happen. But I think it’s a challenge for readers, too, and I’ve been really grateful for the ones who have stuck with me. I lose some every time and I know this one will be no exception. It actually might be worse this time because a large audience found Goon Squad and I guess there could be a book that’s less like that one than this one is, but you’d have to think hard to find one, they have no overlap whatsoever. And before that I’d written a kind of gothic thriller which led me into the world of gothic fiction lovers, which is a big, vital, fun world to be in and they really embraced the book and I think Goon Squad was not really what they were hoping for.
CM: Yeah, I think you’re starting to see a little more flexibility in terms of authors writing across genres, but generally people see an author’s name and just want an iteration of the same experience they had the last time.
JE: I do sympathize, and I can’t blame anyone for saying this just isn’t my cup of tea. And it’s hard for authors — we live in a culture that really values branding and there is a legitimate pressure, that’s what social media is in a way. We all need to make a living. But for me, the fun of it is to do things I’ve never done before, and if I couldn’t do that, then I’d have to find something else to do.