An Interview with Jennifer Egan

Where did you get the idea for Manhattan Beach?

At the beginning, I’m driven by atmosphere:  a time and a place.  With Manhattan Beach that was New York during World War II.  I think my curiosity about the era originated with 9/11, which turned New York into a war zone overnight and led me to wonder what the city had felt like during our last world war. On a more abstract level, I think I’d been ruminating over the trajectory of American power ever since 9/11 happened. And I’d also been wanting for a long time to find a way to write a book about female power.  Somehow the two ideas merged

All of your books seem to be completely different in plot and format.  Is there a connection among them all?

Between books, I tend to throw out everything I did the last time, because the tools I’ve used to write the previous book will not only not work for the next project, they will ruin it.

That being said, I’m always trying to write books that are immersive and compelling—ideally to a degree that makes people miss their subway stops and lose sleep.  But in order for a story to feel worth exploring, it needs to have a strong girding of ideas.  That’s what I look for as a reader, and what I try to provide as a writer.  I’m more interested in questions than answers, and in mystery than in explanations.  Hopefully all of my books, different though they are, embody some of these goals.

What kind of research did you do for Manhattan Beach

I did five years of occasional research—interviews with people in their eighties, which could not be deferred, and visits to evocative places like the Brooklyn Navy Yard—between 2005 and 2010, during which time I was also writing other books.  I began writing Manhattan Beach in 2012, and at that point I began to know more clearly WHAT I needed to know.  The research continued throughout the writing process.  I spent time in assorted libraries, in the National Archives, on a functioning liberty ship, at a reunion of veteran Army divers, and on the phone with experts in diving and merchant sailing.  I also read LOTS of fiction from the first half of the Twentieth Century.  I find fiction—good or bad—incredibly useful for providing cultural points of reference.  Same with letters and old movies.  I watched scores of films from the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, always taking note of phrases I liked and little bits of popular culture I glimpsed:  a billboard; a hotel name; the price of a sandwich.

Explain your writing process working on a novel.

I write fiction predominantly by hand, and my first drafts are mostly improvisational:  I have a sense of atmosphere, but not yet characters or a plot.  I write blindly and instinctively, often not really remembering what I’ve written, looking for moves that take me by surprise.  My unconscious has much better ideas than my conscious mind—thank God!

When I have a first draft completed—that took a year and a half in the case of MANHATTAN BEACH, and encompassed 1400 handwritten pages—I type it up (agony), read it over (worse), and then make a very detailed outline of what I’ve got, what it seems like it might want to be, and what steps I need to take to bring it up a notch.  I revise by hand on hard copies, type in my changes and number each new draft.  It’s not unusual, by the time a book is done, for me to have done 50 drafts of a chapter.

I also have a writing group that I rely on heavily for feedback along the way.  They slap out my bad habits and let me know what material feels most alive. 

What was the hardest scene for you to write in Manhattan Beach?

Writing about life on a merchant ship was an unbelievable challenge.  I have almost no boating experience, so I began with nothing.  Writing about people doing any sort of work is daunting, because work is second nature—the person at work has no reason to explain her actions to the reader.  So I had to learn enough to move my characters around the ship authoritatively, while explaining almost nothing.  Not easy.

There is a lot going on in Manhattan Beach, Anna’s life, family, career goals, the mafia, and mystery.  When and how did all of these ideas come together?

Many of the strands were suggested by the research itself.  For example, I began with an interest in the NY waterfront, which led me to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which led to deep sea diving (diving was an important part of ship repair and salvage).  The waterfront was also rife with crime, which led me to become interested in criminal activity generally at that time, which led to the discovery that, even post-Prohibition, “gangsters” were still an accepted part of mainstream life, especially nightlife.  I always like to co-mingle as many worlds as possible, and I’m looking for ways to do that—for example, to mix an atmosphere of urban noir with a domestic family story.  And the research itself suggested many of these juxtapositions.

Did you have any experience as a woman in a male dominated field?  If not, what is the source of this plot line?

Like most of my plots, this one did NOT come from my own experience, but from my research.  I interviewed a woman named Ida, who worked as a welder at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the war, and was extremely proud of her welding abilities.  She actually had some real seniority in the Navy yard. She was a working-class woman who still needed to work after the men came home from the war, and thought quite reasonably that she could be hired as a welder. But she described being laughed at repeatedly when she would apply for welding jobs.

That was really powerful to think about:  that women were begged to do work they’d been told all their lives they couldn’t do, and then, after they’d proved beyond anyone’s wildest expectations that they could do it well, they were mocked for imagining that they might continue to do it after the war. 

What types of books do you read for pleasure, and who are a couple of your favorite authors?

I’m always reading, and I love both physical books and audiobooks.  What matters to me is being swept away into another world by books that are both ambitious and atmospheric.  I like complexity and layers and depth.  Above all, I like the sense of discovery—a feeling that I’m encountering something unlike anything else I have read.  Any genre can provide these qualities when done well:  thrillers, mysteries, gothic tales, short stories, historical fiction. 

All-time favorite American books are:  The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys.  I rediscovered Moby Dick while writing Manhattan Beach.  I listened to it as an audiobook, and was utterly transported.

What can young, aspiring writers do now to become better writers?

Number one: READ.  Read the kind of work you hope to write.  It’s almost impossible to write well if you aren’t reading.  And my second piece of advice would be:  let yourself write badly and then rewrite.  Any quality that exists in my work comes about from rewriting.  It’s much easier to fix a messy first draft than to write it in the first place.  So get it down and improve it!