As I talk with novelist Jennifer Egan by Skype one August morning, I have the odd sense that we are two women speaking from three places. There’s coastal Florida, where I sit listening to an August downpour thrum on the roof. There’s Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where Egan sits in the home she’s inhabited for 17 years. And there’s New York in the 1930s and ’40s, the setting for Manhattan Beach (Scribner, Oct.). The Brooklyn Navy Yard, the bustling World War II shipyard at the heart of the book, is only a few blocks from Egan’s home, but it’s a different place now. I’m aware of the past—both historical and fictional—gleaming below our conversation, like salvage that may or may not break apart as it is raised.
Egan didn’t begin working on Manhattan Beach in earnest until 2012. She was busy in part with writing “Black Box,” released over nine days that year in tweets from the New Yorker’s Twitter account; it was later published in full in the magazine’s science fiction issue. Though the story is novella length, its unusual serial format took Egan almost a year to devise.
Publicity for Egan’s 2010 novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, also took more time than expected. As the hardcover edition struggled, she left no promotional stone unturned trying to give it “some kind of life,” she says. When good things happened—notably a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—the media cycle began anew. “With Goon Squad, I was having the kind of luck that a writer is very fortunate to get once and seldom gets twice,” she notes. “I certainly wasn’t going to stop working on promotion then.”
When Egan was finally immersed in the new book, she says the early going was tough. She felt rusty, and the success of Goon Squad emboldened an already fierce inner critic. But the larger challenges had to do with the work itself, especially its relationship to the past.
Manhattan Beach is Egan’s fifth novel, but it’s her first work of historical fiction. The narrative opens in 1934, as young Anna Kerrigan watches her father, Eddie, who is struggling to keep his family afloat during the Depression by acting as bagman to a corrupt union official, meet with Dexter Styles, a shady nightclub owner. By the time Anna is 19, Eddie has vanished, America is embroiled in World War II, and Anna—one of the many civilian women working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard—encounters Styles again.
Writing about the overlapping milieus through which her three protagonists move required knowledge Egan didn’t have, and the Navy Yard sequences were particularly challenging. Anna’s early work there—using a micrometer to measure and inspect ship parts—was technical and arcane. Writing authoritatively about the deep-sea diving techniques and equipment involved in Anna’s subsequent role as the yard’s first female civilian diver was even trickier.
“You can research until you’re falling asleep, but that still doesn’t mean you’re really fluent in the material,” Egan says. “It was harder than I’d ever imagined to gain enough ease in an earlier time that I could do more than just create the veneer of verisimilitude. Until I got to the point where I could truly move around in the characters’ world, the writing was just terrible. I felt like I’d finally taken on a project I might not to able to finish.”
Egan also discovered that she had to look still deeper into the past. “Until this novel, it had never crossed my mind to think about the collective memories of people alive at a certain time,” she says. “But who isn’t constantly thinking about their own past? I found that without knowing something about the collective memory of the time, what older people expected or young people were reacting against, my characters seemed like shells or ciphers. You can start imagining all kinds of things characters would feel, but you have to have a sense of whether those imaginings might be right. It took me a long time before I could trust my own leaps to be at all credible.”
Early in the novel’s composition, still struggling to find her voice, Egan drafted sequences that attempted to convey the flavor of the period, such as describing Anna’s neighborhood. Egan hated them and her writing group hated them, but it was Hilary Mantel’s example that helped her let them go. Egan had waited to read Mantel’s Wolf Hall until she was working on Manhattan Beach. Of Mantel, whom she calls “remarkable,” Egan notes that “she never pans—there’s a never a moment where we’re looking across the streets of London and seeing a picturesque beggar here, a juggler there.” Egan adds, “She lets people take for granted what people take for granted.” Mantel’s treatment of Tudor England helped Egan give herself permission to stay in the moment with her characters rather than putting history on display.
Egan initially expected Manhattan Beach to nod at contemporary awareness and deploy some of the structural trickiness for which she has become known. To her surprise, her attempts to do both fell flat. “All the techniques I had taken away with me from Goon Squad were useless—I might as well have just dumped them out the window,” she says. “I began this book using an omniscient third-person point of view that built on an active knowledge of future events. But whenever I pulled into the voice I had thought would be so elastic and adept, it felt intrusive, manipulative, and dull. The longer I wrote, the more I felt that my impulse to wink at the present wasn’t organic or necessary to this book. I never found a better way to tell the story than to do it straightforwardly—to just get out of its way.”
She shouldn’t have been surprised, Egan says: “I’ve needed to start entirely from scratch with every other book I’ve written. Somehow, I thought this one would be different, but of course I was wrong.”
Slowly, the novel’s voice and vision coalesced. “When I finally reached the point I where I felt like I was at ease, the excitement of that—the transport that I felt as a result—was better than with any other book that I’ve worked on,” the author says.
In retrospect, Egan feels grateful not to have forced an overt connection between her historical material and the world of the present. “The present day I was writing about even a year ago feels very outdated,” she says. And, she adds, the sheer velocity of technological and cultural transformation poses a conundrum: “Both my own process and that of the publishing industry are just too slow to do anything other than play catch-up when it comes to anticipating change. I feel like if I want to stay in the business of futurism, I need to find a new genre.”
Egan also says writing the book left her with a renewed appreciation for New York’s inexhaustible richness. She remembers wandering through the streets looking at the buildings through which her characters might have moved rather than noticing green lights; she also finds herself returning frequently to the question of what it means to occupy the same space in which so many—and such unknowable—events have happened in the past. She says, “I’m so grateful to this project for making the city and its past come newly alive for me.”
Suzanne Fox is a writer, speaker, and freelance editor in Florida.