A conversation with Jennifer Egan | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A conversation with Jennifer Egan

The author discusses her new novel, Manhattan Beach

Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her 2011 book Welcome to the Goon Squad, set inside the record industry. Her new best-seller, Manhattan Beach, tells the story of deep-sea divers at the Brooklyn Naval Yard during World War II. Egan, who visits Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Ten Evenings series on Dec. 4, spoke with City Paper by phone from her home in New York. 

Why divers?
I was really interested in New York during World War II. That’s where I started. I think it’s probably to do with 9/11 and the fact that New York became a war zone overnight. Also, in a broader way, it led me and many others to think about American global power, how it had functioned ... I wondered what would happen next. I think we’re all still wondering that.

But I also wondered what the beginning of that power felt like, what that time felt like here. … I looked at images of New York in the ’40s and I recognized the obvious fact that New York is a harbor. In a way, I just followed the water.

Was the amount of research daunting?
Unbelievably. It wasn’t daunting for the seven years when I was doing it for fun, while I was writing other books, from about 2005 to 2012. … I had the experience of being dressed in the diving suit; I interviewed a lot of divers and women who worked in the Navy Yard and some men. I traipsed around the Navy Yard here and there. But I didn’t know what my story was or who was in it yet. … [W]hen I sat down and started writing and an actual story began to unfold, there was a crushing recognition that, in a certain sense, I really hadn’t even begun my research. … [A]nd I knew that even in a crude way, I still did not know enough to even bluff my way through it. Especially describing people at work.

There is so much work in this book — the docks, the nightclub, the diving, even banking and merchant-marine ships.
I began to get incredibly discouraged. … [W]hat really sustained me and got me through that dark period was the sheer joy of the research itself. … It didn’t matter how arcane or how miniscule the details. I drank them down like they were a milkshake. I was on the elliptical machine at the gym reading the Merchant Marine Officer’s Handbook from 1943 with delight.

You once said, “If you make a rule, you should break it.” What rule did you break writing this book?
I really thought I was going to play with time in all kinds of tricky ways. I had been given all kinds of gold stars for doing that in Goon Squad. I thought, “This is just what I do — I’m a time-bender!” Then I then wrote something much more straightforward. It was the only thing that worked. It was the way the story wanted to be told.

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