In a recent poll taken as part of the “One Book, One New York” campaign, the city’s selected Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach as the novel they’d most like to read en masse this summer. If you know the author’s writing, this is a bit of a surprise. Her most famous work is probably 2010’s Visit From the Goon Squad, an enigmatic, mind-bending tour de force that defies conventional novelistic structure (one section is composed of slides from a PowerPoint presentation) that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. And you could say that the common denominator in Egan books is the fact that they have nothing in common, ranging as they do from an intimate exploration of the relationship between two sisters, one dead and one alive (Invisible Circus), to a deliciously gothic, surrealist thriller (The Keep). With her history of stylistic and formal acrobatics, and a well-earned reputation as one of the most provocative writers in modern fiction, she’s not the first you’d think a majority of New Yorkers would want to let infiltrate their already overstimulated minds, especially during the stinky dog days of summer.
Manhattan Beach, which comes out in paperback this week, is typically Egan in that it is like nothing we’ve read by her before. A seemingly straightforward historical novel, it tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, a young Irish-American woman living with her mother and sister in World War II–era Brooklyn, whose life intersects with a mysterious gangster. It reads like a refreshingly old-fashioned what-happens-next page turner. A beach read, even. Though her work up to now might not have suggested it, Egan is decidedly old-school when it comes to her process as a writer: Egan writes outdoors when she can, always by hand, and always on legal pads. “I type it up when I have a full draft,” she says. “For Manhattan Beach that meant 1,400 pages, 27 legal pads.”
You can draw a parallel between this instinct to engage with writing in the most physical, actual-pen-on-actual-paper kind of way and the thing which Egan says motivates all of her work: pleasure. Everything she does, from the obsessive years of research to the words on the page, is driven by a desire to make her readers feel as she felt growing up first in Chicago, then San Francisco, reading everything she could get her hands on. “The goal I’m going for is the childhood reading experience of being absolutely overtaken,” she explains. As an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, Egan was wooed by the more academic approach to literature. “I was much more excited by theory at Penn,” she recalls. “Not to say that I didn’t read, but I read much more as cultural documents than as organic works that had inherent power. It was incredibly fun to perform those sorts of analyses, but it doesn’t do a lot for the work of fiction itself.” A post-grad spell at Cambridge, where she eventually began work on Invisible Circus, returned Egan to her initial, more primal sense of literature’s role as, first and foremost, entertainment. “I will say, that if we have a hope of keeping literature alive in the culture, we had better be thinking about this,” she says. “Because there are a lot of alternatives. And if people only read because they’re supposed to, we’re done. I firmly believe that literature provides a kind of fun and a kind of experience that nothing else can, at least for me. It has to do that or no one’s going to want to read it. I mean, that’s kind of basic, but it’s true.”
When she’s not thinking about capturing and holding the attention of the masses via a potentially dying art form, Egan has a real New Yorker’s life. She and her husband, theater director David Herskovits, live in Fort Greene with their two sons. She’s a bona fide member of the city’s literary establishment — this year Egan was named president of PEN America. But churning beneath all that seeming normality is Egan’s telltale relentlessness, the insatiable need to tell more, better stories. “I can’t have a gap of seven years between books again,” she lamented, just after Manhattan Beach first came out last year. Her goal going forward is a book every three years. “Whether I’ll be able to stick to a three-year cycle…we’ll see,” she says. “That’s kind of ambitious for me. But my kids are getting older and they don’t want me around as much as they used to, so I do have more time.” She paused. “I do feel it has to change,” she continued, referring to her pace; she has a lot she wants to do in her years left on this Earth as a chronicler of human experience. “When I started actually writing Manhattan Beach, I also started a first draft of what I hope will be my next book. I don’t really know what it is. I’m sure it is dreadful, but hopefully there will be something there. I mean, there’s such a big difference between having something and having nothing.”
You’re known for writing fiction that plays with time and often features unusual narrative structures. Manhattan Beach is, at least on the surface, a comparatively straightforward work: an almost self-consciously old-fashioned, sweeping New York epic tale. Obviously something about that directness — the unabashed telling of a big juicy story — has felt right to a lot of readers, but for you personally, what was the inspiration behind this type of storytelling?
In contemporary urban life, the drama is often small “d.” Like in Goon Squad, a lot of the action happens offstage, and what I’m really dramatizing is the aftermath of it, or the precursor. I don’t think I’m done with telling those kinds of stories. But the fun thing about this book for me was telling a big adventure story. Which does not feel that contemporary, interestingly. It was incredibly fun to just go there with this stuff, in the manner of Robinson Crusoe or Mutiny on the Bounty, these stories that I loved as a kid. It was just incredibly fun to write a shipwreck, and a survival-at-sea story about mobsters trying to kill each other. That felt different.
I guess the danger is, you’ve just gone into this simplistic mode: “How is this relevant to us now?” But what made it interesting to me was to try to fuse some other genres to it, like the noir. Which is a very self-conscious kind of literary and cinematic genre — very much about style. It was fun to try to bring some of these modes together, in a way that, at least for me, seemed to suggest allegorically the presence of a contemporary sensibility while allowing the — hopefully, the fun — of this kind of maximalist storytelling.
I love that you use the word “style” and the word “fun” to describe your work. There’s a pervasive misunderstanding that Serious Fiction can’t be fun, and a misconception that if it’s fun to read, it can’t be profound. Did you feel pressure to, you know, make the story relevant to the modern reader in a high-concept, Big Idea kind of way?
I think the fun of writing it, and hopefully of reading it, was ultimately sustaining the illusion that we’re all in the past. We all know that this isn’t what’s really going on now, and I kept feeling like I needed to call attention to that, so that the reader and I would understand each other. But what I realized was that I really didn’t need to do that, because we already understood each other. And the present and everything that followed from the events I’m writing about, are things we all know: They float in all of our minds almost allegorically. You know, it’s impossible to read about the security at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, certainly if you’re a New Yorker, without thinking of 9-11. And in fact some of my readers, when I first was showing a full manuscript, said, “Well, is that really how it was? That seems so contemporary?” Which was really funny because that is exactly how it was.
And you’re, like, thanks, that’s what I’m going for!
Yeah, exactly! So I realized that I was doing work that didn’t need to be done, it had already been done. And by doing that work, of reminding the reader that we’re all contemporary, I was piercing the illusion, or the sort of veil of artifice, that is one of the fun things about the book, hopefully.
Another thing is, I think a lot of my structural playfulness has been a response to technology. It’s an effort to try to find a mode of storytelling that feels appropriate to the material I’m dealing with. And I have been pretty obsessed with technology for several books now. It’s interesting, the presence of the small screen in our lives seems to invite a certain fragmentation, much as it seems to do to our brains: a sort of decentralized narrative. But one of the things that was so freeing about this time period was that there were no small screens, and I cannot tell you how happy I was to be away from them. It was so nice not to have to contend with that. And I think it did invite a kind of continuity of narrative that I’m not drawn to, that I haven’t found a way to make work in a contemporary setting. I guess that’s really the bottom line. Maybe other people are doing it successfully, but I cannot, or have not been able to.
Totally. I mean, it was such an escapist read in the best possible sense. I was just like, “I’m so happy here.”
I’m happy that you had that experience. I really feel like sheer fun is kind of underrated. Because if you look at the nineteenth century, when literature had the most cultural power, there was no divide between those things. People read George Eliot for fun. And Zola and Dickens and Jane Austen. So I can’t figure out where this bifurcation occurred or why. I think it happened with Modernism.
I mean, it can all be done at once. The nineteenth-century novelists were incredibly experimental, free, confident, and swaggering. So in some sense I find them very reassuring because I just feel like, you know, you can really do it all. It’s not a choice.
I still haven’t gotten over that moment as a kid when I started to realize that I was going to be praised for liking certain things and not praised for liking other things. When I was young and reading, like, Nancy Drew and also Dickens — I miss that time where whatever comes into your young brain that grabs you, is right.
Yeah, I agree. I love Nancy Drew, too. I mean, I know they’re terrible, but I must have read a hundred of them. I loved it, I absolutely loved it. My taste as a kid I don’t think was especially highbrow, at all. I was not that precocious as a reader, I was definitely not reading Jane Austen. In fact, I hated Pride and Prejudice when I read it for the first time. My mother had to read it to me, because she was so disappointed that I didn’t like it, she was, like, you’re missing something.
Part of what makes me so happy about your willingness to say that out loud is that you know of what you speak. I mean, you went to Penn and then studied at Cambridge as well. How did academia inform your development as a novelist, and specifically as the type of novelist who once loved Nancy Drew but hated Pride and Prejudice?
I really feel like my bone structure — as a writer — was acquired in England. I don’t know what I would’ve done without those two years of reading. I just read a lot, especially nineteenth century. And a lot of poetry and Greek tragedy. And a lot of Shakespeare. And reading in a very different way than I had in college. I mean, I was much more excited by theory at Penn. Not to say that I didn’t read fiction, but I read it much more as cultural documents than as organic works that had inherent power. And I think in the end, it was incredibly fun to read them as cultural documents and perform those sorts of analyses, but it doesn’t do a lot for the work of fiction itself. So it was fun to kind of get back to just the fun of reading.
When you work, do you feel like you’re participating in a kind of a craft? Or does it feel metaphysical for you as someone who’s studied words in that way, and then also had this period where you were just allowed to read and kind of luxuriate in that. What does it feel like to write? Which one of those mental lanes is being accessed for you?
I think it is actually both. But I think in the moment, certainly, in the moment the first draft feels very metaphysical. Because I don’t really employ any craft. I don’t have any plans, I don’t have any outlines, I just start. All I have is a time and a place. So even after doing all those years of research, I still had no idea what story I would be telling.
You’re kidding me! So when does the actual writing start?
Well, [for Manhattan Beach] I started researching in 2004, but I was doing other things at the same time, like I published two more books. And I’m glad that I did because a lot of what I did in that first decade of the twenty-first century was interview a lot of living people who were in their eighties. And in many of those cases, I couldn’t have done that now, either because they’re actually not living or they’re really not tracking well at all anymore.
So, yeah, I was interviewing a lot of people and then doing some reading and also having fun field trips to interesting locations. I went to a reunion of Army veteran divers in 2009, where I interviewed a diver who had dived in Cherbourg during World War II. And he actually passed away very suddenly shortly after that interview, although he was in excellent health. It was just very out of the blue. He was really amazing, Jim Kennedy. He told me that he had met a female Russian diver in Cherbourg, and she was kind of my mystery female. Also, I just started visiting different forts. I spent a fair amount of time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I was at the Miami Book Fair in 2006, and drove to a couple of retirement communities nearby and interviewed women living there who had worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as young women.
Where does that inclination toward this level of research come from? Is it for you? Or is it for the reader, in theory? Who are you serving?
With something like interviewing the women, I certainly wasn’t thinking about readers yet because I didn’t even have a story. I think that there’s a distortion that starts to happen, which is actually getting better as I get older, but that my fate in the world stands or falls in what happens with this particular book. Though I don’t really feel that way, I have to say, right this minute.
I’m not sure why! I think it’s just getting older and finally achieving some kind of perspective, which is that, life will go on, I will write other things: Who gives a shit, on some level? I mean, if you take a big step back, none of this matters. There are other things down the road. As writers we have total control while working on the project. As opposed to other media, which are so much more collaborative, like theater, film, the arts, often even visual arts. Writing is just so private, and so singular in a way — its kind of an internality and total control that the writer exerts over that world.
Right. That’s the blessing and the curse of the writer’s life. It’s all yours. But then again, it’s all yours, as in, it’s all on you. How do you contend with that? What is your approach to the day in, day out heartbreaking rigor of writing?
I don’t know. Luckily I’m very dogged. I usually just keep going, but I don’t really have any solution for the heartbreak. Sometimes there are just really bad times. I feel lucky, I don’t really tend toward actual clinical depression, thank God, but that’s just luck. It’s all luck. I have a kind of robustness, mentally and physically. I’m strong. It’s just in my genes. I don’t know whether it’s the Irish potato farmer that’s still back there somewhere, like, making me doggedly go on. But generally, I just keep going. I do find darkness really difficult to deal with, so winter is a much harder time for me than summer. And even when darkness falls at night, I feel often a real kind of shadow come over my mind at the same time. I’m more aware of that as I get older. I am aware of that but I can’t stop it. I just kind of keep going.
So do you write in the morning? Partially for that purpose?
Yeah, yeah. And I love natural light, I like a lot of light. When it’s warm I always work outdoors, I love to work outdoors. And because I write by hand, I don’t have any problems with screens or—
Wait, you write by hand? Like, everything? Really?
Not journalism, but fiction, yeah.
What kind of pens do you use? Or pencils?
I use Uniballs, micros. On legal pads.
How do you edit? I mean, I know this is making me sound super nerdy—
Well, I type it up when I have a full draft. So that meant 1,400 pages, for Manhattan Beach. Twenty-seven legal pads.
So, when you sit down at your desk in the morning, how do you orient yourself on the page then? What are you seeing when you start?
Often I’ll just back up a little to remember where I left off, and then I just keep going. I don’t reread what I’ve done. Because the whole point is to not quite know what’s there, and to keep it as mysterious as I can. That way it becomes irrelevant after a few days. Utterly mysterious. I won’t even fairly remember what’s there. People’s names change, over the course of the manuscript, because I can’t remember what the name was, or how to find it. A lot of time passes, I mean it took a year and a half to write that first handwritten draft of Manhattan Beach. So that’s a lot of time. But then craft is essential in order to actually control the outcome and shape
That’s unbelievable. My first of a hundred questions that come to mind is: How on earth do you know, then, when what you’re writing is working? How can you feel into the comprehensiveness, or lack thereof, of the story?
I mean, I never think anything will work out. So, I’ll say that. It always feels likea total pie-in-the-sky who-knows, and in a way that belief, it leads to some funny situations. When I was first doing journalism, I would tell my subjects: Well, this probably won’t work out. And then I was wondering why no one respected me! It’s like, well…you’re kind of telling them you don’t know what you’re doing! That’s really not a good way to get respect.
That’s very funny.
But I will still follow those instincts, because my conscious mind tells me nothing will work out, but I do kind of make these various moves that seem to suggest some part of me believes otherwise. I didn’t think, “Oh, this is really a strange thing to be doing” when I’m going to the Miami Book Fair; I thought, “Hey, this is good. I’m getting a paid trip to Miami and I can interview these ladies.” So I’m just opportunistically looking for a way to try to do many things at once. And I think it also helps with the pressure one feels about a particular project. It’s just nice to know that there are other things going on.
It’s impossible without such extensive craft. It’s like the truism: The hope is that you make it look easy. But I’ve watched high divers and I think, wow, that’s so amazing, I wonder why I don’t do that, because clearly it’s incredibly easy to do. A triple flip and then have no splash. But of course, it’s a tremendous amount of craft that gets you there. So the experience of it is metaphysical and then I try to create that, or replicate that feeling for the reader in a controlled way using every trick I can get my hands on.
Do you ever say no to one of your new ideas? Like do you have stuff that doesn’t pan out?
Oh, yeah. That especially was true with Goon Squad. It’s funny because it seems to be viewed as a success, but to me, it’s also just, like, the best I could do, and there were a lot of things that didn’t work in that book that were a bummer. Like characters I really thought I would be able to visit at different moments that I couldn’t. Techniques that I hoped to use that I couldn’t make work. So it feels to me like sort of, the time ran out and I sort out just published that. It does not feel like some kind of perfect artifact, by any means.
With Manhattan Beach, I would say that the biggest changes I made through trial and error were, there were more ancillary characters, especially people that Anna and her father had encountered when she was young, that in the end just weren’t relevant enough. And paring everything down to its absolute heart was really crucial. Because the story’s too complicated to really indulge much in any particular direction.
There were a few things that didn’t work. I thought there would be more kind of structural agility, let’s say, in this book. I thought I would use more of the kind of narrative gymnastics that I used in Goon Squad. And that was incredibly unsuccessful with this. I didn’t get far with it. It was so alienating. Luckily I have a writing group that I bring stuff into at an early point. And this, quite clearly, was ceasing to be alive whenever I would employ those techniques.
But the other thing was, even once I had resigned myself to a more straightforward narrative with a third-person point of view, I had thought I would, in a more nineteenth-century way, really go into lots of different minds, and be more fluid with that. And what I found was that, so often with craft choices, it really is a cost-benefit analysis. What do you get and what do you lose? I mean, in the end, that is really what it comes down to. Even if you don’t put it in those terms. I felt like what I was getting was not much, because I wasn’t able to reveal much more — or what I was able to reveal about those points of view, about those people by being inside their points of view, was not really that important. Or was stuff we could already have inferred from seeing them from the outside. So there was really no justification for it. And it took up time and it took up energy, because it always requires a certain energy to jump into another point of view. So a lot of that had to be scaled back. And Goon Squad did cast a long shadow over me, as I was working on this. I kept thinking, “It just isn’t as good. By any standard. It’s not as funny.” I would go through that in my head, and it’s not helpful.
It’s always nice to hear other writers express that kind of self-doubt. As soon as you’re successful, it’s like you are now in competition with your own previous self, the one who knew how to write! So excruciating. That reminds me of something you said earlier, about your time as a journalist, which I wanted to ask you about. I know you were being self-deprecating, but you said, “Maybe that’s why no one respected me.” Do you mean that? Did you feel your subjects didn’t respect you when you were writing more journalism?
Well, no. I particularly remember the first piece I did, which was about a young model, then named James King, and the photographer was Nan Goldin, who was a very formidable, impressive, and famous person. And I would go around saying, “I don’t know if this is going to work out,” because I really had no reason to think it would, because I had never done it before. I was only doing it as a way of doing research for my novel Look at Me, because no one in the modeling world would respond to my phone calls about learning about their business. But then I was kind of miffed when people would go, “Oh, are you working on the Nan Goldin story?” Because Nan was presenting herself in an authoritative manner and no one would have imagined that her piece might not work out, and I was kind of quivering and quavering, and I seemed like I didn’t know what I was doing. And so what I realized that as a journalist, part of what you need to do is appear authoritative enough that people want to talk to you, and have confidence that putting their time into this endeavor will actually lead somewhere. That is part of the job. So even though I’m kind of naturally self-questioning, let’s say, even to the point of sometimes thinking that the things I do will never work out, I’m very responsive to what my job is. So, as a journalist, I learned that my job was not to express those worries, or even that conviction, because that is a bummer for the people whose time and energy and resources I’m asking for.
I see. You learned to cover it up. You can allow yourself to believe that it’s not going to work out until it actually does.
Yeah, it’s a drag, though. I think that it makes my working environment unpleasant at times, in ways that it doesn’t need to be, you know? I’m not the best person to be stuck alone with inside a skull.
I can imagine that.
I can be really harsh, in a way that I never would be with another person because I feel so empathetic toward what other people are going through, but I don’t always extend that empathy to myself.
That connects to what you were saying earlier, about wanting people to actually enjoy themselves when they read your work. It’s almost like you want the experience of reading your work to be on the opposite side of the energetic spectrum from the doggedness it took to create it. I get the feeling you wouldn’t want to be assigned as homework…for example.
Well, if people only read because they’re supposed to, we’re done. I firmly believe that literature provides a kind of fun and a kind of experience that nothing else can, at least for me. But it has to do that or no one’s going to want to read it. I mean that’s kind of basic, but it’s true.
Do you enjoy talking about writing. Like, is it natural for you, or are you sort of like, this part’s tough?
I used to have really bad public-speaking fear, to such a degree that I couldn’t even introduce…I couldn’t even toast these people at their wedding when I introduced them. So when my first book came out, which was an extremely long time ago now, I had to take beta blockers, and I did that really for a few years. Basically always taking beta blockers when I had to do public speaking.
Yeah, I really had a problem with actually panicking, sort of freezing and being unable to speak. But then what I found, because the beta blockers sort of keep your body from going into panic mode, I then — you know, little by little — I was having experiences of being in front of people and not panicking. And that actually slowly made me better able to not have the problem at all.
Isn’t that interesting?
So now I find it not — not scary. I actually enjoy talking about writing. I really do. I think the fact is I know I like hearing what other people say. It’s always really interesting to me to hear other people talk about their process, it’s so different for each of us I think, so I enjoy that conversation. And the truth is, it is lovely to connect with readers. I think I publish so seldom, unfortunately, that by the time it happens I’m really hungry for it again, even though I always think, oh, I’m never gonna want to do this again. It takes so long, it’s actually very nice. I feel like I’m lucky to have readers. It’s great to have that moment with them before we all go back to our own zones.
I’m struck by how many people I’ve reached with Goon Squad. Because people really do come along and say — because it has been seven years — people will say, “Oh, I was in high school,” or “Oh, I read that in college,” and it meant a lot to them. And that, of course, is just exciting and thrilling to hear. And often people haven’t read Manhattan Beach yet, so they’re there because of other works that they’ve liked. But also, I’m equally thrilled when someone says, “I’ve never read you before, but I really liked that little reading, so I bought the book.” I feel like, wow, OK, so I just found a reader that I really wouldn’t have had before.
That has to be super gratifying.
Yeah. And really — I think the other thing is that, I mean, I feel that I have something enormous in common with anyone who loves to read. So I often feel like these are all people that I could just know in my real life. I feel like these are really my people. Anyone who loves to read is someone I am interested in talking to. So I feel lucky to have a milieu that feels so friendly to me, and so kind of, appealing, frankly. ’Cause we have something enormous in common.
So you want the reader to…what? To be transported? Like, what’s the fantasy? I pick up Manhattan Beach and I start at page one. What do you want to happen to me between then and the end? You know? Like what do you want to do to me?
That’s so funny. Well, I’ll tell you the kind of wrong but extreme answer that I gave my mother once when she said she had read something, I guess a short story, and I said, “Well, what do you think?” And she said, “I like it.” And I said, “No, OK, you like it, but how much do you like it?” I mean, I was so unsatisfied, and she said, “Well, what reaction would please you? Like, what do you want me to say?” And I thought about it and I said, “I want a call from the hospital, where I learn you have had to be admitted because of the intensity of your reaction to the short story.”
The most important thing to me…I cannot overemphasize this — like, I bring things into this writing group, and the number one question I’m always asking, and this includes when I sent out the entire manuscript for the first time — “Where does it hold your interest? And where does your interest flag?” Those are the two questions I ask before anything else. This is entertainment, I really feel that. That is what I am looking for as a reader. A kind of gorging, gulping, transporting experience of being lifted out of my life. That’s what I’m looking for as a reader, and that’s what I hope to provide as a writer. Now, I know that I fail 99 percent of the time with 99 percent of people. That’s just the nature of the endeavor. But that is very clearly what I am going for. I don’t know if that’s a quote, unquote “literary goal.” I mean, what I require as a reader, in order to have that experience, are things like a strong burning of ideas, a deep kind of embedded mystery that can’t be explained, an attention to rhythm, and sound of language. You know, a lot of things that are not gonna happen with most books that I read. But the goal that I’m going for is the childhood reading experience of being absolutely overtaken.
The Village Voice is celebrating the summer’s literary scene throughout the week. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Summer Books page.