Interview: Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan has been described by The New York Times as a "refreshingly unclassifiable novelist". She's also been named one of America's most fascinating modern authors. The Pulitzer Prize winner's latest novel, Manhattan Beach, was 13 years in the making. She is an obsessive researcher, a "literary theory nut", and writes her books by hand (she had to type up almost 14,000 handwritten pages for Manhattan Beach).

Ahead of her Sydney Writers' Festival appearances, she spoke to us what kept her orbiting her novel's location, why she veered from an experimental fiction structure, and about her reading habits. 

In your acknowledgements for Manhattan Beach you wrote about the pleasure of researching the area; discovering the historical dominance of New York City’s waterfront – a landscape feature that had mostly escaped you, despite many years of living in the city. Was there a moment you decided you could write a novel about the place? Was there a particular moment when you thought: 'I have a story here'?

I was already hankering toward New York during World War II, through a noir-ish lens, before I started looking at photos in the New York Public Library. I think the reason for that initial inclination had to do with 9/11, and the shocking experience of seeing New York City transformed into a war zone in the course of a single day.

The story, per se, doesn’t happen for me until remarkably late in the process—as in, after I have a first draft! I’m bizarrely short on specifics when I begin; I start with a sense of time and place, a kind of atmosphere, and wait to see who shows up. Those are my characters, and what they go on to do becomes the plot, which I hone and shape over many, many drafts.

 

You circled the area for 13 years during the research process. What was it about the location that kept you orbiting it?

I think it was a constellation of things: interest in the last time in our history when water was still a chief mode of transport for humans seeking to cross long distances; excitement about exploring the sea from every conceivable angle and letting it become both a metaphor and a physical reality in the story; and a joyful attraction to the kind of extreme storytelling—murders, shipwrecks, survival at sea—that I tend to associate with childhood adventure stories.

I think it was a constellation of things: interest in the last time in our history when water was still a chief mode of transport for humans seeking to cross long distances; excitement about exploring the sea from every conceivable angle and letting it become both a metaphor and a physical reality in the story; and a joyful attraction to the kind of extreme storytelling—murders, shipwrecks, survival at sea—that I tend to associate with childhood adventure stories.

Jennifer Egan

You are known for your more experimental narrative structures. Why did you choose a more conventional narrative for this particular story?

I began as a more conventional writer and then innovated, structurally, in order to tell stories that I couldn’t tell conventionally. I’d initially planned to leap around in time in Manhattan Beach the way I did in A Visit from the Good Squad. But I found that those leaps felt gratuitous and manipulative in this book. Somehow, total immersion was an essential part of this story, so I had to honour that and calm down, structurally, in order to achieve it.

The extremes in this novel occur in the action, not in the structure, and once I’d accepted that, I was amazed by how much fun it was to write more straightforwardly. Turns out, I’d gotten pretty tired of myself experimenting, and it was wonderful to exercise muscles that had gotten weak without my realising it.

 

In an earlier interview, you spoke of starting your books The Keep and Look at Me with a particular theory in mind. (A theory that you also said, in the writing process, was debunked). Did you begin Manhattan Beach with a particular underpinning theory?

It’s true that I usually begin novels with some abstract queries in mind. In Manhattan Beach, I was interested in writing a book explicitly about feminine strength, and the forces that oppose the full expression of female power. At the same time, I was interested in the genesis of American global power, and what it felt like to sense that power amassing. As I worked, I realised that I had a sort of genre query: could the urban noir be fused with a domestic story, and could all of that be fused with a tale of sea survival?

 

In Manhattan Beach, I was interested in writing a book explicitly about feminine strength, and the forces that oppose the full expression of female power. At the same time, I was interested in the genesis of American global power, and what it felt like to sense that power amassing.

Jennifer Egan

The book was launched in 2017 into a very different world, with different shifts of power taking place. Was that something you thought of, as you wrote, or finished the book?

I was thinking about it all the time; in fact, the difficulty of accounting for the fact that the novel is set in the past—the presence of the present, if you will—dogged me for much of the early writing of Manhattan Beach.

Once I realised that structural trickiness wouldn’t work in this novel, I wondered how to acknowledge the fact that the reader and I live in a different world than the one I was writing about. It came to me gradually that the relationship between the two-time frames, or realities, is allegorical: knowledge of all that has happened since 1942, and continues to unfold, is a subtext that the reader and I share, and that naturally colours every aspect of the reading experience.

Which writers do you most admire and why?

I’m drawn to writers whose achievement operates at every structural level, beginning with the word and holding through the scale and scope of the entire work.

So: Shakespeare. The great 19th century novelists like George Elliot and Anthony Trollope. In terms of American novelists, I’d point to Ralph Ellison, Edith Wharton and Melville—Moby Dick being a sort of origin myth for Manhattan Beach.

In terms of contemporary inspirations, I have many: Zadie Smith, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lauren Groff and Robert Stone (who passed away recently and whose work I believe deserves a new generation of readers).

 

Where's your favourite place to read?

Any place that can let me recline (I hate sitting up straight) in natural light. If it’s dark, I love to lie down in bright light, which I turn off at some point after falling asleep.

 

What books are currently on your night-stand?

Mickey by Chelsea Martin, The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, The Future is History by Masha Gessen, Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole, The Stowaway by Laurie Gwen Shapiro.