Jennifer Egan in Conversation with Bill Richardson, Norman Rothstein Theatre, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 7:30 p.m. Vancouver Writers Fest special event. For more information visit writersfest.bc.ca.
Jennifer Egan has chosen to wrestle with the past in order to move forward as a writer.
Her new novel, and first foray into historical fiction, showcases a world populated by the gangsters, sailors, union men and smoky bars of the 1930s and ’40s in America.
The novel follows Anna Kerrigan and her journey to becoming a diver at the Brooklyn Naval Yard during the Second World War, a place where women were allowed to hold jobs during the war while the men were off fighting abroad.
Kerrigan, who becomes the first female diver to scour the ocean floor in order to repair the ships that will help in the war effort, finds herself entangled with the gangster/nightclub proprietor Dexter Styles.
Styles and Ed Kerrigan, Anna’s father, were connected in the past, before the elder Kerrigan mysteriously disappeared. As the novel progresses, Styles and Anna will find their futures strangely entwined.
But while Manhattan Beach takes a careful look at a specific period in the past, the impetus for the novel really started with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that rocked New York City – and the entire world – in 2001.
“It started with something a little more broad, which was just an interest in New York City during World War Two,” Egan says about her new novel’s inception. “And I think that really started with 9/11, when New York felt overnight like it turned into a war zone, I mean literally – there was a very strong military presence, you couldn’t go below Canal Street.”
Egan and her family live in Brooklyn, so the effects of the attacks and its aftermath were felt almost immediately.
After, as Egan describes, New York turned into a war zone following 9/11, she became obsessed with what the city might have been like during the Second World War, where the threat of invasion by air or sea was a real possibility.
“Another component of it was thinking about 9/11 as a kind of outcome of a certain kind of American global power and an unsurprising backlash against that, and that led me to think about how that power first came to be and what it felt like to be in the midst of that power gathering force,” she says.
She started seriously researching the book in 2005, but it was a long, drawn out process. It took more than a decade before she finally felt like she had enough to go on to write a book.
In between starting work on Manhattan Beach, Egan put out The Keep in 2006 and A Visit from the Goon Squad in 2011, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction writing that year.
Goon Squadwas heralded at the time for, among many reasons, its unique structure. The book was composed of 13 interrelated short stories that form something of a cogent narrative. Perhaps most notably, one of the book’s chapters is told through a PowerPoint presentation that’s represented through the text.
While the publication of Goon Squad brought Egan boatloads of success, it also labelled her as a writer of highly experimental fiction.
“Goon Squad, I think because of its unusual structure, people were very kind to that book. Maybe more than it deserved,” she ponders.
With Manhattan Beach, Egan wanted to focus less on form and more on immersion in the book’s historical past.
Her research was thorough and included carefully examining the wartime correspondence between two lovers who met while working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, as well as countless interviews conducted and historical books poured over. “Those talks were very moving,” she says.
She goes on: “Dialogue is never verisimilitude, even if you’re writing about people talking right this minute, you’re creating a kind of artificial version of it that hopefully conveys a sense of authenticity and spontaneity.”
She also pored over classic film noir such as The Naked City and The Maltese Falcon, as well as the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Raymond Chandler, in order to add to the novel’s sense of drama and mood.
Egan was born in Chicago, grew up in San Francisco and now lives in New York. Perhaps because of Chicago’s lakes and the vast oceans that bump up alongside San Francisco and New York, water has always been a powerful motif in Egan’s work, a theme that she says she uses to orient or steady herself in her own work.
In Goon Squad, characters saddle up by the sea, looking out as waves pound the shore, and ponder life’s great mysteries; In Manhattan Beach, characters dive right into it.
As Egan goes on tour to promote and discuss her new novel, she says more than anything she misses how she was able to dive herself, head first at times, into the past and into the world of the novel.
“I think working on a book outside of my lifetime added to that escapist feeling that I got from it, and I do miss it,” she says.