She Covers The Waterfront: Eagle Q&A with Jennifer Egan on her new novel ‘Manhattan Beach’
I have been a major fan of Jennifer Egan’s writing since Easter Sunday 2010, when, on the train from Montreal to New York, I read her audacious and dizzying novel “The Keep” in one feverish sitting. By the time I arrived at Grand Central I felt like I was coming down from an acid trip.
Since then I have gobbled up in rapid succession the novels “Look at Me,” “The Invisible Circus,” “A Visit from the Goon Squad” and her masterful short story collection “Emerald City.” Egan’s narrative sleight-of-hand, vivid, compelling characters and edgy, distinctive voice floored me. She writes the sort of books that make you feel you have no choice but to read them. Dickens did that, as did Robert Louis Stevenson. And Hilary Mantel does it now. With this month’s publication of, “Manhattan Beach,” her first novel in seven years, Egan joins this august company.
“Manhattan Beach” is an old-fashioned page-turner that more than delivers on the foreboding promise of its “Treasure Island”-like opening set piece. Officially published earlier this month, the book has already been longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction. And deservedly so: The book is a Whitmanesque mosaic that truly does “embrace multitudes.” These multitudes include a post-“Studs Lonigan” Irish-American family that straddles shanty and lace curtain, silky gangsters and bankers who straddle respectability and thuggery, and Brooklyn Navy Yard female lathe operators, welders, machinists (and, in the case of the book’s protagonist Anna Kerrigan, the Yard’s first woman diver) who straddle prejudice and acceptance. For seasoning, also throw into the mix a couple of loogans (i.e., a loser and a hooligan), corrupt union local presidents and Italian-American mobsters and you’ll realize why Egan needs those 400-plus pages. She’s heeded Melville’s advice: “To produce a mighty book, chose a mighty theme.” And, in line with Egan’s longstanding fascination with all things aquatic, Melville also provides the book’s epigraph: “Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.”
Obviously, the ideal place to have met Egan for an interview would have been the River Cafe. However, Walter’s in Fort Greene, though land-locked, proved more practical. At lunch, Egan and I talked about the origins of “Manhattan Beach”; her own Midwest (Chicago), West Coast (San Francisco), Ivy-League (University of Pennsylvania), Cambridge University (post-graduate studies), Manhattan/Brooklyn peregrinations; her take on critics and criticism; the limits of realism and a certain master of suspense.
The following are edited excerpts of our conversation:
Eagle: I read that as a result of your research on women divers in World War II, you discovered a Russian diver who helped clear Cherbourg harbor. That got me thinking: Anna Kerrigan equals Anna Karenina? Was that in the back of your mind?
Egan: I think that was in the deep back of my mind. Truthfully, I didn’t fully realize that echo, or resonance, until I was pretty settled on her name. Once I did realize it, I had to ask myself if I could allow that resonance to be there. I decided that actually, I could, because Anna Karenina is about a woman who, essentially, dies for her sexual freedom, so in a way [the resemblance of names] seemed like an apt echo, because “Manhattan Beach” is very much about a woman who exerts a kind of sexual freedom, and certainly craves it. But in fact, she finds a way to slither through the strictures of her culture in order to inhabit that freedom. So, I thought the similarity of names was OK. Interestingly, a couple of years ago I re-read “Anna
Karenina” and was reminded of what a fabulous novel it is.
Eagle: Is there a through-line from Phoebe O’Connor [the protagonist of Egan’s first novel “The Invisible Circus”] to Anna Kerrigan? They’re fairly close in age, they both set out on journeys: Phoebe’s in search of her sister, Anna’s in search of her father. Even this description of Phoebe feels like it could also apply to Anna: [S]he had a feeling of “mouthing the words to a song she’d never been taught, always a beat too late.”
Egan: Yes, I think there certainly is a through-line from Phoebe to Anna. I mean I was very haunted while I worked on “Manhattan Beach” — before I had really worked out all the narrative and characters — about echoes between the two books. I don’t like to repeat myself and there are certainly some structural similarities. Not in terms of the structure of the book, but in terms of the structure of the relationships. But I felt that I had created enough other “stuff” that I could live with those similarities. Of course, Phoebe is very different than Anna: She’s very innocent and very naive and Anna is not, although she has to pretend to be in her 1940s Irish-American world. So, Phoebe and Anna are not alike, but they are connected in some ways and certainly the situations around them are. (Laughing) Good, careful reading there on your part!
Eagle: I thought there might be a quiz…From your extensive list of acknowledgements, which go back to 2004, I gather “Manhattan Beach” has been gestating a long time, more than a decade, right?
Egan: Yes…well the time and the place of the book go back that far. It’s funny, I think everyone defines the idea for a novel differently. For me, it consists of a sense of an atmosphere that I want to immerse myself in for a while.
Eagle: A historical atmosphere?
Egan: It depends. Up until “Manhattan Beach” it hasn’t been historical … although, with “The Invisible Circus” it was, but it was a period — the ’60s and ’70s — still within my lifetime, so it was easier to manage than the Depression and World War II years of “Manhattan Beach.” I mean I missed the ’60s essentially but still was very interested in that period, interested in the nostalgia one hasn’t experienced, which is an idea I look at a lot in “The Invisible Circus.”
Eagle: Again, from reading through your acknowledgments, one can see that you did extensive research into World War II Brooklyn, the Navy Yard, deep-sea diving, women’s roles in wartime activities. What set off this historical interest in New York?
Egan: I’m not totally sure myself, but I think that the genesis was probably 9/11. In that, having been living here at that time, I fully realized what a major and utterly catastrophic event it was in the history of New York.
Eagle: In the history of America.
Egan: Yes, of course; taking it a step wider, in the history of our country. And it got me thinking about America’s trajectory as a global superpower and the origin of that, its starting point, which immediately led me to World War II. And New York was somewhat important during World War II. Not so much as an industrial center, because during World War II most American industry moved west, particularly to the West Coast. But as a waterfront, New York was critical. So, I was immediately drawn to the waterfront as a place to think about and that led me to the [Brooklyn] Navy Yard, and that led me to deep-sea diving, because there were a lot of deep-sea divers who had worked on the wreckage from the fire on the Normandie.
Eagle: As an aside: have you ever seen the Hitchcock film “Saboteur?”
Egan: I think I have seen it, but not recently and not during the research for, or writing of, “Manhattan Beach.”
Eagle: In “Saboteur,” there is brief, almost throwaway shot (although in Hitchcock no shot is ever truly a throwaway) where one of the Nazi villains, played by Norman Lloyd, who is in a taxi on his way to the Statue of Liberty to kill the hero, when — and here I’ll let Hitchcock himself describe it — “[he] looks out the window on the right and I cut to [newsreel footage of] the hulk of the Normandie, which was then lying on its side, following the fire in the harbor of New York. I cut back to a close-up of the saboteur, who, after staring at the wreck, turns around with a slightly smug smile on his face. The Navy raised hell with Universal about these three shots because I implied that the Normandie had been sabotaged.” (Quotations from “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1984.)
Egan: Well, as I discovered from all my research, at the time there was a lot of talk about sabotage, but now we know that basically it was the firefighters that sank the ship. There was no sabotage. But, now that you’re describing it, I think I do remember that scene.
Eagle: Nobody could sneer like Norman Lloyd. Anyway, another genesis question: Did you know from the start that you would shift perspectives, that the book would be written in the third person?
Egan: I knew for certain that it wouldn’t be in the first person, although I didn’t know how many points-of-view there’d be. I think maybe, at the beginning, I thought it might all be Anna, but I quickly realized that that was going to be too limiting. And Dexter Styles was intruding quickly as a voice, which I was very happy about. So, I always knew there’d be three perspectives: Anna’s, Dexter’s and Eddie’s. I would have been OK if there had been even more, but three was the number that felt right.
Eagle: It’s interesting that you say that, because I was surprised [SPOILER ALERT for this and next paragraph] when Lydia [Anna’s handicapped sister] died so early into the novel. I thought she would be more of a fulcrum.
Egan: Well, I think she is still a fulcrum, even after her death. I just felt that I had reached the limit of what I could do with her. I mean unless Lydia’s going to get well or to speak, which wasn’t realistic. I don’t calculate these moves in a God-like way. I’m really just following what feels right.
Eagle: But did you know that you’d have a handicapped character from the start?
Egan: I knew as soon as I actually started writing, but not before that. As soon as I started writing, Lydia was there and I was very surprised. But there was no question about it: I knew that I had a nonverbal consciousness at work.
Eagle: [SPOILER ALERT] Are we, as readers, meant to think that Anna and Dexter’s taking Lydia to Manhattan Beach is what kills her?
Egan: No, I think not. I mean, in situations like that I don’t usually know more than I’m telling the reader. So, if I don’t definitively answer that question, it’s because I don’t know the answer. You know, it’s amusing — people frequently ask me, “What is [the characters’] diagnosis?” This is because I have written a lot of characters who are mentally fragile or unstable. And I always respond: “I don’t know!” Diagnosis is useful for treatment, but beyond that it’s just labeling, so why limit? And in a way, with some of the other questions about my characters, it’s similar: If I don’t give an answer it’s because I don’t have the answer. If I have the answer I would probably give it — although perhaps not right away, if it’s fun to keep the reader guessing.
Eagle: Your “voice” for “Manhattan Beach” is more traditional than it has been in your previous novels. I mean, in comparing your voice in “Manhattan Beach” to that of “Goon Squad,” it’s as if you’ve written a Victorian novel.
Egan: I feel like every book I write requires its own voice in which to be told. Unless, that is, you’re a writer who is returning to the same world and voice each time, which is a very legitimate and satisfying approach, but one that doesn’t work for me. The big challenge for me, with each book, is to find a new voice, with which to tell this very different kind of story. And there’s always that difficult time at the beginning, when I’m stuck with the old voice, because it’s been in my head for so long, and which [laughing] is uniquely ill-suited to tell the new story. I remember vividly, for example, with “The Keep” trying to tell a Gothic story with the same kind of savvy, ironic, slightly acid voice that I used in “Look at Me” — and it was a disaster! Because that voice thought the Gothic was done. Which is essentially telegraphing to the reader: “This book is stupid.” With “Goon Squad,” it wasn’t so much of a problem because I didn’t really start out thinking it was a novel, I just started writing short stories, so I didn’t really have that feeling of a hangover, as I did with “The Keep.” But with [“Manhattan Beach”] at first, I definitely struggled to find the voice and I think that the hangover was that I thought there would be lots of structural innovation in my approach to the past and every time I tried to enact that, it was so lame!
Eagle: It was so “lame…?”
Egan: Yes, it just didn’t work at all. It was very irritating.
Egan: It just felt manipulative. Like things that had seemed fun and innovative, I think, to some people in “Goon Squad,” felt manipulative and gratuitous when I applied them to “Manhattan Beach.” For example, leaps into the future…very, very unappealing in this book, and they had to be quickly discarded. Meanwhile, I was searching for some sort of voice and it came about kind of naturally. That’s how it has to happen. I felt like I wanted to use a kind of stylization that was right for the period. Now some people haven’t liked that. They feel it’s forced, it’s not realistic. But I’m not concerned about realism and [laughing] and I never have been.
Eagle: Unless you’re Zola, or maybe Dreiser, realism is overrated. Besides, considering the surreal, Trumpian world we live in today, does realism even exist anymore? And if it does, who can define it?
Egan: I totally agree…what is it?! You know I was trying to find a nomenclature and vocabulary to bring to this material that would enhance the immersive experience I wanted to provide the reader. I deliberately wanted to write an old-fashioned adventure story. That is very hard to do in a contemporary novel. I wanted shipwrecks, murders, undersea adventure, almost as if I’m writing an action-adventure book for children.
Eagle: It’s Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson. In fact, your sneakily sinister first chapter, when “nearly 12”-year-old Anna accompanies her father to Dexter Styles’ home — a “palace of golden brick three stories high…the last house on the street, which dead-ended at the sea” — reminded me of the first chapter of “Treasure Island.” Anna is Jim Hawkins, Dexter Styles is Long John Silver (although with both legs) and Eddie is Dr. Livesey, who senses the buried treasure at hand. OK, maybe the last is a bit of a stretch…
Egan: [Laughing] I’m so glad you feel that way — I love “Treasure Island!” I love all those books — “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” “Kidnapped” and that’s what I wanted to capture in “Manhattan Beach.”
Eagle: You’ve taken some stick for this from a few critics.
Egan: That’s OK. They’re entitled to their own opinions. You know it’s not as if I’m some fragile, little creature who will break if someone criticizes me! It’s really all right…I don’t agree with people a lot. They’re book reviewers — that’s their job.
Eagle: But actually, the good reviews have far outweighed the bad.
Egan: Oh, I know. I have been so fortunate and so rewarded in the vast majority of the reviews. I mean, if I can’t tolerate anyone saying anything bad about me — at 55! — I’m in sad shape. And all of my books, until “Goon Squad,” have had mixed reviews. “The Keep” got a lot of terrible reviews.
Eagle: “Goon Squad,” for me, is so redolent of the ’60s, even though you’re too young to have experienced them.
Egan: Well, I was alive during the ’60s. I just wasn’t really very conscious. Growing up in San Francisco, I sort of saw the ’60s out of the window of my parents’ car. I may have been too young to understand everything that was going on, but I was there.
Eagle: You were born in Chicago, moved to San Francisco when you were 7, then came East for college at the University of Pennsylvania. Then you went even farther afield, for graduate school at Cambridge in England. Then you came back to… Brooklyn?
Egan: Manhattan, actually.
Eagle: So what drew you to live in Brooklyn?
Egan: We moved to Fort Greene in 2000, so we’ve been here almost 18 years! A few things led us to move: My husband was already working in the neighborhood, so we were familiar with its beauty. We were also living in essentially one large room/loft right near Penn Station, and expecting a baby…our digs seemed pretty untenable for parenting. It was natural to look in Brooklyn, therefore, and we did beat the rush — just! — though I’m not sure we can really be called pioneers as so many of our neighbors were already here (some for generations) by then! We have never owned a car and both love walking and street life. Brooklyn was as suburban as we were willing to get!
Eagle: So, you’re not decamping to Montclair or Manhasset anytime soon.
Egan: Leave Brooklyn? Never!
JENNIFER EGAN will be appearing in conversation with Nathan Englander at the 92nd Street Y on Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m. On Dec. 7 at 6:30 p.m., she will be appearing at the Brooklyn Historical Society. For more information on both events, go to www.simonandschuster.com or www.jenniferegan.com.
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