Jennifer Egan is a remarkably prescient novelist, divining the future implications of contemporary trends and obsessions, as in her multiple-award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010). In Manhattan Beach, shortlisted for the Carnegie Fiction Medal, she looks back.
SEAMAN: You spent many years researching this historical novel. What was the impetus for your quest?
EGAN: It all starts with a time and a place, and for Manhattan Beach, that was New York during WWII. I think my curiosity about the era originated with 9/11, which turned New York into a war zone overnight, leading me to wonder what the city had felt like during our last world war. Also, 9/11 got me thinking about the trajectory of American global power and wondering where it would ultimately lead, and what it had felt like to be in New York while it first amassed. This led me immediately to the waterfront. It’s easy to forget, now, that New York is a port, which was the defining fact of the city until some years after WWII. And it was the waterfront, and ultimately the sea itself, that led me into the various realms the novel occupies, including the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the merchant marine, deep-sea diving, and organized crime.
SEAMAN: Anna is such an exciting and compelling character. What inspired her personality?
EGAN: My writing process, mostly by hand for fiction, is geared toward accessing my unconscious, from which, ideally, characters arrive wholly formed and usually even named. I feel less in the position of “creating” them than of recognizing them, inhabiting them, and trying to bring to the surface their contradictions (an essential element of any personality), modes of speech, and habits of mind. The most important thing that I needed to discover about Anna was her secrecy, which is a function of her strength. She is much more daring than I am, and much less prone to guilt, all of which were helpful ways of separating her personality from my own. I tend to write badly when I’m writing about myself or someone like me, so finding the distinctions between my characters and myself is always important.
SEAMAN: One facet of the complicated plot is a classic war-at-sea sequence on a merchant-marine ship under U-boat attack. What led to your writing that story line?
EGAN: Having explored the sea from the shore and from the depths, I suppose it was inevitable that my book would actually “go” to sea. I resisted this development for fear of how much more research it would take to write persuasively about ships and sailing—about which I knew nothing! But just as I was drawn to noir because of its brooding quality of urban danger, I think I was drawn to shipping and sea survival because of its inherent drama. The literature of the sea is rich and thrilling and human in the most fundamental way: the question of survival is always on the table. Sea stories are a little like murder mysteries in that way: we always know why we’re reading, and we’re always reading about the human condition. Also, it was exciting to tell an old-fashioned adventure story in which huge events happen right on the page. It allowed for a kind of lush, headlong writing that I don’t think I’ve had the opportunity to indulge in until now.
Donna Seaman is Adult Books Editor for Booklist, a recipient of the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, a member of the Content Leadership Team for the American Writers Museum, and a frequent presenter at literary events and programs. Seaman’s new book is Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists.