Jennifer Egan spoke about her new novel, “Manhattan Beach,” and listening to people’s histories of the Brooklyn Navy Yard at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism on Jan. 25.
Egan is the author of five fiction books, including “A Visit from the Goon Squad” (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award) and “Look at Me” (National Book Award finalist).
Personal recollections of a chocolate smell filling the construction sight or the launching of the USS Missouri have welded to create “Manhattan Beach.”
“It was amazing to hear about the [launching of the Missouri] from different points of view,” said Egan. “This one guy I remember, who was very young and small, had his vantage point near the logs they ultimately knock out the way to let the ship slide down. He almost got tumbled into the mix when the logs were knocked out - it was incredibly dangerous!”
Egan’s interest in the Brooklyn naval yard was piqued soon after 9/11. She remembers New York turning into a warzone overnight, creating an atmosphere that led the author to wonder and imagine what World War II in New York might have felt like. Soon after Egan found the naval yard, close to where she was living at the time, and the shadowy wartime maps still hanging in the rooms were enough to inspire her to dig deeper.
Creating a wartime world through the memory of veterans was achieved mainly through fostering personal relationships. Notable anecdotes of brawling twin brothers owning bars opposite each other or sandy streets that no longer exist would come to light in casual conversation.
What made oral history special for Egan is her belief that everyone has a story worth sharing. For the author, life is a unique sequence of events which can bring to life their own distinct novel through vibrant conversation.
However, the task of receiving thousands of life stories is a challenging one. When questioned on oral history interviewing tips, Egan emphasized the need to step back.
“The number one thing was just shut up. I was way too present,” Egan said. “I was small-minded in my scope and because I didn’t know a lot about oral history, I really got in the way.”
In order to encapsulate the oral histories she had heard in her writing, Egan needed a “store to draw on” of visuals and descriptions that would create the settings of her novel.
“You’re trying to accomodate or occasion an organic whole in terms of what someone remembers about a certain kind of material but also all of the context around that material,” Egan said.
While Egan would compile this store of background information in the first steps of any conversation, she was unsure as to whether any of the conversation would be useful later in her writing, she said.
“I never thought when I heard [an anecdote] I was gonna use it,” Egan said. “But spontaneously, when writing my first draft, that possibility leapt to mind.”
Incorporating details from her conversations and interviews was a delicate task. Unknown segments of marine wartime history were being uncovered through personal exchanges with people who had lived it firsthand, which Egan then wove into her story’s exposition.
Egan confessed to regretting her tendency at times to not trust the life of the discussion. She would prod her interviewee with a journalistic bent, closing natural variations and meanderings that could have been even more influential on her writing.
Nevertheless, Egan continues writing after “Manhattan Beach” and is now working on a piece for The New York Times Magazine. The author’s newfound dedication to letting the story come before the article is allowing Egan to embrace her role as a novelist and an oral historian.
“The bigger project was more like writing fiction,” said Egan, “[in that I had] to let intuition and indirection lead the way.”