says. In fact, she deliberately writes
what she doesn’t know. “For me the
inspiration and motivation for writing
fiction really is escape. I can’t find that
escape if my flights of fancy are taking
me back into my own world. In the
beginning, I just have atmosphere and
wait to see what comes out of that,”
This time her search led Egan to
the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the
Depression and WWII. In her first
historical novel, Manhattan Beach
(Scribner, Oct.), she tackles organized
crime, the Merchant Marine, women’s roles
during the war, and class conflict. It’s about as
far away from the punk rock scene of her Pulitzer
Prize–winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad,
as a plot can get.
“I was inspired by old photos of New York and
the paramount importance of the waterfront in
those pictures,” Egan says. “I knew it theoretically,
but seeing that the whole center of gravity of the
city was at its edges was revelatory.”
While doing research at the Brooklyn Historical
Society, Egan found a cache of letters between
Alfred Kolkin and his wife, Lucy Kolkin. They met
working at the Navy Yard. When he joined the
Navy, she continued working at the Yard. Her let-
ters reveal many nuggets about the physical work,
the racism, and the unions. “She was really the
one who brought the war years to life for me in
terms of a woman working there. As I was doing
this research, it felt like she was becoming my
friend,” Egan says.
At one point, Lucy fantasized about the war
ending and where their lives would take them.
Egan felt she had to know what happened to her
“friend.” Egan typed her name into a computer
and was immediately taken to her 1997 obituary.
She leapt from reading about this excited woman,
imagining her future life, to reading her endnote.
Egan ended up writing “Reading Lucy,” about
the experience, which was published in an essay
collection, Brooklyn Was Mine (2008). After that
book came out, Lucy’s daughter tracked down
Egan, and they toured the Navy Yard with Alfred,
then in his 90s.
Egan began writing Manhattan Beach—as
she does all her novels—without an outline, plot,
or characters. “I write my first draft by hand,
because it helps me to get outside of myself. It
ends up a terrible mess, but generally there is a
glimmer of what this thing could be. Then I make
a map, trying to make something rational and
doable out of a big messy outpouring of mostly
instinctive material. I definitely need the rational
side. I just can’t lead with it,” she says.
With that glimmer as her headlights, Egan
makes the whole trip that way. —Beth Levine
Today, noon–12: 45 p.m. Jennifer Egan signs at
the Simon & Schuster booth (2620, 2621).
WWW.ROWMAN.COM | 800-462-6420
VISIT US AT BOOTH #408
Listening to Jennifer Egan talk about writing fiction
brings to mind the famous quote from E.L. Doc-torow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog.
You can only see as far as your headlights, but you
can make the whole trip that way.”
Egan rarely starts with a plot or characters, she
Writing What She