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Jennifer Egan on how 9/11 led her to WWII and ‘Manhattan Beach’

By Colette Bancroft
Photo by Peter Van Hattem Author Jennifer Egan's new novel, "Manhattan Beach," is set in part at the Naval Yard in Brooklyn, in background.

Jennifer Egan has a gift for surprising readers ó and herself.

"If I knew what would happen in a book," she says, "I wouldnít want to write it."

What happens in her new novel, Manhattan Beach, is a surprise on many levels. Itís an enthralling story about a young woman, Anna Kerrigan, working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, whose life takes many unexpected turns.

Manhattan Beach is stylistically and structurally very different from Eganís last book, A Visit From the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction in 2011. Experimental in style, dancing between novel form and linked short stories, moving among past, present and future, it was a book full of its own surprises.

Manhattan Beach is much more traditional in form, although just as rich in complex characters, insight into American culture and class, startlingly beautiful prose and irresistible storytelling.

Egan, 55, has published six books and frequently writes nonfiction for the New York Times magazine and other publications. A longtime New York resident, she talked about Manhattan Beach by phone from Jackson, Miss., where she was on book tour.

What was the source of inspiration for Manhattan Beach?

Its genesis really was 9/11. New York felt like a war zone, and in a certain sense it was. There was this huge police and military presence, so much security ó you couldnít go below Canal Street.

That experience made me curious about New York in World War II. There was a real worry then that there would be a sea invasion or an air invasion, just this active sense of peril and dread.

In many ways the two are connected ó 9/11 was a response to American global power, and the genesis of (that power) was World War II.

So the genesis of the book was that sudden quickening of curiosity about that time in New York. It was not theoretical ideas, not characters, not story. Those came later.

The characters in your fiction are so memorable. Are they sometimes a starting point?

Characters are crucial, for sure. But they come out of the atmosphere, not the other way around.

For Manhattan Beach, I knew there would be a young woman; weíd call her a teenager. I knew there would be a major impresario with underworld connections. I knew her father would be important, but I didnít realize how important. Anna and her father are really the axis of the whole book.

For a long time I hid that from myself ó I like to be surprised. Iím always looking to be surprised, because thatís when I can surprise the reader. I always write fiction by hand. I do it because I want to get away from my conscious mind and toward the intuitive and impulsive.

A Visit From the Goon Squad and Manhattan Beach are so different in style and structure. Was that a conscious decision?

It grew out of the material. In Goon Squad, I wanted to do more radical things. Goon Squad actually came out of 9/11, too, but it went in the other direction, leaping into the future.

I was actually really happy to (write a more linear story) with Manhattan Beach. Fragmentation had become a habit. In Goon Squad, a lot of the big events happen off stage, and we see people dealing with the aftermath. This time, it was fun to tell a story that has crime and a shipwreck and U-boats and sea survival.

Did traditional novels influence you more this time around?

I was influenced by some of those sweeping 19th century novels, especially (…mile) Zolaís Germinal, which tells you everything about coal miners. As a journalist myself, Iím really drawn to that research. I started out with the agony of not knowing enough, and it became fun.

When did you begin writing Manhattan Beach? Was it after you published Goon Squad in 2010?

No, I was writing them at the same time. I was working on (Manhattan Beach) from 2005, while I was working on The Keep (published in 2005) and Goon Squad. When I went to the Miami Book Fair in 2005 to talk about The Keep, I rented a car and went to interview some ladies who had worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They were in their 80s, so thatís something you canít put on hold.

These talks impacted Goon Squad, too, because they got me thinking about the span of a life. There was no way not to think about that all the time, with these ladies talking about the start of their lives at the end of their lives.

Anna, the novelís main character, becomes one of the first woman divers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a place that provides a rich setting for much of the novel. What drew you to that setting?

World War II led me to the Navy Yard. I didnít know that diving was a feature of ship repair, but civilian diving was incredibly important in New York at that time. The SS Normandie (a 79,000-ton ocean liner being converted to wartime use as a troop transport) capsized at the Navy Yard docks, and it became this gigantic salvage project. I stumbled on it in my research and became intrigued.

This book is so ocean saturated. Iíve always been obsessed with the water, so I thought Iíd indulge myself. I knew going under the water had to be part of it.

There is a wonderful, if harrowing, passage describing the first time Anna is dressed in the 200-pound diverís suit. Did you try one on yourself in order to write that?

Yes, I did! The diving suit was super painful, just acutely uncomfortable. The Army divers at a reunion very kindly dressed me in it.

One theme that seems to run through Manhattan Beach is a sense of nostalgia for unity, for the way the war effort brought the nation together. How conscious of that were you?

I think youíve nailed it. There was that sense of cooperation, of collaboration on a project that extended beyond their lifetimes. It was something that did not benefit them personally or materially. I think there is a really exalted feeling that can come from being part of something larger than yourself.

World War II was a moment that created that sense of cultural and national unity. God knows weíre not having one now. But as human beings weíre bigger and weíre better than we realize.

Do you think youíll write more novels in this historical vein?

Oh, yes. Iím interested in the 19th century now. Iím hooked on the fun of telling this kind of story. Iím committed to more time travel, but to the past. A lot of what I wrote about in Goon Squad is already obsolete. Itís a suckerís game, futurism.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.