Award-Winning Author Jennifer Egan Reads from Latest Novel

Acclaimed writer Jennifer Egan visited campus Thursday night to read from her new novel, Manhattan Beach.

Egan is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harpers, Granta, and McSweeney’s, and her nonfiction appears frequently in the New York Times Magazine. She is also the recipient of a host of honors, from a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, to a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullen Fellowship at the New York Public Library. Egan came to Bowdoin as part of the English Department’s Visiting Writers Series.

Egan began her talk by discussing how she began the decade-plus-long research project that became Manhattan Beach. “All I start with when I write fiction is a time and a place,” Egan said. Her interest in writing about New York during World War II was sparked by 9/11, when the city became a war zone over night.

Then a fellow at the New York Public Library, Egan started to look at images of New York in the 1940s, and was struck by the pervasiveness of the waterfront. “It was basically how anyone or anything got anywhere,” she said. Her questions about this place, and this time, led her to investigate the archives of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and to interview women who worked there decades ago.

But in 2012, when Egan sat down to begin writing — at that point basically an expert on the waterfront, and unsure if her years of research would even amount to a book — she found herself in yet another time and place: the Depression-era, at a beach near Coney Island.

Egan went forward from there. That time and place would become the first chapter of Manhattan Beach, which Egan read for the audience. One listener remarked on how deftly Egan planted details in the first chapter that come to play in later parts of the book.

Afterward, Egan held a Q&A with the audience, which focused largely on her writing process. With Manhattan Beach, she wrote straight for a year and a half, filling twenty-seven legal pads with material. After typing up this draft, Egan asked herself, “What can this be?” She said she has learned to trust her subconscious. “The clues of what needs to happen are all there,” she said. “There is an organic unity with Manhattan Beach that was there from the start.”

Many of the pieces she has written have inspired other works, across genres. Her effort to research the world of young adult modeling for her eventual novel Look at Me prompted Egan to begin writing journalism, to provide her fiction with the backbone of reporting. Her journalism has also prompted her fiction; writing her long-form story Lonely Gay Teen Seeking Same about the online culture of gay teenagers provoked Egan to consider modes of disembodied communication, which later gave her the idea for her gothic novel The Keep.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, she explained, was initially a distraction from Manhattan Beach, as short stories she wrote to entertain herself. But these stories were also inspired by Egan’s research about the waterfront, and how jarred she felt amid the archives and the interviews at the slippage of time that occurs within the duration of a human life.

Egan, ultimately, said she writes by seeking to surprise herself. “Can I thread the needle into some course of action that I can’t think of ahead of time?” she asked. “That’s what I’m looking for. I cordon off possibilities because I’ve thought of them, and hope that path will lead me to a more interesting place.”

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