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Author Jennifer Egan follows up future-fueled 'Goon Squad' with WWII-set 'Manhattan Beach'

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It’s been seven years since Jennifer Egan released her last novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece A Visit from the Goon Squad. Now, after a half-decade of research and writing (and no small amount of pressure, the author of Look At Me and The Keep admits), Egan has published a new novel in many ways quite different from her previous forays into narrative experimentation and Goon Squad’s bold futurism.

Pen Pals: Jennifer Egan

Hopkins Center for the Arts
$40-$50

Manhattan Beach is a linear historical novel populated with soldiers, gangsters, merchant mariners, and Egan’s protagonist, America’s first civilian diver at a Brooklyn shipyard. It’s an astutely executed piece of historical literature that’s also unafraid to indulge in the thrills of its rich plot.

Ahead of her October 26 and 27 appearance at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, City Pages caught up with Egan to talk about the new book while she watered her plants around her New York City apartment.

Eagan is as articulate as her prose is precise, but also disarmingly laid-back and good-humored while she discussed the weight of expectations, re-examining her approach to fiction, and why her teenage son didn’t want her reading Game of Thrones along with him. (“I don’t know, Mom, there’s a lot of sex in it,” she jokes, switching into a disgusted teen boy voice.)
   
One of the first things I noticed about Manhattan Beach was that, unlike your last two novels, there was no metatextual element or self-awareness on the part of the narrator.

I was waiting for that twist-and-turn myself as I was working on it. I could feel it out there, waiting for me. But I found that the things that seemed to work fairly well in Goon Squad, like leaping into the future and other sort of gymnastic impulses, seemed to fall very flat in this book.

Do you think you’re done dealing with those devices?

It’s not that I’m tired in a big way of experimentation. That would be going too far. I think I was tired of myself doing that. It had become too knee-jerk. I wanted to do what seemed fun. In the end, it was telling a kind of old-fashioned adventure story in which a lot of big epic action happens right on the page. In Goon Squad, we’re dealing with the aftermath of action. I loved doing the action.

And I didn’t really know that it would work out. I thought I may have chosen something that plays so much to my weaknesses that I can't do it well. Had that been the case, I would have been fully prepared to not publish it. I would rather not publish than publish a terrible book. There was a real joy when I reached the point where I thought it would be publishable.

That was a big concern?

I hadn’t realized how much I thought I would never publish a book again until I realized that. I thought I talked about it for too long, I toured for too long, I can’t do anything else.

I wasn’t gonna bring that up, but did you feel a lot of pressure after the success of Goon Squad and the Pulitzer?

I didn’t think I did—but I think I did. I said and I meant, “Look, I didn’t promise everyone that every book would be very good.” But when I began to feel so lost in this book, and I thought about the shame I would feel if I couldn’t write another one. I felt really…inhibited.

I was surprised how much it did bother me. And I’m so happy to be beyond it.

The truth, which is potentially harder to bear but easier for me, is that no one really cares. It’s not like the world is going to come to a stop if I don’t write another book. In a way, the insignificance of each of our doings can feel crushing. But for me it absolves me of responsibility. I’m doing it because I want to do it, and whatever the result is, that’s okay. It’s a free pass to stop engaging in self-flagellation and just get back to what I was going to do.

What was the germ of this story? Diving and the first woman diver?

No, I was really interested in New York during World War II, specifically what it felt like to sense the juggernaut of American global superpower beginning to form. What was that moment like? So many things about it interested me: the collaborations and cooperation that was so pervasive at that time, the sense of real impending threat—which I think we do feel now. 2004 is when I first started thinking about this stuff, and it’s no coincidence it’s a short time after 9/11.

World War II led me to the waterfront, which at the time was where everything happened. It was essential to industry, transportations. That led me in a number of directions: the Brooklyn Navy Yard, largest builder and repairer of allied ships in WWII. It was only with the navy yard I began to think about civilian diving.

Did you have a particular historical model for the first woman civilian diver?

I did not, and I have no reason to think there were any in America. I did meet a WWII diver who dived in Cherbourg to clear the harbor after the Germans blew it up, and he met a female Russian diver. That’s no surprise because the Russian women did everything, they were doctors, pilots. So many things were happening that hadn’t happened before, and the war was such a jumbling force…it gave me a creative license to posit this thing that I do know almost certainly didn’t happen.

IF YOU GO:

Jennifer Egan
Hennepin County Library’s Pen Pals series
7:30 p.m. Thursday (currently sold out); 11 a.m. Friday
$40-$50
1111 Mainstreet, Hopkins; 612-543-8112