Jennifer Egan on the Writing Process Behind Her New Novel Manhattan Beach

Pulitzer-prize wining author Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2011) was in Los Angeles last week to talk about her new historical novel Manhattan Beach with Marisa Silver, part of the ALOUD conversation series from the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.

In a packed auditorium at the Central Library downtown, she shared details about her creative process and what went into creating this book.

It required years of research, which she said she did in a “desultory way” while doing other things from 2005-2012. This included:

  • Field trips to shipyards, especially the Brooklyn Navy Yard where she collaborated with the archivist and the Brooklyn Historical society.
  • Reading fiction from the first half of the twentieth century. “I included cheesy mysteries, which was wonderful to have an excuse to read those,” Egan said.
  • Watching movies from the same time period

She sat down to start writing the book in 2012 without a real sense of who would be in it or what it would be about. When she starts writing any piece of work, she usually has a time, a place, and an abstract question.

With Manhattan Beach, she had very vague ideas about what would be in the book. She knew she wanted it to be set in New York during World War II, that she wanted to explore what it was like to feel the power of America amassing, that she wanted to have a female protagonist working in shipyards, a male authority in the mob world, and maybe one more main character. “There were questions, there were big things I didn’t know,” she said.

Once she began writing her first scene, the architecture began to reveal itself.

“I spent a year and a half on that first draft, and it was 1400 handwritten pages,” she said, which she then typed and read. “In a way, it couldn’t be a more inefficient process,” Egan told the crowd to laughs. “We have technical solutions for this nowadays. But the reason I do it is that is my best shot at good material. If I just sit down and think, I don’t have good ideas.”

This is her process every time. Once she has completed this first stage, she gets analytical and does charts and maps for her story.

She said that sometimes very little is salvageable from that first draft. “I thought it was terrible, and it was, but when I look back, there actually was a fair amount that was salvageable… I guess there was more there than I thought.”

Silver asked her if the novel came out easily when she started writing.

“There’s plenty of throat-clearing,” Egan said. “I’ll have a full day where I’m just trying to fill my pages so I can stop. And of course nothing could be more obvious. And then some days I’m right there and I’m moving…

I try to write 5-7 pages a day. Sometimes I’ll get on a roll, and I write 10, but that’s always a mistake the next day, because I’m depleted. So having a little more I want to do on a particular day is not so bad.”

Egan said that one of the main things that wasn’t working in the first draft was the voice of the book.

“Voice, which is something I think about a lot, I think is actually the most important part of a book, sort of the way it speaks. And I always liken it… to me, it’s really like the stock of a soup. If you have a really great stock, you could put a boot in it, and it will actually still taste good, because you have a great stock. And if you have a thin stock, you can put in the most marvelous ingredients, and it will still taste dull. So for me, the voice is that stock. And it can take a while, just as a stock does, to kind of mature and figure out what the right elements are.”

There was a period after reading the first draft where she thought very seriously about abandoning the book. She said she wasn’t sure that she could do it. But she stuck to it because there was nothing else that she wanted to do, nothing else was pressing on her, and all the research that she did felt vital. “The research was not only essential, but it kind of sustained me.”

I was so struck by the amount of time it took this project to come to fruition–over a decade–and how gnarly the writing process is even for a writer who has won the Pulitzer Prize.

You can listen to the full inspiring conversation on the ALOUD podcast (find it in your smartphone app), or here. 

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A Few Thoughts on Blogging

I was a relatively early adopter of blogging. I started my first blog back in 2009, when Twitter was just starting to grow, Facebook was still only for college students, and Instagram hadn’t even kicked off yet. I’ve always loved blogging because I’ve always loved scrapbooking, journaling, taking photos, saving articles… I’ve used Blogger, Tumblr, and WordPress. I’ve had photo blogs, blogs about identity, about my work as a journalist, about writing, and about taking “notes for no reason.” They were all lovely blogs, and they all ended for various reasons: either my life changed, or I lost my good camera, or I got busy with schoolwork, or I changed.

This is my latest blog, and I feel especially committed to it. It started a little over two years ago as a place for me to experiment with and ask questions about work-life balance, and I learned a lot from it. Over time and organically, both here and on Instagram, it developed into a place where I can enjoy recipes and the memories that come with them, explore books and share the lessons or beauty I find in them, and share my attempt “to live deliberately,” as Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden.

That’s what work-life balance means to me: being present, living deliberately. One of the things I hate most of all, and that worries me the most, more than not succeeding at something in my work or things going wrong in my life, is when days and days, sometimes weeks, go by, and I don’t know where they went. I know many people feel the same way.

Over the last few months, I stopped posting for several reasons. Two of them are normal reasons to put something aside for a little bit: I had some great projects I was working on offline, and caring for loved ones took up some extra time (both my husband and Minjay had shoulder and knee surgeries respectively last winter and spring, both thankfully are OK!). But two reasons I stopped are worth unpacking.

The first reason was that it started to feel a bit forced. Take putting together the perfect picture, for example. When you scroll down Instagram, so many images and pages look the same now. I often wonder if in some ways so-called “formulas for success” have made us less creative and removed some individuality. Blogs and social media platforms like Instagram have allowed for so much great creativity and self-expression, but I do think we always have to ask ourselves if we’re being as creative as we can, and true to ourselves. Also, the idea that we have to post constantly didn’t work for me. Some things are best enjoyed in the moment, without a smartphone in hand.

The second reason was that I began to worry about growth and audience, and I really don’t want to ever worry about that again. I want to enjoy the blog for me, write about things I care about, and, yes, hopefully connect with some people if my posts resonate with them. I love the communal aspect of blogs and social media. I love connecting with people in my city and all around the world. I love seeing the creative and wonderful things people are up to online and being part of that community. Writing can be a lonely endeavor, and sharing posts here on this blog is a way to connect with people and be part of something bigger.

I wanted to take some time to reflect on the evolution of my blog and its purpose: It’s a place to explore, to live deliberately, to be creative, and to connect. And that’s what I hope to do again, with a fresh start.

Thank you for reading!
Michelle