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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The Gift of Dogs: Serenity & Connection

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I can’t resist a book about a dog. I was especially intrigued by Let Me Tell You About Jasper… because it it is written by Dana Perino, co-host of Fox New Channel’s “The Five” and former White House Press Secretary for President George W. Bush.

I was even more intrigued when I came across her book tour schedule and found that she would be at the Nixon Presidential Library in Orange County, about an hour away from where I live.

In the spirit of work-life balance, one of my goals is to seek out different kinds of events to attend, to learn new things, and to get out of the everyday haze.

And in the spirit of learning and growing from this past election, I’m seeking out ways to get out of the “echo chamber” (see John Oliver last Sunday and Nick Kristof today) that I’m obviously in, as all of my Facebook friends voted for Hillary Clinton (or at least those who posted about it), and most of the people I follow on Twitter predicted that she would (and should) win. (For the record, I consider myself an Independent).

I drove down to the Nixon Presidential Library, led by curiosity and by that bond dog lovers share. It was an interesting conversation between Perino and Richard Grenell, both dog lovers. I was most intrigued to be with people outside of my own social group, and hear their perspective on current affairs, our country, and the world. It was eye opening in many ways, and I’m grateful for that.

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The event was in a replica of the White House East Room.

With the exception of a few comments about politics, Perino and Grenell talked mostly about each of their dogs, Jasper and Lola, and how dogs are both great equalizers and great stabilizers.

Perino said that her favorite place in New York City is the dog park. In a busy life filled with stress, that’s where she finds serenity. “For me, it means you’re not really worried about yesterday or tomorrow. You’re just there. And that’s where I get that kind of peace,” she said.

She expanded on how dogs are equalizers: “I find we connect with other humans through our dogs. And I don’t think that’s just us, I think it goes for people all over the world… I’ve seen the power of dogs to comfort those who are lonely.” (A portion of the proceeds of Let Me Tell You About Jasper goes to Companions for Heroes).

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This is reinforced in the book, which is all about the impact Jasper, and all the dogs she’s loved in her life, have had on her. She writes:

“I’ve long used dogs as a buffer between my work and personal life, though I didn’t realize it until I sat down and really thought about how much I appreciate dogs. On my way to work, I see dogs out for their afternoon walks and it always makes me smile. Dogs have a way of softening my hard edges.

And I’ve found that no matter what the controversies or issues of the day that we discuss–and argue about–on television and online, dogs are the great equalizer. Just when it feels like we are so polarized as a country between right and left, and that we can’t get along, remember that we have a few things in common–and for millions of us, that is our love for pets. Sometimes, if you can’t get along with anyone or you have strife in a relationship, find common ground through your dogs: hit the dog park and reconnect.”

Grenell shared how his dog is a great stabilizer in his life, especially during this stressful election season. “Sometimes I would take an extra walk just so I could see my dog interact with the world,” he said, describing how he would unwind at night after getting home.

During the Q&A portion, I actually got to ask a question– about work-life balance, of course. I asked her how she manages to have a busy and successful career and spend time with her dog and husband. She said she simply couldn’t do it without her husband Peter and his support and the partnership they have. 

“My favorite piece of advice from my first book is that being loved is not a career-limiting decision,” she said. “Another thing that I really believe is having a dog really helped strengthen my marriage.”

The final question from the audience was about how people of different political views get offended by each other, and therefore there’s a breakdown in communication between them. The answer? 

“Maybe everybody should just get a dog.”

And those were literally the last words of the discussion. 

The book is a touching tribute to the love of, and for, dogs, what they can teach us, how they can help us to slow down and appreciate life, and how they can bring us together even if we disagree on politics or other issues.