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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Fulfillment Vs. Success: 5 Tips for Achieving Your Dreams From the La Jolla Writers Conference

1. You have to really want it and never give up.

That was the message of the 16th Annual La Jolla Writers Conference (LJWC), where I spent the day on Saturday. Not only am I now filled with inspiration and motivation to keep going, but I also took pages and pages of notes on practical tips to make my book better and advance my writing career.

The main lessons I learned though are applicable to and important for everyone, not just writers.

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Andrew Peterson, author of the bestselling Nathan McBride series, was one of the keynotes at the event. During his lunchtime conversation with Grace Doyle, his editor at Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer, he shared that he wrote 5 novels before writing the one that got published.

When he wrote his first Nathan McBride book, he gave it to an editor friend for advice. The editor said he loved the character but the book just didn’t work, and he asked him if he would write another one (from scratch) featuring Nathan McBride.

“How badly do I want this?”

That’s what Peterson kept asking himself, and he encouraged us all to do the same.

“You have to really, really want it.”

So he wrote a completely new book, and it sold 2 million copies (digital and print combined). Five others have followed since then.

Lissa Price shared a similar story in her query workshop later in the afternoon. She told us to just keep it at. It was the third manuscript she wrote that got her a 2-book deal from Random House, which become the bestselling YA books Starters and Enders.

2. Seek out help.

But it wasn’t just toiling away on his own, Peterson said to Doyle. “I also sought out help.” That is a consistent message from anyone who has gone after their dreams and succeeded.

For writers, he said that begins with finding other writers to get feedback from, getting advice from editors, and attending conferences like the LJWC for guidance throughout your career.

3. The First Draft Is Usually Bad. That’s OK. 

One of my favorite lectures of the day was Books Aren’t Written, They’re Rewritten by Martha Lawrence. She began with the premise of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft.” You have to assume that your first attempt won’t be great, and then you have to make it what you want it to be.

I feel like that goes for anything in life. We need to be OK with our first try at something being just that, a first try, and keep polishing and editing and trying again until we are proud of what we’ve done.

(Lawrence gave us a 6-step strategy to edit the “shitty first draft.” It was really an excellent lecture, and for the writers out there, you can buy audio recordings of all the lectures from the La Jolla Writer’s Conference).

4. Fulfillment Is Not the Same Thing As Success

The highlight of the event, which was the perfect end to an inspiring day, was Deeanne Gist’s uplifting keynote speech at dinner.

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She began with a quote from Tony Robinson:

“Success and achievement without fulfillment is failure.” 

She shared her own journey of discovering what success means to her, and what success does not mean: It doesn’t mean chasing status on lists, more social media followers, and it certainly doesn’t mean comparing herself with other authors.

“Success is subjective,” she said.

Right now, for her, success means writing the best possible book that she can write. And to do that, it’s all about working on her craft.

“Fulfillment comes from writing a complete book. Typing THE END, and knowing I did my best.”

success-fulfillment-deeanne-gist-quote

5. Learn Your Craft

She used the analogy of Michael Jordan. He can be the best player ever, but if he doesn’t learn the rules, he doesn’t get to play basketball.

“And the same goes for you, and for me,” she said.

When she first began her journey as a writer, it took her three years to write the first book that got published because she was so intent on perfecting her craft. (And to echo what Peterson and Price said earlier in the day about persistence, she finished that book in 1997, and it sold in 2004. Again, you have to really, really want it.)

Some of the things she did to work on her craft, and encourages writers to do, is to attend conferences like LJWC, find critique groups that work for you, listen to podcasts, read how-to books, books in your genre, join writers groups, go to talks and lectures… and, of course:

“The most important thing you can do to improve your craft is to write.”

She ended her inspiring speech with a call for us all to reflect on what success really means to us. “Tying your self-worth to achievement is risky business,” she said.