Jennifer Egan on her New Book Manhattan Beach and Being a God
"I just wanted to write a book that addressed the issue of female power, which I felt like I had never done."
Jennifer Egan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, laughs when I tell her that if there is a God, He/She/They/It is a lot like her. Obviously, she disagrees (what reasonable person wouldn’t?), but Manhattan Beach, her latest novel, makes a pretty compelling argument for my thesis. It follows a young woman, her estranged father and a New York gangster whose lives interconnect during the Second World War. Set in a time when America was both becoming a superpower and planting the seeds of its present decline, the novel epitomizes how the specific is universal. (Would you believe that women are still facing discrimination in the workplace? And most aren’t trying to become divers for the navy, like the novel’s hero is.) But it’s not so much what Egan wrote that seems godlike—it’s how she writes.
I understand why Egan might balk at my analogy, even though all authors are deity-esque: They build worlds, give life, travel through time and are essentially omniscient and omnipotent among their creations. Still, if you’re picking an author/god, you can’t do much better than Egan. Her characters aren’t constrained by plot or flattened by the responsibility of representing lofty ideas. You get the sense that she cares about them, even as they surprise her. She’ll maintain that she’s too instinctive to be godlike. And her writing style—quickly scribbling out a first draft in longhand to see what she has to work with—seems more intuitive than designed. But maybe that’s the way a god should be. It makes for a hell of a read either way.
FASHION: You’ve been doing press for Manhattan Beach for a month. How’s it going?
Jennifer Egan: “I have a high capacity to talk about a book, and I haven’t even gotten close with this new one. I feel like there is some element of the process that I don’t really understand until I talk about it. When I write, I’m trying to make the book good but I’m not necessarily thinking more than I need to about what it is.”
Dan Savage once said that it is only after the book tour that he is able to distill what the book is about. He almost wishes he could write the book after the book tour.
“I wouldn’t go that far, because thinkyness can just get in the way of the spirit, life and animation of the material. To me, they really are two different parts of the brain. I think I could have had a very happy career as an academic, studying and writing about literature. In a way, it’s important for me, as a writer, to turn that off to some degree because there’s a certain self-awareness that you want—but not too much.”
What’s your process?
“I start with a time and a place, and there also has to be some idea or question. With Manhattan Beach, it was less theoretical than it was for some of my earlier books. I was more interested in the trajectory of America as a superpower: where it started and the why and how and what that felt like. And then I just wanted to write a book that addressed the issue of female power, which I felt like I had never done. My books seem to skew male for selfish reasons: I like writing about men because it lifts me out of my own life. My first draft, which is instinctive, unpredictable and often unsuccessful, gets me my material. What I’m looking for are the people. There’s always the danger that the characters will just be products of ideas. That can still be really good, but, in my opinion, those aren’t the books you just have to read; they are the books you enjoy reading, that you are nourished by, but there isn’t that sort of heart-ripping quality that matters more than anything else.
If it’s instinctual, how concerned are you with endings?
“I never think about that. I follow the contours of the story. Sometimes I’ll just have a sense that things will have to end a certain way. Most often, my basic feeling is that if I can think of it, then it shouldn’t happen. I’m trying to find the endings I haven’t thought of until the moment of truth—until I’m actually writing.”
You’re very generous with your characters. Are you that way with people in your own life?
“I hope so. I think I’m empathetic, possibly to a fault. If I’m rooting for a team that wins or seems to be winning, I will start to identify with the people who are losing and feel bad for them. It sounds so corny. It’s not like ‘Ooh, it’s too bad they have to lose.’ It’s more like I’m really imagining what that loss feels like. And it makes it hard to experience the pure sensation of winning.”
Do you read people well?
“I feel pretty connected to other people—in my imagination, anyway. It’s not like I have any great radar for people. I routinely make judgments and then am amazed to find that I’m completely wrong. I do worry a lot about people feeling pain, and I try to be humane. It’s my belief system. I’m not religious, but there are all kinds of little moments when we can make other people feel better. I can be a bitch—don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly impatient. So it’s not like I’m a saint, believe me. I can be rude, but I guess as I get older, I am more aware of my small power to make someone’s day better and I try to use that in whatever way I can. Because I’m very aware that life is really tough. My brother, whom I grew up with and was very close to, committed suicide about a year ago. He was schizophrenic, and struggling with him was one of the main undertakings of my life. We were very much alike. Schizophrenia is a very creative disease in a lot of ways. You’re hearing voices—well, that’s kind of what I do. But I had the good luck and he had the bad luck. And he struggled just to get through the day. When I walk around, I’m viscerally aware of the presence of people just struggling to get through the day, and they are everywhere.”
Do you feel that one of your jobs, as a novelist, is to try to make your readers more empathetic?
“I never think about that, but I know there are studies that show that reading literature does increase empathy. I’m not sure any art form can take you as deep inside someone else’s thinking as fiction can. With a movie, you are just inherently on the outside looking in at someone. I think literature has that potential, but I don’t think of it in those terms. I just try to write something good, and I think if a writer succeeds at that, in some sense there’s a kind of contribution to the empathy bank, but it’s not my immediate concern. Do-goodism is really great but totally dull as an artistic concern.”