Jennifer Egan Shines Light on Historical Fiction
Award-winning novelist Jennifer Egan spoke at the college on Friday, March 1 as part of the fourth annual LitFest. Hosted by the literary magazine The Common, the Center for Humanistic Inquiry and the Emily Dickinson Museum, LitFest invites authors to campus every year to illuminate the college’s literary history.
Egan’s most recent novel, “Manhattan Beach,” was awarded the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, and her 2010 book “A Visit From the Goon Squad” won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. Egan’s stories have also been printed in The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine; her non-fiction work is regularly published in The New York Times Magazine.
Martha Umphrey, Bertrand H. Snell 1894 professor in American government in the department of law, jurisprudence and social thought and director of the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, introduced Egan, noting Egan’s skill in “showing her readers possibility.”
“Depth, and the movement through the world and into the beyond seem to preoccupy [Egan] as a writer,” Umphrey said.
Egan began her talk by reading an excerpt from the beginning of her historical fiction novel “Manhattan Beach” that detailed an exchange between Anna, the protagonist who later in the novel aspires to be a diver, and her father. As the father-daughter pair drives to the house of a Brooklyn gangster at the height of the Great Depression, Egan describes the nervousness in the father’s eyes and Anna’s observations on the journey.
After the brief reading, Egan joined Jennifer Acker ’00, editor-in-chief of The Common, to discuss “Manhattan Beach,” among Egan’s other writing endeavors. Acker began by comparing “Manhattan Beach” to “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” citing that both novels featured criminals among the characters. Egan responded that family members in law enforcement may have sparked an interest in criminals; her grandfather was a cop who served as former President Harry Truman’s bodyguard during his visits to Chicago.
Nonetheless, because of her choice to set “Manhattan Beach” during World War II, Egan found in her research that gangsters were difficult to avoid.
“What was really surprising was how many people knew gangsters. The word kept coming up again and again, and that is something that is not really true nowadays,” Egan said.
Acker then asked how Egan manages to allow readers to connect and sympathize with her books’ characters even though some possessed criminal backgrounds. Egan described how a writer should dive deeper than a character’s superficial traits, adding that a criminal is still a person with unique attributes.
“A fiction writer’s job is to get inside the consciousness of the people they are writing about and make the reader understand their choices,” Egan said. “When people say, ‘I didn’t like that character,’ what they really mean is that they felt alienated from that character. That is a failure on the part of the writer.”
Acker shifted focus from the characters in “Manhattan Beach” towards its setting, asking Egan if she drew novel inspiration from places she visited before. Though Egan said that places offer her a sense of inspiration regardless of whether she has visited or not, “Manhattan Beach” allowed her to transcend location and delve into a “longing for a very different moment in American history.”
After the location was set, Egan said, the characters fell into place. “Once I started, it felt like the people arrived pretty spontaneously. [The people] I don’t give a lot of thought to,” she said. “I think the best analogy would be improv.” Egan’s spontaneity in designing her characters prompted Acker to question whether that could lead Egan to create the wrong characters. Egan noted that her first drafts, where she writes more extemporaneously, is where her “wrong characters” appear; she usually cuts them from final drafts. The first draft of “Manhattan Beach,” Egan said, was 1,400 pages long. The final version had just over 400 pages.
“In fiction, I’m actually trying to create the world that I’m writing about. That only works in this forward, kind of tumbling forward, way,” Egan said.
The initial drafts of “Manhattan Beach” also needed fine tuning in their chronology, according to Egan. While “A Visit From the Goon Squad” was successful in its jump cuts between different moments in time, Egan’s writing group, which she turned to for advice, found that “Manhattan Beach” felt most alive in chronological order.
Acker afterwards asked about Egan’s tendency to write about a lot of male characters, to which Egan responded that it enabled her to envision experiences that were different from her own. In “Manhattan Beach” specifically, however, Egan found that writing about gendered issues outside of the present gave her more content to discuss inequality. The rise of the #MeToo movement, on the other hand, showed Egan that her assumption was not true.
“[Manhattan Beach] came out a month before #MeToo happened. When I was working on it, I thought, ‘Wow, I’m really lucky that I’m setting this in the 40s,’ because I wanted to write about gender and female strength, but it would be so hard to do that in contemporary times because these kinds of issues are behind us,” Egan said. “We now know that we haven’t quite solved these problems.”
To close the discussion, Egan talked about the importance of examining the World War II era. Though Egan conducted interviews with those alive during World War II for her novel research, she noted that a majority of her interviewees had passed away in recent years. “We all feel the preciousness of this period because it’s about to disappear from living memory,” she said.
The talk was followed by a Q&A session, in which Egan talked more about her writing group and compared fiction writing to journalistic writing.
Olivia Luntz ’21, who attended the event, found Egan’s integration of historical events into her fiction compelling.
“As a history major, I was really impressed by all of her historical research,” she said. “What was interesting to me was how Egan was able to use sources I had only seen as evidence in historical writing and craft a piece of literature.”