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For Novelist Jennifer Egan, 'The Joy Of Writing Is Being Delivered Out Of My Life'

Dec 18, 2017
Originally published on December 19, 2017 9:55 am
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This is FRESH AIR. Author Jennifer Egan is not afraid of experimenting with her writing. Her previous novel, "A Visit From The Goon Squad," included a 70-page chapter comprised only of PowerPoint slides. The book won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But for her latest book, Egan chose to write a more traditional historical novel. It's called "Manhattan Beach." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan included it in her top-10 list this year.

The novel takes place during World War II. Anna Kerrigan is one of hundreds of women working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as part of the war effort. She has a boring job measuring tiny parts used in shipbuilding. But she's determined to become the yard's first female deep-sea diver, doing the dangerous work of underwater repairs.

She's also recently had a run-in with a mobster named Dexter Styles, a man she remembers visiting her father when she was a child during the Depression. Her father was a bag man and has disappeared. Anna thinks Styles may know what's happened to him. Jennifer Egan spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Well, Jennifer Egan, welcome to FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: So much of this book takes place on the New York City waterfront. It's amazing how now you can walk around New York and go days or months without even thinking about the water.

EGAN: It's true. I think that was one thing that really got me excited about the waterfront. I was initially interested in New York during World War II. I think that was the first impulse, maybe dating from 9/11 when New York suddenly felt like a war zone overnight.

And as I began looking at images of New York during the war - and what struck me so forcefully was just the omnipresence of water, the sense of everything inclining out toward the edges, as opposed to now where the city seems to kind of tilt in toward the middle. And I felt like the waterfront itself basically led me into various different realms that I ended up working with in the book.

BRIGER: Your main character, Anna, is one of the many women working at the navy yard. Women got jobs there after the soldiers left and are working there as part of the war effort. So were women restricted from the certain kinds of work they were allowed to do there? Like, in your research, did you find that there were double standards in how they were treated at the yard?

EGAN: Absolutely. I mean, at the beginning - first of all, they were not allowed on ships for the first couple of years that they worked at the yard. There was a feeling that, you know, no good could come of men and women in such close quarters. Ultimately I think the women protested and were allowed on the ships, and in fact it worked very much to the advantage of the Navy Yard to have them on the ships because ships are of course very compressed spaces, and women tended to be slighter, more limber and more dexterous than the men. So female riveters and welders and plumbers actually had some real advantages on the ships over men. But that was just one example.

I mean, at the beginning, women were always what they called helpers, meaning that they were assisting someone doing whatever the job was rather than doing it themselves. But gradually it did begin to happen, especially as more and more men headed overseas.

BRIGER: Well, speaking of that, Anna wants to become a Navy diver. What kind of work did divers do at the Brooklyn Navy Yard?

EGAN: Diving was a really important part of ship repair because divers would go in and examine what was wrong with the ship from underneath. And divers would also patch ships from the outside sometimes. But also, what divers did a lot of was salvaging. Divers helped to clear out the harbors after the Germans fled and blew up lots of things to keep the allies from using the harbors. They were an extremely important part of the war effort both militarily and in a civilian setting.

BRIGER: Well, talk about the suits they wear. You actually got to try one on. These are not the sleek wetsuits that you see people wearing today. These are these giant, heavy things that - I mean, you're putting a huge metal helmet on your head.

EGAN: Yeah. I mean, these are basically the Mark V, which is the heavy gear that was worn in fact into the '60s, still. This apparatus was current - weighs about 200 pounds, and it is the iconic diving suit that any of us can picture with the big cylindrical helmet with the round window in the front and on the sides, the big, heavy boots and the lead belt.

And I did watch people dive in it, which was great. And in fact I saw someone blow up, which is what they call when the air pressure goes awry and too much air goes into the canvas part of the diving suit. The diver is spread eagled and cannot adjust the air pressure to stop the suit from blowing up, and then the diver pops to the surface like a cork.

BRIGER: There's a lot known about this period of time when there's large numbers of women entering the workforce to replace men who left for the war and how once the war was over, they were kicked out of those jobs to make room for the returning soldiers. But what did you learn about the period that's less well-known?

EGAN: For example, there was a woman named Ida that I interviewed who was a welder and extremely proud of her welding abilities and actually had some real seniority in the Navy yard by the time she was fired, like the other women, and had a lot of respect for her welding skills. And she was a working-class woman who still needed to work after the war. So she thought quite reasonably that she could be hired as a welder because she was so good at it. And she described being laughed at repeatedly when she would go to apply for welding jobs.

And that was really powerful to think about, you know, that women were told their whole lives that they could not do this kind of work then begged to do it because that's what the Rosie the Riveter campaign was all about - getting women to want to do this - and proving that they could do it really well and then mocked for even imagining that they might continue to do it.

BRIGER: While you were writing "Manhattan Beach," your brother died. He'd been struggling with schizophrenia, and he committed suicide. He was an artist, and in your acknowledgments you write that he taught you the necessity of gunpowder in any work of art. What did you mean by that?

EGAN: Well, I don't know what he - what - exactly what I mean by it or exactly what he meant by it, but he had an uncanny ability to say the right thing at the right time. I mean, he was the most reasonable crazy person you've ever met. I mean, we all - he was adored on all sides and was capable of reliably giving excellent advice.

And so I remember. It was actually when I was working on the PowerPoint chapter of "A Visit From The Goon Squad," which I was having a lot of trouble making work. And we had dinner, and he said something about how I just had to make sure I was using enough gunpowder, and it would work if I did, that that's what really mattered.

The way I took that was, I need to just let it rip a bit more. I'm not fully - I'm just - there's more energy I can unleash here. He was a wonderful person to consult with, and we had a lot in common. There are a lot of similarities between hearing voices and in a psychotic way and writing fiction - tremendous number of similarities.

BRIGER: Yeah. Well, you said that he would joke that as a writer, you were getting paid for the voices in your head, whereas he was paying to get rid of the ones in his. He was an artist, and how did his art relate to his mental illness? Did you try to get a better understanding of what was going on with him by looking at his art?

EGAN: It was impossible because his art was was quite beautiful, but it was all coded descriptions of his illness. But he would never explain the code. And so we never knew, you know? Every color had a meaning. It was all allegory, really. I sort of like that, actually. I like the thought that I have this beautiful work that contains whole messages and descriptions of his inner-life that maybe I can intuit, but I can't actually perceive them narratively.

BRIGER: Do you have his art in your house?

EGAN: Yes, I do. And I look at it all the time. And it's a wonderful keepsake. I mean, I wish he were here. And I think about him constantly. But I understand why he finally felt like he just ran out of energy to fight. He hung in there a really long time and managed to have in some ways a joyful life. But it was just terribly draining to have to contend with so much noise in his brain. And it was impossible to medicate the noise away without turning himself into a zombie. I mean, I don't know what I would have done in his place. I think he was a very strong man - very brave.

I used to say to him that he was like someone who had done, you know, eight tours in some terrible war zone. And we could sit down and have dinner and laugh, and he was very funny. But in the end, he had to go back out. He had to go back into that battlefield, and it was impossible for any of us to change that no matter how much we loved him.

BRIGER: Did his death influence the way you finished the book?

EGAN: No, I don't think so. I mean, I already knew all the important stuff by the time that happened. It did provide a tremendous solace for me, though. I really - I've never felt more the good fortune of having an alternate reality to escape into. It was such a haven for me to live in a different time among different characters.

And I also - you know, he took a lot of pride in any success that I had. He felt as if that was his success, too, I think. He was excited because he felt like we were so much the same that it was just amazing that I could do well. He couldn't believe it. It was very sweet. So you know, I knew that he would certainly want me to continue. And he would be chortling if things went well, so I just proceeded.

BRIGER: I guess it's particularly comforting that you try not to mine your life for inspiration for your books so that it's a real divorce from your reality.

EGAN: True, although there are a lot of mentally unstable characters in my books. And I'm - I think that his, you know - my love for him is everywhere present in my work. I feel such sympathy for people whose minds won't line up with the dominant mainstream consensus on what is real. I mean, it's just a tremendous handicap to have to deal with. I think about it constantly. You know, just the good luck of having sound mental health - it's just - it's such a gift. And so many people don't have it.

BRIGER: Well, Jennifer Egan, thanks for being here today.

EGAN: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Jennifer Egan's latest novel is "Manhattan Beach." She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. After a break, film critic Justin Chang will tell us what's on his 10 best list. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.