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Interview With Jennifer Egan

The Pulitzer Prize winner on historical fiction, motherhood, and meditation.

I admit it: I was a little bit afraid to read Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan’s new novel. I loved A Visit From the Goon Squad so much—as a reader and a writer—that I was afraid I couldn’t possibly love this novel. And, I didn’t. I found new reasons to admire and enjoy this historical narrative set during World War II. Each time I opened this book, I felt as if I was opening a door into a world I wanted to be in, to spend time with real people I wanted to know more about.

Not surprisingly, Egan spent five years researching this novel before she began writing. Here’s more from my conversation with Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan:

Simon & Schuster
Source: Simon & Schuster

Jennifer Haupt: Your novels are all quite different from each other. Is that by design?

Jennifer Egan: I suppose it is by design. I spend so long writing each of my novels that by the time I’m done with one I’m ready to discover a totally different world. Historical fiction was new for me and I loved doing the research. I spent a lot of time—years, actually—talking with people and reading about Manhattan Beach in the 1930s and 1940s before I could inhabit that world with my own characters.

JH: Why that time period and why Manhattan Beach?

JE: After 9/11, the U.S. seemed vulnerable for the first time in a long time. We were no longer the superpower that no other country could touch. I thought, when and how did that dominance begin? I became fascinated with the period during World War II when the U.S. became a dominant force in the world.

I also wanted to write a story about the ocean, the power of looking out onto this vast body of water and all the possibilities it held.

JH: This book is also different because there’s a marked lack of the technology that was such a big theme in your other three novels.

JE: I wanted to depict a time before technology connected us. I grew up in the 70s, when people talked on the phone—and just talked more. I remember the phone was the epicenter of our house. I spent hours every evening as a teenager waiting for the phone to ring and talking to my friends. Before the age of technology, it was also easier to just disappear from the face of the earth, like Anna’s father does.

JH: How do you choose the bones of a novel, the basics, knowing you may spend 10 years in that world, with those characters? How did you begin this novel?

JE: I always start with a time period, and then the characters grow out of that. I knew one character was a mobster. And then, I learned that divers were a big part of taking care of the battleships, so one of the characters became a woman diver. Once the main characters came to me, the plot grew out of their stories—how they grew up, their families, and what they had to do to survive during a tough economic time in our country.

JH: How do your characters come to you? How does that process work?

JE: They always come to me fully formed. I can’t explain how it happens, it just does. When they arrive, I know them completely.

JH: A Visit from the Goon Squad was so successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize. Did that make it more challenging to begin a new novel?

JE: I felt unbelievably lucky to have the success I did with Goon Squad, and I also felt the pressure of how fleeting that success can be. I wanted to use that opportunity to its fullest extent, to build an international audience, and I spent about two years on promotion. I always teach that in order to be a great writer you need to flex those muscles regularly, and I forgot to do that.

When I started writing the manuscript for Manhattan Beach, I wrote some truly bad chapters. In fact, the first draft was, overall, horrible. Bad descriptions, stiff dialogue. That’s pretty normal but then the second draft was also bad. It was pretty depressing, realizing how rusty I was. It took me about two years to get back up to speed.

JH: How will you balance your creative work and book promotion, and being the mom of two boys, this time around?

JE: That’s a good question! My sons are older now, 15 and 17, so they’re pretty self-reliant. That’s liberating. I’ve been doing some journalistic writing, but soon I’m going to make time for fiction again. I don’t want to ever get rusty again, and I don’t want to wait as long to get another novel out. It’s not fair to my readers.

JH: Do you have a fiction project in mind to work on next?

JE: A few years ago (2012) I wrote a short story, "Black Box," which was a spy thriller, as a series of tweets. I’m hoping to use that story as the foundation for another book along the lines of Goon Squad. I think of that book as something between a novel and a collection of connected short stories. I’d like to see if I can make that structure work again.

I also have an idea for a historical novel set in New York in the 1960s, that’s another time period I’m fascinated with. I’d like to see what kind of characters come out of that.

JH: Was there a question you were trying to answer as you wrote this novel?

JE: I always explore whether or not people can change, whether they can escape the circumstances of their past. Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t. Without giving too much away, in this novel I was surprised and a little heartbroken by some of the outcomes.

JH: What’s the one true thing you learned from one of your characters?

JE: I can’t say which character I learned this from without giving away too much, but I did learn the importance of allowing your children to become independent adults. That’s something I struggle with as a mom. I want my two boys to always be safe and cared for—and letting go is hard.

I also learned the importance of meditation. The water has a meditative quality for several characters, one in particular. I don’t personally meditate, but it seems wonderful, this process of getting out of your body and all of the things that create pressure and worries. I suppose that’s why I write all of my first drafts of fiction works by long-hand, to get out of my head and away from my inner critic.

JH: Don’t you think, in a way, that writing fiction is a meditative process?

JE: Yes, I do. Totally!