Jennifer Egan is a famous novelist these days. Her 2010 novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize right after, catapulting Egan to international literary stardom. Sudden fame, among other factors, made writing her next novel harder.
"I was well aware," says Egan, "that a lot of writers don't have that opportunity even once in their career, much less twice, so I figured, this is my shot, and I tried to really maximize it. What that meant was that while I had been researching Manhattan Beach since 2004 in fits and starts, I didn't really sit down to write it in earnest until after the New Year in 2012."
She felt pressure due to the success of Goon Squad, plus she had to spend a lot of time promoting the book that she might have otherwise used to write. And she had two small children. And Manhattan Beach is Egan's first historical novel, meaning it presented a whole set of new—though ultimately exciting—challenges.
At one point, she continued, "I really thought I just may not have it in me to do this, and may have moved too far outside of my skill set."
The novel, set in 1930s and '40s New York, follows Anna Kerrigan, a young woman whose father struggles to support his wife and two daughters, one of whom is severely disabled—and his work leads him into New York's underworld. By the time Anna's grown, her father has mysteriously disappeared, and WWII opens the opportunity for Anna to become the first female civilian diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, while she also dives deeper into her father's disappearance.
Casting her imagination back to midcentury wasn't easy for Egan. "I begin with a time and a place, but no characters or plot," says Egan. "Even though I had vague notions of areas of interest, like diving and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I really didn't know what my story was. I didn't know what specific things I needed to know."
Getting to the heart of her characters required more than simply knowing about 1940s New York: "There's a kind of deep engagement that I need to feel with characters that requires a lot more than knowing what they're wearing. It requires, especially, a sense of what the past is for them."
That meant researching not just the past but the past of the past. "What I realized with a kind of dawning horror," Egan says, "was that it was really about feeling deeply what the past would be for people of all ages alive in that time. What are people thinking about? What are they reacting against? What are they nostalgic for? What is the collective memory? Both superficially and deeply."
It took her about two years until, she says, "I felt the research coalescing in my brain." In the third year, she was able to begin really writing, and, she says, "It was just thrilling to feel versatile and transported into another time." In the process, Egan caught the historical fiction bug: "It was totally worth the two years of suffering—in fact, I want it again."