Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach was among 10 works of fiction on the National Book Foundation’s long list for the 2017 National Book Award.
Not too shabby, right?
Egan told Nerdette that an early draft was so bad that she almost scrapped the whole thing.
“I probably came as close to abandoning this as I have to any project I’ve worked on,” Egan told Nerdette co-host Greta Johnsen. “Because I could see that it was bad, and I could also see that — to make it good — I was going to have to work so unbelievably hard.”
Egan, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for A Visit from the Goon Squad, explained how she researched her way through self-doubt to finish Manhattan Beach, a historical novel rooted in the mafia crime rings of the early 20th century. Greta also talked to Egan about one of her nerd obsessions: Out of place buildings. Below are highlights from the conversation.
On the challenge of writing ‘Manhattan Beach’
Jennifer Egan: There’s a really strange way in which books become artifacts and they seem to lose their connection to human life once they’re between covers. Even I feel that. So when I finally get into the next book and find that I’m struggling, I try to persuade myself that it was just as hard the last time, but it’s very hard to believe it.
A Visit from the Goon Squad was sort of the best I could do. There were things I tried that didn’t work that I’m still bummed about. It was the best I could pull together when the time came to publish it. It had a kind of thrown together quality for me then, but it sure doesn’t feel that way now.
So it cast a very long shadow over me as I worked on this and knew that this book was really not going well for a long period. I would have thoughts like, “Not one thing about this is as good as Goon Squad.”
You know, if you had a boss who talked to you that way, you would quit.
Greta Johnsen: Or I would just cry a lot.
Egan: Well, I did that. [Laughs] But I’m not very supportive to myself. And the solitary-ness of writing becomes a real issue in these moments, because I’m all I’ve got. And I don’t help myself sometimes.
Why she didn’t abandon ‘Manhattan Beach’
Egan: The reason I stuck with it was it really had everything to do with the research. Because no matter how badly I felt about the text itself as it existed for me at that time — at various times — I always felt electrified by the research, no matter how wonky or arcane. So if I could be at Crunch gym reading a book called How To Abandon Ship, written in 1942, and be riveted to the point where I was on the elliptical for 10 extra minutes? That was a good sign.
On the advantage of forgetting how hard something was
Egan: I think sometimes it’s good to just not know how hard things will be. This is true for so many processes — in no way is this limited to writing fiction. I mean, there are so many projects we embark on naively, and thank god. Sometimes you only know how hard it’s going to be when some of the work is done.
It really is like that. I was skiing with my kids once and we were on this hill that was really too steep for us. We got a third of the way down and my youngest was crying and he said, “I can’t. I can’t do the rest.” And I said, “Look up.” And he looked back up at this very steep part that we had already come down. And I said, “We already did that much!”
I don’t mean to be simplistic, but that’s kind of how it is. It’s how it is with writing, too.
Jennifer Egan’s Nerd Obsession: Out of place buildings
Egan: What I’m specifically interested in are little buildings that don’t have a storied history. I know that there are ways to find out about these buildings that involves much more deep record research, some of which I think are findable online, but it’s certainly not as simple as Googling.
Right now, what I find is just that I’m riveted by them. It has completely changed the way I walk around New York, and I’ve lived here since 1987. My eye is always looking for these little revenants of the 19th century because, little-by-little, this city is really changing. It’s changed a lot just since I’ve lived here. So I think that’s part of what drives this curiosity.
But then there are these little buildings that resist change — and it’s mind-boggling. Like, who refused to sell? And why? Those are stories I’m dying to find out about.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was produced and adapted for the web by Justin Bull.