Shortlist Spotlight: Jennifer Egan

30th April, 2018

We asked Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Manhattan Beach, about how she feels to be shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize.  Read her delightful answers below!

Q: What do you think about being shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction?  Do you see yourself as a historical novelist?

I am ecstatic about being shortlisted.  I found historical fiction to be the biggest writing challenge of my career—partly because, since I never write autobiographically, I’m very reliant on times and places from my own life as points of connection to my work.  This time, I had no points of connection.  I felt so ill-qualified to tell the story I was trying to tell that at many points I thought of abandoning the novel.  But when it finally became fun—when I finally knew enough to be able to move around in the period and avail myself of the technical knowledge I’d sweated to acquire, it was a thrill beyond any I’ve experienced.  I definitely plan to write at least one more historical novel, set in 19thCentury America.  I’m hooked!

  Q: How did the people and times you write about in this novel first lodge in your imagination?

For me, it starts with time and place:  in this case, Depression and World War II-era New York.  Between 2005 and 2010, while I was writing other books, I was also interviewing elderly New Yorkers and people who had worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, who were then in their 80’s.  I also read novels and letters from the period.  In some sense, the characters in Manhattan Beach arose pretty directly from that immersion.  But it’s one of the quirks of my writing process, which begins very unconsciously, and by hand, that I don’t really see or hear the characters—or name them—until I begin to write a first draft.  I’m looking to be surprised by what I write as I write it.

Q: What role does research have in your writing?  When does the fiction take over from the facts?

There was a period of journalistic, or experiential, research that took place between 2005 and 2010, and probably suggested certain elements of the story.  Once I began writing, in 2012, I also began researching in a more directed (and sometimes more frantic!) way—trying to get ready to write scenes that simply couldn’t be written, even crudely, without research.  The story itself is entirely made up, but because it involves so many people doing various kinds of work—shipyard workers; divers; mobsters; nightclub owners; merchant sailors—I had to be fairly expert in a number of realms in order to write a word.  That was incredibly challenging.

Q: Do you think that writing about the past is important for society?

I think we’d all do well to think more carefully about the past than we do.  Especially in America, people seem to operate in a sort of continuous present; everything seems new, all the time, when in fact much of what happens conforms to patterns that are visible throughout history.  In the sense that good historical fiction invites those comparisons, I think it can raise consciousness in important ways.