The CultureMap Interview

Jennifer Egan's new novel has special meaning in Harvey aftermath as Inprint ensures reading will go on

Jennifer Egan's new novel has special meaning in Harvey aftermath

Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan comes to Houston for the November 6 Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series at Rice University’s Stude Concert Hall. Photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem
Manhattan Beach novel by Jennifer Egan
Egan's new novel Manhattan Beach depicts New York during World War II.  Inprint courtesy photo
Jennifer Egan
Manhattan Beach novel by Jennifer Egan

See if this description feels familiar: Once there was a city of good people facing tumultuous change and besieged by outside chaos they couldn't control, yet they continued to live, strive and create. Could be a number of U.S cities today, especially Houston, right? But instead I’m describing the World War II era, 1940s New York depicted in Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jennifer Egan’s new novel Manhattan Beach.

Though it was only published last month, the book was earlier long-listed for the National Book Award, and now Houston bibliophiles have a chance to get an up close personal reading as Egan comes to town for the November 6 Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series at Rice University’s Stude Concert Hall. I recently had a chance to speak with Egan about her latest work and why her Houston visit has such meaning for her.

While the event, which also features acclaimed author Claire Messud, will occur on its scheduled date, the reading was originally planned for the Wortham Center. Inprint, like so many arts organizations who present in the Theater District, had to valiantly scramble for an alternate venue to make certain the reading would go on. Manhattan Beach seems quite the appropriate novel for this post-Harvey move as the power of water and the way humans can grow stronger during great upheavals are integral themes of the book.

An Era of Change

Taking place in the mid-1930s and then later during World War II, Manhattan Beach weaves together the story of three main characters, Anna Kerrigan, her father Eddie, and night club owner/gentleman mobster, Dexter Styles. Anna’s quest to become the first woman diver in the Brooklyn Navy Yard is one of the novel’s main plots, but the many other narrative currents bring a myriad of rich characters and stories ashore on Manhattan Beach. 

Though Egan set Manhattan Beach during the war years because she thought it a fun time to explore in her imagination, she came to see later that how 21st century America and New York survived but changed during tragedies like 9/11 and super storm Sandy had fueled her writerly urge to depict an earlier time period of great transformation.

“I felt explicitly interested in American power and the time when it amassed for the first time, American global power as we know it,” she explained. “9/11 felt like such a clear event in the trajectory of that power. The ultimate meaning of that of that event I think we’re still figuring out, and, of course,  it was also a response to that power. It led me to think about the roots of all that.”

A Sea of Contradictions

Unlike Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning last novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Manhattan Beach contains a fairly traditional structure. The novel does, however, blend genres, immersing mob noir, a life at sea tale, a poignant narrative of father/daughter relationships and a framing wartime story with Anna its stubborn, complex hero. Yet all these genres flow together to create a great sea of a book.

“I want any work of art that I create to be as many things as it can comfortably be. The idea of something just being a father daughter story, my first reaction would be: How boring,” Egan says with a laugh.

In fact, as she got deeper into the writing, Egan consciously worked to create characters and stories of contradictions.

“My idea of perfection is when I can manage two seemingly irreconcilable things at the same time,” she describes. “If something can be a sea story and a mob noir, and a domestic story but also an urban city story and a wonky technically story and a powerful human story, that’s what I like. I like it to be as many things at once. If I have a formula that would be it.”

For all its contradictory co-existing stories, the novel has a cinematic quality to it, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Scott Rudin Productions purchased the film rights. Egan seems quite elated at the prospects.

“I’m really happy because this is the most cinematic book I’ve ever written and probably that I ever will write. It would be really fun. Scott Rubin does amazing work. They’re such a high quality company, so I’m excited that they’re sort of turning their attention to this project.”

A Meaningful Visit

When artists and performers tour, many times getting in an out of a city as quickly as possible remains a high priority. Egan is decidedly not one of those artists. The author has many Houston connections and intents to take some time to visit family, an aunt and cousins while she’s here. 

“It’s always wonderful to combine a book tour with other things that have meaning,” she explains, and while her best-selling author status and her many literary fans could probably fill Stude Concert Hall on her own, she says she’s very happy to share the stage with another author, especially Messud.

“I think it’s really dynamic to read with someone else. I happen to like Claire and admire her work very much, and that was a splendid outcome, but even if it was someone I’ve never read before, I do get sick of the sound of my own voice. It’s nice to have another point of view in the mix and a conversation when possible.”

Jennifer Egan and Claire Messud  appear November 6 at Rice University’s Stude Concert Hall for the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.