Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad in 2011, it was many readers’ first time hearing her name. Known previously for her 2006 novel The Keep and her earlier, less well-known works Emerald City, The Invisible Circus, and Look at Me, Egan was propelled into well-earned literary stardom by her receipt of the reward, and has remained an important figure in American letters ever since.
Egan’s work is often experimental in its structure and form, though it’s rarely difficult to follow. A Visit from the Goon Squad, according to Egan herself, occupies the weird space between a short story collection and a novel. Chapters are fragmented, dispersed, and describe different points in time in ways that attempt to counter the inherent linearity of written text (which Egan calls ‘the weird scourge of writing prose’), and perspectives alter liberally and often without explanation. As such, there’s lots Egan can teach budding writers about the forms, limits, and conventions of fiction.
I was lucky enough to see Egan speak about her new book, Manhattan Beach, a novel about (among other things) the sea, at this year’s Texas Book Festival, and she was kind enough to share many details about her own creative process. Hearing intelligent, successful, and skilled writers speak about the secrets behind their own books is always a treat, and many of her tips and insights were both fascinating and useful. Enjoy!
1. Persistence and research are key
Writing can be a difficult thing to sit down to every day, particularly if you hit a wall. So I thought, but Egan seems to disagree – she always begins, she says, with a time and a place. For Manhattan Beach, the place is New York City and the time is during World War Two. Of course, time and place do not in themselves spout award-winning narratives; no, these come, according to Egan, through persistence and patience. You have to follow every idea as far as it will go.
Squeezing ideas until they’re dry is, by necessity, tied to the quality of your research, and, as you may have guessed, Egan therefore begins research before she even knows what she’s going to be writing about. Having decided she was interested in World War Two and New York City, Egan began researching the text that would, in ten years or so, become Manhattan Beach – she visited archives; read shipping manuals, historical documents, period novels, and technical charts; and spoke to veterans, historians, experts, dock workers, and seamen. She even turned up to a veterans’ reunion on the docks and tried on a gigantic World-War-Two-era diving suit.Write about your interests and research becomes far easier.Click To Tweet
It was only during this research (undertaken for enjoyment and genuine interest as much as anything else) that story lines, themes, and characters began to emerge. Egan speaks of hearing about a Russian female diver, something unheard of in the US, and being inspired then to explore the experiences of American women during the war.
Of course, for every amazing anecdote that shapes the novel, dozens more had to be left by the roadside. Egan speaks of knowing which ideas are worth developing, and which you have to let go of. This is a matter of instinct.
2. Work instinctively, then revise
Opinion is sharply split (even among famous writers) about how useful planning is. Some writers agonize over every word, desperate to ensure that everything is doing something, while others splurge and then go back to edit later on. Egan falls more or less into the latter camp, and her methods are fascinating.
Egan writes the very first draft longhand, and barely pauses to breathe. Running entirely off of instinct and her deep knowledge of her topic (gained through her rigorous research), Egan will get it all down, forming the rough, shaky structure of the text. You see now why research is so important to Egan’s process: she has to know enough about her subject matter to move around loosely and playfully within it. There has to be an energy; Egan says that her first few idle drafts of Manhattan Beach were discarded because she didn’t feel comfortable enough with the subject, meaning her prose felt stiff and humorless. As anyone who’s read a finished Egan novel knows, this is never the case in the final draft.
It’s only after that first longhand draft is complete that the typing, planning, and plotting begin. Draft after draft follows, with additional plot outlines, analyses, and ideas coming thick and fast. Surprise, Egan says, is a great thing to feel when you’re writing. It’s a sign your instinct and subconscious are working hard.
It has been said that the most difficult part of writing is starting, and Egan’s method seems poised to counter that fact. Give it a go!
3. Liminal moments are inherently dramatic
Liminal moments – that is, moments of transition or the crossing/occupation of thresholds – can be relied upon to provide bursts of thrilling drama in any work of fiction. This sounds obvious when it’s spelled out, but it’s something many writers never consciously put their fingers on.
One of the difficulties Egan faced when writing Manhattan Beach that she didn’t face with A Visit from the Goon Squad was structure. Her earlier novel, with its fragmented, dissolute arrangement, didn’t have to concern itself with such things as forward momentum, three-act structures, or climactic moments. Manhattan Beach, being a more traditional narrative, relied upon these things. Egan was forced to consider drama as a means of encouraging reader engagement.The liminal moments in your story are full of potential conflict.Click To Tweet
The liminal moments, settings, and scenarios in Manhattan Beach are plentiful. Eddie’s movement between rich stockbroker and poor bagman; Anna’s position on the cusp of womanhood; the border between the land and the sea; the trembling line between war and peace; Lydia’s position on the threshold of human experience (severely physically disabled, Lydia is able to observe the world around her but cannot communicate).
Once you’re looking for liminal moments, you’ll see them in every work of dramatic fiction.
4. Don’t be afraid to try new things
The meaning of ‘trying new things’ is twofold: one the one hand, there’s the type of formal innovation and theory-driven experimentation that defined Egan’s early work, but on the other, there’s deviation from what you’ve done before. When she first began conceptualizing Manhattan Beach, Egan figured it would be as innovative as her previous works:
I thought the book would connect to 9/11, which I felt was the end of something, or at least an important event in a trajectory that had begun with the rise of America as a superpower at the end of world war two, and so there would be these leaps into the future, i.e. into our present.
– Jennifer Egan, in The Guardian
It was only after her initial drafts proved ‘dead on arrival’ that she realized she didn’t have to continue producing ‘experimental’ or formally daring fiction. For her, experimenting meant trying something new: the traditional novel. And so Manhattan Beach is a fairly straightforward, linear historical novel that has been called ‘a Victorian novel by any other name.’
It’s easy to decide you’re a writer who does a certain thing; maybe you’ve so far written only short stories set in Tudor England, or else experimental Gene Wolfe- and Phillip K. Dick-esque science fiction. Deviating can be scary, but it can also free you from stagnation and enliven your writing. ‘I finally admitted to myself I was sick of all that so-called innovation,’ says Egan, ‘and that it would be a relief to get rid of it.’
5. Attend a writing group
The most striking thing I learned from Egan’s talk at Texas Book Festival was that she attends a writing group. She’s done this for the past ten years or so, and considers it invaluable. I personally can’t imagine how crushing it would be to bring a rough manuscript to a writing group frequented by Jennifer Egan, but I suppose I don’t know who else is in this group!
Egan claims that her writing group helps her decide whether her material feels ‘alive’. Originally, she says, Manhattan Beach was going to play with time in a similar way to A Visit from the Goon Squad – it was only after she’d brought several limp chapters to her writing group that her peers’ disapproval finally sank in and she started over.Writing groups offer vital feedback, even for masters of the craft.Click To Tweet
Part of the writing group’s utility is apparently the host of different writers who attend. There are fiction writers, poets, essayists, and playwrights, and so everyone has a uniquely trained ear and something different to contribute. Don’t be afraid to share your work, even at an early stage – early criticism can help fish out dead paragraphs and let you know what’s worth following.
Put it all to use
Seeing a writer as accomplished as Jennifer Egan speak is always inspiring, and I learned a lot from her talk at the Texas Book Festival. Her affection for things as quaint and archaic as writing groups and longhand writing provide new perspectives on the modern writing process, and remind readers and writers alike that Egan is someone worth paying attention to. So close your laptop, pull out your notebook (the old-fashioned kind!), call some writer friends, and see what you can come up with.
Which is your favorite of Jennifer Egan’s novels? What lessons did you personally glean from her work? Let me know in the comments. Or, for more great advice on this topic, check out How To Write About Video Games In Fiction (where I talk about Egan’s modular approach to narrative) and 6 Secrets To Writing A Thrilling Argument – Part 1 (in which Rob dissects her excellent depiction of verbal sparring).