In 'Manhattan Beach,' Jennifer Egan Dives Deep Into WWII New York City | KERA News

In 'Manhattan Beach,' Jennifer Egan Dives Deep Into WWII New York City

Oct 5, 2017
Originally published on October 5, 2017 6:59 pm

In 2011, Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad. Years before that book came out, Egan had begun researching the 1930s and '40s in New York City. Her new novel, Manhattan Beach, is the result of that research. It follows a father, his daughter and a gangster whose lives intersect in New York around World War II.

The daughter, Anna, becomes the first woman to work as a deep-sea diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which presented a particular kind of challenge for Egan: In reality, there were no women divers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

She says, "One of the big technical challenges of my storytelling was: How can I do justice to what I know would've been a very, very poisonous atmosphere ... while also making it credible that she actually becomes a diver? And in a way, what came to my rescue was the fact that it was wartime and all kinds of things were happening then that would not happen at a normal time."


Interview Highlights

On consulting with Andrea Motley Crabtree, the first female U.S. Army deep-sea diver

She was extremely helpful to me in understanding the difficulty of being a female diver. I mean, diving is a very physical undertaking, and so she was very articulate about the challenges of doing that as a woman, and especially the prejudice that she encountered. Men did not want her there and they made that very clear. There were certain exceptions, but she ultimately had a sad feeling about her diving career in that she felt that she would have liked to continue with it but that it was uncomfortable because she was a woman.

On learning first-hand how physically demanding deep-sea diving was at the time

There's a very strong association of veteran Army divers, and one of the things that they offer to their members is the chance to wear the old Mark V diving suit. The Mark V is the iconic diving suit with the cylindrical metal helmet, the big bulky profile, the metal shoes. Anyone would recognize it. And for a very long time, through the Vietnam War, that was the costume that was worn for diving.

And so I had a chance to put this on. It felt excruciatingly heavy. There was a tremendous amount of pressure right at the top of my shoulders. ... I was thrilled to have the experience of being in it, and yet I couldn't have wanted it off any more.

On visiting the Brooklyn Navy Yard with a man who worked there during World War II

One visit that I remember vividly was with the husband of a woman whose correspondence I had read at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Her name was Lucille Kolkin, and she married a guy named Alfred Kolkin, whom she met while they were both working at the Navy Yard. They had this huge romance, and then he joined the Navy and she wrote passionate, colorful, wonderful letters to him.

I was so excited by this woman that I ended up writing an essay about the experience of reading her letters, and that she had passed away by then. I received an email after the essay was published and the subject line was, "I am Lucy's daughter." And so that occasioned a visit to the Navy Yard with Lucy's two daughters and their family members and Al, Lucy's husband, who by then was in his late 80s. (He just passed away.) ...

So it was amazing to go into the machine shop, Building 128, where Al had worked as a machinist many, many years before. He had not been back. The machine shop, when he had been there, was, of course, full of machinery and noise and chaos. Now it was completely empty with a big, strong, cold wind blowing through it. And to watch that man standing there with his walker looking around this empty space was really a profound experience.

On why she almost gave up writing Manhattan Beach

I would go so far as to say that I mostly write terrible things. I mean, my first drafts are so appalling. I think, "Ugh, there's no way I can possibly get there." With this book, more than any other, I thought very seriously about abandoning it, [that] I may have just picked a situation in which I'm so ill-informed in virtually every area that the book takes place, that I cannot cross over to make this work. It was such a thrill to finally feel like I had imbibed enough information that it felt natural to me. It felt like time travel actually. It was really fun, and I even want to do it again, which is something I never thought I would hear myself say.

Jessica Cheung and Becky Sullivan produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Sydnee Monday and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In 2011, the novelist Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her book "A Visit From The Goon Squad." Years before it came out, Egan began researching New York City in the 1930s and '40s. And that research wound up in her new novel, "Manhattan Beach." The book is about a father, his daughter and a gangster whose lives intersect in New York City around World War II.

"Manhattan Beach" was just long-listed for the National Book Award. Egan sat down to talk about it with my co-host Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Your main character becomes the first woman to work as a deep sea diver in Brooklyn's Navy Yard during World War II. And in the acknowledgements of the book, you write that you spoke with the first female U.S. Army deep sea diver. Her name is Andrea Motley Crabtree. Tell me about her.

JENNIFER EGAN: She was extremely helpful to me in understanding the difficulty of being a female diver. I mean diving is a very physical undertaking, and so she was very articulate about the challenges of doing that as a woman and especially the prejudice that she encountered. Men did not want her there, and they made that very clear. There were certain exceptions. But she ultimately had a sad feeling about her diving career in that she felt that she would have liked to continue with it but that it was uncomfortable because she was a woman.

SHAPIRO: Did any of the kind of hazing experiences that she described to you find her way into this book?

EGAN: Yes. I mean that was - one of the big technical challenges of my storytelling was, how can I do justice to what I know would have been a very, very poisonous atmosphere? And in fact no women actually did dive at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, so it never even happened. How can I do justice to that while also making it credible that she actually becomes a diver? And in a way, what came to my rescue was the fact that it was wartime, and all kinds of things were happening then that would not happen at a normal time.

SHAPIRO: One of the challenges is physical. This is a suit that weighs more than 200 pounds. And you write in the acknowledgements that you actually tried one of these suits on.

EGAN: I did. I was so lucky. You know, there's a very strong association of veteran Army divers. And one of the things that they offer to their members is the chance to wear the old Mark V diving suit. The Mark V is the iconic diving suit with the cylindrical metal helmet, the big, bulky profile, the metal shoes. Anyone would recognize it. And for a very long time, through the Vietnam War, that was the costume that was worn for diving. And so I had a chance to put this on. It felt excruciatingly heavy. There was a tremendous amount of pressure right at the top of my shoulders. And it was just...

SHAPIRO: You describe that in the book.

EGAN: Yeah. I was thrilled to have the experience of being in it, and yet I couldn't have wanted it off any more.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: You visited Brooklyn's Navy Yard in the present day, which looks absolutely different from the way it looked during World War II. And you went there with some of these people who worked there during the war who are now in their 90s. What was that experience like?

EGAN: It was really, really amazing. One visit that I remember vividly was with the husband of a woman whose correspondence I had read at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Her name was Lucille Kolkin, and she married a guy named Alfred Kolkin whom she met while they were both working at the Navy Yard. And they had this huge romance. And then he joined the Navy, and she wrote passionate, colorful, wonderful letters to him. I was so excited by this woman that I ended up writing an essay about the experience of reading her letters and that - she had passed away by then. And I received an email after the essay was published, and the subject line was, I am Lucy's daughter.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

EGAN: And so that occasioned a visit to the Navy Yard with Lucy's two daughters and their family members and Al, Lucy's husband, who by then was in his late-80s. So it was amazing to go into the machine shop, Building 128, where Al had worked as a machinist many, many years before. He had not been back. The machine shop when he had been there was of course full of machinery and noise and chaos. Now it was completely empty with a big, strong, cold wind blowing through it. And to watch that man standing there so - with his walker, looking around this empty space, was really a profound experience.

SHAPIRO: So I'm curious. You do years of research about World War II, about Navy divers, about New York City and the mob. And at what point do you say, OK, so here's the novel; here's the story; here's what I'm going to do with all this research?

EGAN: I tend to start with no more than a time and a place, and I don't actually know what my plot is or who exactly the characters are. So not having a story, it was very unclear exactly what I needed to research. As I wrote and I felt certain things happening in the story and I tend - I write by hand to try to locate in my unconscious some good ideas that I can't...

SHAPIRO: Really, with a pen and paper?

EGAN: I write with pen and paper, my first draft, on legal pads. In this case, it was 27 legal pads as I numbered them.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

EGAN: And it's in the course of writing that, of course, very sloppy and chaotic draft in which characters names even change because I've forgotten what their names were in the first place...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

EGAN: ...That's where I get some decent ideas. If I just sit down and think gee, what should the story be, I'll just come up with things anyone would have thought of.

SHAPIRO: Some of your earlier novels have been really structurally daring. Why did you decide to make this one a pretty traditional form for a novel?

EGAN: Well, that wasn't my first choice.

SHAPIRO: Really?

EGAN: I had big plans for all the crazy structural things I was going to do with this book.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

EGAN: What I found was that every single time I tried to leap out of the present into the future, which was a technique I used a lot in a "Visit From The Goon Squad" - every time I did it in this book, it was worse than bad. It was actually annoying.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

EGAN: So I had to recognize that I was telling a story that could not live in a tricky structural form. It really required a total immersion in continuity.

SHAPIRO: It's kind of a relief to hear that even Jennifer Egan writes things that are terrible sometimes.

EGAN: I would go so far as to say that I mostly write terrible things. I mean my first drafts are so appalling. I think there's no way I can possibly get there. With this book more than any other, I thought very seriously about abandoning it.

I may have just picked a situation in which I'm so ill-informed in virtually every area that the book takes place that I cannot cross over to make this work. And it was such a thrill to finally feel like I had imbibed enough information that it felt natural to me. It felt like time travel actually. It was really fun, and I even want to do it again, which is something I never thought I would hear myself say.

SHAPIRO: Jennifer Egan's new novel is called "Manhattan Beach." Thank you so much for talking with us about it.

EGAN: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.