Review: Writers in Conversation with Jennifer Egan

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Inspiring

Jennifer Egan impresses and inspires as much in person as she does on the page.

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Run by Carole Burnes, the Writers in Conversation series sees authors of all breeds and genres conversing about the process of writing and reading from their work. Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan took to the hot seat for a rewarding grilling.

Author and journalist Egan has just seen her sixth book published, Manhattan Beach, this October. It tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, a girl that grows up to become the first female diver for the navy during WW2, repairing the battleships sent out to fight in the war. Anna’s intriguing and headstrong character tantalises alongside a glimpse into America’s exciting underworld and the disappearance of her father in her early teens.

Everything Jennifer revealed about Manhattan Beach and her other works, notably a short story called Black Box published by The New Yorker in tweet form which you can read here, made you want to read them even more. And if you had already read them, it made you want to read them again. Her passion and honesty about her craft invigorated the audience, and her tidbits and general musings on life were poignant and mind blowing, due to the time and care in which she had taken to consider certain aspects of her life.

One such focus of hers is the theme of time, for which she has read the entirety of In Search of Lost Time with her study group over a six-year period. This sort of commitment was reflected throughout the interview, as she stressed the importance of research before writing a novel, especially when it concerned what people do for a living. Indeed, through meeting a WW2 navy diver she discovered the existence of a real Russian female counterpart to Anna who the said American navy veteran had crossed paths with. And only by trying on the diving suit did she realise the intimacy and closeness the two dressers had to the person putting on the suit, which she went on to use in her novel.

With all this talk of time, but not one to overcomplicate things, she took the refreshingly simple approach of reading the openings for Manhattan Beach and A Visit from the Goon Squad, both worthy of Audible subscriptions. Her bold American accent that I am not going to pretend I know the origins of synced up with the text on the page: the author was speaking words only she knew how to say just right.

As reflected in her new novel, a wonderful concoction of noir and realism, it’s authenticity that seems to consistently emanate through her writing, as well as through her character in person. Real thought, research, time and dedication have been poured into each story. In short, she could inspire the casual magazine and Jeremy Clarkson autobiography reader to pen a few words. This authenticity and consistency is reflected by the detail in which her website, which you can reach here, has been carefully crafted. Perusing the site further enhances the impact of her novels. A Pottermore for adults that they should have no shame in using.

Sadly, the navy veteran who had encountered Anna’s Russian double passed on before Jennifer could do more of her research. But, in a way, she told the story he couldn’t, acknowledging and paying respect to a woman by matching fiction with truth and beauty in a way that hopefully paid homage to the courage of this anonymous diver. As with all of Egan’s work, respecting the intricacy of the context, time, and occupation that are the focus of her novels is the first step toward literary success.

The next Writers in Conversation event will take place 4th December at the Nuffield Theatre and feature Southampton writer and university professor Philip Hoare.

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