Yesterday I had the privilege and pleasure of a listening to the magnificent Jennifer Egan talk about her writing process, and the depth of research she did for her new (published in late 2017) novel, Manhattan Beach.
I wasn’t alone! No, no…I was one of about fifteen rapt women, members of the longstanding Cobble Hill Book Club (as we call it), in the warm and lovely sitting room on Baltic Street in Brooklyn. Egan—whom I’m just going to start referring to her as Jenny—had come at the behest of one of our group, Dr. Edna Pytlak, who happens to be the pediatrician to Jenny’s children—and to many in the ‘hood, including mine. (Not to get sidetracked, but Edna is a throwback to an era when doctors were more personable. She’s renowned for inviting panic-stricken parents to visit her home office on weekends. And she sometimes does drop-bys, if you live close enough. I happen to live a few blocks away from her, and I’ll never forget how grateful I was when she came by one Christmas morning—in a cheery red track suit, about to go on a run, since her own kids were teenagers and sleeping in—to take a look at my feverish then-toddler.)
Back to Jenny Egan. I’m not going to into immense detail, because it’s her story to tell, but what I am going to relate is something she’s already talked about in interviews (of course, I’m hoping it’s new to those who might read this!). She begins every novel by writing a first draft, by hand, in one fell swoop. Writing, writing, writing—about six pages a day—until the first draft is done. And only then does she begin to consider what’s she’s got and what she’s going to do with it. With a roll of the eyes, she pronounced her first draft of Manhattan Beach “terrible.” (No big surprise there, I guess—most writers would say the same—but in Jenny’s case, I wonder. I bet her first drafts are better than most.) I’m envious of writers who have the discipline to do this. I don’ have it—at least, not yet. I tend to reread, then tell myself, “No, no!” and go back and start rewriting. Too early!
What Jenny then does is go through the draft and make a highly detailed outline—sixty pages, single-spaced, that kind of detail. And from that comes the final manuscript, after much writing and editing—which oddly, we didn’t question her about as much…though we did hear that she keeps every draft of a chapter, and each one goes through many dozens of changes.
Another thing that struck me—her best ideas, she said, come when she’s not trying to think of them; they come in the writing. If she’s trying to plot—what comes is too predictable.
Joan Didion said something similar once—or maybe more than once, but I know of it from the documentary her nephew made about her, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which I watched on Netflix a month or so ago. In an interview after the publication of Didion’s novel The Book of Common Prayer, Tom Brokaw asked Didion about her method. Didion paused. Then she said: “It unfolds as you write it. That’s something I never believed before I wrote a book, but it does.”
When Didion gets stuck, she puts the manuscript in a bag and puts it in the freezer.
Now there’s something I could try!
Back to Jenny—Manhattan Beach, which takes place in 1940s Brooklyn, is enthralling. Read it, if you haven’t!