PROSPECT HEIGHTS – Last night author Jennifer Egan was in the green room of the Brooklyn Public Library‘s central branch getting ready to go on stage for a talk about her book Manhattan Beach. She is a self-possessed and open woman with the look and delivery of sharp news anchor.
Part of the 2018 Brooklyn Book Festival, the event was a panel discussion with Zaheer Ali of the Brooklyn Historical Society and Meredith Wisner formerly of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, moderated by author Alexis Coe.
The Dweck Center at the Brooklyn Public Library was packed to capacity with more than 200 people in attendance.
In April, 40,000 New Yorkers voted in the “One Book, One New York” campaign. They chose Manhattan Beach to be the book of the citywide initiative by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME). When Egan was asked how it felt to have her book picked for the program, she immediately said that she was “ecstatic to be selected.”
“One Book, One New York” was started by MOME Commissioner Julie Menin in 2017. The idea is that the city is encouraged to read the same book at the same time. The program is intended to support local bookstores, and encourage the use of the public library system. Menin says she got the idea from the late Tom Wolfe, who mentioned to her at a party that Chicago had successfully instituted a similar program.
The first book, selected in 2017, was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Menin says that sales of Americanah were up 400% because of “One Book, One New York.” In her opening remarks at the panel discussion, MOME’s First Deputy Commissioner Kai Falkenberg asserted that small, independent bookstores are not dead. “One Book, One New York” would trail blaze the process of book discovery in the digital age.
Egan’s book is self-described as something of a love-letter to Brooklyn, her adopted home, and she is happy to have New Yorkers reading it. As part of the “One Book, One New York” program, her publisher Scribner donated 1,500 copies of the book to the city’s three public library systems. As a result, it was the most checked-out book of the summer.
The talk centered on Egan’s extensive use of archives to write Manhattan Beach. The book is a fictional tale that is set primarily at the Brooklyn Naval Yards during World War II. The main character is Anna, a woman who works at the Naval Yards as a diver who repairs boats. Egan said that the research for the book started in the mid-2000s, even though she didn’t pen a word until 2012.
Egan worked with Meredith Wisner, a former archivist at the Brooklyn Navy Yard (as it is now called), to dig up information. Egan even introduced Wisner to history she didn’t know. Wisner said she was unfamiliar with civilian divers who worked salvaging and repairing boats. When moderator Alexis Coe asked how much the diving suits weighed in the 1950s and Egan said 200 pounds, the audience gasped in unison.
Egan also did research at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Zaheer Ali, an oral historian at BHS, explained to the audience that women faced many barriers when they went to work at the Naval Yard. For example, there weren’t any bathrooms for them. As a joke, some women told new female hires that urinals were foot washing stations.
During the Q&A segment, a man asked Egan why the book was called Manhattan Beach when only a tiny portion of it takes place in the neighborhood. Egan said it was because the book was about the “beach” of New York, about the port and the waterways which used to be central to the city’s identity.
Nina Wolff, who grew up in Boro Park, rose to say that the book spurred her to seek out an aunt and uncle that her mother estranged from the family. Wolff’s uncle had passed, but she found her aunt, who at 95 was still able to make her lunch when she went to visit. The aunt filled all the gaps in the family’s history.
“I found the book very inspiring,” said teacher and historian G. Mallin, who asked how accessible the Brooklyn Navy Yard archives are. Wisner said the archives are available to view by appointment, and there is a museum at the Navy Yards as well as tours of the campus led by Turnstile Tours.
When the panel was wrapping up, Egan—who Skyped in to talk to a handful of book groups reading her book and was described by Menin as an “incredibly active participant in the program”—said she was ready to keep talking in the lobby. She would be signing books provided by her favorite local bookstore, Greenlight Bookstore.