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‘Beach’ reading: Brooklyn novel is a city-wide pick

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It’s the book of the summer!

The Fort Greene author of this year’s “One Book, One New York” winner will return from a nation-wide book tour on June 18 to discuss her historical novel at Books are Magic in Carroll Gardens. Author Jennifer Egan said that “Manhattan Beach,” set in Brooklyn during World War II, was inspired by her love for the city and her fascination with the borough’s history.

“I feel like the book really arose from my love affair with New York,” said Egan, who won a Pulitzer for her 2010 novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad.”

“Manhattan Beach,” named after the Brooklyn neighborhood, but largely set at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, beat out four other books to become the “One Book, One New York” selection, and libraries city-wide will host book clubs and discussion events based on the tome this summer.

The historical novel tells the tale of the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s first female diver. For research, Egan joined an oral history initiative undertaken by the Brooklyn Historical Society, interviewing World War II-era Navy Yard workers, and their stories helped to inspire some of the exploits of her literary heroine.

“[The Yard] was a tremendously important place, not just to Brooklyn but to the entire Allied union,” said Egan. “There were so many meaningful human experiences that arose from this project … hearing these stories was really powerful. I can’t take a real person and make them work in fiction — I have to just discover them. But there are some little textures and anecdotes that I lifted out of stories I heard.”

One important aspect of the book — its intersectional portrayal of Navy Yard workers — was inspired by letters written by a Yard mechanic, Lucille Colkin, to her husband, Alfred, who was serving in the Navy, Egan said.

“Her letters are amazing — they’re so full of information,” she said. “Lucy’s attention to race got me thinking very early about women and people of color in the war, that they basically had to be given more responsibility and opportunity, because the white guys who usually got all that were away.”

Egan will join the city-wide events celebrating her book all summer, but she is already thinking about her next book, which will focus on the borough’s pre-war days.

“I’m really interested in immersing myself in the Brooklyn before the one I wrote about — when Brooklyn was all farms,” she said.

Jennifer Egan at Books Are Magic (225 Smith St. at Butler Street in Carroll Gardens, www.booksaremagic.net). June 18 at 7:30 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Updated 5:42 pm, July 9, 2018
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