In this post, OHMA student Filip Mazurczak compares the methods of research used by Jennifer Egan and James Michener in writing historical fiction.
Although specific formulations of oral history methodologies may be relatively novel, in the field of historical fiction, many writers have been using oral history approaches without calling them that. This can be noted by a comparison between the similar oral history and research methods of Jennifer Egan, a popular writer of contemporary fiction, and those of James Michener, whose novels topped the bestseller charts from the 1940s to the 1990s.
Jennifer Egan’s latest novel, Manhattan Beach, is set in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 1940s. The novel’s protagonist, Anna Kerrigan, becomes the first woman diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, fixing aircraft carriers and battleships. All this is set amongst the backdrop of gangsters, vaudeville, and longshoremen.
In order to write this historical novel, Egan amassed, according to a New Yorker article, many books to do research. Additionally, she tried to absorb the culture of the 1940s, watching noir movies and reading authors such as Raymond Chandler.
Additionally, Egan engaged in oral history. During her January 25 talk at Columbia University, she described how she interviewed narrators who remembered the landscape of Brooklyn in the time when Manhattan Beach is set. She outlined some specific aspects of her oral history interviewing method. “The number one thing was to just shut up,” she said. “I was too present in my interviews.” Thus she tried to avoid interrupting her narrators or directing them. When interviewing them, she specifically looked for “anecdotes that stuck with me… little human moments.” She looked for recurring details in various narrators’ accounts. She took a similar approach to another source: archival letters written by former Brooklyn Navy Yard employees.
Jennifer Egan said that to recreate the past, “place is so important.” She has been living in Brooklyn for years and thus is familiar with the landscapes she describes. During her talk, Egan said that she does not write about specific people she knows, but her previous novels also deal with themes and places familiar to her life. A Visit from the Goon Squad takes place mostly in New York City. Meanwhile, The Invisible Circus is about a nineteen-year-old girl from the Bay Area who travels across Europe in the 1970s; Egan went on a similar sojourn as a recent high school graduate in the same decade.
There are many similarities to the approach taken by James Michener (1907-1997), one of the most commercially successful American writers. According to the New York Times, Michener, like Egan, did extensive research on the country or American state he was writing historical fiction about. To this end, he employed three research assistants. Although the geographic scope of his writing was much broader than Egan’s, Michener’s basic strategy was the same. Egan said that she tried to get a sense of place; Michener did so as well, and thus often moved to the place he was writing about. For example, Michener at various points lived in Maryland, Texas, and Alaska, the subject of his novels Chesapeake, Texas, and Alaska, respectively. Other novels take place in foreign countries, to which he also moved or at least traveled extensively.
Like Jennifer Egan, James Michener complemented his book research with oral history. He interviewed many locals in the places he was writing about. Similar to Egan’s preference to not write about people she knew, Michener often relied on composite characters. The colorful cast of his Hawaii is based on numerous Polynesian locals he encountered.
However, unlike oral historians, and unlike Egan, James Michener did not archive his interviews. It’s very telling that Michener, a philanthropist, donated many of his prized possessions to various collections after his death, but he never donated the interviews, whose whereabouts are unknown. For example, he donated all the materials he used to write Centennial (maps, field notes, correspondence, etc.) to the University of Northern Colorado… but not his interviews.
Although James Michener didn’t archive his oral interviews, his reliance on oral history complemented by familiarizing himself with the place he was writing about made him a pioneer oral historian novelist. A comparison between his research methods and those of Jennifer Egan reveals that much.
Filip Mazurczak is a full-time OHMA student. He is interested in twentieth century European history. In addition to his scholarly activities, Filip is also a journalist and translator.