On this episode of The Desk Set, we're talking about books about history. First, we talk to Amy Stewart about her historical mysteries, starting with Girl Waits With Gun, that star the real-life Kopp sisters, and her nonfiction on plants, bugs, and more. Then, Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan discusses her historical thriller Manhattan Beach, her research process, and the lives of American women in the 1940s. Finally, Jeopardy champion and author Ken Jennings tells us about overdue library books, his podcast Omnibus, and presidential snacks.
A transcript of this episode is available at the end of our show notes.
Browse a list of books discussed on the Read a Book About History episode of The Desk Set.
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The Desk Set is brought to you by the King County Library System. Most of the audio heard on the podcast was recorded at the ideaX Makerspace at the Bellevue Library. The show is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, and produced by Britta Barrett. Our theme song is "I Know What I Want" by Math and Physics Club. Other music provided by Chad Crouch, from the Free Music Archive.
Emily Calkins: You are listening to the Desk Set.
Britta Barrett: A bookish podcast for reading broadly.
Emily Calkins: We're your hosts, Emily Calkins.
Britta Barrett: And Britta Barrett.
Emily Calkins: On this episode, we're talking about books about history. First, we'll hear from Amy Stewart who writes historical mysteries set in New Jersey in the 1910s, and fascinating books about the history of things like botanicals and bugs.
Britta Barrett: After that, we'll chat with Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize winner and writer of A Visit From the Goon Squad, and her latest historical novel, Manhattan Beach.
Emily Calkins: Finally, we'll hear from Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings who's also a prolific author and host of a podcast that touches on all kinds of interesting, historical topics.
Amy Stewart: My name's Amy Stewart, and I'm a writer. I've written a bunch of non-fiction books, and now I'm writing a bunch of novels that are based on a true story.
Emily Calkins: Even listeners who are familiar with those novels, which are about Constance Kopp, who's a female deputy in the early 1900s, and her sisters, may not know that the books are based on real people.
Amy Stewart: Yes.
Emily Calkins: Can you tell us how you first learned about Constance and her sisters?
Amy Stewart: Yeah, I was working on my previous book which was called The Drunken Botanist, and it's a book about all the plants we turn into alcohol. There was a gin smuggler, a real person, a gin smuggler named Henry Kaufman, who I was writing about for The Drunken Botanist, and I just wanted to find out more about him or what else he did before I decided whether to put that story in The Drunken Botanist. So in doing that, I ran across a lot of stories about a lot of people named Henry Kaufman, of course, who got up to all kinds of things 100 years ago.
Amy Stewart: I never did figure out if it was the same guy, but I found this article about a guy named Henry Kaufman who ran his automobile into a horse and buggy being driven by the Kopp sisters. He demolished their buggy, and they got into a big fight over who was going to pay for it. That escalated until the Kopp sisters were being harassed and threatened. It was this whole thing.
Amy Stewart: The case just was so interesting that I kept digging, and I realized that all three sisters' lives changed because of this random occurrence. They went on to do amazing things as a result, all three of them, for years and years and years. It's like, "Oh, this is not just one novel, but this is a lot of novels. There's so much here."
Emily Calkins: Yeah, I was astonished when I finished the first book and went and looked at your notes how much of it is based in actual events. So many of the things in the book actually happened. It's not just the setting and the era. They're real events. Can you tell us a little bit about your research process?
Amy Stewart: Yes. Well, it started at libraries, of course. Well, it started online, I guess. First, I found all the newspaper clippings I could about them that had been digitized, which is some, but not all. I went into ancestry.com and built out their family tree. In doing that, not only was I able to put them in the context of their family and understand who they were a little bit more but also I was able to connect with other people who were working on the same family tree. In that way, I found some of their relatives.
Amy Stewart: Then, I hired a genealogist who did some of the work of going into courthouses and requesting records in New Jersey that I didn't know how to do. Eventually, of course, I went to New Jersey, and that's when I was really deep into the library research because I'm down in the basement of small libraries going through microfilm that, of course, has not been digitized. So you're literally looking at every page of every day's newspaper-
Emily Calkins: Oh my gosh.
Amy Stewart: ... for years at a stretch to try to find the rest of the story. I visited all the places where the things happened, and I have connected with other family members of more peripheral characters in the books. The jail where the sheriff worked and where Constance would go into work, I've walked through that jail. Yeah, I've really gone deep into their world as much as I can.
Emily Calkins: Yeah. I don't want to say too much about the plots, but the first book makes it really clear how real the consequences were for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy for young women at the time, and the generally limited options that women had. Then, later books deal with these morality charges, which were basically when families or husbands were like, "Oh, she's doing something I don't like," and you can send this woman to jail for that. Then, there's a theme of postpartum depression, and so there's lots of women's issues. What surprised you most about, in your research and writing, about women's lives in the early 20th century?
Amy Stewart: It is surprising how much has changed, and also how little has changed. Let me give you one example of that. One of the frustrating things about writing books based on a true story is sometimes you find out new things after the book is published-
Emily Calkins: Oh no.
Amy Stewart: ... which makes me crazy. The first big one of those just happened, which is that during the events that Girl Waits With Gun covers, what happens is that Constance, her family's being threatened because she got into an argument over payment for the damages to the buggy. Her family's being threatened so she goes to the prosecutor's office, kind of like what today would be the DA's office, and the guy doesn't believe her and doesn't want to help.
Amy Stewart: Big surprise, but the new piece of information that I just found out is that the county prosecutor was accusing them of making it up and of writing the threatening letters themselves and of firing shots at their own house. It's like, "Wow!" So, those are the kinds of things where it just blows me away how little has changed. Yeah.
Emily Calkins: That would have been a great thing to have in the book, too.
Amy Stewart: Why couldn't I have just made that up? Part of the frustrating thing about writing about a true story is that I know that I am not capable of making up anything as good as what really happened. And that if a whole of their lives were to be revealed to me, it would be so much more astonishing and interesting than what I've come up with. So, I always feel like I'm falling short and letting them down because I can't - I'm just not capable of imagining how crazy it was.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, there's a scene in the beginning of the fourth book where she jumps into the river after this convict who's, I think, he's on the way to the asylum. He jumps into the river trying to escape, and she goes in after him, which seems so wild that she ... There's the newspaper clippings in the back of the book.
Amy Stewart: Right. Yeah, exactly. She really did it, and she ... Yeah, so she was really fierce that way, and she caught a lot of backlash for that as well. That did not go well for her. She was not praised for her heroism for having done that the way a male deputy would have been.
Emily Calkins: For me, probably the most enjoyable element of the series is her voice, which is so memorable and so unique. How do you write in a style that both feels like it's of the historical period, like she feels like she's really rooted in that time, but it also is appealing to contemporary readers?
Amy Stewart: Well, I'm glad you like the voice. I think a lot about that. I want the books to read as if they were written in the 1910s. Of the five that are completely done, one comes out next September, but of the five that are totally done, two of them are in the third person, and three of them are in Constance's own voice. Even when it's in the third person, I want it to feel like a book written in the 1910s. What I do is, first of all, I read almost exclusively novels written in the 1910s. People always want to know what I'm reading, and I'm like, "It's this book you've never heard of. It was published in 1914." So, that helps with the language.
Amy Stewart: I keep a list of interesting words and phrases and even ways of putting sentences together that strike me. I think, "Oh, we don't quite say it that way anymore." So, I keep lists of those things, and I go back to those lists. Newspapers help, of course, but also transcripts. Google has scanned a lot of old, out-of-copyright books, including really boring things like just bound transcripts of court testimonies. Well, those things are very cool for me because those are people speaking extemporaneously, and someone's trying to get it down word for word. Those are real speaking patterns as opposed to, in a novel or even a quote in a newspaper, someone's thinking before they write a little.
Amy Stewart: So, I'm always trying to do that, and I really do want it to sound like Constance and not like me. Some people say that the language sounds very plain, but the interesting thing about the 1910s is that it was kind of plain. We're out of the Baroque, Victorian language of Dickens. We're not yet into the kind of rat-a-tat, noir, slangy thing. We're at this weird moment where modernism's creeping into language. Yeah, I think about that all the time. That, to me, is the most interesting thing about all of this, is just how to put sentences together and what words to use.
Emily Calkins: It's interesting that you mentioned court transcripts. We had Geraldine Brooks here-
Amy Stewart: Oh, wow!
Emily Calkins: ... a few years ago, and she was talking about writing Caleb's Crossing and how there's so little from women. One of the things that she used a lot is court transcripts as well, so it's a place where you can find voices that might be otherwise hard to track down.
Amy Stewart: Yeah, they're handy that way.
Emily Calkins: Yeah. You mentioned that you've written a lot of nonfiction as well. Why novels for these instead of narrative nonfiction about Constance and her sisters?
Amy Stewart: Well, the thing about writing nonfiction is that you learn that the drawback is ... First of all, there's kind of a so-what problem with nonfiction. If I were to tell you, "Oh, I'm writing a biography of one of the early women deputy sheriffs in New Jersey," you might go, "Well, so what?" Also, in nonfiction, readers tend to really segregate themselves by subject. They might say, "I don't read biographies," or, "I don't read books on law enforcement," or, "I don't read sports books." I can have an amazing novel about a tennis player, and you would read it because I told you it was an amazing novel. You wouldn't go, "Well, I don't read novels about tennis players," but as a nonfiction reader, you might stay out of the sports section altogether. So, that's a big issue.
Amy Stewart: The other thing, of course, is that I don't know ... There's big gaps in the record. There's all this stuff I don't know, and having written a lot of nonfiction, I know that what you do is you start using filler. You start cramming it full of historical backdrop, and you end up with these long ... Well, the risk is that you end up with these long, kind of Wikipedia-style explanations of just what the town was like and what the ... That's not interesting. I really wanted people to love them the way I love them, and I just thought, "If I just write this as a biography, I don't know that the emotions will come through in the same way." Yeah.
Britta Barrett: I think your nonfiction's just as compelling. Could you share a few facts from either Wicked Plants or the Drunken Botanist that you discovered on these two topics?
Amy Stewart: Yeah, well those books were fun to write in their own way. Wicked Plants is about dangerous, deadly, illegal, immoral, horrifying plants of all kinds. Then, Wicked Bugs is sort of the same thing, but the bug world like the ones you don't really want to meet in a dark alley. Then, Drunken Botanist was about all the plants we turn into alcohol. The thing that those three books have in common is that they're little short pieces about each individual plant, so I wasn't having to think about how to carry a narrative across.
Amy Stewart: But I did want them to be interesting stories. I wanted to pick interesting, odd stories that people maybe hadn't heard, and tell those rather than just try to do an encyclopedia-style entry about the plant. For instance, with Drunken Botanist, I got very deep into agave.
Britta Barrett: Which I learned is more closely related to the asparagus than the cactus.
Amy Stewart: Right, so that's interesting. But then the whole story of how that plant got noticed and described in the European botanical literature is also fascinating as this French brain surgeon who worked for Napoleon, but he was sort of a botanist on the side. You know, like you do. In a war zone doing brain surgery, you go out and do a little botanizing in the hills on your day off. Anyway, that's how that agave got described.
Amy Stewart: It's always like who is a person or moment that I can really do this with. With Wicked Plants, it was so much fun because I was going way outside of normal botanical sources and into medical literature and stuff like that. For instance, there's a story about a woman who was on a hike in Mexico, like on a school trip or something, and then later that night, a rash started coming up on her back in the shape of a hand. So spooky, right?
Emily Calkins: Yes!
Amy Stewart: Terrifying, and it wasn't just there for the night, it was there for days. She had to go to the doctor. Well, anyway, it turned out that probably her boyfriend or someone had gotten their hands into a plant that has a lot of very caustic sap, and had just sort of touched her on the back as they were walking along or something and spread that sap onto her back. So, I love looking for creepy stories like that that aren't really thought of as part of the established knowledge about that plant.
Emily Calkins: Is your background in science?
Amy Stewart: No! No, no, no. No. My nonfiction books have all been big research projects. I got curious about earthworms, and I figured out who the big earthworm scientists are. There's only two of them, so it's not hard to find. The field of earthworm science is wide open if anyone's looking for a career change.
Emily Calkins: I feel like I know a toddler who could be very interested in that.
Amy Stewart: Yes, yes. Right. Yeah, no. I go, and I interview people. Yeah.
Emily Calkins: You had written exclusively nonfiction before you started with the Kopp sisters, is that-
Amy Stewart: Well, I have a couple of unpublished novels in drawers, so I had been trying. There were in between some of those nonfiction books are novels that no one wanted to publish.
Emily Calkins: So, you had practiced the process of putting together a whole overarching plot and building characters and all of those things that are unique to writing fiction.
Amy Stewart: Well, yeah, but even - my first three nonfiction books, one was a memoir about my garden in Santa Cruz, so I did have to think about a plot and characters, and then the earthworm book, and I wrote a book called Flower Confidential, which is about the global flower industry. Those, I did have to figure out, what is a narrative arc? How do I take these real people and make them into characters? How can I use dialogue? You have to do all the same things really, so yeah.
Britta Barrett: You spent a lot of time in the 1910s. If you could go to a different era and be telling stories from it, is there one you'd really like to immerse yourself in next?
Amy Stewart: Wow, a different era. Yeah, I am so interested in the 1910s and the 1920s. I think the late 1800s would be interesting, especially in the U.S. but also in England. I think that's a fascinating time period, a lot happening all at once in terms of art and music and literature. I should probably be more imaginative and say something like, "Yes, the year 1050 in Turkey, there was this ... " But I have no idea. I don't know.
Emily Calkins: I saw you speak at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Conference a couple of years ago, and you mentioned that you have an unusual way of signing the books, the Kopp sisters books. Can you tell us about that?
Amy Stewart: Yes. I have the signatures of a lot of these people because I have real estate documents, marriage licenses, stuff like that. So, I took their signatures, and I had them put onto rubber stamps. If I'm doing a book signing, you can get your book signed by a dead person, which just doesn't happen that often.
Emily Calkins: No, I love that.
Amy Stewart: Yeah.
Emily Calkins: It's so fun and interesting. Lots of authors have a little phrase that they write or a thing they draw, but I don't think I've ever seen somebody have signatures of dead people before.
Amy Stewart: And their handwriting was so beautiful. Also, it brings them to life. It really makes them real people. When you see how someone wrote their name, you suddenly get like, "Oh, this is a real human being that I'm talking about."
Jennifer Egan: I'm Jennifer Egan. I'm a fiction writer and a journalist. My most recent novel is Manhattan Beach, which is a historical thriller, I guess. If I were going to categorize it, that's how I would.
Emily Calkins: That question of category is kind of interesting because you have done a lot of different kinds of things. You've very famously experimented with form in A Visit From the Goon Squad, and you have a whole short story that's told through tweets. What made you want to do something a little more traditional like this historical fiction?
Jennifer Egan: Well, I have to be honest and say that was not my original intent. My method is really trial and error for everything I do. I'm just trying to find the way to tell whatever story I'm telling as well as I can. Usually, that involves doing it wrong a few times and realizing that I need to try something different. So, in the case of Manhattan Beach, I actually had all kinds of wild notions about how I would play with structure and time. I'd already done that in A Visit From the Goon Squad. I thought, "Oh, you know. Those muscles are nice and strong," but I found - I have a writing group that I bring work to at an early phase, and it's very helpful to sometimes just get feedback really about whether some of the major things like the voice are working.
Jennifer Egan: So, I brought in the first couple of chapters at a very early point, and I found that they reacted pretty badly whenever my narrator stepped in and is sort of intervening in a controlling way. Whenever I tried to allude to the present or call attention to the fact that it was a historical novel and we all know that many things have happened since, they didn't like it. Then, when I brought in another piece that still had that, they really didn't like it. The third time, they became angry with me.
Jennifer Egan: I thought, "This is really not working." They said, "It takes us out of the story. It feels like you're stating the obvious. Obviously, we know it's not 1942. Why do you think you need to remind us of that? Do you really think we're going to forget?" They felt like the narrator, in a way, had a kind of omniscience that seemed a little bit pushy and kind of controlling in a way. That's really where the anger came from, I think, just this feeling that this is a narrator we didn't want to listen to. Well, that's not good when you're in chapter one of a book.
Jennifer Egan: So, I realized that actually that ironic, playful, structural playfulness was really not serving this immersion in another period at all. So, I just left it behind, and honestly, it was such a relief. I realized only then that I was kind of tired of myself doing that actually, and it was really nice to just let all the irony and playfulness go and just tell a story in a really immersive way. Remember how to do things like sustained momentum, which you don't have to worry about when you're writing in a fragmentary way, also, just the fun of writing big set pieces like a shipwreck, murders.
Jennifer Egan: Fragmentation and irony are great, and they can do many things, but I'm not sure they're so useful in those big, epic scenarios. For this book, it just didn't make sense. It really needed to be a straightforward telling.
Britta Barrett: Can you tell us a little bit about the setting and the time period and the inspiration, maybe some research that you drew upon to make it such an immersive experience for the reader?
Jennifer Egan: Well, I can speak for many minutes on each of those topics. The basic situation is that it takes place in 1942. A young woman is working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She's actually only 19, so it's what we would probably call a teenager, but, at that time, she would have been considered an adult. Her father, who was an Irish-American longshoreman, has disappeared a few years earlier under sort of strange circumstances, seems to have abandoned his family as many men did during the Depression.
Jennifer Egan: While she's working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, she chances to cross the path of a man named Dexter Styles whom she immediately recognizes as someone that she met when she was with her father many years before as a little girl, and with whom her father seemed to be working. Her father, being a longshoreman, was in a fairly corrupt world. The Irish waterfront was extremely corrupt, actually. So, she has a sense that this man, who is a "gangster" ... He's actually a nightclub owner ... had some sort of business dealings with her father, and she befriends him, not letting him know that they've met before, with the hope of finding out where her father might be.
Jennifer Egan: In terms of research, it's hard to know where to start. I guess the inspiration really came while I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library, actually. I was drawn to the period I think because of 9/11. I was curious about New York during a wartime moment because 9/11, in a way, imposed a wartime atmosphere on New York for quite a while. So, I started out in the local history room of the New York Public Library just looking at lots of images of New York during the war.
Jennifer Egan: That immediately reminded me of the fact that the Port of New York is really the reason New York exists. I barely ever thought of that even though I had lived there for a long time by then. So, I just began following my own curiosity through the Port of New York, and that was really how the research happened. There were many phases to it, but that was the engine driving it.
Emily Calkins: I'm curious about the research into the diving. Anna, who's the main character, is a diver, and the apparatus for diving in the 40s was elaborate. The scenes, for me, where she's getting into the diving suit and going underwater are kind of terrifying because you can sense the claustrophobia. But, for her, they're very freeing. What kind of research did you do both into all of the tools and also what the experience what like?
Jennifer Egan: Well, first of all, I did not realize that diving was part of ship repair, so I stumbled on that as a possibility really unintentionally. I started researching the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and I found an article by a man who had been a civilian diver at the Navy Yard. That led me to do more research on that, and I learned that, in fact, there were hundreds of civilian divers in New York for various reasons.
Jennifer Egan: The fact that they were civilian divers was interesting to me because military diving, like everything else in the military, is very carefully cataloged. But, civilian diving was relatively undocumented. We really don't know who did that. That created an opening for me because I was interested in a woman doing industrial work of some kind as, of course, thousands and thousands of women did during the war, so this became interesting to me.
Jennifer Egan: Also, the diving equipment, as you mentioned, it's the Mark V, which anyone would recognize. It's that kind of iconic diving suit which has the spherical helmet, the big boots, the lead belt. Even though I've never even scuba dived nor have I ever been really drawn to doing that, for some reason when I saw the picture that accompanied the original article by this guy who had been a civilian diver, I felt this tremendous excitement at the sight of that diving suit. It was strange. I've learned to pay a lot of attention to that feeling because it often means that I'm looking at a portal of some kind into some realm that I want to work within fiction.
Jennifer Egan: The Mark V is not really used anymore. Although, it was current for most of the 20th century, which is kind of amazing, until scuba became really common in the 60s. It was even used later for training purposes. So, in a certain way, a suit like that is not completely obsolete. Although, in the form that I'm writing about, it is.
Jennifer Egan: I got involved with a group of army diving veterans who hold a reunion every other year, and they invited me to attend. This was 2009, so I was still working on A Visit From the Goon Squad. It hadn't even come out yet. I went to this reunion, and one of the things that they offer their attendees is the chance to wear that old Mark V and dive in a tank, which is fun, especially for people who were trained in that suit or dove in it.
Jennifer Egan: I, first of all, got to watch divers in the suit, which was really interesting, in the tank, and one of them actually blew up, meaning that he lost control of his air supply and the suit filled up with air and he shot to the top of the tank. It was a stressful moment. Everyone ran over, and it was all fine. They were laughing. It was no problem, but it was kind of amazing to witness it.
Jennifer Egan: Then, they asked if I wanted to be dressed in the suit. Obviously, I would not be diving. Of course, I said yes. So, I had that experience, which was really, really a useful one for many reasons. Then, in terms of describing the feeling of diving, I relied heavily on many, many interviews that I did both at that reunion when I must have interviewed at least 15 people, including a World War II diver who dove in the Harbor of Cherbourg and passed away just a few months later.
Jennifer Egan: Probably the person I talked to the most was the first female army diver, a woman named Andrea Crabtree. She did not dive until the 80s, so that tells you something about how long it took women to break into military diving. In the navy where there are more divers, women dove as early as the 70s, but I think it remains a fairly male-dominated area of the military. She was amazing partly because she had been the most recent diver. She really talked to me in a very sensory way about just the actual feeling of being underwater, of being next to a really long ship, of being a female in that diving suit.
Jennifer Egan: I just listened carefully to lots of different people, and then I just imagined it. Of course, my diving folks vetted the book and made corrections. In fact, I had experts of every sort doing that because there were so many areas of technical knowledge, obsolete technical knowledge that I really needed that help.
Emily Calkins: I think when I'm reading historical fiction what differentiates great historical fiction from good historical fiction is when authors are able to not just weave in the facts of the research, but sort of the feeling of the time, especially in the characters' voices, a sense that those voices are authentic. How do you get in the mindset to write from a mid-century point of view?
Jennifer Egan: It's not as easy as I thought it would be, like so many things. I thought that writing about people at a different time would just mean knowing what they wore, what they smoked, what they drank, what kind of cars they drove. Of course, you can do that on Google in 20 minutes. That's literally nothing. The thing that makes it so challenging is that what we all bring to the present, the moment we're experiencing now is our past, individually and collectively.
Jennifer Egan: The cultural events, all three of us would immediately recognize, the ones that I might recognize, but not so much you guys because you're younger than I am, what region we grew up in, what our ethnicities are, and our family stories. If you don't know that stuff, if you don't know what the past of the past is, you're just writing with nothing underneath you. So, I often felt as if I was trying to build a bridge and walk across it at the same time. I felt like there was just nothing under me, nothing under the people I was writing about.
Jennifer Egan: Really, my characters are thinking back, some of them, the older ones, to the Gilded Age. So, now we're in the 19th century. I was not counting on that. Luckily, I have years of work as a journalist under my belt, and that helped me enormously. With journalism, it's always a combination of talking to people, and also doing archival research. I found that the same approach really worked with this, but it took a really, really long time. So, it was a combination of reading everything I could get my hands on.
Jennifer Egan: Interestingly, contemporary fiction was among the most helpful resources. It didn't matter if it was good or bad, and I read lots of crappy detective novels set in New York, but the details of daily life. The cultural assumptions and cultural references that would come through were really, really helpful. Expressions, I read a lot of correspondence. Again, what I was always listening for and also taking copious notes on were expressions I would hear more than once, let's say, details that would come across from various different sources. Those were the ones that I knew really would have resonated.
Jennifer Egan: That's exactly the same thing as I do as a journalist. I'm always looking for the fact or the detail that becomes relevant not just from one point of view, but from many different subjects. So, it took a long time to feel like it was second nature to me to write with the kind of cultural knowledge and context that a character of various different ages would have had at that time, and ethnicities because I'm writing about Irish Americans, Italian Americans, "negros", which is what African American people were called then. It was a lot of different contexts to try to understand thoroughly.
Britta Barrett: If someone did want to get to know the 1930s and 1940s, are there any fiction books that you would suggest?
Jennifer Egan: Gosh, let's see. Well, certainly for the noir, which is a genre I used pretty heavily in this book, Raymond Chandler is really fantastic. Even though his books are taking place on the West Coast, so it's not New York, but there's a lot there in terms of jargon, a sense of law enforcement and crime, structures, which I found really, really helpful. I never really understand the plots of his books, but it's not really about that.
Jennifer Egan: There's a female writer, Maritta Wolf, whose books are actually now back in print. I found her novels really helpful. They don't take place in New York, but they're on, I think it's like Pittsburgh. Sexually frank, and really quite daring in their way. Just, again, great on just the little textures. Night Shift is the one I found incredibly helpful, the little textures of daily life.
Jennifer Egan: There's a book called The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson, which is probably the best book I've ever read about addiction. It's about a guy trying not to drink, and then going on a bender. It's absolute agony. There were a lot of nonfiction. Actually, The Man With the Golden Arm is a ... That takes place in Chicago, but, again, fantastic details.
Jennifer Egan: Gosh, let's see. A couple of books by African American women that were incredibly helpful. One is called Passing by Nella Larsen, which is amazing and takes place in New York, so especially fantastic for me. Another one by Ann Petry called The Street, which takes place in Harlem during World War II. It's about a single mother, also just fantastic.
Jennifer Egan: My goal was to try to imbibe as many points of view and personal histories as I could because pretty much always in my books, people of various ethnicities and socioeconomic levels intersect because that's the kind of life I'm interested in, and also the kind of life I've chosen. It's why I love being in New York. I love just all the collision of all different kinds of people. That's what's interesting to me. That means I have to know an extra lot.
Emily Calkins: As you were doing all of that reading and research, was there anything particular that you learned about the lives of women that really stuck with you, that surprised you from your own understanding of what women's history was like?
Jennifer Egan: Well, I think it was such a fascinating period for women. As we all know, women had opportunities, in fact, were pretty much begged to do work during World War II that they had been told all their lives that they couldn't do. I knew that narrative in a general way, but it was really amazing to actually interview women who were in this position. I interviewed a lot of them because, luckily, I was starting this research in the first decade of the 21st century.
Jennifer Egan: I actually got involved in an oral history project where I collaborated with the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Brooklyn Historical Society has a whole oral history program, and they have really good recording equipment, and we interviewed many, many people. I think almost every one of whom had passed away by the time the book came out. This period is disappearing from living memory. We're getting toward the last time when we can really hear these stories with clarity from the people who experienced them.
Jennifer Egan: I guess it was fascinating to me to hear firsthand stories about how these women ... For example, there was a woman named Ida Pollock, whom I interviewed. She was a welder, and she was an excellent welder. She actually achieved a fair amount of seniority at the Navy Yard ultimately. She was very slender and slight, which was a huge advantage in working on ships because they were very close, crowded spaces.
Jennifer Egan: Anyway, the women were all fired from the Brooklyn Navy Yard even before the war ended because the whole point was the men were coming back and why on Earth would a woman have the job when the man wanted the job. So, Ida was a working-class woman and had already been working before the war. She thought, "I'm not going back to the phone company. I'm going to weld." So, she tried to apply for a number of welding jobs, and she was not just denied that chance, but actually laughed at. She was treated with contempt for hoping that she could do a job that she had just been doing at a very high level and to great praise.
Jennifer Egan: The whiplash of that, hearing that firsthand, was really shocking to me, even though I kind of already knew it. It's just the difference between knowing something generally and hearing about it specifically. That really stayed with me. She said to me, "You know, I would walk over the bridges. I would look at that welding. It was done terribly." She was still mad.
Jennifer Egan: I think that was one thing. Then, it was also interesting to me the sexual morays governing women's behavior at that time were very strict. You were supposed to be a virgin when you got married, or you were a bad girl. Having a child out of wedlock was absolutely not an option. You had to either give it up for adoption ... I wrote a cover story for the New York Times about single mothers by choice, which is a hugely growing trend in our country and a very exciting one, the idea that if you want to have a child, there are all kinds of ways that you can do it. You don't have to have a partner, male or female.
Jennifer Egan: So, the idea that that was absolutely not allowed at that time, that your child would have been branded a bastard and you would have occupied a sort of purgatory in society, I guess I hadn't fully understood all that. The thing that's really surprising about it is that women's sexual lives were actually much more complicated than that. It's not that no one was having sex, it was that you weren't allowed to and therefore this tremendous secrecy and subterfuge were required to try to remain "respectable" in a world where it was also a much more paternalistic world in which women likely were subject to a fair amount of sexual abuse and innuendo and all the rest of it.
Jennifer Egan: It was a really hard position for women to be in, and I think it was interesting to be reminded of that. I think it also taught me that it was even harder than I would have realized for women at that time.
Emily Calkins: You've mentioned a couple of times you started the research for this book a long time ago. How long did it take you to write it, and what was that process like?
Jennifer Egan: Well, I was researching for about five years while working on other books. Part of the reason was that a lot of that research consisted of interviewing elderly people. You can't really wait with that. From 2005 to 2010 roughly, when I could, I would do research for this. I would jump in on an oral history interview, or I went to Virginia for the reunion and to wear the diving suit.
Jennifer Egan: It was pretty impressionistic research. There was nothing very systematic about it. Part of the reason for that was I never know what my books will be about until I start writing them. All I was really doing was trying to just give myself some kind of context, and also, I guess I did absorb a fair amount of detail. I was just giving myself enough to even get started.
Jennifer Egan: I didn't really start writing until 2012, and once I started writing, then I began to know more clearly what I needed to know. Once a plot began to form, which for me is a very spontaneous and rather improvisational thing in my first drafts ... Even so, as I began to sense who my main characters were and roughly what some of the action might consist of, I did more intricate research effective immediately. I was researching like a maniac the entire time using ...
Jennifer Egan: Libraries were essential all the way through. I don't know what I would have done without them, including the San Francisco Maritime Library, which has all kinds of out-of-print diving books that I wasn't even able to view in physical form. After a visit there, they were able to send me PDFs. They also have a lot of artifacts of diving, so I touched and held World War II diving suits. I was able to really put my hands on air compressors.
Jennifer Egan: There were just amazing experiences that I had with libraries and librarians all the way through. I'm not sure I could have done this without them, starting from the very beginning, starting with the waterfront and just guiding me through what aspects of the New York waterfront really mattered during the war and why. Then that really led me into so many different realms. The Irish-American waterfront, which is the waterfront we know from the movie On the Waterfront because that movie was drawn from nonfiction newspaper exposes of the corruption on the Irish waterfront.
Jennifer Egan: Then the Brooklyn Navy Yard, shipbuilding, all of the different kinds of lives that converged there. There was a lot of intensive library research, even while I was writing the book. In fact, especially because then I really started to know what I needed to know.
Emily Calkins: Well, thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to talk to us.
Jennifer Egan: It's a pleasure.
Emily Calkins: We really appreciate it.
Jennifer Egan: Thank you for having me.
Ken Jennings: My name is Ken Jennings. If you're old enough to remember, I was on Jeopardy 75 times in 2004. Since then, I've become a writer. I have 12 books out, which makes me sound very prolific, but I've actually been padding those stats with kid's books. I have this -
Britta Barrett: They totally count.
Ken Jennings: I have a series of junior genius books for kids with amazing facts about dinosaurs and whatnot. I also wrote Brainiac, a book about my Jeopardy experience and American quiz culture in general. Map Head is about geography nerds of all stripes. I have a book called Because I Said So that kind of debunks parenting myths like don't go swimming after you eat or don't sit too close to the TV, which of those things are real. A trivia almanac with almost 9,000 trivia questions, and I just finished Planet Funny, which is a look at our comedy-saturated, modern culture.
Ken Jennings: Twice a week I do a podcast called Omnibus with local Seattle musician/raconteur, man-about-town John Roderick from The Long Winters where we're creating one entry at a time of a luminous time capsule of our current culture for a possible post-human society should civilization collapse, and really our cockroach successors want to understand Milli Vanilli.
Emily Calkins: The most important thing to understand.
Ken Jennings: When I imagine the aliens landing in the year 3,000, they're going to poke through the rubble, and they're going to be like, "What's the deal with the Best New Artist Grammy of 1989?"
Britta Barrett: That makes me wonder if NASA was to call you up and be like, "Okay, the Golden Voyager album is a little outdated at this point. We need to update it." What would be on your human mix tape?
Ken Jennings: The Golden Voyager record is super outdated. At the time, Carl Sagan with his turtlenecks, he thought the hip thing to put on would be a ton of jazz. It's really almost all classical. There's so much Bach on the Golden Voyager record, but they put in a few jazz tracks at the end to update it. I think Johnny B. Goode ... There's one Chuck Berry track, and that's where history ends for the aliens. So if we want to make sure they hear Nine Inch Nails or something or the Jerky Boys prank calls, we're going to have to get on that.
Ken Jennings: What would I put on the record? I don't know. When you make a mix tape for someone, you want to know them. You want to be like, "Oh, she's going to dig this Belle and Sebastian," or whatever. I don't know the aliens. It's really hard to say. Are the aliens going to want Fugazi or are they going to want Belle and Sebastian, for example? Hard to say. I guess you'd have to mix it up.
Emily Calkins: How do you choose topics for the Omnibus?
Ken Jennings: John and I alternate entries in the Omnibus. He'll do a show where he explains something to me, and then I'll do one where I explain something to him. We liked this formula. The thing about the aliens or the robots or whatever is just a conceit that lets us pretty much talk about whatever we want and not feel like we're going to run out of stuff, or this really isn't super Omnibus if we talk about the Children's Crusade of the 12th century or about the Rachel haircut of the 1990s ... We really wanted to make sure it's a box big enough for anything to fit in.
Ken Jennings: That's kind of I guess what a time capsule is. Generally, it's something that I read a sentence about once and thought, "I would like to read about this for an hour." There should be some element of a story to it. Like today, I'm going to go over to John's and record this afternoon. Jeanne Calment was recently in the news. She was a 122-year-old woman who died in the South of France in the late 90s. She had hung out with Van Gogh and recorded a rap album because she had lived so long.
Britta Barrett: Contains multitudes.
Ken Jennings: Exactly. But there had recently been a story where the Russians are trying to discredit her and say that, at some point, she was replaced by her daughter to dodge inheritance taxes.
Emily Calkins: That's creative.
Ken Jennings: Suddenly, just a fun footnote in history, a 122-year-old woman who said, "I never shower. I just wear olive oil," or whatever her health care, suddenly, there's a story now. Why are the Russians trying to submarine the claims of this dead French woman? So, something where I want to know more.
Britta Barrett: One of your recent episodes was about overdue library books. Could you tell us a little bit of the fun facts you gleaned while researching that?
Ken Jennings: I've always been a fan of that genre of ... I grew up in the age of print journalism. So, there's like certain genres of stories that I love, and I have always loved the library book from the Civil War turns up. Because it's always the exact same story, and the librarian always has some kind of deadpan like, "The fines would be $28,117, but we've decided to wave." Whew! Thank goodness they decided to waive them. That's a lot of money.
Emily Calkins: They probably don't want that book back anyway. It's like what kind of shape is it in? Does anybody want to check it out?
Ken Jennings: There's no way it's going back in circulation.
Emily Calkins: No.
Ken Jennings: The one thing we found during the episode is the titles are hilarious. It will be these impossibly florid, gothic novels about a vicar's daughter who goes to Italy and gets corrupted or something, or they'll just be super boring, The Ethnobiology of Fungi, or it will be something like that. None of this stuff is going back into circulation, right?
Britta Barrett: My favorite example you cited was something to the effect of A Happy Marriage.
Ken Jennings: Right, and there was a book called ... It was some kind of marital tips book, and when the inevitable news story was written, they interviewed the guy whose uncle or dad or whatever it was had left this book in the attic for 50 years. They were like, "How was your parents' marriage?" And, he was like, "Oh, they got divorced like six years later." I don't want to put down libraries, but not all your books are 100% effective it turns out.
Britta Barrett: And, your mom was a librarian, right?
Ken Jennings: Yeah, she was an elementary school librarian until just a couple years ago when she retired. She was the world's most devoted elementary school librarian. I don't want to put down thousands of other elementary school librarians. I'm sure they're great, but she just went bananas. She was one of these people who spent every waking hour shopping for her library or thinking what was going to go up on the bulletin board next or here's the new contest for the kids. She was always enlisting me to draw stuff for the walls of her library. I think there might still be a public school in Utah that has a kind of a Tolkien-looking dragon drawn by me the length of one wall.
Emily Calkins: Ken Jennings original.
Ken Jennings: Yeah, but I think it's totally unsigned. At some point maybe the Russians will come after it and try to prove that it's not legit.
Britta Barrett: Working with kids in libraries I find that maybe somewhere around eight to 11 there's often a period where they get obsessed with a certain moment in history whether it's like ancient Egyptians or Greco-Roman mythology or shipwrecks or DK books about medieval times. Did you have a history phase that was memorable?
Ken Jennings: I noticed that as well just as a dad if nothing else. Of my kid's books, there's definitely one about mummies, and there's definitely one about Greek myths, and there's one about presidents because kids do fixate on these things. I guess I was mostly a presidents kid. I'm too young to be an Old West kid, and I'm too old to be pirates kid, but I was always fascinated by the presidents.
Britta Barrett: You're from the presidential generation.
Ken Jennings: Yeah, exactly. The Reagan era of look, there's this sunny, optimistic guy in the White House. And, we were kids, so we weren't troubled by the AIDS epidemic. Or, I guess we were troubled by the Cold War and the day after, but ... I guess it was an appealing time to be like, "Look, he likes jelly beans. I wonder what other snacks other presidents liked?" Then, you could read about Calvin Coolidge used to slather Vaseline on his bald head. There's some truly awful presidential snacks, but I can't remember ... I feel like one of the Bushes liked pork rinds, and I think the other one might have liked plain mayonnaise sandwiches. I don't know.
Ken Jennings: It really is kind of a "celebs, they're just like us" moment. When you read about how Teddy Roosevelt's kid had a hyena, and they used to slide down the White House front stairway on a baking sheet. You could kind of picture like, "What if I was president? Think how fun this seems."
Emily Calkins: Among your many projects is something called Connections, which is a feature on Mental Floss where you ask five trivia questions that are all then somehow related. People have to answer the questions and then come up with the theme. What intrigues you about unexpected connections in history?
Ken Jennings: A lot of the podcast, stuff we do is actually based on this idea of weird connections. That's what I really love if something odd happens in the middle of a story like, "Suddenly, Davy Crockett," or, "And then they went to see the pope," or, "And that guy turned out to be Alfred Hitchcock." I love that kind of thing. Why is that? It's definitely a world is smaller than we think kind of a thing, which is especially true in history.
Ken Jennings: There's plenty of times in history when they were like 50 famous people, so, of course, they were all hanging out. Also, maybe there's some element of it could happen to you. It's wish fulfillment.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, it's sort of like that presidents are just like us. It's a similar sort of - history's not as rarefied.
Britta Barrett: Loving presidential biographies is a total Dad move. Do you have any that you really love?
Ken Jennings: I should be very clear that I have not yet turned into one of these guys on an airplane with an 800-page biography of a founding father.
Britta Barrett: Phew!
Ken Jennings: I almost entirely read fiction, which I think is not very on-brand for me. I've read few enough of them that I can just recommend the only ones I liked, I guess. I read the David McCullough John Adams one back in the day. That's very good. I don't know. I like pretend presidents a lot actually. I like It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, which is about a blowhard, business-type who somehow gets elected president on some kind of populist platform and turns out to be a fascist.
Emily Calkins: What kinds of fiction do you like?
Ken Jennings: I guess if I had to pick some book that's right down the plate for me, it would be something that had a lot of trappings of some kind of genre fiction. It's structured like a mystery, or it has some kind of fantastic or science-fictional element, but it's not actually some kind of dodgy-looking, small, mass-market paperback. It's classy in some way like South American Magic Realists. It's perfect. You're reading a fantasy novel, but you actually get to feel good about yourself because it's smart and the guy might have a Nobel Prize.
Emily Calkins: Do you have any specific examples?
Ken Jennings: Sure, I love South American Magical Realism.
Britta Barrett: Because you're a classy literary consumer.
Ken Jennings: That was not hypothetical. I love, I don't know, the hits. I like Borges. I like García Márquez. I like Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar, which is maybe the gimmickiest literary novel ever written. You can either read the chapters in the order in which they are presented in the book, or there's a second Choose-Your-Own-Adventure order. I like Calvino a lot. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler has a similar ... Well, not similar but kind of a gimmick in the same family where each chapter is the first chapter of a different genre of novel, but it still kind of makes an overarching narrative.
Ken Jennings: So, I do like books that play games, but I'll read whatever. I just finished the new Murakami book. I guess that's kind of on-brand for what I just said. There's a new Ian McEwan book coming out in a month. I'm very excited. I do like plenty of more straightforward stories. Any kind of well-mannered British thing that will soon turn into a movie that might have a Bill Nighy in it or Emma Thompson, but then it will disappear from your theater in a week. I probably read that book, and I probably liked it.
Britta Barrett: Has Because I Said So been translated into other languages, and is the rest of the world laughing at us for our conventional parental wisdom?
Ken Jennings: Maphead has been published into probably the most languages. I guess geographic geekery is pretty universal. Because I Said So, a lot of it seems very, I don't know, American or English-speaking specific ... Do all countries have a five-second rule or do parents nag their kids about the same things? I think it's very culturally specific.
Ken Jennings: I know in a lot of Europe, one of the big parental warnings is never sit on anything cold or you'll get hemorrhoids. So, you'll see moms being like, "Get up from the fountain. You'll get hemorrhoids." For weirdly, that book was translated in Spain, and it's called like Manual para los Quisquillos, Manual for the Fastidious.
Emily Calkins: That's a great title.
Ken Jennings: I know.
Emily Calkins: I like it.
Ken Jennings: I learned how to say overscrupulous or whatever in ... Persnickety I guess, in Spanish, which is quisquillos.
Britta Barrett: Any final thoughts about history?
Ken Jennings: For me? Well, the premise of the show is that there will be no history, that we're all doomed, but I don't actually believe that. That's just fun for the kids.
Emily Calkins: How long do you think we'll last? Do we get another hundred years?
Ken Jennings: I guess the last time I talked to ... I'm not a real futurist. I just was on a game show, but I was sitting next to a futurist at a dinner a few months ago. I was talking to him about this, and his take was that we've done fine, that humanity is past the bottleneck, whatever it is. There's now so many of us, and we have advanced in so many diverse ways that we are sure to be able to survive in some form whatever awful things are coming, some of which we appear to have created for ourselves.
Ken Jennings: His view was essentially a sunny one, which is that we are inevitably going to survive, and, in his view, thrive. He thought interstellar travel and cleaner energy and all this was just inevitable based on how well we've done in the past. There's now billions of us all working on these problems, and certainly, the oceans will rise, and maybe the meteor will strike, and maybe the bombs will go off, and the nanotech and the germ warfare will ... All this might happen on the same Thursday, but we're going to be okay because there's ... Not individually, but
Emily Calkins: As a species, though.
Ken Jennings: Yeah, in this room, we might all die, but as a population, we're going to get through it.
Emily Calkins: So, you mentioned you're not a futurist. You are a game show contestant. There's some recent news that maybe Alex is having some health problems. If you were called in, would you want to host the show?
Ken Jennings: I can't imagine Jeopardy without Alex just because obviously he's been doing it every weeknight for 35 years. He is the format now. Just that voice and that demeanor, I can't imagine anybody else doing it. Obviously, even before his health prognosis, his cancer diagnosis, they knew he's not going to live forever. That's a great job. I think Alex probably works four or five days a month because maybe they shoot five in a day. They do back to back to back to back.
Ken Jennings: He looks smart. He has all the answers in front of him, not like us, the contestants. We're working hard up there. I'm joking. It is a tough job. He makes a very hard job look very easy, but it is kind of a dream job. I wouldn't turn it down. That said, I have almost no chance of getting that job because everybody in entertainment wants that job. It's a dream job, and I'm sure they will hire some very skilled broadcaster to do it.
Britta Barrett: Or Watson.
Ken Jennings: Yeah, or an evil computer from the future.
Emily Calkins: Well, that sounds like a fun note to leave us on. Thanks so much for being with us.
Ken Jennings: I was happy to do it. Thanks for inviting me, you guys.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, absolutely.
Emily Calkins: Thanks for listening.
Britta Barrett: You can find all the books mentioned in today's episodes in our show notes.
Emily Calkins: The Desk Set it hosted by librarians Britta Barret and Emily Calkins, produced by Britta Barret, and brought to you by the King County Library System.
Britta Barrett: If you like the show, be sure to subscribe, rate, and review us on Apple Podcasts.