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Cambridge Literary Festival to host New York-born writer Erica Wagner

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Image from Erica Wagners book Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge, sourced by Bloomsbury Publishing and Ruth Killik
Image from Erica Wagners book Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge, sourced by Bloomsbury Publishing and Ruth Killik

New York-born writer and critic Erica Wagner reveals the story of one of America's forgotten heroes in her latest book. She spoke with the Cambridge Independent ahead of her appearance at the Cambridge Literary Festival.

Portrait of writer and critic Erica Wagner
Portrait of writer and critic Erica Wagner

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of New York’s great landmarks – a reminder of how the country led the world with ambitious construction projects. It’s as much a part of its cityscape and history as the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building.

But the engineer behind the bridge – Washington Roebling – has been largely forgotten. Until now. Erica Wagner’s new book, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge, explores the life of Roebling (1837-1926).

Erica, 50, who has twice been a judge of the Man Booker Prize, told the Cambridge Independent: “I suppose it took about five years to write, but I’ve been interested in Washington Roebling since I was a teenager. I walked on the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time when I was about 16, and I was really struck by it. I was struck by the fact that I didn’t know anything about it. Although I’d grown up in New York, I didn’t know who built it, I didn’t know how it got there, how it came into being, and when I started to find out a little bit about this, I started reading the words of Washington Roebling.”

She continued: “I really heard his voice very strongly – as a writer because I’m not an engineer. I have an English degree, I don’t have a technical degree of any kind, so also writing this book was quite a steep learning curve for me.”

Erica, who now lives in London, came to the UK in the 1980s, studying at St Paul’s Girls’ School and then at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. She is a contributor to the New Statesman while her previous books include Gravity (1997), a collection of short stories and Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters (2000).

Researching Roebling has revealed a life Erica wanted to share with America – and the world. “He had a long life and it’s a life that spanned a very important period in American history. I was very impressed by his tenacity, his determination – those were qualities that seemed to me to be interesting to people who would not just be interested in engineering.”

Despite not having a technical background, Erica has developed an appreciation for engineering and of Roebling in particular. “I have become broadly fascinated by it,” she said. “I don’t know whether I will embark on other books about engineering... I would be surprised if I did because it was Washington Roebling’s life that I really wanted to bring to life.”

Erica concluded: “Something like the Brooklyn Bridge, you walk on it and you think: ‘This is something that people did, this is so amazing. How did it get here?’ Maybe I was aware that it was a remarkable achievement for its time, but maybe not enough.

“I think it’s something – although it’s recognisable all over the world now – that we kind of take for granted, as a part of the landscape. But when it was begun in 1869 and completed in 1883, it was completely unprecedented.

“The towers were the highest thing on the North American continent and no bridge had ever been built using steel cables before. It was a radical construction and I felt that people maybe weren’t aware of that.”

Erica will be in conversation with author Ali Smith at the Cambridge Literary Festival, supported by the Cambridge Independent, on Sunday, November 26, 11.30am to 12.30pm in the Old Divinity School at St John’s College.

Tickets: £10/£8. Box office cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.

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