Stewart O’Nan: The TNB Book
By TNB Book Club
April 30, 2011
Brad Listi (BL): Three minutes, ladies and gentlemen.
Stewart O’Nan (SO): Gotta warm up my Magic 8-ball.
BL: (He’s not referring to cocaine, ladies and gentlemen.)
SO: I was gonna say — not a Belushi reference.
[THREE MINUTES ELAPSE.]
BL: Okay…I believe we’ve reached the top of the hour. Let’s get started. I want to begin by thanking Stewart O’Nan for taking the time to be here this evening. It’s a thrill to have you, Stewart, and congrats on Emily, Alone.
SO: Thanks for having me and Emily (and Rufus).
BL: In this book, you’re writing an older female protagonist. The level of detail you’re able to deliver about that experience is pretty striking. I’m curious if you did any research here, or if you’re simply working from life experience and imagination.
SO: I did a fair amount of research. Handed out questionnaires to older folks at my library readings. And kept several notebooks to get closer to Emily and her world in Pittsburgh.
BL: Can you describe these questionnaires?
SO: I’d ask people how their neighborhoods had changed, and if there were neighbors who were no longer there whom they missed. I asked for three places they went to every week, who they wished they saw more in their lives, what’s become harder the older they’ve gotten.
BL: You tend to write about people “unlike” yourself, to work “from the outside, in,” as opposed to the other way around. Do you feel this is a fair assessment?
SO: Maybe. I mean, I think I share the emotional worlds of my characters even if I’m not like them in age, gender, race, class, or even region sometimes. I like to find out how it feels to be someone else, what they go through, what’s important to them — and I think that that is usually the same. We want to be understood by the people closest to us.
BL: I feel like a lot of writers are primarily focused on their own experiences, their own selves. And their protagonists tend to be personal surrogates. You seem to actually care about other human beings!
SO: I’m sure all of my characters are in some way surrogates for myself. It’s like Flaubert said: Madame Bovary, c’est moi.
Missus B. (MB): What got to me was your ability to capture the voice of an eighty-something woman. I’m a fifty-something woman and have recently started having some of Emily’s existential thoughts and concerns about being “dormant.” Do you ever worry about these things yourself?
SO: Oh, of course. I just turned fifty, and my father just turned eighty, so I’m definitely casting ahead.
Art Edwards (AE): I feel like your realism sits nicely between two current buying trends: memoir and genre work, two seeming extremes. Can you talk a little about working and publishing in the realistic form in 2011?
SO: I just chose what I thought was the right point of view and structure and tone for Emily — to get her world across as powerfully as possible. If another mode had seemed nearly as promising, I would have used it.
BL: “Dare to be boring.” I read this from an interview with you a while back…something you often say to your writing students. Can you explain?
SO: John Gardner says that if your character is worthy of and capable of love, then the reader will follow her anywhere. And I think that’s true. So rather than tarting up a heavy or ludicrous plot, I decided to organize Emily, Alone around those small moments that puzzle or nettle her. It’s not a rule, but it’s another opportunity — again — to get at what’s really most important to us.
BL: John Gardner played a big role in your writing life.
SO: Very much so. I didn’t have any writer friends when I was beginning, so I read The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist for clues about what a story is and does. Then tried to write stories in my basement after work.
BL: You began your career as an aerospace engineer, correct? I’m curious how this has influenced your writing.
SO: I think I look at narrative problems with a more technical eye, trying to come up with the single best solution, which sometimes leads me to choose odd voices, points of view or forms.
BL: I remember reading an interview with Arundhati Roy, who was trained as an architect, and she was talking about structuring her books in a way that she might structure a building — archways as recurring motifs, and so on. It’s always fascinating how an author’s other vocation(s) inform his understanding of his written work.
SO: Or the way a musician might use leitmotifs. With me, I’m always testing the ideal against the real. What is the world really like? There’s a saying in the business: There’s no partial credit in space.
BL: Were you always pining to write as you worked the engineering job? What finally made you take the leap?
SO: I was writing steadily, publishing stories, winning a few prizes, and my wife Trudy said I obviously wanted to write more than anything in the world, so why didn’t I try to do it professionally?
BL: Thatta girl, Trudy.
SO: It was a crazy challenge.
BL: So, my mother, Peggy, is here with us tonight. She just messaged me and said: “Ask him about her relationship with her children.” I’m assuming she means Emily. (Hi, Mom.)
AE: (Googling leitmotifs…)
BL: Do you have a specific question, Ma?
Peggy: Yes, I was referring to Emily.
Gloria Harrison (GH): Hi Listi’s mom!!
SO: Emily’s had a tough go of it with Margaret, less so with Kenneth (the agreeable Kenneth), but now she wants to make amends, to grow closer to them, to apologize (and be apologized to) for all the hard feelings. She’s coming to terms with her life, and how she’s done.
MB.: I have to ask — ever had a dog like Rufus? You not only described Emily’s aging so well, but the dog’s too. As I was reading, I was worried that Rufus was going to be a goner. Thanks for keeping him okay!
SO: Thanks — yeah, I worried about Rufus too. While I was writing the book, our old Brittany Spaniel was going through some tough times, and I’d talk to him while I was working. Some of our conversations made it into the book.
BL: It’s an inviolable rule of storytelling: NEVER KILL THE DOG. (Unless it’s Cujo.)
SO: It’s true, though I think there’s a huge dog (and cat) body count in A Prayer for the Dying. But no one fares well in that one.
BL: It’s always been a fascination to me — you go to a movie theater and sit there with 200 people, watching human beings get riddled with automatic gunfire and chased by homicidal maniacs. But as soon as a dog is in danger…
SO: Very true of Snow Angels.
GH: Where the Red Fern Grows?
BL: Still haunted by that one. Old Dan! Little Ann!
GH: Right? See?
BL: So, Stewart, I’m curious to know how you work your way into a novel. How does it begin? Are you researching? Do you start with a title? A character? What’s the usual point of entry? (Or does it vary?)
SO: It varies, but the most surefire sign that I’m into one is if a character suddenly shows up and hijacks the book, making me chuck all of the research I’d spent the last few months amassing.
BL: And what’s your work schedule like?
SO: I try to write every day, 9 to 5, then revise hard copy after dinner so I have something to start messing around with in the morning. And while I’m writing, I try to keep the characters and their world close to me by keeping notebooks.
BL: Seven days a week?
SO: Seven when I’m hot on it (early on and in the closing stages of drafts), five when I’m in the middle.
MB.: What do you mean by keeping notebooks? How are they arranged? By character?
SO: I have sections for all the main characters, a section for the setting (for Emily, Alone, it was “Pittsburgh and their world”), a section for construction (including scenes and sources), sections for any activity or subculture I need to understand better (gardening)… Had a big section for Rufus. And I may not use even a tenth of the stuff. It’s just a way to get deeper into the character (what words do they use in everyday speech that I don’t) and to keep the characters closer.
BL: See, now this strikes me as sort of “engineery.” Or, I suppose, “architecty.” (If you will allow.) And now my mom has another question….
Peggy: How long did it take you to write the book?
BL: (Way to go for the jugular, Ma.)
SO: This one took me about two and a half years from start to finish of the draft work, and then another 20 months after Viking accepted it. So: around four years.
AE: Once you’ve gotten to the end of the first draft, how close are you to done? Are there still many drafts to go, or is it close? (If it varies, what was it like with Emily?)
SO: It varies. I generally let it sit awhile and then revise it, then send it out to my first line of readers (including my wife, Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Manette Ansay, Luis Urrea, Susan Straight) and they come back with readings, which I paw through and then figure out what I need to change. Then my agent gets a crack at it, then my editor at Viking, Josh Kendall, then a few more drafts, then the copy editor. By the end you’ve had to justify every mark on the page. It’s really Flaubertian.
BL: Jesus. That’s a nice first line!
SO: Yeah, very sharp eyes. They don’t let me slide on anything.
AE: Come on, how about some *quality* first readers?
GH: No kidding… I want to be added to that first line. (Stewart: I’m a copy editor who works for $10 coffee gift cards!)
SO: My wife’s probably the best reader I’ve got.
Gary Busey (GB): What’s up with your Red Sox, dude?
SO: Sox are red hot, aren’t they? Started 2-10 and are something like 8-1 since. That’s baseball.
GB: What are you working on right now?
SO: I’m revising a novel called The Odds, which Viking will bring out just before Valentine’s Day.
BL: One more question, and then we’ll begin our LIGHTNING ROUND….
MB: When you started this book, did you know how you were going to end it?
SO: No, I wasn’t sure, and even well into it I had no idea how it was going to go. I thought Rufus and Arlene might both die, leaving Emily truly alone, but that didn’t happen.
BL: Okay, Stewart. We’ve now reached that moment. It’s time for the Lightning Round. We will be asking you a series of quick, either/or questions. You respond quickly. Sound good?
BL: Okay, here we go….
AE: Metallica or Megadeth?
BL: Big dog or small dog?
SO: Big dog.
GH: Power of flight or power of invisibility?
MB: Breakfast buffets or dinner?
BL: F. Scott Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe?
SO: F Scott!
BL:Lady Gaga or Radio Gaga?
SO: Radio Gaga.
Jen: Jack Daniels or Southern Comfort?
GH: Branson, Missouri or Las Vegas, Nevada?
SO: Vegas, baby.
GH: He called me baby!! **blushes**
BL: “Have to exercise or I’ll go insane” or “Exercise is insane”?
AE: Direct confrontation, or passive-aggressive sabotage?
SO: Direct confrontation — drama.
BL: Blues or jazz?
GH: Regular or decaf?
BL: “Horrified by e-books” or “embrace the future?”
SO: Embrace the future.
AE: Tuna melt normal or open-faced?
SO: Open-faced (more drama).
Jen: Star Wars or Star Trek?
AE: Caught foul ball or caught guitar pick?
SO: Both: Rick Nielsen/Pujols.
MB: Mohawks or mullets?
GH: Kirk or Picard?
SO: Kirk. Evil Kirk.
AE: The mashed potato or the frugue?
SO: It’s always mashed potato time.
BL: Howard Stern or Howard Cosell?
MB.: Angelina or Jen?
SO: Jen. In The Good Girl.
BL: First draft longhand or first draft typed?
GH: Sarah Palin or this rock?
SO: Rock on.
BL: Team Jacob or Team Edward?
SO: Jacob — Pittsburgh shoot last summer at PNC.
BL: (We can’t end on that one you guys. Come on.)
GH: Dr. Seuss or Pablo Neruda?
SO: Pablo Suessruda
AE: Stargell or Parker?
SO: Parker — best arm I ever saw.
BL: Vincent Chase or Vincent Price?
SO: The abominable Dr. Phibes.
Jen: World of Warcraft or Rift?
SO: WoW — the South Park episode.
BL: Lord Stanley or Lord of the Rings?
SO: Gollum plays for the Flyers.
AE: Bass solo or drum solo?
SO: Bass solo — Stanley Clarke or Slam Stewart.
GH: Willy Wonka a la Johnny Depp or a la Gene Wilder?
SO: Gene Wilder — You get nothing, sir!
BL: Okay, folks. I believe that does it. Stewart O’Nan, ladies gentlemen!
MB: Thanks so much. Great discussion and great book!
GH: Thank you for joining us, Stewart!
SO: Thanks for playing The Feud!
BL: It was a great pleasure. Can’t tell you how much we appreciate it.
Jen: This was fun!
SO: A pleasure, everyone.
BL: To the bar!
SO: Oh, and please support your public library!
BL: Yes indeed. And have your pets spayed or neutered, for godsake! Good night, everybody!!
Sorry `i missed this. `i’m in Bruges and the keyboard is wacky. `i read `’Emily Alone`’ on the plane and it was so real and terrifying for me. Too close to home, `i’,m afraid. BEautifully written and horrifying. `i wonder if the author understands how difficult a read this is for older people.
[…] On April 30, Stewart participated in an online chat for The Nervous Breakdown’s book club: […]