Episode 031: Stewart O'Nan

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Note: due to a scheduling problem, this interview and two others are text-only.  Audio podcasts will return in the fall.

Stewart O'Nan is the author of more than a dozen books, including the novels Snow Angels, A Prayer For The Dying, Last Night At The Lobster, and Songs For The Missing.  He is a 1992 graduate of the Cornell MFA, and presently lives in Connecticut.  He read at Cornell's Goldwin Smith Hall on April 19, 2009, and answered J. Robert Lennon's questions via email the previous week.

You've entered a period of great popularity and critical success after years of slaving away in the midlist.  I wonder if it's taken so long because your books are so different from one another--sometimes you almost seem like a new writer every time.  Is this a conscious effort on your part?  And do you think there is, beneath the diverse range of styles and approaches you've tried, a consistent underlying aesthetic?

I just try to find the best approach to whatever I happen to be writing about.  In the fiction, I'm in service to the characters, bringing their emotional world across to the reader, so it only makes sense that I use different forms and voices and points of view.  That may confuse editors and marketing people more than it confuses readers.  Across the books, I think there's a focus on the American soul--innocence and optimism colliding with atrocity and failure, the lone/strange individual vs. the ruling social group.  I'm sure it stems from growing up in the late '60s/early '70s in Pittsburgh.

Like a lot of writers I like, you've borrowed a bit from genre fiction, particularly crime and horror--you even wrote one novel in which Stephen King plays an important role, and later collaborated with him on a nonfiction book.  Maybe you could talk a bit about the overlap of literary and genre fiction, in your work and in general.

Hey, thanks.  I grew up reading widely and enthusiastically, enjoying horror comics and Ray Bradbury and Stephen King and Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Harlan Ellison before I ever heard of Woolf, Kafka, Joyce, etc., so when I started reading what we call serious work, it naturally bonded with the stuff that was in my head already.  The earlier novels owe their big, bloody climaxes and Gothic excess to that marriage of low and high art, while the later books seem to be moving towards a quieter, less crazy place.

You've had the fortunate--or perhaps horrifying--experience of having your work transformed into film.  I think film is the dominant narrative form of our era, but it doesn't serve the same purpose as the novel, and has different strengths and weaknesses.  How did you feel about the transformation of your narratives (if I'm not mistaken, Snow Angels and now Lobster) into film, and did you learn anything new about them, and about narrative, as a result?

I was very lucky.  I like David Gordon Green's movie of Snow Angels very much.  I'd read an early script, so I knew it would share little with the book.  And that's right--it has to stand on its own.  Like The Shining. Stephen King has never liked Kubrick's version, because it's not his book. I love the book and I love the movie, and I'm glad both exist, but I'd never confuse the two.  I guess the worry is that most people will, or do.

What I learned about narrative is that that framed and cross-cut between two mostly-separated storylines is almost impossible to pull off in film, while in novels it's absolutely natural.  Simultaneity, or the illusion of simultaneity, is far easier to produce on the page.  Moving time or stopping time is easier on the page, you can go deeper on the page--basically, it reminded me of how flexible the novel is.

If most of your books have one thing in common, perhaps it's that they share an interest in "ordinary" people and their sometimes extraordinary struggles.  I put that in quotes because, if I'm reading you right, you don't necessarily subscribe to the whole notion of ordinariness--that perhaps your mission as a writer is to show the strangeness in the ordinary.  True?

True.  Everyone's life is deep and broad and strange.  On top of that, some people are asked to bear more than others.  But of course, I've worked with a wide range of people.  Certainly no one would call Marjorie in The Speed Queen or Jacob in A Prayer for the Dying ordinary.

Fair enough.  Actually,  A Prayer For The Dying is probably my favorite book of yours.  It's a midwestern literary-horror experiment that draws from the great nonfiction book Wisconsin Death Trip to create a highly unusual and gripping second-person narrative.  Do you continue to experiment with unusual narrative techniques?  If so, how often do they grow into novels?

Some of the later books have been experimental in that they haven't been plotted.  While they appear to have storylines, they're actually fitted together by juxtaposition--by tone and point of view, by dynamics (loud-soft-loud) and tempi--rather than the old set-up, build-up, pay-off of conventional fiction.  The idea is from John Gardner:  that if a character is worthy of and capable of love, the reader will follow them anywhere.  I'm hoping that in letting the reader become intimate with the characters in moments of great stress and stillness that I'm bringing the reader closer to their own private emotions.  Or, as I often joke with writing students: dare to be boring.  I think there's a thinness to a lot of fiction out there--experimental and mainstream--because it's too concerned with surface busyness and thematic bookkeeping rather than the much more elusive human heart.

Since you're reading here as part of the Cornell writing program's "centennial plus five" celebration, could you talk a little bit about Cornell's impact on your life and career?

Simply by sharing their favorite books, my professors and fellow students at Cornell led me to other authors whose work transformed my own--James Salter, William Maxwell, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Richard Yates (thanks, Lorrie Moore!).  Before I came to Cornell, I was working  in aerospace and had little contact with other writers.  Once I got here, everything accelerated, everything fed into the writing.  I was here for three years and wrote three novels, two of which (Snow Angels and A World Away) were eventually published.  So, thank you, everyone!