The Bat Segundo Show: Stewart O’Nan II

Stewart O’Nan appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #454. He is most recently the author of The Odds. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #161. You can also read our lengthy conversation by email in 2011. This 2012 talk was recorded before a live audience at McNally Jackson. My gratitude to Michele Filgate, Langan Kingsley, Holly Watson, and, of course, Stewart O’Nan for their help in putting this event together.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Inexplicably hungering for Wendy’s hamburgers.

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Subjects Discussed: [forthcoming later this afternoon]


Correspondent: Niagara Falls. Here is a location that’s loaded with all sorts of associations. Joyce Carol Oates wrote a book there.

O’Nan: The Falls.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly.

O’Nan: Yes, I was introduced the other night as “the author of The Falls.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

O’Nan: And I was like, “Not that prolific.” Not nearly.

Correspondent: (laughs) Well, you are churning them out one a year.

O’Nan: Oh thank you. Churning them out. You said cranking before.

Correspondent: Crafting! Cranking, churning. All right. But they’re short! They’re short.

O’Nan: They’re tiny.

Correspondent: There’s craftsmanship in there. Don’t worry.

O’Nan: I understand.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering. You’re taking a location that’s loaded with all sorts of cultural baggage. There’s that Marilyn Monroe/Joseph Cotten film.

O’Nan: Gotta love it.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering. Here you are taking two characters and putting them in a touristy location. I’m wondering if you did that to work up against limitations and see what kind of behavior you could mine based off of that. I’m wondering why you chose this. What was the process of selecting the Ice Bridge or the details of the customs location? What went into nailing Niagara?

O’Nan: Well, it’s a ready made stage. Usually when I take on an area or a setting, it’s virgin territory in a way. Conneaut, Ohio. Kingsville in Songs for the Missing. No one’s ever written about that in any kind of novel. Western Pennsylvania. Butler, PA in 1974. So I always say I’ve written the best Butler, Pennsylvania novel ever written.

Correspondent: (laughs)

O’Nan: Or Avon, Connecticut. Usually these are overlooked places. Like New Britain, Connecticut, that Last Night at the Lobster takes place in. I write in that interzone, that nowhere America of strip malls. It has been kicked around forever. But in the new book, I thought, let’s focus solely on the characters and put them on a stage that everybody knows. So I don’t have to do that disorienting, here is the place that you don’t know and now I’m going to tell you about it. So I had a little less responsibility to the setting and I could spend a little bit more time on the characters.

Correspondent: I have to ask you about the odds as chapter headers for all of these. Some are, in fact, true. “Odds of a black number coming up in roulette: 1 in 2.06.” I Wikipediaed that. Some are unscientifically true. “Odds of a marriage proposal being accepted: 1 in 1.001.” So I’m wondering. How many odds did you collect? I mean, I’m wondering if you were sitting on a bunch of odds sets.

O’Nan: Yes. Yes.

Correspondent: You were?

O’Nan: Yes, I was. And I was trying to figure out: How do I weave these into the book and what effect are they going to have when I get them in there? And they seemed to me to work. When I thought of using them rather than chapter headings, in the way I did with, say, Emily or in Songs of the Missing, I saw them as how the chapter headings are in something like Blood Meridian or in, say, 19th century fiction work, which is “In this chapter I am eaten by sharks.” And before you even get into the chapter, you’re like, “Oh sharks! This could be cool!” So it kind of brings the reader and it gives them an expectation of what may happen in this chapter. Not necessarily has to happen. But it may happen. The odds of dying in a bus crash. Whoa! There might be a bus crash. I’ll stick around and find out.

Correspondent: It’s interesting. Because here you are in one sense messing with the reader for the first ten pages, repelling them, and then on this, you’re subverting their expectations. It’s actually, “Ooh! I want to continue to read this chapter.”

O’Nan: Well, you hope.

Correspondent: What of this bipolar approach to fiction writing?

O’Nan: Flannery O’Cononr. Flannery O’Connor said, “Distract them and hit them over the head.” Absolutely right. Absolutely right. Give them a reason to come into the place. A Prayer for the Dying. The opening sections are very — it’s a terrible thing to say, very beautifully written. I use the language. I make the beauty of the language a key thing to hang into. And so the reader gets rewarded somehow. And by the time they have to go through the book, they’re kind of stuck. They’re like, “Well, I don’t really want to hang around and watch this guy go crazy while I’m inside of his mind.” Well, it’s too late. So like Poe, say, in “The Black Cat.” Once you get them in the door, then after a certain point, they’re kind of yours. They have to follow along. Or you hope so. You always hope so.

Correspondent: I’m curious if the odds sets actually were methods for you to riff off of Art and Marion. If you were stuck at a certain place. Is this a point? I mean, you’re a former engineer. I presume that this was either heavily designed. Or were there false starts? And did the odds help you in anything?

O’Nan: No. There weren’t a whole lot of false starts. I knew the characters very well before I opened up. It’s also a small novel. It’s very much sort of a drawing room novel in a way. It’s the one weekend. You’ve got the unity of place. The unity of time. You’ve got a lot of pressure on them from the memories. This is their second honeymoon. They’re in Niagara Falls. And you have the time pressure of, well, at some point, they’re going to have to put their money down on the wheel. And they’re always kind of at odds with one another. They’re always picking at one another. So I had a lot to work with. The plates were already spinning when I started getting into it.

Correspondent: I wanted to also ask you. One interesting thing that you also do with Marion is body image. She doesn’t like Art to see her undress. And in one of the passages you’re going to read tonight, the only thing you mention is her stomach. We actually don’t really know what she looks like physically. So I’m wondering if this is a method for you to not reveal certain details to the reader or this reflects your relationship to the reader. Is this your way to protect your own characters? To not divulge all? Or is this your way to encourage judgment? Perception on the reader’s behalf?

O’Nan: This is more to encourage the reader to join in the process of creating the work. And I don’t say what the character looks like unless it’s really necessary to the arc of the story there. So what the characters look like is completely up to the reader there. And I leave judgment to the reader. I don’t try to steer the reader too much in terms of who’s good, who’s bad, who’s right, who’s wrong. And it’s always sort of that inkblot that shows how generous the reader can be or how, on the flip side, how stingy they can be. “I hate Marion. I hate her so much.” It’s like, “Easy there, lady. Easy there.”

Correspondent: Have you had this happen before?

O’Nan: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Wow. Really?

O’Nan: In Wichita of all places.

Correspondent: Wichita!

O’Nan: “I didn’t like her.” Well, that’s good. That’s your prerogative. That’s fine. That’s you.

Correspondent: You know, one of the interesting things — I’ve read a number of reviews of this book. And they actually don’t mention, for example, Karen or these two characters who are having affairs with the couple. And I’m curious about this. Maybe this relates to this issue of giving the reader something. Maybe they don’t want to talk about this aspect of Art and Marion. What do you think of this?

O’Nan: Yeah. I think they want to key more on Art and Marion and just say, “Look, there are problems in the marriage.” And this is how they work them out over this weekend. Or don’t work them out.

Correspondent: Inevitably, because you do deal with Heart, I have to bring up celebrity gossip.

O’Nan: Heart.

Correspondent: So in late 2010, Nancy Wilson and Cameron Crowe initiated divorce proceedings. It was a great shocker to certain waves.

O’Nan: So sad. They had everything going for them, didn’t they? They did.

Correspondent: Yeah. I’m wondering if you including the Heart concert before or after you heard this news. Or if you possibly predicted this dissolution in anyway. I mean, what of this?

O’Nan: I don’t know.

Correspondent: Some sort of angle here.

O’Nan: No. I don’t know. It’s accidental subtext, I guess. I guess it happens from time to time.

Correspondent: Another silly question. Wendy is a character. And I have to ask you, and I know this is really pedantic, but I have noticed in all of your books — nearly all of your books — there’s a moment where someone eats Wendy’s. A Wendy’s hamburger.

O’Nan: Really?

Correspondent: But not, not in The Odds. The last time I saw this was Last Night at the Lobster. There was a Wendy’s moment. It was the Stewart O’Nan Wendy’s moment!

O’Nan: He doesn’t go to Wendy’s.

Correspondent: Oh, he doesn’t go to Wendy’s?

O’Nan: He decides not to go to Wendy’s.

Correspondent: But he does actually consider it!

O’Nan: This is a climax. This is a climax in an actual work of fiction. “Want to go to Wendy’s? Nah.”

Correspondent: Do you eat at Wendy’s quite a bit?

O’Nan: No. Maybe that’s it. Maybe I want to eat at Wendy’s more. I can see my biographer doing a lot on Wendy’s now. A map of all the Wendy’s around my house.

(Photo credit: Here)

Paid Author Events: The Future of Independent Bookstores?

It was a humid Wednesday afternoon, and I was outside BookCourt with a microphone.

That morning, a New York Times story about paid author events ignited a firestorm on Twitter. Some independent bookstores, hurting for cash, were now charging admission for a reading. Sometimes it was as little as $5. Sometimes it was the price of the hardcover for an off-site event. What had once been free was now the cost of a pint at happy hour.

These developments began in April. In Colorado, Boulder Book Store announced that it would charge $5 a head to attend an event. In California, Kepler’s demanded a $10 gift card to admit two people through the new paywall.

Was this reasonable? Or was this a form of gouging? Wasn’t the purpose of an author event to give the customer a chance to sample the goods? And would such a practice, as Ann Patchett suggested, scare off those who didn’t have the clams for a hardcover?

And why had nobody talked to the customers about this?

The time had come to sweat in the sun and ask every person leaving BookCourt to take part in “a journalistic survey.” I talked to as many customers as I could before the next thunderstorm broke. Some people were skeptical. Others were kind, but in a rush. One woman ran away, calling me “one of those goddam bums.” (In my haste, I had forgotten to shave and I was wearing an old T-shirt.) But most were accommodating.

Listening to the Customers

During the afternoon of June 22, 2011, we conducted several interviews with book customers outside Bookcourt for this story. Listen to Glenn Kenny discuss his thoughts on author events with Our Correspondent. (3:27)

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Lucas, a smiling 50-year-old man who doesn’t work, told me that he doesn’t really attend author events, but that he “bumps into them.” He said he wouldn’t pay for an author event, largely because he views it as a meeting. In his view, the reader shouldn’t pay to meet people. “It’s very bizarre to go to an author meeting or gathering. Because basically you meet authors through their books. So I read their books. And I sort of dream about meeting them. But I don’t really want to meet them.”

Miriam, a 35-year-old consultant, told me she attended two to three author events a year. She likes “to learn about the work that goes behind the writing.” Asking stimulating questions and “the author’s voice” were also big draws. She said that she would pay $5 for an author event “if it was an author I liked.” The $5 fee wouldn’t make a huge difference, but she felt that “these things should be free to get the maximum number of people.” Miriam said that, if she were intrigued, she would pay for a debut or an unknown author event. But the biggest reason that Miriam went to events was knowing the author in question.

Patty Greenberg, a 60-year-old stay-at-home mom tightly gripping the leash of a rather large and very well-groomed poodle, told me that she only attended one author event a year and that she would only pay $5 if she was really interested in the author.

A 24-year-old dancer who claimed to be “Devon Alberta” (stage name or lark?) said that he doesn’t attend author events, but that he would pay money “if he liked the author.” He would even purchase the book if this was the cost to attend. Why does he attend author events? “I always like to have access to the writer and the way that they communicate outside of the text.”

Then there was an unexpected run-in with the film critic Glen Kenny, who told me that he attended five author events a year. Would he pay? “Five dollars is about reasonable if I wanted to go. And if there was seating.” Kenny confessed that he mostly goes to events if he knows the author, but he is interested in the presentation. “Just a window into his own perception of what he’s doing, I think, is often conveyed through reading.” He pointed to key differences between seeing Martin Amis at an event when he wasn’t well-known versus when he was well-known. But he did admit that an author event “doesn’t necessarily enhance my appreciation of the work.”

Brandon Pederson, a 24-year-old gentleman who identified himself as “a real-time highlighter for Major League Baseball,” said that he usually attended four author events a year. He said he would pay $5 if he “was sold on them being someone I would give $5 to” — note the way Pederson views the money as going to the author, not the bookstore. Pederson said that he often attended author events because “friends told him to.” I suggested to Pederson that surely he had free will. He then told me that he was new to the city and interested in “theory” and “fiction that pushes what fiction is.” He enjoyed hearing authors talk about books, sometimes buying them to be signed. But if Pederson was asked to pay $5 for an author he hadn’t heard of, then his criteria changed: “if the work sounded relative to what I was interested in.”

Jen, a 27-year-old teacher, told me that she probably hadn’t been to an author event at a bookstore. She was fond of going to author lectures –“usually authors that we’re reading about and stuff that we’re taking excerpts from.” Why did she avoid bookstore events? “Honestly? Probably because it’s not marketed that well. I don’t know about them.” Jen said that she would pay for an author event at a bookstore, but, like the majority of the people I spoke with, it would depend on who the author is. She would pay for favorite authors, but she wouldn’t pay for debut or unknown authors. “Not unless it was a friend I was trying to help out.”

Another 27-year-old teacher named Lynn, accompanied by a highly animated dog, was an even bigger fan of author events than Jen, in large part because she teaches English. She copped to attending 40 author events a year and she was the only person I talked with who had read the New York Times article. Why did she attend author events? “I’m bad in bars.”

While paying for an event would make her think twice, Lynn said that, despite her teacher’s salary, she would pay $5 if she had to because she loved independent bookstores and wanted to see them flourish. “There’s a reason I don’t buy used books.” But she did say that her husband would probably give her a hard time if she was forced to pay out $200/year.

Lynn told me that she had been disappointed by some author events. “I just go to go. It would have to be more of a schtick. Some do interviews. And some just read. I might be a little more thoughtful about the events that I go to.” I asked if she would want more from a reading if she was ponying up a Lincoln. “Yeah,” said Lynn. “Instead of Paul Auster reading, Jonathan Lethem interviewing Paul Auster. Maybe there’s wine and cheese.” Like other paid author event supporters I talked with, Lynn said that she would have to be somewhat familiar with a debut or unknown author to attend a paid author event — perhaps through a story in The New Yorker or One Story.

Will Paid Author Events Create More Demands?

“Instead of Paul Auster reading, Jonathan Lethem interviewing Paul Auster. Maybe there’s wine and cheese.” Listen to Lynn, a 27-year-old schoolteacher, discuss her thoughts on paid author events with Our Correspondent. (1:59)

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Doug Stone, a 40-year-old writer, said that he attended somewhere between three and four author events a year. Asked if he would pay $5 for an author event, he replied, “Well, it can’t be anybody.” Stone said that readings had a certain feel of inclusiveness that might be diminished by asking people to pay. “I’ve been to bookstores where you’re browsing and you didn’t even know there was going to be a reading. Then all of a sudden, we’re doing a reading. And you go over and you’re introduced to people.” He felt that charging money changed the spirit of the event and audience expectations. “The readings that I’ve enjoyed the most, they’re just a free event.” But Stone was not averse to someone passing the hat after an author event, if certain needs were stated. “I would put ten frigging dollars in that hat.”

* * *

What do these conversations tell us? It reveals that people like Lucas and Doug Stone often attend author events when it is random and that these happy accidents can produce potential acolytes. Nearly all of these customers see the author event as an experience to get to know the author beyond the book. Attending an event represents a perceived social experience. A $5 fee not only created the distinct possibility that debut, experimental, and unknown authors would be cut out of the loop, but it created new demands upon authors and bookstores. Would authors be required to perform? Should the authors be compensated? Would the audience demand more?

“Paid author events are common in Europe,” says novelist Stewart O’Nan. “In fact, a free author event would be uncommon, and even those are subsidized by the publishers and bookstores in co-op fashion, with the author being paid for each and every tour appearance. Because the author, when not writing, is being asked to be a performing artist. What other professional would be asked to travel across the country and perform their work for free? Even the lowliest dive bar has to give the band half of the door. This ain’t open mike night. The store provides the venue & the advertising & logistics, so they should definitely get a cut, but the author, being the attraction, should definitely be compensated.”

“Author events are a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, in a way,” says memoirist Alison Bechdel, who also offered an idea of authors performing foot massages for a small fee and splitting the take with the bookstore. “It’s understood that the bookstore and the author and the publisher all have a stake and a responsibility, but it’s a complex, overlapping mix in which you all depend on one another and work as hard as you can to have a successful event. All three parties want to sell the book. But there are other, less commodifiable, elements in the mix. It’s worth something to readers to have access to an author. It’s worth something to authors to have the opportunity to reach readers. It’s worth something to bookstores to get traffic and possible new customers. And when, inevitably, there’s an event that no one shows up to, the toll is not just financial — it’s depressing.

Stephanie Anderson, manager of the independent bookstore WORD Brooklyn, concludes that the author is being compensated on some level. “We’ve definitely noticed a strong correlation between how much an author and audience connect and how many books sell. I know royalties aren’t huge, but they are a good reason to want to sell a lot of your own book.”

I reached Tayari Jones by telephone as she was in the middle of a very involved indie-friendly tour for her latest novel, Silver Sparrow. Jones said that she was very grateful to the independents for their support of her book and that she wanted to do whatever she could for them. But she did express some reservations about paid author events could solve present problems.

“We need to raise awareness,” said Jones. “But I think that charging money feels punitive.”

Jones brought up a hypothetical example of a customer driving all the way from Detroit to an Ann Arbor bookstore and being turned away because she didn’t have the $5. “Can you imagine that?” Jones said that she didn’t want anybody turned away. Would this mean authors and publishers subsidizing author events for those facing financial hardship? I asked Jones if she would pay out of pocket. “$100,” said Jones. “I could front twenty people.”

Jones has adopted one strategy of informing her audience why it’s important to purchase a book at an indie — even if members of her audience have already done so. “It’s worked every time.” She notes that when such a request comes from the author (instead of the bookseller), it tends to have a less partial perception.

* * *

“My bottom line is this,” says novelist Jennifer Weiner. “I don’t think authors have any business telling readers where or when to buy their books. Would I love it if everyone bought my new hardcover the day it was published at Headhouse Books, which is my neighborhood independent in Philadelphia? Absolutely. Do I understand if they’ve got e-readers, or can find the books more cheaply at Sam’s Club or Target, or wait for the paperback, or visit the library because a hardcover isn’t in their budget? Absolutely. I’m grateful to have people reading my books, however and whenever they do it.”

Weiner hopes that struggling independent booksellers can consider the long-term customer. “Maybe the graduate student or young mom who shows up at my reading isn’t going to drop $27 on my newest hardcover, but maybe she will buy a trade paperback, and a few Judy Moodys for her kid. So the store’s making money, even if it’s not on my book. Or the putative reader won’t buy the book that day, but she’ll get it in two weeks. Or she won’t get it at all, but she’ll tell a friend, who will then buy a copy.”

Still, as former bookstore marketing manager Colleen Lindsay has observed, the author event is fraught with significant costs, including expenditures for returned books and those customers who couldn’t purchase a book that they wanted.

Off-site events, such as WORD Brooklyn’s recent ticketed event with China Mieville, have made a difference. “I think ticketing the event and having the vast majority of the books pre-purchased ended up making the event a better one overall,” says Anderson. “We and the venue were able to properly plan because we knew how many people were coming, which made setting up and transitioning from Mieville’s interview to his signing much easier (and meant he could spend more time with fans). It also meant that the act of commerce was essentially disassociated from the event, because everyone had already paid. There was no pressure to buy, because everyone had already bought. The staff could spend more time talking with people and helping out, instead of running a million credit cards. We did have some backlist titles available for sale and sold a few, but most people just got right in line with the book they had gotten when they walked in the door, and it all went very smoothly.”

Yet O’Nan suggests that shifting to a pay-for-play model generates additional problems of writers competing with celebrity writers. “Sarah Palin will sell a truckload more books and draw much bigger crowds than, say, Tom Wolfe,” says O’Nan, “who will sell a truckload more books and draw a much bigger crowd than, say, Steven Millhauser. In the end, is the idea merely to turn out the largest crowd and make the largest profit (and to sell the largest number of copies)? If so, book Sarah Palin. If it’s to enjoy the genius of a master storyteller, call Steven Millhauser. I’ll pay good money to see him.”

“There many be some evolution towards a revenue share model similar to what you see at a music venue, where they book in an act and share the door with the performer,” says Christin Evans, co-owner of The Booksmith in San Francisco. “We’d be open to considering that type of model. We already have a similar arrangement with the performer as our monthly adult cabaret event, The Literary Clown Foolery.”

Jones, O’Nan, and Weiner all tell me that they work very hard at their author events.

“I bring an A-game regardless,” says Jones. “There could be no more additional pressure.”

“I go out and give my all every time, whether I’m being paid decent money at a big university or reading for free at a tiny library,” says O’Nan.

“My secret weapon is baked goods,” says Weiner.

But do performance elements — what the dedicated bookstore customer might call “schtick” — create new demands for authors and bookstores in the 21st century?

Glenn Kenny suggests that some of these performance elements have been there all along. “I remember going to benefit events,” says Kenny, “which combined readings with music. It was something that McSweeney’s did after 9/11 at Angel Orensanz that had Chuck Klosterman reading from Fargo Rock City and David Byrne doing a PowerPoint presentation. So those things, which are packaged like entertainment events, they make more sense to be paid events, per se. But a plain reading might not necessarily be it. But I can’t rule anything out.”

While Weiner says that she would pay considerably more than $5 to listen to author Jen Lancaster, which she compares to “attending a stand-up performance,” author events can sometimes work in reverse.

“Some authors just aren’t very good at the performance component of this job,” says Weiner. “Which doesn’t mean they’re bad writers. It just means that maybe they aren’t necessarily the ones publishers and bookstores should send on the road and make readers pay to hear. And yes, there is something a little off-putting about charging for an event and the author, and her publisher, and whoever interviewed her if it was a Q and A, not seeing a cent of the money, particularly since publishers are the ones who pay to send authors on the road. I can see that independent bookstores feel like they need to take a ‘by any means necessary’ approach to cultivating revenue streams, but maybe there’s an approach where a bookstore could say, ‘If we clear more than X dollars that night, we’ll split the cost of the author’s plane ticket and hotel stay with her publisher.’ And anyone who volunteers his or her time to interview an author should at the very least get a gift card, or a few books for their trouble.”

It remains to be seen if paid author events will become a new regular fixture at this early stage in the game. In the meantime, some authors simply hope to go on with their business.

“The road of thinking that what we do is simply quantifiable — my ‘words’ or my ‘appearance’ having some fixed value — is the path of madness,” says Jonathan Lethem. “I’m just glad that anyone cares at all to either read the work or come catch a glimpse of me, and anything a bookstore can do to go on being a bookstore is just fine with me.”

“Everything is an experiment in the book business,” says Sherman Alexie. “We are talking about writers and independent booksellers. We are not talking about economic geniuses. We are all flailing.”

(Images: Rebecca Williamson, Daniel Huggard, bitchcakesny, Steve Rhodes)

A Conversation with Stewart O’Nan

[Stewart O’Nan has also appeared twice on The Bat Segundo Show: Show #161 (2007, 38 minutes) and Show #454 (2012: 57 minutes).]

Stewart O’Nan has been called “a national treasure” by Three Guys One Book. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer has compared him to Dickens. In The New York Times, Joanna Smith-Rakoff suggested that O’Nan was influenced by “the spectre of Henry James.”

O’Nan’s twelfth novel, Emily, Alone — a sequel to O’Nan”s 2002 novel, Wish You Were Here that doesn’t require that you read the first book — follows an 80-year-old woman as she carries on a quiet routine in her Pittsburgh home. Her husband is dead. Her children have grown up and moved away. Her once lively dog Rufus is, quite literally, on his last legs. Her friend Arlene could go any minute. Despite this mortality, the novel remains determined to capture Emily’s life through very careful sentences devoted to telling details. When Emily replaces a box of Kleenex, we get economical insight into how she spends her money (“She’d bought a three-pack last week, saving a dollar, as always, with a coupon.”). We learn of generational differences when Emily considers her daughter Margaret’s attitude (“Thank-you notes belonged to the same category of useless formalities her square parents followed blindly, like sitting down to meals at prescribed times or going to church on Sunday.”). When an older acquaintance dies, O’Nan foreshadows the insufficient shorthand Emily is likely to have directed towards her in a few years (“She always had a lot of energy”).

I had interviewed Stewart O’Nan before in 2007 for The Bat Segundo Show. And after reading Emily, Alone, I had hoped to set up a second interview. Unfortunately, O’Nan’s hectic schedule of teaching and long driving to author events made things a bit difficult. And when I received an unexpected jury duty summons in the mail, I prepared for the distinct possibility that a few weeks of my life would be sacrificed to the courtroom.

We started volleying by email. And the two of us learned that we both had quite a lot to say about American fiction. Our conversation touched upon the influence of Richard Yates, what a writer can learn from John Gardner, avoiding parody and creating dimensional characters, and how one can protest marketplace realities while appealing to the reader. My many thanks to Stewart for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my somewhat verbose concatenations.

* * *

Reluctant Habits: Before we started this conversation, I remarked upon a jury duty summons that I had received (and should our conversation extend into a diversion from the courtroom, thank you very much in advance!). This led us both to remark upon the importance of civil duty in American life. But this got me thinking. Emily Maxwell is someone who maintains her dignity, a quality that might also be described as a civil duty. And your work offers an attention to the everyday that, when stacked against other fiction, might almost be said to originate from a similar impulse — namely, a civil duty to portray certain everyday Americans who don’t always get these narratives. To what extent do you feel that it’s your civil duty to portray families like the Maxwells? Does the duty ever burden you or threaten to take away from the curiosity or the fun? Additionally, why do you think civil duty has been given short shrift in recent American fiction? To what degree are you aware that you’re working a corner of the room that few other writers wish to peer into?

Stewart O’Nan: Emily does see herself as a part of larger social constructs–her marriage, her family (as a mother), her original family (as a daughter), her church, her neighborhood, the city of Pittsburgh, the town of Kersey, the old-guard Republican party–yet for all her sense of civic duty, she’s incredibly private and not always available, emotionally or otherwise. Plus so much of her world is gone and lives only in her memory. So she’s not as involved in that larger life as she sometimes wishes she were. Some days the only soul she speaks to is her dog, Rufus.

I think when I run into a character I find interesting, I feel a wild curiosity about him or her. How does this person feel, and how does he or she get through the days? What’s important to this person? Usually I write about people unlike myself, so there’s a constant process of discovery, of trying to get close enough and understand enough so I can provide the reader with a true sense of intimacy. And definitely, when I’m taking on someone in a realistic mode, I feel a responsibility to the character, in how I portray him or her. Not that I’ll soft-sell Emily’s faults (readers will want to shake her at times) or make things easy on her, even though I care for her deeply. The goal is to be honest and go deep, find the voice and style and structure to bring across her emotional life as powerfully as possible (not as loudly as possible, or as showily as possible, or as cleverly as possible), with the hope that readers will see their own lives and their own Emilys and add their memories and emotions to the book and end up being moved, not in a corny way, but really moved.

Impossible, I know, but that’s what interests me: How does it feel to be you? When I discover a character like Emily, or Manny in Last Night at the Lobster, or Patty in The Good Wife, after following them a while I realize that their stories are huge stories, their lives shared by millions of people yet rarely examined or taken seriously. So it’s an opportunity to take the reader a place they might never go otherwise and show them a whole world that’s been right in front of them the whole time, hidden in plain sight.

I’m aware that during the whole time I’ve been publishing, the main stage of American literary fiction has featured a kind of pyrotechnic fabulism. The Ice Storm is ’93, I think, The Virgin Suicides right around there, Infinite Jest is ’95, Lethem’s putting out his genre-bending stuff around then…and I dig all that stuff. I cut my teeth on Gaddis and Gardner and Gass and Barthelme and Barth and Coover and Hawkes too, and I admire the comic virtuosity of all these writers, first- and second-generation. The Speed Queen is obviously a whacky metafiction, and A Prayer for the Dying is a bit of a bravura performance in the manner of Charles Johnson, just as The Night Country owes much of its soul to Ray Bradbury and George A. Romero, so I haven’t entirely forsaken those roots, but even in those books I hope I’m using those dire means because they seemed to me the best solution — the unique solution, the ex-engineer would say — to the problem off getting my characters’ worlds across to the reader as powerfully as possible. Because in the end the writing isn’t what’s important — it’s just a medium. If the reader pays more attention to the writing than to what’s going on with the characters, the writing isn’t working.

RH: In your essay, “The Lost World of Richard Yates,” you observed that “the danger Yates courts is combining the conflicted character with the average or unexceptional person — with a talent I can only aspire to.” Yates, rather famously, was influenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald — which is quite interesting, seeing as how Fitzgerald often wrote about the rich and Yates gravitated toward the middle class. Following this natural path of inspiration, we see in your work that the danger you’re courting involves both the working class and the middle class. Last Night at the Lobster very clearly documents working class life. But I’m wondering to what degree the 2008 election — seen in Emily, Alone — served as an effort to chronicle a social sector that is rapidly eroding. In other words, as was suggested in the recent PEN America correspondence between David Gates and Jonathan Lethem, are you setting yourself up to be more of a historical novelist rather than a social novelist? What do you think accounts for the downmarket class drifting in this trajectory from Fitzgerald to Yates to you? How does this constant process of discovery pretty much demolish literary influence (whether Yates or pyrotechnic fabulism)?

O’Nan: Oh, definitely social fiction, utterly contemporary fiction, the skin of life as it’s lived now. Which is why the last seven books or so are set right here, right now, as opposed to the first five, which were all set in the historical past, in very different American eras and locales. How does life feel? What do we care about, what do we really fear? What do we really feel about the people closest to us, about ourselves? I still think fiction lets us go deeper into what life feels like than any other medium. Film is shallow, nonfiction is suspect (the more creative, the more suspect), memoir is unreliable and self-serving. The novel, by its very name, is utterly plastic, capable of taking any form, focusing on anything (an entire epoch or a guy riding an escalator after buying a pair of shoelaces — both accounts hilariously footnoted with unexpected yet absolutely true musings). Realism is a misnomer, since any art takes on, twists, or knowingly overthrows a convention to get the feel of life across to the reader/viewer/listener. Shields in Reality Hunger says he’s against the novel, then lists a whole raft of anti-novels that he claims are exceptions. But the anti-novel is still a novel. So it’s like saying, I don’t like vegetables, but I do like beets and carrots and squash and peas and kohlrabi and…While it’s true that viewers love reality TV, there’s a formulaic sameness to even the best reality shows that can’t approach the variety, depth, drama and comedy of scripted shows, the best of which — Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Party Down — make reality TV look shallow and silly. Likewise, documentary film, feature journalism since the mid-’60s, and everyday newspaper writing since the ’80s, have taken on as many of fiction’s tools as they can to seduce a larger audience. What’s the basis of all mass communication? Tell a good story.

Fitzgerald and Yates had their specific social territory which they rarely strayed from, especially Yates, who, though he wrote from the ’40s till the ’90s, only once stepped away from his home base of the ’40s and ’50s in Disturbing the Peace. I haven’t claimed one territory, and wouldn’t want to. I’m no spokesperson or poster child. As a reader I have very catholic tastes (Stephen King and Virginia Woolf, Ray Bradbury and John Wideman). So it makes sense that as a writer I write very different books about very different things. It’s been that way from the start, and because I don’t have to fulfill any expectations, I’m free to write about the affluent, the middle class, the working class, the poor, children, teenagers, young adults, the middle-aged, the elderly, urban life, the suburbs, small towns, country, frontier, and in any manner I choose. I’m not locked into a bankable voice or style, so it doesn’t become self-parody or shtick, like James Taylor singing Christmas carols with the same intonation he’d sing Motown covers. If there’s a common thread, I’d say I tend to dip into very American subcultures and address very American questions or traits. In each book there are influences, most of them consciously chosen — say, James Salter in A World Away, the Cormac McCarthy of Blood Meridian and George A. Romero in A Prayer for the Dying, or Sherwood Anderson and Dickens in Last Night at the Lobster — never in imitation but using their schemes to support whatever I’m doing. Hoping it turns out to be interesting, well done and ultimately true. And if it doesn’t, well, hell, they’re not all going to be good. It’s not supposed to be easy. If you’re a writer, you keep trying. You don’t throw your hands up and say the novel is dead just because yours is.

RH: I bring up the idea of Emily, Alone being historical (both in terms of literary influence and charting a specific time), rather than “utterly contemporary” (as you suggest), because there’s a chapter late in the book (“The Lesser of Two Evils”) where we understand that, despite Emily being a “lifelong Republican,” her life choices involve that sense of duty we were discussing here at the outset. She asks the question, “Was it too much to ask for someone she could believe in?” Yet she leaves the gym with the I VOTE TODAY sticker on her lapel, feeling a sense of pride. Here is someone who feels compelled to be part of the community, but who also finds some solace in being solitary. My takeaway here is that Emily, who has bought a brand new car (and if she didn’t have the money, this deal may have been comparable to some dubious tranche loan) and who is also contending with the home in her neighborhood that’s about to be sold. You’re telling me, Stewart, that this materialist solace competing with the communal solace (whether it be Arlene, Rufus, or even the reluctant relatives who come visit) isn’t capturing a national mood (or a specific type of older person in 2008) to some degree? Doesn’t the process of keeping a novel alive — especially social fiction — involve rigorous interplay between well-defined characters and where they are likely to stand in their particular period? What makes the process of knowing people in 2011, in 2008, or the Civil War different on a novel-to-novel basis? Is this simply a matter of how much you’re willing to throw yourself into a time period or talk with people or think about these motivations?

O’Nan: When I say contemporary, I mean that I was writing the novel at the very same time as the events (and the world, the moment) it describes. So that, unlike when you’re writing a historical novel, the zeitgeist hasn’t been codified. You have the opportunity to feel it and get it across fresh through your character. Emily is so much of the past that she’s actually a little behind the times, and the book, at heart, is about the collision of her rich and busy memories with the empty and quiet present. I didn’t write her story to capture the national mood, but in her brushes with the world, some of it might bleed through. Her story is essentially personal and private, unlike, say, Patty’s or Manny’s or the Larsens, all of whom have to confront the current world in a very public way, often against their will. But in all of these cases, it’s a question of what, from the larger world, realistically and naturally, would impinge on their lives. It’s their motivations and their world that everything has to come out of, and that comes from staying close to them, knowing them intimately and trying to see the world–their private world and the larger world–through their eyes, not impressing my views onto them and the world. It’s their book, not mine.

And it also differs book to book in how important the time frame is to the storyline. Emily’s storyline is anchored in 2007-2008, but it could have happened in other years and felt relatively the same, whereas A World Away, set in 1943, is so tied to larger world events, and the characters so tied to the movements of the outside world that it naturally contains more of the zeitgeist, for lack of a better word.

It’s a tough question, especially for this particular novel, because while it’s trying to take on some very large areas — time, family, memory, life, death — it’s trying to do so quietly, almost sneakily.

RH: This discussion about fiction having resonant points with American life brings us to inevitable comparisons between Emily, Alone and its prequel, Wish You Were Here. The first book, which is quite sprawling, seems determined to capture almost every detail, from the book barn to the specific movies that the Maxwells watch to discussions of the board game Sorry. There’s also the subplot involving the missing person at the gas station, which threatens to take away from such character dilemmas as Margaret’s recovery from alcoholism, Kenneth hiding his vocational problems, and so forth. By contrast, in Emily, Alone, there’s something of a concession to narrative right from the get-go with that incident at the buffet. What ultimately accounts for Emily, Alone‘s leaner feel? Do you feel that there was any loss of control when you wrote Wish You Were Here? That the previous book involved creative propagation you had to go the distance with? Aside from keeping the focus on Emily, what steps did you take in curtailing the possibility of writing another 600 page novel? Were there certain advantages in thinking about the Maxwell family before that allowed you to rein things in? How does some of this account for the quieter and sneakier investigation into larger areas? (And while we’re on the subject, do you see the Maxwells as your answer to Rabbit Angstrom or Frank Bascombe?)

O’Nan; Wish purposely slows things down and doesn’t make the usual pregnant narrative promises to the reader we expect from fiction. I was trying on a new mode of storytelling, trusting John Gardner’s dictum that if a character is worthy of and capable of love, then the reader will follow him or her anywhere. I expected that 80% of the readers who opened the book would never finish it, and that was fine with me. That was the risk I was willing to take for the reward of getting deep into the characters and their worlds, thinking that the readers who did stick with it would mingle their own lives and memories with those of the Maxwells and come away with a richer, more intimate experience than from some plug-and-chug potboiler of a story line. Even the girl who goes missing line takes place off-stage and is really just K’s version of avoidance and escape (they all have some version of escape from what’s supposed to be family togetherness). The novel’s put together by poetic juxtaposition, by tone, by mood, and the fact that it’s so long (and was a hundred-plus pages longer in ms) just emphasizes that strategy. No nifty ironies, no self-conscious tricks, no mannered quirkiness to distract the reader. It lives or dies by the quality of its observations, by its truth (or lack thereof). As a friend of mine says, it’s an epic about nothing. My wife calls it the Big Boring Book. And that’s fine. Everyone doesn’t have to like every book. (And honestly, every book isn’t going to be good.) But the people who do get into the book really feel like they’re part of it. Some say it’s spooky — it’s as if I’ve been eavesdropping on their families, or reading their minds — so I feel like the method worked. Not for everyone, but for more than the 20% I’d hoped for.

And it’s a book that couldn’t have been written by anyone else, which makes me happy. I guess it was a bit of a protest. A quiet maybe even underground protest (since no one really cares), but a definite break from what I’d been doing previously, and what you’d call the norm. Ditching the whole here-we-are-now-entertain-us premise. A book wholly on the writer’s terms.

Emily, Alone is organized a little differently, around what puzzles or bothers or thrills her — the bumps in her otherwise quiet days — but also makes no promises to the reader plotwise, other than that she cares and worries about the people closest to her, and of course Rufus. And at their age, she has reason to worry.

In Wish, I was coming to know all the different Maxwells at that one moment, a turning point in their family life. Going into Emily, Alone, I knew Emily well, but I knew I wanted to get deeper and closer, really find out how she became the person she was in Wish and the person she is now, seven years later. What’s changed? What could possibly be new? A lot, it turned out, though I didn’t know exactly what when I sat down to write it.

The scope of Emily, Alone is narrower but deeper, necessarily, by my choice of point of view, and that’s what I was hoping for — a book even quieter and more intimate than Wish, a book comprised of flurries of busyness and then long stretches of stillness. Another book only I could write, and one some readers would see their lives in, and the lives of their sisters and aunts and mothers and grandmothers, I hope.

RH: So it seems to me that readers are very much an important factor when you’re writing a book. On the other hand, as Ron Charles recently suggested, your determination to chart the seemingly routine results in “the Kobayashi Maru scenario of book marketing.” Yet here’s the double-edged sword. If you’re hoping to write books where readers see their lives, or the lives of someone dear to them, then one might conclude that Emily, Alone isn’t wholly on the writer’s terms. Have you had to give more to the readers with the more recent books? If Emily, Alone is more of a Rorschach test for readers, then how do you find ways of protesting? If protesting is part of your voice, don’t you have to do that? Or are you happy with the present compromise?

O’Nan: The Rorschach blot is the protest, that’s the beauty of it. In Wish and Emily (and to a lesser extent in The Good Wife and Last Night at the Lobster), I’ve asked the reader to make the sacrifices, giving up any semblance of the usual set-up/build-up/payoff of conventional storytelling without substituting the overactive surface or off-beat/trendy characters of the contemporary literary scene. Instead of the industry standard extraordinary character in an ordinary situation or the ordinary character in an extraordinary situation, I’m going — like Yates — for that rare, dull bird, the ordinary character in an ordinary situation. As Gardner says, as readers we naturally hold any fiction up to life, testing it for truth, and since that rare, dull bird is most of us, I actually have a better chance of connecting deeply. In these books, if I’ve done them well enough, readers will also hold their lives up to the fiction, completing the exchange. Everyone has an Emily.

(Image: Sidney Davis)