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.

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

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Subjects Discussed: [forthcoming later this afternoon]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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)

The Bat Segundo Show: Dana Spiotta II

Dana Spiotta appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #408. She is most recently the author of Stone Arabia.

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Spiotta previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #28. This particular conversation was recorded before a packed audience at McNally Jackson on July 20, 2011. My thanks to Michele Filgate and Katie Monaghan for their help in organizing this event.

For additional details about Stone Arabia, please also see our 25,000 word roundtable discussion: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing dendrites with dandruff.

Author: Dana Spiotta

Subjects Discussed: Impostors within fiction, people with secret lives, double lives and triple lives, maintaining truth in fiction while avoiding obvious tricks, the role of the obstinate artist, work created to protect one’s self, avoiding obvious dichotomy, artists with exclusive audiences, familial obligation, relating to a character as a responder, the youthful longing in experiencing music, working in the dark while also being somewhat familiar with something, starting with a subject that you don’t really understand, enacting complexity, the frustration of reducing complexity through explanation, Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Torture of Others,” the difficulty of being alive without leaving artifacts, being overwhelmed by information, taking in art as a full-time obligation, being saved by illusion, the Spiotta script style in Lightning Field and Stone Arabia, whether novelists should give up dialogue description, inventing memory techniques, keeping organizing principles coherent, shifting first-person and third-person to reflect consciousness, references to Stone Arabia, finding refuge in hyperarticulateness, memory and physical urgency, devotion and artistic evaluation, the pre-Facebook age, the appeal of selecting 2004 as a terrible year, commerce as a curating principle on the Internet, the illusion of endless amounts of information as liberation, retaining selfhood from a generational standpoint, Don DeLillo, and navigating influences.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I have noticed that all of your novels are guided by having some impostor who is at the center of the narrative. And I’m curious if that notion of an impostor being sort of a prism with which to view American society or American culture — what is up with that? I mean, we’re now in an age where, thanks to the Internet, which aids and abets thousands of Don Quixotes that unleash every second — I mean, this is something that Cervantes could never have even seen in the early 17th century. What motivates your interest in impostors? Especially in this. And maybe we can use this to talk about the lovely Nik Worth, who is a wonderful impostor!

Spiotta: Okay. I don’t really — I think the word that I would use instead of “impostor” is people that have secret lives maybe. It’s another way of putting it. And I do see that in all three books there are people with secret lives. I mean, Nik Worth, the character in this book, he’s not trying to make it a secret. Nobody’s really that interested. But he’s definitely an eccentric person and has a double life to a certain extent. One: he has a fictional career and his actual life. And they are somewhat at odds with each other. And then, in other ways, they overlap. I mean, clearly, it’s something I’m interested in. But I think to a certain extent, we all have these double lives and triple lives. And the part of me who writes novels is separate from the part of me who’s speaking today. So I think that it’s an exaggerated version of what we do all the time. And certainly the Internet is amplifying that, sure.

Correspondent: Yes. But characters who hide in plain sight.

Spiotta: Right.

Correspondent: I think that might be a better way to identify this common theme.

Spiotta: Okay.

Correspondent: I mean, is this really the role of the 21st century novelist? I hesitate to use a term like “postrealist.” But it is interesting that there is this balance between what is real and what is fake. You have Casa Real. You have The Fakes — the band name in this. So it’s very pronounced here. And I’m wondering if a novelist today is almost obligated to respond to this Pandora’s box, so to speak.

Spiotta: Sure. I mean, yeah, of course. I always feel that I have, as I said, this kind of doubleness, which is natural for me. And maybe that’s because I sit in a room and I make up people. And that’s kind of a strange thing to do. So I imagine everybody does this. And maybe that’s not true. But I sort of think of everyone as having multiple selves. And this is just a more amplified version.

Correspodnent: “Versions of Me” — one of the songs that Nik Worth is actually responsible for. Nik’s Chronicles — there is in this book a very lengthy multi-volume set where Nik Worth, this character, is fabricating selves of all sorts. You have critics. He’s writing critical reviews of his own work. He is doing parodies and pastiches of his family members. I’m curious because there’s a lot of specific artistic and musical references within Nik’s Chronicles and also your book. The fake Denise letter that Denise reads at the very beginning is almost a trick on Denise. How do you write something this true without it seeming like a trick for the reader? I mean, are you thinking more in terms of how Denise is feeling? Because Denise is responding to these Chronicles.

Spiotta: Right. So that’s an interesting question because, in the book, there are — well, in the Chornicles, one character is writing and pretending to be another character. And then you’re reading that. And how does that not seem sort of manipulative and silly? And I think that the key is that there has to be a genuine — you have to inhabit that character inhabiting that other character. And you have to make Nik pretty good at what he does.

Correspondent: Yes. He’s very good.

Spiotta: He has to sort of be a novelist. So it’s just an extra layer. And so in a way, it comments on the whole idea of the artifice of creating a novel and a character. But mostly, I think it’s really about his affection for his sister and his poking her at the same time. So, so much about this book — what I really wanted the book to be was anchored in the emotional reality of a family and a brother and sister as they age. And the decisions that they made about themselves when they were 25, what does that feel 25 years later? So you have someone who says, “I want to be an artist. And I’m going to be an artist no matter what. And I don’t care if anybody likes my work.” And that’s easy to say when you’re nineteen. But then 25 years later, what does that look like? What does it feel like? And then what does it feel like for the people around you? So Nik is a kind of dramatic version of that. And he has this other layer of this invented life that he does for his amusement and, I think, to keep his sanity to a certain extent. To give him — so he makes up his own audience. He makes up his own response. He’s in dialogue with himself. So I wanted to pull that out and always keep it anchored in the emotional truth of a brother and sister, and the family.

Correspondent: Is the family really the best way to anchor that emotional truth? I mean, this also concerns memory. This concerns context. This concerns fact vs. fiction. Did everything originate from the family? How did these little side quests come about?

Spiotta: Okay. So what I envisioned for the book was to have it to be very intimate and claustrophobic. And sort of distorted by emotion and subjectivity. And to be this intimate thing. And I think, to the extent that a family — all these things tie back. Because one of the concerns of the book is how do you retain yourself in the face of, let’s say, all these things that want to annihilate you. And not just the Internet or information and all the things that come at you, but also that you’re aging and you’re watching your parents age and you’re eventually going to die. And all the things that we all have to deal with. How do you retain your sense of self? And part of it is your memory. And part of it is the things that you’ve created to protect yourself. Like Nik has his retreat, which is his way of protecting himself. But then also it’s the people in your life, who tell you who you are to a certain extent. And that can trap you. But it also can save you. And it’s both things at once. And I’m always interested in things being both. More than one thing. Not either/or. But this and this. And I don’t think of this as being ambivalent. I think of it as feeling strongly about things in two ways.

The Bat Segundo Show #408: Dana Spiotta II (Download MP3)

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