Interview by Sal Pane
Stewart O’Nan has built a career for himself by carving out stories that focus on average middle to lower class Americans. His work deals with the everyday, and with the sympathy and dignity it rightfully deserves. His latest book, Last Night at the Lobster, focuses on the final shift of a soon to be closed Red Lobster.
Hot Metal Bridge: Some have called you “the bard of the working class.” Is this a title you embrace or are these readers off the mark?
Stewart O’Nan: I think the only person who’s ever called me that is my editor, trying to put together some sort of fetching jacket copy. I write about average people, but I hope they’re from all classes, and all walks. Certainly I’ve paid a lot of attention to people with low-paying jobs in books like The Lobster or The Good Wife or Everyday People, but the other two books around those are Wish You Were Here, about an upper-middle-class family, and The Night Country, which takes place in the high-end suburbs of Connecticut.
HMB: Most of your books are grounded by a very tangible sense of place. What is it about setting that is so important to you as a writer?
SON: People are where they come from and where they live. They’re defined by the culture around them, down to the weather and the land. Even a manufactured culture like the culture of the workplace—the Lobster, for instance. Setting determines what’s possible, what’s probable and what’s inevitable for a character.
HMB: What is your process of writing like? Do you write everyday? Is there something you do beforehand to warm up? Do you ever read fiction before you begin?
SON: The process of writing for me is fitful at the start, steadier toward the middle and nerve-wracking toward the end. I try to write everyday, though more and more I find myself taking weekends off. Before dinner I print out whatever I’ve written that day, then at night I’ll revise the pages. The next morning I’ll type those changes in and discover more changes, and that gives me a running start on the day. Though at some point I’ll bog down and wander around the house, looking out the windows, brooding, taking a book off the shelf and reading a passage or two. After a good day, I’ve got a page and a half, double spaced. Sometimes two.
HMB: Your latest novel, Last Night at the Lobster, chronicles the final day at a chain restaurant. Did you find that writing a book with such a tight plot progression any easier or more difficult than writing something with a more sprawling time span?
SON: The Lobster‘s a small book, and the container (one day) and organization (anything important to Manny) were obvious and solid from the start. The limitation was in cleaving to Manny’s point of view. My worry was getting the other characters in without skimping on them. Still not sure I gave enough space to people like Fredo or Leron.
HMB: You’re able to write almost a book a year. How is it that you manage to stay so productive?
SON: Some of the books are small, so my output may be deceiving. I probably average a page a day when I’m writing, but often I’m not writing, just researching or wasting time on false starts (90 pages in the wrong direction here, 25 there).
HMB: Your first short story collection won the University of Pittsburgh’s Drue Heinz Literature Prize in 1993. What’s the status on your second collection?
SON: It’s called 20 Burgers. I finished it in 2002 but had a bunch of novels stacked up and ready to go. Publishers will always go with a novel over a story collection.
HMB: In 2000, you wrote a nonfiction book about the famous Hartford Circus Fire in 1944. What about this material made you want to write it as nonfiction instead of using it for fiction?
SON: I wanted to find out what really happened that day, and the days and months and years after that. It never occurred to me to fictionalize it.
HMB: After the Boston Red Sox broke their streak and won the 2004 World Series, you and friend Stephen King wrote a book about your experiences, Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season. Now that they’ve won another title are you going to write a sequel?
SON: We’re writing new appendices for a paperback tie-in with the HBO miniseries. Steve’s written his, but I’ve yet to get to mine. I expect I’ll compare and contrast the 2004 and 2007 teams, and talk about how this championship is different, and how the team itself (and its fans) are seen differently.
HMB: One thing contemporary writers frequently stress is the lackluster state of the mainstream publishing industry. Over the course of your fiction writing career, you’ve had five publishers not including the University of Pittsburgh Press. What has your relationship with these houses been like, and are things as bad as them seem from the outside?
SON: I’ve been lucky to get a lot of very different books between covers in a short time, so I can’t complain that much, but I do think the rise of the chain stores and the emphasis on the bottom line means that editors have a harder time convincing their bosses to hang on to midlist literary writers like myself. It also means that too many books—literary and otherwise—appear each season with clouds of hype around them. These “big books” get the hard sell from the chains while others are basically ignored, and the issue of quality or depth rarely comes into play. Too often it feels like they’re pushing product, and everyone—from library book groups to Oprah’s followers—is supposed to read the same thing. It’s a kind of groupthink without the thinking.
HMB: A few years back you wrote a piece in The Boston Review chronicling the career of Richard Yates that ushered in a rekindling of interest in his tragically obscure career. What about Yates strikes a chord with you, and who are some of your other influences?
SON: From his very first stories in the late forties, Yates insisted on writing about failure and despair as a common American occurrence, not an aberration. He also wrote about average, insecure people without turning them into ironic figures of fun. He’s the least sentimental writer I can think of, yet he writes about people with grand romantic yearnings.
Other major influences are William Maxwell, Virginia Woolf, James Salter, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Chekhov, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson—the list is as big as the library.
HMB: Many of your stories from your debut collection, In the Walled City, saw publication in various literary magazines. When did you start submitting stories and how difficult of a process was it?
SON: I started sending stories out in 1986. It was exciting. I’d bomb them out ten and twenty at a time, simultaneous submissions, and wait for the rejection slips to filter in. Every once in a while I’d get an acceptance, or just a “good” rejection. That kept me hoping.
HMB: You earned your MFA from Cornell in 1992. What was your experience like with their writing program?
SON: I got a lot out of it: interested and smart readers for my manuscripts, the time and license to work on my writing, and, most important, fellow excitable readers who turned me on to writers I otherwise wouldn’t have found for years—like James Salter and Denis Johnson and Theodore Weesner (whose The True Detective is a neglected masterpiece). Utterly invaluable. While I was there I wrote several of the stories in In the Walled City, Snow Angels, A World Away, a screenplay of Denis Johnson’s Angels, and half of The Names of the Dead.
HMB: As a former MFA student, what advice do you have for current students in creative writing programs?
SON: Find the readers who give you the best, most consistently helpful criticism and hang on to them. Find out what other people are reading that gets them excited. Join the literary magazine, read the slush pile and help with the editing.
HMB: Now that Last Night at the Lobster has been released, what are you currently working on?
SON: I’ve finished a late draft of a novel set in Conneaut, Ohio, called About a Girl. I should be getting edits from my editor in a week or two. Once I go over those, I’ll start something new. No idea what that might be. That’s the exciting part, and the challenge: What do I want to show the reader? What do I think is important?