Go Forth (Vol. 16)

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One of the first fiction workshops I ever took was taught by Stewart O’Nan back in the mid-90s. I remember being in awe of him in the classroom—in his early thirties he’d already won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for his first and only book of short stories, In the Walled City. He’d also won the Pirates Alley Faulkner Prize for his first novel, Snow Angels. Stewart was a lively and constructive force, with insights far beyond what I imagined could ever take place in our weekly workshops. Since that time he’s published twelve more novels, a screenplay based on the life of Edgar Allen Poe, and two books of nonfiction, one of which he co-authored with Stephen King on the Boston Red Sox. He is one of the most generous men I’ve met. I’ve kept in contact with him over the years, often sending him my own fiction to which he responds with well-thought criticism and revision suggestions as equally direct and compassionate as he did nearly twenty years ago, asking nothing in return.

—Brandon Hobson

Brandon Hobson: In the past you’ve talked about point-of-view being the writer’s greatest tool. Can you talk a little more about that, and maybe how it’s better than, say, voice?

Stewart O’Nan: Getting inside your character’s head and letting the reader see the world through not just their eyes but their sensibility creates an intimacy that can’t be duplicated in any other medium.  And point of view includes voice, discovering the appropriate language and tone for each character.  Every choice contributes to bringing the character’s emotional world across to the reader, and as you’re making those choices in your early drafts, you as a writer understand more and more about your characters—their fears and desires, their history, the people closest to them—so that when they face situations, both you and the reader understand why they do the things they do, whether or not you (and the reader) agree with them.

BH: You’ve told me about the way you work slowly, revising each page and getting it where you want it before moving on to the next. Does this in any way affect your planning of a novel? Do you know exactly where you’re headed in a book, and if so, does that take away from the excitement of not knowing where you’re headed?

SON: Lately I’ve been working from initial imbalances that knock characters out of their normal lives, sometimes drastically, and then seeing how they adapt to their new circumstances, so I’ve been working mostly by feel, or in the case of my newest, from life.  Early on, in the more dire books like Snow Angels and Speed Queen and A Prayer for the Dying, I tended to plot backwards from heavy climaxes.  I trust myself more now, and trust John Gardner’s dictum that if the characters are worthy of and capable of love, the reader will follow them anywhere.

BH: Would you list three or four novels or story collections you’ve read recently that you would recommend, and why?

SON: Peter Orner’s Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge — It’s a collection of short-shorts, with over a hundred.  I love the ambition, how he dips into all these different lives for just a few pages and achieves both great depth and breadth.

Thomas Sweterlitsch’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow — In galleys.  A future-noir set partially in a virtual Pittsburgh that’s replaced the real one, destroyed by a nuclear blast.  The hero, a Pittsburgher who lost his wife to the bombing, is addicted to visiting the simulated city, and, like Marlowe, becomes the unwitting patsy in a mystery involving a missing girl.  Chandler meets Philip K. Dick.

Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place — Creepy California noir from 1947.  Twisted and atmospheric, with a marvelous use of point of view.  Nothing like the film with Bogart, a classic in its own right.

BH: Speaking of twisted and atmospheric, my favorite books by you are the darker ones. I’m particularly attached to The Night Country. Any plans on returning to the ghost story?

SON: Thanks. This time of year (October) that one comes back to me—the dark roads through the woods outside of town. I’m still finishing the new one, and haven’t even thought of what might come next. You never know. I wouldn’t rule anything out.    

BH: Can you talk about the novel you just completed? I know it’s about F. Scott Fitzgerald—what is it that interested you in writing about him more than, say, another writer?

SON: Fitzgerald’s a legendary subject, and here he is at the end of his life, in a legendary place, surrounded by legendary people. I wanted to find out more about how it was for him, how he felt out there, trying to put his life back together without Zelda.  He’s a complicated guy—a poor boy in a rich neighborhood, a scholarship student at boarding school, an insecure idol, a sensitive jerk, a raging drunk, a broke celebrity. Like Gatsby, he’s both a sham and true romantic, always the outsider, the faker, and so damn American. He works on Gone with the Wind, and then has to hock his car to pay the rent.  Just a fascinating character in every way.

BH: I can’t wait for that book. All right, I need to throw in a baseball question. How many foul balls have you caught, and which ones are your favorite?

SON: At this point I’ve caught too many to say exactly (proof that I spend way too much time at the ballpark), but my favorite was the one in ALCS Game 4 back in 2004.  I think it was either Bernie Williams or Jorge Posada—I wrote it up in Faithful.  If I recall, the game was already in extra innings, and the ball ricocheted off the glass front of the .406 Club right to me, standing in the front row beside Stephen King.  One of the great games in baseball history, and a big, big time.  My two favorite fair balls were one from David Wright in the 2006 All-Star Home Run Derby and, also at PNC Park, a regular season dinger by Albert Pujols—barehanded—a clip of which is still up on my website.  I haven’t taken my glove to the game in years, but somehow the ball always finds me. 

BH: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

SON: From Russell Banks: “The ones who make it are the ones who stick with it."  Be patient and keep working. 

Brandon Hobson’s writing has appeared in The Believer, The Paris Review Daily, NOON, New York Tyrant, Post Road, Harper Perennial’s Forty Stories, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. His novel is forthcoming from Calamari Press in 2014.