Exhuming America: An Interview with Stewart O’Nan

with BILLY LONGINO

REAL: One thing that I really wanted to ask you about is how you’re recent work has taken a turn from really intensely plotted and violent stories into something like Last Night at the Lobster, which for me had a sort of ambient dread throughout. I kept expecting some traumatic event to occur but it never did. I guess this is because I’d just read A Prayer for the Dying, The Night Country, and Speed Queen. What I wanted to ask is how you deal with this change and how you think this change came about in your work?

O’Nan: Well, they lost their jobs; that’s traumatic enough. But to answer the question, I think it’s cause you’re always moving forward as a writer, so I look back and I wonder why the work was like that in the beginning. Why was it so—I don’t want to say stilted, but why was it so dire. And it came from what I had read. The reading always translates through but there was a sort of lag time, so the stuff I was reading as a young person or even in my twenties was a lot of heavily plotted horror, genre stuff, science fiction, and more genre. But also, when I first started writing seriously, I always wondered why there wasn’t more story, wasn’t more plot, why there wasn’t more climax in literary work. Especially literature in the 70s and 80s, which had just taken place when I started to write. I wanted to add story to the sort of writing we thought of as “literature,” because “literature” was far too storyless at the time.

So, like Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and a few other people, I took some of the tropes of genre fiction and attached them to what people thought of as more “literary” fiction. The first books were more plotted because of this. And as I was reading more fiction through the 1990s and early I guess what we call “aughts,” I found that in a lot of the plotted fiction the plot was getting in the way of what I thought the novel does best: create depth and use time to illuminate character. So I thought a lot of the plotted fiction I was reading was not true in any sense to the life we were living in America, and I thought why was that. Then I began to read a lot of poetry, American lyric poetry, and I found it was doing a better job of getting across the complex emotions we have about the world, the people closest to us, and ourselves. I started wondering why fiction had become more of an entertainment and given up the depth and power of the fiction I liked the most.

This was when I started thinking real hard about what is important and what I wanted to do with fiction. I started to think more about people and how they endure day to day. I started writing more everyday kind of stuff—and that shows up, strangely enough, right after I finished The Circus Fire, when I interviewed all those older people about their lives and how their lives had changed, the places they lived had changed. So maybe it was that perspective: talking to more and more people about what was important to them. But then again, The Night Country, which comes later, was goofily plotted and was a ghost story.

REAL: So, do you believe you’ll return to more genre-influenced writing in the future?

O’Nan: You never know. It’s not that I think one is better than the other; it’s just what I’m interested in right now and what I want to try to do. The question is can I pull it off. You never know.

REAL: One theme I’ve noticed carry through all of your work is the question of defining America. To go back to the differences between some of your books: on one hand you have A Prayer for the Dying, which was inspired by Wisconsin Death Trip, with its image of frontier America; and then you have Last Night at the Lobster which is that same America a thousand miles and a hundred years away. They are drastically different, yet both are believable images of America.

O’Nan: And both speak to the promise of America. That promise that America makes to Americans and how we sometimes fool ourselves in terms of those promises, the expectations that we have, and the idea that we are Americans. We’re these crazy idealists and I think you see that in book after book after book. There is this expectation that characters have about how life is going to be, how reality is going to be, which runs into the actuality of how the world is. And they sustain these illusions. But what do these delusions do to them? And you see that throughout, whether the books are earlier or later. It’s about how these things go and most of the time things go wrong.

REAL: In those terms, how do you see the shift in your own life from being an aeronautical engineer to becoming a writer?

O’Nan: What also fascinates me is the question of whether there are second acts in American life. Well, there should be. There seem to be second acts in all kinds of life. How things change for people. But I’m an American writer; I write about America. I don’t shoot for the universal. I shoot for the specific and hope the universal extends from there.

REAL: Going back to the earlier works again, such as The Speed Queen and A Prayer for the Dying, how do you see violence as part of the American condition and in our culture and our narratives?

O’Nan: Those are two of the more violent books with very, very high body counts in them. Yet, they turn around the concept of American innocence and American idealism. Same thing with The Names of the Dead; it’s a war novel and it’s got tons and tons of combat in it. You know, we’re a country of guns; we’re a country of violence and that’s reflected in the stories we tell and what we find important. And in The Speed Queen with Stephen King being the confessor figure for America, he’s the person who understands this crazy, senseless violence because he writes about it so much. So Marjorie can go to him. And of course he’ll understand because he deals with this, though he deals with it in a totally fictional realm while what she experiences is supposedly real.

We’re drawn to violent spectacle as well. One of the questions I always asked in a Vietnam War Narrative class I taught was, Are we a warlike nation? And I wonder, are we a warlike nation? This country was founded with these great ideas that everybody is free but we back this up with everyone being free to have a gun as well to protect what is theirs and possibly take what is everybody else’s. I don’t know.

REAL: Then each book is a framing of a question about America and what our ideas are. But you never seem to give an answer.

O’nan: No, no, you’re always framing the question of why we are the way we are. Why do we think we can go to war and hold onto our ideals? Why do we think we can govern and hold onto our ideals? Because we’re based on them—we’re based on these promises of equality, promises of freedom, promises of happiness. Which are great and come true. But when they don’t come true there is this depressive reaction that sometimes can turn outwardly or inwardly violent.

REAL: Would you say that Manny in Last Night at the Lobster has reached the point where he’s at his turn? We know he’s going to go to the Olive Garden the next day but there is still the question by the end of where he’s going next in so many other parts of his life.

O’Nan: Well, that book is about the price of loyalty. So you see every different worker under Manny have a different reaction to the closing. And I think they’re all equally valuable, even someone like Nicolette who’s like, “Fuck you, you know I came in. Fuck you.” Absolutely warranted for the situation that she’s in. And yet Manny in his life outside of work is not loyal at all, but is loyal to the letter with every little thing that the Red Lobster/Olive Garden tells him to do. Is he a complete tool? Is he wrong to be so loyal to these relatively arbitrary rules that are handed down to him by these people who are basically getting rid of him? What’s the price of his loyalty?

REAL: Would you consider yourself a prolific writer?

O’Nan: Not at all.

REAL: Well, you’ve written at least one book a year for periods of time in your career.

O’Nan: Yeah, but some are very small. I’m very unprolific. Today, I’ve written two sentences. That’s it. Nothing.

Read the rest of the interview in Issue 36.2

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