Stewart O’Nan, Author
First, can you let readers now about your latest projects – what should we be looking out for from you next?
I’ve just started a historical novel set in L.A. in the late ’30s. It involves historical figures, so the research is involved (and fascinating). I’m hoping to have a draft done late next year.
You didn’t start off as a writer. What made you decide to transition from a test engineer for an aerospace company to full-time writer, and how nervous were you about making that kind of commitment to writing?
I’ve always been a big reader, and in my mid-twenties I just started writing short stories after work. Some of them were published in literary magazines, and a few won prizes. My wife encouraged me to pursue writing fulltime, since I was spending all of my free hours doing it anyway.
With her support, I went back to Cornell and got an MFA. I wrote four books in three years up there, and one of them was Snow Angels.
Much of what you write – from Emily, Alone, Last Night at the Lobster and the Missing to The Odds: A Love Story – focus at the core on the middle class and middle class struggles. Do you think Pittsburgh represents the spirit and hardships you write about and vice versa- and is that a reason why you chose to live in the city?
Growing up in Pittsburgh in the ’70s, I was very aware of what a bad economy does to people–the fears they have and the choices they have to make–so it’s no surprise that I often write about the downwardly mobile middle class. My wife and I promised each other that when our kids were done with high school, we’d move back to a city. We looked at Boston, where we’d lived in the ’80s, but it was insanely expensive, and my whole family’s still in Pittsburgh, so it was an easy decision.
Best move we ever made.
What are your thoughts on the Pittsburgh writing community – is there enough support for local writers? How can it better support local writers?
I’m still new to this version of Pittsburgh, and since we’ve moved back I’ve spent way too much time on the road, but I’m amazed at how many writing communities there are in Pittsburgh. Between the library, the universities, the Drue Heinz Lectures, Sampsonia Way, Braddock Ave. Books–there’s a lot going on.
Maybe more residencies?
Many of your books involve missing persons and violence – and a bit of the macabre. Why choose those vehicles in your stories – especially missing persons – across so many of your novels?
It’s universal. As humans, we’re going to lose everyone close to us. Our parents will die, our lovers will die, with any luck we’ll die before our children. So there’s always going to be someone missing, there’s always going to be a loss we can’t recoup.
The violence in the early books comes out of characters in extreme situations not having the faith (or resources) to go on after these losses. The later books are more about endurance–how, even though we miss people we wish were there for us, we find ways to get from day to day.
How has sports influenced you and your writing?
As a Pirates and Red Sox fan, I’ve learned that the good times don’t last forever, but neither do the bad ones. As Terry Francona says: “Don’t get too high, don’t get too low.”
You are a self-professed Pirates fan despite writing about the Red Sox in your book Faithful that you co-wrote with Stephen King. How did you come to be a Pirates fan and are you allowing yourself to become optimistic about the team yet?
My Grandmother O’Nan was a big Pirates fan. She listened to them on the radio. And my older brother and his friends were ballplayers and big Bucs fans. Like the library, Forbes Field was less than a mile from our house, so we’d take the bus there. My grandmother made sure we had tickets for the first game in Three Rivers.
I’m allowing myself to be optimistic about the Pirates for no other reason than they win when I go to the ballpark. Their home record is excellent this year, but even back in our 105-loss 2010 season, they were 20-10 at PNC when I was there.
This year I’ve got two 20-game plans plus some stray singles, so I’ll be there more than not. Let’s Go Bucs!
Have you had a chance to meet any of the Pirates players or front office staff? If so, what was that experience like for you?
I met Cutch and Walker in ’07 when they were with the Altoona Curve. I was living up in Hartford, and went to see them when they came to New Britain. I was more tuned into the minors then.
Also saw Cutch at Piratefest this year and asked him what his favorite book was. I kind of ambushed him with the question (it was live radio) but he picked a good one: Lord of the Flies. The guy’s a six-tool player: for such a young man, he carries the mantle of the franchise with amazing ease.
If you could be GM of the Pirates for a day, you would ….?
Give Clint Hurdle an extension.
Do you think Pittsburgh relies too much on sports to define itself? Why/why not?
I think it was necessary back in the day, when we were defensive about what was happening to us economically (and culturally). In the world’s (and some of our) eyes, they were the only thing major league about the city. Now we’ve got lots of reasons to be proud, but–especially when we’re far from home–the Stillers, Pens and Bucs still bring us together.
What’s surprised you the most over the course of your writing career, and why?
The radical changes in publishing and bookselling. I’ve been publishing for only twenty years, but I’ve seen the rise of the big box stores and the decline of the independents, the German takeover and consolidation of the major houses, the beginning of Amazon, Oprahmania, three or four attempts at launching a viable e-book reader (remember Rocketbook?), Harry Potter and the YA craze, the death of the big box stores, the hardball marketing of the Nook & Kindle, the battle of the independents to keep going . . .
And I thought aerospace was a volatile business.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Please support your public library. And thank you for reading.