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Stewart O'Nan on fiction, baseball and literature after 9/11



If Stewart O'Nan isn't the hardest working man in the book business, he's close: Fourteen novels in 27 years, plus nonfiction about baseball, a circus fire and a definitive anthology of Vietnam-era writing. His novels have varied widely in setting and themes, ranging from Civil War-era Wisconsin to an African-American community in Pittsburgh. He's written about teenagers and the elderly, restaurant workers and murderers.

It's a body of work that has earned O'Nan enormous respect in the community of writers and readers of literary fiction. If he hasn't quite become a household name like his fellow New Englander, baseball fan and occasional collaborator Stephen King, it's not for lack of quality and steady output.

At the invitation of Randall Kenan, the novelist and UNC English professor, O'Nan is in Chapel Hill this week to participate in a series of events culminating in the 2014 Distinguished Writer-in-Residence reading Thursday, where he will read from his 15th novel in progress, West of Sunset, about F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood. It features episodes from the author's time in Asheville, N.C., where his wife, Zelda, was eventually institutionalized.

O'Nan, an avid baseball fan who attends upward of 50 minor and major league games a year, will also appear 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26, on a panel titled "Baseball: The Great American Story."

Recently, the INDY spoke to O'Nan about his work, baseball and the possibilities of 9/11-themed fiction.

INDY: I read a review of one of your books, by Nell Freudenberger. She wrote that you do a lot of things "that they teach you not to do in MFA programs." Then I discovered that you did, in fact, go to an MFA program.

Stewart O'Nan: Yes, I went to Cornell, it was a good one. But I started out as a self-taught writer. I was working as an engineer. But I'm sure I have a lot of those bad habits, still.

Do you find yourself pushing against writing maxims? I think what Freudenberger was getting at was using second person in one book or having multiple narrators, for example.

I think that comes out of having an engineering background. I'm always trying to find solutions in terms of form, in terms of structure, in terms of tone for this particular case, whatever I'm writing about. The writing is just the medium to get to the character, to bring the character's personal life to the reader. Sometimes you have to take extreme measures to do that. It depends, from character to character, from situation to situation. I think if you were to use the same tone each time out, it would turn into some sort of shtick. The metaphor I'll use is I was once in this card shop around Christmas time and I heard James Taylor singing a Christmas song, he was using the same intonation he uses in any regular James Taylor song. I don't want to be James Taylor.

I should alert you that James Taylor is a native son of Chapel Hill.


And I thought he was a New Englander.

Were you involved at all in the adaptation of Snow Angels [released in 2007 and starring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell]? It was directed by David Gordon Green, who was educated in North Carolina and made a couple of his early movies here.

No, I'd already dealt with that material. They offered me the opportunity to write the screenplay. But the process of writing is the process of discovery. A lot of the joy in writing is the discovery, especially in the early drafts. But by the time you perfect it you're kind of sick of the stuff. I didn't think I could go back in and discover that much more. David Gordon Green was hired to do the screenplay for another director. When that director got sidetracked on another project, Green stepped in to direct. It was a perfect fit for that kind of story, bringing an all-controlling idiosyncratic touch to it. He got the tone of it just beautifully.

I grew up a baseball fan—growing up in western North Carolina, most of my experience was watching minor league baseball. But I have a fairly pessimistic view of it—I see it as an aging demographic of people who watch it, and I see it as a sport that either has shut out or been abandoned by African-Americans. TV ratings for the World Series continue to go down. I wonder what your thoughts are about the changing place of baseball in our culture, today versus 50 years ago.

It's no longer the only game in town as it was 50 years ago. And there's basketball. But you know, hockey's not growing either, and football is kind of stagnating. Baseball is great because it's an evolving game. The demographic that plays it is always changing, and it's changing right now. We're seeing a lot more players from Asia. A lot more players from South America, as opposed to Central America. And I think we're going to see a lot more players from Australia and New Zealand. I think it's in pretty good shape, but they need to get the money situation straightened out. Salaries are ridiculously high, due to the income from the TV contracts.

In your introduction to The Vietnam Reader, you wrote, "One remarkable aspect of America's involvement is that its literature focuses almost solely on the war's effect on the American soldier and American culture at large. In work after work, Vietnam and the Vietnamese are merely a backdrop for the drama of America confronting itself. To balance American views with others' here—in retrospect—would be to rewrite history and to present a false portrait of Americas's true concerns." That seems apt to me. But what about someone compiling a similar book about the Global War on Terror of the last 12 or 13 years, if we ever get out of it and people are looking back at it as a period of warfare? Do you think such a book would have the same inward focus on what it does to Americans?

No, I think there's a much more global component to that. The British are involved, deeply, deeply involved in the idea of a war on terror, as are, say, the Indonesians. The Russians, as well, their experiences with Chechen rebels and their experience in Afghanistan. It would have more of a first world component, the first world focusing on itself rather than the third world. Certainly in the Middle East there would be an Israeli component, a Saudi component, an Egyptian component. The war on terror is a much more global phenomenon.

If you were starting an anthology about the Global War on Terror, do you have any works you would start with?

I don't know if there's enough creative work about the Global War on Terror to put together an anthology with a full range of responses. It's funny, [the war on terror] is all-encompassing here in the U.S. But our responses are much more popular than deep in contrast to the Vietnam War. There weren't TV shows about Vietnam while it was going on. But so many TV shows today are essentially 9/11-and-after shows: Homeland, even something like The Americans and Sleeper Cell. You could get a great chapter or two on those, the TV versions and the movie versions. But with literature, there's not a lot out there, certainly not at the top tier of American writing. I don't know. I might start it off with The Satanic Verses or Midnight's Children, to go back to early [Salman] Rushdie. There'd have to be a huge discussion of the haves and have-nots, the World Trade Organization—maybe why it's easier to put together an anthology about the Vietnam War, it was so focused.

I just read a book by Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds [released to great acclaim in 2012]. It's set in Iraq and after, it's a very solid soldier's novel. [...] To me it seems like the single best works to come out of [World War II and Vietnam] were these kind of very weird satires. [Joseph Heller's] Catch-22 came out 16 years after the war was over, in 1961. [Tim O'Brien's] The Things They Carried came out in 1990, so again, you're looking at 16, 18, 20 years down the road. What comes out is not straight-up documentary reportage but a twisted, almost fable-like version written by someone who was there, who has somehow processed it artistically.

Have you been tempted to tackle this period?

Well, I've been tackling it in different ways. [laughter] I've probably written six or seven novels since 9/11. But I haven't gone directly at it. I don't really go directly at any subject nowadays. I prefer to sneak up on it. Walker Percy said you have to sneak up on it sideways and bash it over the head. That's probably even more true of the big, big stuff. Maybe that's why Catch-22 and The Things They Carried are so good. They have a different angle on the situation.

It was great you brought up Walker Percy. He went to UNC ... so we started with James Taylor [laughter] and ended with Walker Percy.

That's a pretty good jump. Percy is one of my favorites.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Fan's notes."


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