Since the 1993 publication of In the Walled City, his first book of short stories, Stewart O'Nan has published roughly a book a year, making him one of America's more productive writers. He has also been lauded as one of America's most talented, named in a list of Best Young Novelists by Granta magazine. A Prayer for the Dying--a novel O'Nan describes as a combination of Stephen King's The Mist and Albert Camus' The Plague, "a sunlit Gothic, a pastoral that curdles and turns bad"--was selected as a 1999 New York Times Notable Book of the Year as well as one of Salon Magazine's Five Best Books of 1999.
A Pittsburgh native who now resides in Connecticut, O'Nan turns his vision for the first time on his hometown in Everyday People. It's an intimate novel, portraying the lives of "just folks, everyday people" in the African-American neighborhood of East Liberty. At the novel's heart is Crest--an artistic teenage boy confined to a wheelchair after an accident that also takes the life of his closest friend. He is, in a sense, a contemporary, black doppelgänger to Joyce's Stephen Dedalus--the artist as a young man trapped in the tyranny of his era, his circumstances and his own mind.
Everyday People is what O'Nan calls "an ensemble novel." Each chapter shifts from one character's perspective to the next, showing the world of East Liberty as it's experienced by Crest's immediate family, his girlfriend, his friends and his family's friends. It's a tragic world that moves in strophe to the novel's central metaphor. The busway, a kind of walled transit chute being built by the city to shuttle commuters from the suburbs to the city, will separate and isolate the decaying East Liberty from Pittsburgh at large. Throughout the story, Crest--a talented graffiti artist and muralist--dreams of memorializing on the busway wall those whom he and his community have lost.
The Independent: In Everyday People, you seem to be drawing from a broad and eclectic base of literary influences.
Stewart O'Nan: That comes from being a library person. I didn't go through any rigorous literary study. I just grabbed anything I could get my hands on that was interesting. So there's a collision of tastes in my work--the low culture of comic books and the high culture of literature.
We see that collision to some extent in the varied voices of your characters in Everyday People. Crest's voice--with its rhythms, colorful language and explosive energy--seems hard to pull off. How did you have access to that voice?
I'm not sure. He was always the guy at the center of the book, and to me his situation is compelling. He's got to find a way to deal with what's going on, and there may be no way to do it. It makes him rely on and be very afraid of memory. In that sense he's very much one of my characters. I felt very at home with him.
At first I was going to write basically a hip-hop novel. I was going to write the whole thing in a very wild hip-hop style, the style that Crest has in his chapters. Then I realized that it didn't fit many of the characters. I decided I better pay attention to the characters rather than what I felt I wanted to do. At first I thought it was going to be just Crest speaking. And in fact he was partly Vietnamese, partly Hispanic, partly black, and lived in Ozone Park in Queens. And it was going to be his book and his neighborhood and all the different people in his neighborhood, but he would be the key speaker. He would be our narrator--because that's what he had left to him. He couldn't get out from where he was so he turned his vision on everybody around him. And he also had a very deep relationship with television. Television is one of our major relationships in American life. How we relate to television, I think, is a really interesting subject. But once I got into it, I couldn't find a really heart-felt drama. There was just too much irony. So I decided to write about a place that I know very, very well--Pittsburgh--but with characters that, coming into the book, I really knew nothing about. I had to find out who they were.
How did you come up with your central idea for this novel?
It was Crest, it was basically this idea of Crest, and being in an apartment in this very crowded neighborhood and yet feeling very isolated. And even though everyone's around you, your major relationship is not with other people but with yourself--or with the shadow of self, which means the television. That was really the conceit at the heart of the book.
Eugene, Crest's brother who has spent time in prison and is trying to make a new life for himself, is in a tough situation. He's trying to save himself, and at the same time, he's trying to save those around him.
Eugene came to mean a lot to me. He is like a lot of my characters in that he's in a very, very compelling situation and he's trying to do his best by an elevated standard of morality. He's coming out of prison and he's trying to dedicate himself to living the right kind of life. He's trying very, very hard. He's the kind of character that I like to see--that idea of Americans being able to invent and reinvent themselves. Here is a place where you can be literally born again. So I tend to focus on a lot of characters who are trying to change--and of course finding the past dragging them back.
Even though this is a tragic novel, there does some seem to be some hope at the end. Crest did manage, one way or the other, to get his mural on the busway wall.
But it's an open question as to whether it's just a mournful cry that no one is going to pay any attention to. That no one will know--no one will know what it means.
Certainly the folks in the neighborhood do.
Yes, the folks in the neighborhood do, but does it help them or not? It seems that it might. These people go down and leave their tokens of memory and grief there. But again it's like in The Names of the Dead, where I have the book end at the Vietnam Memorial. The question there is, does memory save us or condemn us? I'm not sure. I think it was Chekhov who said writing is not about coming up with the answers but stating the questions correctly.
Your first and last chapters are different from the others. They aren't married to a particular character's perspective but a representative perspective. What can you tell me about what you were thinking in writing those two chapters--"Inbound" and "Outbound"?
The way in and out of the neighborhood is through this neighborhood sage or griot, and this is his vision of what's going on there. And sometimes his rhetoric gets away from him, he overstates or oversimplifies, but emotionally this is how he feels about things. His feelings--that hurt and that anger--are part of the way that he deals with the outside world. He wants to put people in the know. In that sense he's like Shakespeare's interlocuter figure who steps on stage and says, "Here's the drama we're going to see." Except that our guy is stuck in the drama himself. He definitely wants to paint everything as political from the get-go. In that sense, he's so pro-community that sometimes he can't read all the subtleties. And that's OK, because once we get into the characters, if I've done a decent enough job, we see that the lives are not that simple.
How is Everyday People different from your other novels?
The difference between this and a lot of my other books is this is an ensemble novel, it doesn't have a heavy thru-line. It has a quieter tone. And a lot of the action takes place off-stage, a little like Greek tragedy. And then we have the reactions.
Again, you can see the "Inbound" and "Outbound" sections as a choral section. The major themes in the middle are history, heritage, responsibility, the relationships between men and women. I really didn't want to rely on any postmodern irony. It's a heartfelt book, from start to finish. It's not numbingly earnest, but it is heartfelt. I mean, there are funny things in there. There are sad funny things in there. There is a fair amount of humor in there. But I don't think it's something--I hope it's not something--that the reader can just shrug off.
Stewart O'Nan will read at The Regulator on Feb. 15 at 7:00 p.m., and at McIntyre's on Feb. 17, at 11:00 a.m.