PW: The Night Country is dedicated to Ray Bradbury, has blurbs by Stephen King and Peter Straub, includes three characters who are ghosts and is set on Halloween. It sounds as if we're in the realm of the gothic.
Stewart O'Nan: I'd been thinking about where I was living, in Avon, Conn., and how strange the suburbs are today, how isolated. And I'd been thinking of Ray Bradbury and his Something Wicked This Way Comes, one of my favorite books of all time. I wanted to write a novel about something coming into the town and upsetting it... how the residents would try to hold onto some sort of faith or hope in the face of it. What force would come to a suburb today? One is a chance accident.
PW: And in your book, that takes the form of a car accident that killed three teenagers—they're the ghosts in the story—on the previous Halloween. But despite the horror and gothic tropes, it's more about how your characters deal with loss.
SO: Local teenagers killed in a car crash is a suburban legend, a stock plot line. I tried to enliven it, using a more excited story line and a little bebop using the dead kid narrators. The book is set on Halloween, but it's about what really haunts us, not vampires or ghosts, but the things that we've lost.
PW: Even the teenage ghosts are struggling with the accident that cut their lives so tragically short.
SO: They've grown up hating the suburbs because it's so damn boring, but as the book goes on, they see all these little things they used to do and hold them up for appreciation. They're reconstructing their world with some sort of love, redeeming the world by being there.
PW: Every chapter heading in the novel is the name of a reasonably famous scary movie or horror tale, from Dawn of the Dead to Halloween.
SO: That's partly tongue-in-cheek, but it's also because of the teenage narrators. They articulate how they see and come to terms with this horrible thing that has happened to them in terms of horror movies.
PW: But the ghosts are not your focus in the way that the living characters are.
SO: I hope I have written some good character stuff with the stories of Tim, Brooks and Kyle's mom. They are all facing some sort of loss and struggling with it. I think what happens in most of my books is that people are asked to carry on normally when their normal lives are already gone. Kyle's mom, for example, is surrounded by the flat affluence of the suburbs. There's no way she can relate to it, but she's got to get through the day somehow.
PW: You clearly admire authors some would refer to as genre writers, like Bradbury, Straub and King. But your readers are more literary. Will The Night Country surprise them?
SO: They may think of those writers as genre writers, but they're not at all. They are incredibly talented writers who try a lot of different things. You can't run from your roots. I first got interested in reading through writers like Bradbury, King and Straub; their storytelling ability, their talent to hold the reader and keep him moving forward, has probably pushed me toward more plotted work than a lot of people who come out of a literary tradition. But a lot of literary writers don't know what a novel is or what a novel does. At the same time, I greatly admire people like Virginia Woolf or Alice Munro or William Maxwell, who can almost do without a heavy story line but keep you interested in the characters and their desires.
PW: What was the biggest challenge in writing The Night Country?
SO: To somehow keep that town magical in the way that Bradbury's world of small towns and kids is magical. We don't know what could happen, even though we are always aware that we're on this track toward midnight on Halloween, but maybe it's not too late... maybe we'll get out of this okay.