Stewart O'Nan, a writer who relies on his sense of place, is fighting a reluctant battle against real estate. The 37-year-old Pittsburgh native has finally decided to buy a house, moving his family of three out of their ramshackle Avon, Conn., rental to a new house a half mile down the road. When PW arrives at his old house, he's taking a break between painting and having carpeting laid in the new place. Thousands of books are packed in salvaged liquor boxes in his living room. He's not exactly happy about this state of flux, but it hasn't kept him from his craft. Atop a desk in a small, tidy corner, his PowerBook hums: he's just finished rattling off an article about the recent Daimler-Benz/Chrysler merger for a German newspaper, for which he's a cultural correspondent. "I got the assignment at 8:30 this morning and was finished by noon," he boasts, the glimmer of a triumphant workaholic in his eye.
O'Nan is not an author who wallows in his down time. Since 1993, when his first book, Snow Angels, appeared, he has published four novels and edited a 700-page collection of Vietnam writings that Anchor will publish (he has spent $45,000 of his own money on permissions). He was also named by Granta in 1996 as one of America's Best Young Novelists. His latest book, the weighty A World Away, out from Holt, follows hot on the heels of The Speed Queen, a slight, zippy dose of amphetamine noir that has transformed him into something of a literary celebrity in Europe with sales to match.
Two more divergent novels would be hard to imagine. The Speed Queen delivers the death-row recollections of a white-trash Oklahoma spree killer. It's a postmodern epistolary novel, the tape-recorded prison memoirs of a bisexual, widowed, 20-something mother fulfilling her contract with a famous writer who bears a striking resemblance to Stephen King. Nary a sentence passes without some reference to the oversaturated pop-cultural landscape of the American Southwest, where all roads dead-end at Route 66, cholesterol is embraced and no one drives an import.
By contrast, A World Away is, as O'Nan puts it, an "American pastoral" devoid of the swift ironies that make The Speed Queen such a raucous thrill. Its prose is stripped of unnecessary ornament and gracefully speckled with antiquated references to the sleepy resort lifestyle of Long Island's Hamptons in the 1940s. A World Away describes the often silent struggle of a decomposing family, the Langers, to make sense of its role during WWII, both on the homefront and on the battlefield. It also contains one of the most harrowing accounts of a military invasion in recent memory -- of the Aleutians by American amphibious forces in the Pacific Theater. Alternately melancholy and profane, the book represents eight years of work by O'Nan to "polish the novel as much as I could without making it stiff." He's also realistic about how his Speed Queen audience will receive the novel: "Most of the people who read The Speed Queen read it in one sitting. Many of the people who start A World Away aren't going to finish it."O'Nan has changed more than his artistic tone with A World Away -- he's also switched professional affiliations. He has a new publisher, a new editor, Tracy Brown, and a new agent, David Gernert. The reasons for these sweeping changes can be traced directly to the dust-up that his original title for The Speed Queen caused. That title wasDear Stephen King. Needless to say the Emperor of American Horror was not happy to learn that his books formed the backdrop to so subversive a work of fiction. "He didn't want his name being used as shorthand for bad writing," O'Nan says, raking his thin blond hair back and cracking open a Diet Pepsi at his battered kitchen table. In fact, O'Nan admires King enormously. "He's the finest writer on the bestseller list by far. He knows what a story is, knows what a novel is, and has a great eye for that concrete domestic American detail." Even as he concedes this, however, one can sense the continuing irritation lurking beneath his genial demeanor. That Doubleday, the publisher of his first two books (The Names of the Dead followed Snow Angels in 1996), didn't go to bat for his original title clearly continues to rankle him. "Doubleday wrote me off," he contends, "If you're not going to stand up for my book,' I said 'then why am I publishing with you?' There was definitely some bad blood between us." "It was a very painful situation," comments Villard executive editor Bruce Tracy, who edited O'Nan's first three books at Doubleday. "Once King and his lawyer asked that the title not be used, we didn't have a leg to stand on." Even O'Nan, who now refers to the legal conflicts surrounding the book simply as Dear Stephen King fiasco" admits that the prospect of a costly legal battle may have simply proven too daunting for his publishers.
"Technically, they were right," he says. "If they were going to support my title, they would have had to go to court. And they would have had to pay big bucks, ultimately more than the book was worth. But even though The Speed Queen is in many ways a better title, that book was, is and always will be Dear Stephen King to me."For a guy whose Pittsburgh youth was exquisitely normal (including a little drinking and a brief stint with a punk band) and who spent more than five of his pre-novelist years as a structural test engineer tearing airplanes apart at the Grumman Corporation's Long Island facility, O'Nan has reinvented himself as a writer of rare intensity. He has maintained a low-key, domestic life, however, marrying his high-school sweetheart, Trudy (a disaster-services specialist for the Red Cross), in 1984 and raising two kids, Caitlin and Stephen. A 1983 Boston University grad who picked up a Cornell M.F.A. in 1992, O'Nan has mined his interest in technology and warfare to great effect, notably in what is perhaps his most highly regarded novel, The Names of the Dead, the story of a Vietnam vet contending with a dreary present and a horrifying past. Vietnam and WWII, O'Nan maintains, are the two central traumas of the American century.
The switch from wrecking planes to examining the wreckage of human lives has been, for the most part, a successful career move. With the possible exception of an unpublished early "philosophical" novel, he has never had trouble finding a publisher: right out of the gate, his stories appeared in prestigious journals and magazines. Apart from the novels, he has published a collection of short stories, In The Walled City (Univ. of Pittsburgh, 1993), and edited John Gardner's On Writers and Writing (Addison-Wesley, 1994). Then there are the screenplays, not one of which he has tried to sell to Hollywood. "I just do them because I'm interested in the books they're based on," he says. I just did one of Styron's Lie Down in Darkness." He's also adapted Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and is considering John Edgar Wideman's The Lyncher. "I like the idea of being a working writer," he says, "not of saying that it's going to take me 30 years to write my magnum opus."
O'Nan's advance numbers have climbed considerably from the $10,000 he received for Snow Angel -- a grim portrait of family collapse that the New York Times lauded for establishing a "landscape that is bleak and miserable but utterly believable" -- even though he hasn't broken through the $100,000 ceiling yet (A World Away sold for $75,000). It is a source of frustration for the writer. Besides Doubleday's failure to promote him aggressively and its cold feet during the Stephen King flap, he wonders aloud why his books haven't brought in more money (though he also deadpans about his ultimately limited readership). To make ends meet, he has turned to the academic circuit, teaching most recently at Trinity College in Hartford and before that at the University of New Mexico and the University of Central Oklahoma -- where he vacuumed up much of the local color that enlivens The Speed Queen. He has also taken on a few "summer gigs" at Sewanee and Long Island University -- Southampton.
It's clear that O'Nan would like nothing better than to latch onto a public that will free him from these workaday distractions. That ambition may soon be realized. He won the Drue Heinz prize in 1993, and his recent successes in Europe have finally allowed him to take a break from teaching and channel all of his energy into writing.
A Different Speed
O'Nan's eclecticism has made it hard for readers to get a handle on just what makes him tick. "I get more interested in what I'm doing when I tackle something entirely different," he says of the impetus to move in a completely different -- and risky-direction with A World Away. "If there is an audience out there for me, I want them to be surprised when the next book comes out."
What makes A World Away consistent with his previous books is O'Nan's patience as a writer. The novel entwines four separate stories about a single family. Anne and James Langer -- spending the second summer of the war in the Hamptons, caring for Anne's ailing father -- have a marriage on the rocks. James, a teacher, has had an affair with a teenage student for which Anne can't forgive him. In response, she begins a dalliance of her own with a soldier stationed nearby. The couple have two sons, Rennie, a medic missing in action in the Pacific, and Jay, a sullen preadolescent "trying to figure out what the hell is going on," as O'Nan puts it, with the war, a vast historical event that dominates the news but seems to have had little tangible effect on his hometown. As if to drive home his central metaphor of loneliness, O'Nan devotes part of the narrative to Rennie's wife, Dorothy, who journeys from San Diego to Long Island with her newborn daughter for the reunion that forms the novel's conclusion.
Throughout, O'Nan relies on pacing that, even during the combat segments, is almost dreamy, seizing on the tiniest detail to animate every emotionally resonant moment. "The people on the homefront could almost pretend the war didn't exist," O'Nan says. "Almost. That's a weird way to live, especially if you want to pretend that things aren't happening. The book isn't like stage drama -- maximum conflict, all the time-but a collection of quiet moments, full of stillness."
In light of the Dear Stephen King debacle, this comment takes on a particular edge, as if O'Nan wished to retreat from his own skirmish with the publishing machine and reclaim some of the territory that sustained him in the past. Indeed, A World Away is the most mature and deeply felt novel O'Nan has produced. Always restless, however, O'Nan has kept up his feverish writing pace. Two more manuscripts are ready for Holt, one of which, Everyday People, enters the risky zone of African American characters and dialogue, suggesting that O'Nan is still intent on flexing different fictional muscles. That is, if he doesn't first dive into a nonfiction project, about the Great Hartford Circus Fire of 1944 currently stewing on a back burner.
But O'Nan remains steadfastly cagey about his ambitions, never suggesting that fame is more important than his craft. What's most important, he says, is the reality of his characters. "I want something different. I want you to live and die for my characters even though they have massive faults. Popular culture has brainwashed us into believing that our her s need to be blameless," O'Nan declares. "And that just drives me nuts."
Correction: The U.S. edition of Bill Bryson's Penguin Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Interview, May 4) was published by Viking in 1992.