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Internationally Acclaimed Author Stewart O’Nan Hunts for the “Emotional Center” of a Story

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Stewart O'Nan cover
Last Night at the Lobster
by Stewart O'Nan
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Editor’s Note: Stewart O'Nan provides Authorlink columnist Ellen Birkett Morris with insights into his writing life. O’Nan is the author of a dozen novels, including Snow Angels, The Speed Queen, A Prayer for the Dying, The Good Wife and Last Night at the Lobster. With Stephen King, he wrote Faithful, a nonfiction account of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. His newest novel, the international bestseller Songs for the Missing, named a Best Book of the Year by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and many others.

 

AUTHORLINK: How long have you been writing?

O’NAN: 25 years. It's my silver anniversary!

“Just write the book you want to read.”
—O’NAN

AUTHORLINK: You work in so many areas – fiction, nonfiction, essays, criticism – what can you tell new authors who feel they must specialize to succeed?

O’NAN: Just write the book you want to read. Your taste in reading should be your guide. If you love to read one genre above all others, then maybe you'll specialize in that one. But if you love to read all different kinds of books, it's only natural that you'll write them too.

AUTHORLINK: Where do stories begin for you?

O’NAN: Anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes it's a character, sometimes a situation, a place. Whatever catches my interest and holds it–for whatever reason. Sometimes you don't know why you're drawn to a subject, but you notice that you are. For instance, before I wrote The Good Wife, I noticed I was reading a lot of books about prisons, but had no idea why. I hadn't planned it. So I asked myself: why are you drawn to this material?

AUTHORLINK: How did you come up with the premise for Last Night at the Lobster?

O’NAN: That came from a small article in a free local paper. A Red Lobster in the next town over had abruptly closed down, disappointing its regular patrons. I just thought it was odd, the loss of that specific little world that no one else would mourn, so I cut the article out and squirreled it away in my files. When I pulled it out months later, it still hit me hard, so I knew there was something there.

"I knew I needed an emotional center for the book. . .”
—O'NAN

AUTHORLINK: When did Manny first present himself to you?

O’NAN: I knew I needed an emotional center for the book, and it made sense that it would be the person who cared the most about the place, the one who put the most time and effort into making it a success and would therefore be the most crushed by its failure. The manager. Once I'd decided to set the novel in New Britain, it seemed right that he would be a local guy trying his best against all the odds. So he represents a place and its people who are going through some tough times.

AUTHORLINK: I am intrigued by Manny’s dedication to the Lobster, the methodical way he handles his work and yet his inability to maintain order in his personal life. Can you comment on this?

O’NAN: The rules and routines of the Lobster appeal to Manny. He feels he can excel within these limitations if he follows them to the letter, while the outside world is confusing–like the heart. The Lobster's his safe haven. So there's the contradiction within him of being loyal to this huge corporation that treats him poorly yet having almost no loyalty, deep down, to the woman who's having his baby. To follow the rules or your heart? It's the old battle between love and duty. With Jacquie, Manny's loved and lost, and since then he's turned his duties into a kind of love. Is it foolish or noble or both? There's that whiff of Quixote about him.

AUTHORLINK: The closing creates a special air around the events of the day although the events themselves are somewhat ordinary. How does this work to create reader interest/dramatic tension?

O’NAN: Because this world that's special to Manny is vanishing before his eyes, he needs to hold on to it in his mind, so every little detail is precious to him, every event on this last day is charged. His desires are overwhelming–he wants everything to go perfectly, when it's already gone as wrong as it can go, so we know he'll be disappointed, and yet he still has such hope. Again, he's both a comic and noble figure in this, and maybe even, for some readers, a tragic one. In every scene, we wait to see if/how he'll be disappointed this time.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research. What resources did you draw on when developing the novel?

O’NAN: I tried to learn the basics of what you have to do, daily, as a manager of a Red Lobster. I cruised through a lot of food-service blogs and the Darden Restaurants website, but the best information came from actually visiting Red Lobsters and taking photos and notes, interviewing people who worked or had worked there, talking with others who worked in chain restaurants as servers or kitchen help.

AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to write Last Night at the Lobster?

O’NAN: About a year.

"The hardest thing was not giving the other characters too much room."
—O'NAN

 

AUTHORLINK: What were the challenges of this book and how did you over come them?

O’NAN: The hardest thing was not giving the other characters too much room. I felt that I knew Ty and Jacquie and Roz and Deena and Leron and Eddie and Coach and Manny's grandmother and Nicolette and Fredo and Kendra and Dom and Rodney and even the bland, nearly mute Chris well enough to give them all as much room as Manny, but because of the scale of the book, I couldn't if I wanted to keep any sense of focus or proportion.

AUTHORLINK: Do you have some advice for new writers about writing – perhaps from your essay “Not Stopping: Time Management for Writers”?

O’NAN: Just try to keep working, pushing forward a little bit every day, even if you have to set a goal of one sentence a day. Patience is all.

"I think writers can learn from all of these books."
—O'NAN

 

AUTHORLINK: You include a What to Read section on your web site – do these books have anything in common other than being well written? Tell our readers about the value of reading for writers.

O’NAN: I think writers can learn from all of these books. I've chosen them because the authors are using a specific technique extremely well in them, whether it's the keen use of overarching metaphor (Garcia Marquez in 100 Years of Solitude) or summary narration (Yates in The Easter Parade). Whether you like/love/enjoy these books, you can take this tool they're using and put it in your toolbox so that later, if you run into a subject or a situation that calls for a similar treatment, you have more choices at your disposal. Without studying Robert O'Connor's use of the second person in Buffalo Soldiers, I wouldn't have been able to use it in A Prayer for the Dying. As a writer, you're always learning from what you read. The more models you have, the more choices you have, and sometimes those choices show you a new way to get deeper into the material.

AUTHORLINK: How did you secure your agent?

O’NAN: He was my editor for my first novel. He's a great reader, and when I heard he was becoming an agent, I asked if he'd take me on.

AUTHORLINK: What was it like working with your editor?

O’NAN: Josh Kendall at Viking did a superb job, both in his suggested cuts and changes on the manuscript itself, but also in asking me to push the scenes in which Manny and Jacquie discuss their relationship. In this book, possibly because of the size, I didn't have much to cut, but Josh had me revisit every scene that Manny and Jacquie have and really look at their exchanges for places to expand and deepen them. He wanted that central, difficult relationship brought to the fore. Excellent call.

AUTHORLINK: What advice do you have to first time novelists about breaking into the publishing business?

O’NAN: Be patient, and hold on to your manuscript after you think it's done. It's not, not yet. Try to have a trusted first group of readers respond to the "finished" manuscript, then, after you've let their comments settle, coolly revise it before sending it off to an agent or editor. You want your first book to be in the very best shape you can get it before letting it go.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on currently?

O’NAN: A sequel to Wish You Were Here. Very quiet, set in Pittsburgh.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.