Stewart O'Nan: Getting Inside The Mind Of An 80-Year-Old Widow Stewart O'Nan's moodily comic novel Emily, Alone follows an 80-year-old woman as she navigates the minutia of everyday life. O'Nan explains how he got inside Emily's head.

What It's Like To Be An Elderly Widow, All 'Alone'

What It's Like To Be An Elderly Widow, All 'Alone'

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Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan
Emily, Alone
By Stewart O'Nan
Hardcover, 272 pages
List Price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt

In Stewart O'Nan's 2002 bestseller Wish You Were Here, Emily Maxwell and her family met and squabbled at their summer lake home a year after her husband's death. O'Nan revisits Emily and her family in his latest novel, Emily, Alone, which takes place nearly a decade after Wish You Were Here. The moodily comic novel finds Emily now partially dependent on her sister-in-law Arlene for emotional and physical support — and struggling with the daily indignities of growing older.

"I was thinking about living alone," Stewart tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "My main question that I ask of my characters is, 'What does it feel like to be you? And how do you get through the day? Where do you find the hope and faith to endure getting through the days and what are your days like?' For Emily, that was a mystery to me because I'm married, I have children, I have a very active family life — and now here's a person living alone. How does she do it?"

O'Nan writes in detail about Emily navigating the minutia of her slowly shrinking world — the weekly trips she makes to the breakfast buffet with Arlene, her walks through her changing neighborhood — even navigating a clunky sidewalk curb.

"Mainly, [I] tried to envision what Emily's doing and what Emily's thinking," he says. "Emily likes things just so. She wants things to be perfect and she tries to think things through so everything that is out of place — everything that is a bother — kind of bothers her. Likewise, she has some very, very small joys as well — and they sometimes have to do with order."

But Emily's life turns upside down when Arlene has a "spell" at the local buffet and is hospitalized. She's forced to regain her independence and in the process, begins to examine the final years of her own life.

Stewart O'Nan's fiction includes Snow Angels, A Prayer for the Dying, Last Night at the Lobster and Emily, Alone. Granta named him one of America's Best Young Novelists. He lives in Pittsburgh. Trudy O'Nan hide caption

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Trudy O'Nan

Stewart O'Nan's fiction includes Snow Angels, A Prayer for the Dying, Last Night at the Lobster and Emily, Alone. Granta named him one of America's Best Young Novelists. He lives in Pittsburgh.

Trudy O'Nan

"There's the question that I write about a lot — there's the weight of the past but then there's the possibility of the future — is it too late for us to change?" says Stewart. "And that seems to me a very American question because it seems to me that we're so concerned with self-invention. We can get very complacent and say, 'This is the person I am' when you're always becoming something else. And Emily figures that out. She realizes everyday there's a chance to do something more and to be better."

Oddly enough, the character of Emily came to O'Nan while he was working on what he calls a "bad horror novel," about a haunted amusement park ride near Lake Erie.

"I began to write a book about this big amusement park in a small town, and then I began to write about a book about a kid in the small town, and then I began to write a book about a girl who goes missing in the small town, and then I started writing about this sheriff who's driving around town and at one point, this woman drives by in a station wagon on the way to her lake house where she was going to spend the very last week ever before she sold it," he explains. "And that was Emily. When I came up with the idea, I sort of jettisoned the horror novel and followed her."

Interview Highlights

On how he creates his characters

"As you get all of that material together, you begin to trick yourself into believing in them — because you need to believe in them and care for them before the reader can ever believe in them and care for them. And so you grow closer and closer to them and hold them close to you. When I'm writing, I try to have the mask of my character on as I'm walking through the world. When I'm not at my desk, the rest of the time, I try to stay in that character and see the world the way that character would ... It's almost like method acting in a way — keeping the character close the way the actor keeps a script close and always tries to be in character."

On his friendship with Stephen King

"I wrote a zany book, a gallows broadside, about a woman who's about to be executed for her part in a spree killing at a Sonic restaurant in Oklahoma. And she had sold her life story to Stephen King because he wanted to use it for a book. And this is within the fictional world of the book. So Stephen King sends her a fictional questionnaire about her life and the spree killings because he wants to use this information to write his novel. And what we get are her answers, through a tape recorder, to his questions. That's all we get. We don't get his questions, we just get her answers.

I called the book Dear Stephen King, and his lawyers were not really happy about all of that. So we had a little correspondence about it and we discovered that we loved so many of the same things — we were crazy about people like Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson and Flannery O'Connor — and all of the cheesy horror films from the 50s and 60s. So we just clicked and one day I got a phone call and he said, 'Stu, do you want to go and see the Red Sox?' and I said, 'Hey, that sounds like a good deal to me.'"

On his original career: aerospace and mechanical engineering

"Growing up in the 60s and early 70s, with the space flight and the Apollo program, I always loved planes. I always loved rockets and I always loved space travel. I was very, very good in math ... My father was an engineer, his father was an engineer. It seemed the right thing to do and I was happy with it and it was a really good job, too.

But for some reason, I'm not sure why, I would go to my basement and write short stories. I've always been a big reader. Saul Bellow once said, 'A writer is a reader who has moved to emulation' — which I think is true. I just started writing and made that jump from reader to writer and learned how hard it was, but also how much fun it was — losing myself in these imaginary worlds."

Excerpt: 'Emily, Alone'

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan
Emily, Alone
By Stewart O'Nan
Hardcover, 272 pages
Viking Adult
List Price: $25.95

Love, Emily

She didn't want anything for Mother's Day, other than her children's happiness. The arrangement Kenneth sent was nice — Emily set it on the coffee table, where Rufus sniffed the pink asters as if they might be edible — but meant less to her than his call.

She didn't have to wait for it. Like every Sunday, she'd come back from coffee hour and was plowing through the Times when the phone rang. His reliability was a gift in itself, and if this eagerness to please could make him timid, and distant when he felt he'd failed, he was also like his father in that he would never purposely hurt anyone, a trait Emily, not blessed with an even temperament, respected and envied.

"Happy Mother's Day, Mom."

"Now it is." She thanked him for the flowers.

"Not my doing."

"Still, they're very nice. So, what's new in New England?"

Not a lot. Everyone was doing okay. After much discussion, Sam was registering for summer semester.

From there they branched off to more general topics, giving her a chance to share how tired she was of the election, and the desperate state of the world. He'd have to ask Arlene about the Pirates, she was done with their shenanigans. The weather was wet, but her garden was coming along. Rufus was still hanging in there. The Millers' was still for sale. As always, she felt she had no news to report, as if her life had reached a kind of stasis.

"All righty," he said, and "I love you, Mom," and "Happy Mother's Day" again before saying goodbye. She'd turned down the stereo to talk, and when she set the phone back in its charger, the house went quiet around her.

Margaret would call when she called. Emily had learned long ago there was no profit in trying to anticipate her, and dialed up the volume again and went back to the arts section, continuing with a review of the Emerson Quartet she'd been enjoying, but instead of imagining herself in the balcony at Lincoln Center, she found herself fretting about Sam, and then about Sarah, who'd lost her job in Chicago. The worst thing in the world for Sarah would be to move back in with Margaret — for both of them — and Emily wondered if she should offer to help, or whether, like so many of her overtures, it would be taken the wrong way.

As a mother, she couldn't say she'd done her best with Margaret, but she'd tried beyond the point where others might have reasonably given up. Henry had, worn down by the cycle of promises that turned out to be lies, the brief clean periods between treatment and relapse, the lost jobs and credit card debt. Though she understood it perfectly, his withdrawal from their daughter was perhaps the greatest sorrow in Emily's life. Through everything, she'd always included Margaret in their plans, knowing, often, in those terrible years, that her invitations would be ignored or flatly rejected, and when accepted, the results would be disastrous. For Emily, Margaret's absence was a sadness; for the rest of the family, a relief. Kenneth, like Henry, was embarrassed by her, as were Sarah and Justin, who seemed to have taken her cautionary example to heart, feeding themselves and getting good grades so they could escape to a more orderly life — but that was the past, Margaret would insist. She'd been sober nearly four years now. She liked to talk about a clean slate, and in some ways their relationship had changed, but in others it felt like the same struggle they'd waged since Margaret turned thirteen. While she was more open and affectionate — showily at times, as if in her gratitude she could no longer control her emotions — Emily suspected it wasn't entirely genuine. Likewise her constant references to making amends and surrendering to a higher power, when more than anything Emily wanted her to take responsibility for her life, past and present. The money troubles, the parade of boyfriends, the inability to follow through on all but the most immediate plans — these were the same problems that had plagued her forever.

Dismayed at the arc of her thoughts — today of all days — she folded the paper and took her cup and saucer into the kitchen for a refill. Gazing out the back door at the dripping trees as she waited for the kettle to warm, she wondered at the whole chain of continuity running back through her mother to her Grandmother Benton before her and down through Margaret to Sarah. Had her mother been as unhappy with her? Because they battled just as often and hard. In her later years she complained that Emily never visited, that they always had to visit Pittsburgh to see the grandchildren, an accusation Emily disputed bitterly, since it seemed she was always driving to Kersey. Always, never — their positions were absolute. The old house was a bungalow, and when she and Henry visited, they stayed in Emily's room, the rose-patterned wallpaper untouched since the Depression, the ceilings water-stained, and by the second day she was ready to leave. How many times did she have to win her freedom, and wasn't it unnatural to feel this way? Because she did love her mother. It was grueling, this confusion. She wished she could express this to Margaret — as if, just by being mothers and daughters, they were all caught in something larger, something ultimately not their fault.

She returned to Henry's chair, arranged the afghan over her lap and pulled the lamp closer so she could work on the puzzle, the bulb warming her, but within minutes pushed it aside, threw off the afghan and stood, waking Rufus. He watched her as she passed, headed upstairs, but didn't follow, and she was grateful. For what she was about to do, she needed privacy.

She climbed toward the second floor deliberately, head bowed, her eyes on the risers, certain she was making a mistake. Whether she was doing penance or indulging herself, she regularly performed this rite, pawing through her horde of treasure like a curator, knowing it would change nothing. Like Margaret with chocolate, she couldn't resist.

In her room she ceremoniously faced her dresser. It had been her mother's, salvaged from the old house and expensively refinished. The top drawer was shallow, a repository for baggage tags and travel alarms, shoehorns and passports. Her mother had kept everything, and, opening it after her death, Emily had been staggered. Much of the clutter dated from Emily's girlhood. It was here that she found her birth certificate, and her silver rattle, and her father's wallet. Among these keepsakes, tied like a gift with a yellow ribbon, was a bundle of hand-drawn cards Emily had forgotten making. Browned at the edges, her penciled hearts and flowers and cakes and houses celebrated the unalloyed joy of the only child. Here, in all seasons, were the smiling stick figures under a smiling sun. The first time she'd leafed through them she'd been abashed at not just her clumsy lettering but her earnestness. Love, Emily, they closed, over and over, abundant proof of her goodness and innocence, and yet when she revisited them, as she did now, she felt a strange regret, as if they'd been written by someone else. Her mother hadn't saved any of her other letters, only the program from her college graduation and her wedding announcement.

As if in imitation, the other packet Emily removed was fastened with a pink ribbon — Margaret's cards to her, in crayon but graced by the same wobbly hand and free sentiments. Side by side, they seemed evidence of a mysterious bond, as if she and her mother were destined to share the same fate. I LOVE YOU, Margaret had scrawled. Emily lingered over the words, wondering if the feeling behind them still held true after all these years, or was it just a fossil, the promise, like the child who'd written it, gone forever?

This was precisely the danger of having too much time to herself. She retied the packet and returned it to its niche, closed the drawer and descended again. She sat with her half-done puzzle, listening to Bach and the rain, fending off unprofitable thoughts, waiting, though she knew better, for the phone to ring, and then, when it finally did, felt relief.

"Happy Mother's Day," Margaret said.

"Why, thank you, dear. Happy Mother's Day to you too."

"I'm not your mother."

"And for that," Emily said, "you should be eternally grateful."

Excerpted from Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan. Copyright 2011 by Stewart O'Nan. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.