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

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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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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Our guest, writer Stewart O'Nan, is known for his bestselling novel "Last Night at the Lobster," about the final shift at a Red Lobster restaurant that's being shut down by headquarters. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan described it as the best story she's ever read about the meaning of even commonplace work in people's lives.

Maureen described O'Nan's new novel "Emily, Alone" as a moody, lightly comic and absolutely captivating rendering of that most un-sensational of subjects: widowhood and old age.

The main character, Emily Maxwell, was introduced in O'Nan's 2002 novel "Wish You Were Here," which was set at a family reunion a year after the death of Emily's husband, Henry. "Emily Alone" takes place 10 years later when she's 80 and thinks there isn't much that remains of her life.

She doesn't get out often, but Tuesdays she goes with her sister-in-law Arlene to the Eden Park with her two-for-one breakfast buffet coupon from the Saturday paper.

Stewart O'Nan spoke with Terry Gross. They began with a reading from the beginning of the book when Emily and Arlene are on their way to their Tuesday breakfast. Arlene is driving. Emily thinks Arlene's driving is atrocious but trusts herself even less.

Mr. STEWART O'NAN (Author, "Emily, Alone"): (Reading) Henry had always done the driving in the family; it was a point of pride with him. When he was dying, he insisted on driving to the hospital for his chemo himself. It was only on the way home with Henry, sick and silent beside her, bent over a plastic bowl in his lap, that Emily piloted his massive Olds down the corkscrewing ramps of the medical center's parking garage, terrified she'd scrape the side against the scarred concrete walls.

For several years, she used the old boat to do her solitary errands, never venturing outside of the triangle described by the bank, the library and the giant eagle. But after a run-in with a fire hydrant, followed quickly by another with a Duquesne Light truck, she admitted -bitterly, since it went against her innate thriftiness - that maybe taking taxis was the better part of valor.

Now the Olds sat out back in the garage with her rusty golf clubs, as if decommissioned, the windshield dusty, the tires soft. She wasn't a fan of the bus and Arlene had made a standing offer of her Taurus, itself a boxy, if less grand antique.

GROSS: That's Stewart O'Nan reading from the beginning of his new novel "Emily, Alone." Why did you want to write about this 80-year-old widow? It's neither your generation nor your gender.

Mr. O'NAN: Well, I first met Emily about 10 years ago. She sort of sprang up in the middle of this very strange bad horror novel that I was writing, and immediately I found her fascinating and sort of just jettisoned the horror novel and follow. And when I first met the Maxwell family I became fascinated in all of them, not just Emily.

And so that first book, "Wish You Were Here," which is I guess you'd call it a prequel to this one, sort of sprawled. It was very large and kind of Tolstoyian. But I knew that I had unfinished business with Emily and when I came back to her I realized that I wanted to do a story about her and her alone without any distractions and go deeper into her life. How has she become the person that we first met in "Wish You Were Here" and how have things changed since then.

GROSS: I remember when I was young and my upstairs neighbor's husband died. She was probably around 50. This was so upsetting to me, not just because she and her husband had been very close, but because now she'd have to carry on without him. This was in the 19 - like early 1960s probably and I thought that here's a woman whose life was over.

She had no future because in my neighborhood all the women were married. Divorce was a rarity. Most of the women didn't work. Their lives centered around their husband and children and no matter how awful the marriage was, women had no place in the world without a husband. At least, you know, with a husband you had a place, without one you were just unmoored. There is no place for you.

You know, Emily is kind of of the same generation. I was wondering if you were thinking about that.

Mr. O'NAN: I was thinking a lot about living alone. 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 days? Where do you find this sort of the hope and the faith to endure getting through the days? And what are your days like? And for Emily that was a mystery to me because, you know, I'm married. I have children. I have sort of a very sort of active family life. And now here's a person living alone. How does she do it?

GROSS: Well, it's not just living alone. It's living alone at the age of 80. Living alone at the age of 25 is really different.

Mr. O'NAN: Very true. And in this case, Emily is the last of the people in her neighborhood from the old set and so she has no sort of friends there. The only person that she has is Arlene and she and Arlene don't always get along.

GROSS: Emily is living in a really shrinking world, as a lot of older people do because she's not very mobile anymore. She's having trouble navigating her husband's old Oldsmobile, which is huge. It's winter and winter is dangerous if you are 80, and it's up north and it's slippery and cold, so she doesn't get out much, she doesn't see many people. Her neighborhood is becoming less familiar as it changes over time, so it's a shrinking world, which you write about in great detail.

I just want to give an example of the kind of detail that you give in your novel and this is, you know, Arlene, Emily's sister-in-law, is picking up Emily so that they can go for this two-for-one breakfast. So Arlene hadn't pulled up enough and Emily had to deal with the treacherous slope of lawn and drop-off curve while battling the passenger door. The reek of cigarettes that rose from the upholstery was immediate as if Arlene had just finished one. Emily shook her umbrella before pulling it in after her, and still she dripped all over her coat.

I think that's great. You know, it shows like the dangers of like a curb, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like how things that you might take for granted become really like hazardous when you're 80 and it's winter up north. And then even that sense of how she shook her umbrella before pulling in after and she dripped all over her coat. That happened to me just the other day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I hate it when that happens. So I mean, I just like, you know, there's so much in the details that you put in there. Can you tell us what goes into a paragraph like that?

Mr. O'NAN: Mainly, it's trying to sort of envision, you know, what Emily's doing and what Emily's thinking there. I like to get close to the characters. I like to get very intimate with them, because that's what I like as a reader. When I can be intimate with a character I think it brings me closer to my own life as well. It makes me think about what's important to me and the people closest to me. Even though Emily's days aren't terribly eventful, there is still a lot going on within her.

GROSS: There are health issues that come up in the book and 80 is a really precarious time when something small can become something big really quickly, when a sore throat can lead to pneumonia, when a short fainting spell can be low blood pressure or it could be a stroke. Like, everything has such potential danger attached to it. Did you think about that a lot while writing the book?

Mr. O'NAN: Oh certainly, certainly. And how Emily resents that. Emily resents being seen as fragile. All the women in her group at the club there, I mean they all begin to sort of talk about the falls and the terrible things that have happened to the people in their circle as if they might be next. And Emily really, really hates that even while she acknowledges that it maybe true.

GROSS: She thinks a lot about the past and says that memories plague her like migraines because the past has been replaced by the diminished present. There's always this fear that you're going to want to live in the past when you get old, but there's also a fear that you won't remember the past, you won't remember anything...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...when you get old. What role did you want memory to play in her life?

Mr. O'NAN: Well, it's - the memory is double-edged in that it soothes us. It reminds us of all the great and good things. But it also nettles a lot, because some of our memories is as Emily's memories are, of the shameful moments in her life, when she failed other people. So the question of does memory help us or does memory hurt us, because it's always in play because this is essentially a memory book. It's her whole life. It's not just these seasons that she goes through in Pittsburgh. But she's trying to come to terms with her entire life.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Stewart O'Nan. He's the author of the bestseller "Last Night at the Lobster." His new book is called "Emily, Alone." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Stewart O'Nan. He's the author of the bestseller "Last Night at the Lobster." His new novel is called "Emily, Alone."

Now the character of Emily first came to you when you were writing a horror novel which you abandoned to write about Emily and her family. What was the horror novel?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'NAN: The horror novel was called "The Ghost Ship." And originally, it was going to be about a dark ride at an amusement park up on the coast of Lake Erie that 50 years ago had a terrible fire and people were killed, blah, blah, blah, and that 50 years later they were going to sort of re-open this particular ride using pieces of the old ride, which were wanted because they had come from a slave ship and...

Oh, it was just, no, it was goofy and silly and there was sort of a meta-fictional frame to it as well in which the author of this particular horror novel was writing it because he wanted to write the great African-American horror novel because there hadn't been one written and there needed to be one written.

And so - and I did all the research and I found all sorts of amazing stuff because Cedar Point, which is what I was basing it on, actually they had across the bay in Sandusky there was a graveyard of Confederate officers there who had died of typhoid in some terrible prison camp right up there. And also right there Sandusky where Cedar Point is was sort of a stop, a last stop on the Underground Railroad.

So all these things sort of were fitting in place but I just couldn't maintain interest in it and I began to write a novel about the big amusement park in the small town. And then I began to write about the kid in the small town. Then I began to write a book about this girl who goes missing in the small town and that later had turned into "Songs for the Missing," but I couldn't get into it at that point.

And so I started writing about the sheriff who's driving around town and I don't know exactly what he was doing. And at one point this woman in a station wagon drove by and she was on her way to this little lake house where she was going to spend the very last week ever at the family lake house before she sold it and that was Emily. And I became very interested in her and once I got her to the lake house I became very interested in everybody in the family and the books had opened up and I became fascinated with everything and I forgot all about the horror novel.

GROSS: I don't think I could endure what you just described, starting book after book after book...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...and abandoning it. How discouraging is that?

Mr. O'NAN: That's the process though. And what's great is, you know, something will come up that grabs your interest and that takes your interest away and you're not sure exactly why you're interested in this person, in this character to begin with what you say huh, I wonder what they've got going on so you follow them for a while and then you realize wow, they've got a lot going on in their lives.

And sometimes it's a very, a character that you would never have thought you would be kind of, you know, this is an interesting character for a novel. Sometimes it's, you know, it's like Manny in "Last Night at the Lobster," it's a guy running a Red Lobster for the last night. I mean who would write about that? It doesn't sound like a, you know, a subject for a novel.

And yet when you look deeply into what the characters have going on you realize these are like a really big, big stories. They may seem to come from small places but they're really big stories that are shared by millions and millions of people. And that's the excitement. That's when you know you've got something because you say wow, here's a story nobody's told yet.

GROSS: It seems like you think of your characters as actually existing, as having lives that you will discover. I don't have characters like that in my head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Which is among the many I am not a novelist. But, can you give us a sense of how they appear in your mind, how they appear in your life?

Mr. O'NAN: Well, they seem to appear early as just fleeting. Almost as not quite ideas but people that you don't know, strangers, people that you might see passing on the street. And then you get a chance to get closer to them because the more you think about them and give them a backstory and give them a kind of language, you know, what words would they use that you wouldn't use? What attitudes do they have that you don't have? What do they love? Who are the people closest to them?

And as you get all 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.

I mean, I'm 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, you know, the rest of the time, I try to stay in that character and see the world the way that character would, because I need to be energized so that things in the world will sort of stick to that character that I then can take from in this world and put them into the world of the book where they'll make sense. It's almost like method acting in a way - keeping the character close the way the actor keeps say, the script close and always tries to be in character. And it's a trick.

I mean I know that Emily doesn't exist and yet I've told myself, you know, for 10 years now that she does. And when you're working in third person, there's a nice split. There's a nice disassociation between you and the character.

When you're working in first person and you're doing that, sometimes you get too close and you sort of fall into the character. And then things get a little weird, which is why I probably haven't written anything in first or second person since "Speed Queen" and "A Prayer for the Dying," because both of those turned out to be very bizarre books that kind of don't seem to me the product of a sane mind.

GROSS: Now since Emily started her origins - to this horror novel that you abandoned, I would bring up here that you're a friend of Steven King's, and that she collaborated on a book together about your love for the Red Sox. So how did you get to know him?

Mr. O'NAN: Well, I wrote a zany...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'NAN: I don't know what you call this book - a gallows broadside. I wrote this book about a woman who was about to be executed for her part in a spree killing at a Sonic restaurant out 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. And so Stephen King sends her a questionnaire about her life and the spree killings and all that, 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.

And I called the book "Dear Stephen King," and his lawyers were not really happy about all that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'NAN: And so we had a little correspondence, you know, author to author, about it, and we discovered that we loved, you know, so many of the same things. We were crazy about people like Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson and Flannery O'Connor and Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, all of the sort of cheesy horror films from the '50s and '60s - of course, rock 'n roll. So we just clicked there.

And one day, I got a phone call and he said, you know, hey, you know, Stew, do you want to go and see the Red Sox? And I was like, hey, that sounds like a good deal to me. Going to see the Red Sox with Stephen King. This is all right.

And, you know, we went to the game, and sometimes when you have a long-distance relationship with somebody and you finally get together in person, it doesn't click. In this case, everything clicked, and we just had a great, great time. And so ever since then, you know, we've been going to games together, and decided to do this book in the spring of 2004. And it just so happened that they won the World Series that year for the first time in 86 years - so just crazy, dumb luck. And now he reads all my stuff, and he's a great, great help.

GROSS: Now, you didn't set out to be a writer, did you?

Mr. O'NAN: No. No. At first, I was an engineer. I was trained as an aerospace engineer and worked in the business as a mechanical engineer.

GROSS: So why did you want to do that?

Mr. O'NAN: Well, you know, growing up in the '60s and early '70s, with all the space flight and the Apollo program, I always loved planes. I always loved rockets. I always loved space travel, and I was very, very good in math. And it seemed to kind of make sense, there. My father was an engineer. His father was an engineer. My mother's dad was an architect, rather self-taught. It seemed the right thing to do, and I was, you know, I was happy with it, and it was a really good job, too.

But for some reason, I'm not quite sure why, I would come home after work and go to my basement and write short stories. I've always been a big reader. And Saul Bellow said that a writer is a reader who's moved to emulation, which I think is true, because I didn't have any plans, really, on being a writer. I just started writing one, and just made that jump from reader to writer, there, and learned how hard it was, but also, you know, how much fun it was, sort of losing myself in these imaginary worlds and hanging out with these characters.

I mean, the next day you go back, they're still there, and you sort of enter that world again. So it's just kind of an interesting way of sort of living in two worlds at once.

GROSS: Well, one of the things you did as part of the transition is he went back to college and studied writing. Was it a huge leap to jump from the world of a probably well-paid job in the aerospace world with benefits to going back to being a student and then facing a writing career where few people are well compensated?

Mr. O'NAN: It was a huge jump just culturally, in that when I was at Grumman Aerospace on the shop floor there, I was probably the youngest and most liberal person there. And when I moved to Cornell, I mean, it was a matter of a couple weeks, the transition. I came to Cornell. I was the oldest person and the most conservative person here.

So it gave me sort of, you know, two sets of double consciousness. But, yeah, I mean, we, you know, after five years out of the industry, we were basically broke and, you know, just hadn't published anything. We were just sort of, you know, hoping things would go well. And I've gotten a lot of breaks, a lot of breaks that have, you know, sort of, you know, sort of helped me out - not the least of which was, you know, the Red Sox winning the World Series.

GROSS: Well, Stewart O'Nan, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. O'NAN: Well, thank you so much.

DAVIES: Stewart O'Nan speaking with Terry Gross. O'Nan's new novel is "Emily, Alone." You can read an excerpt on our website:

Coming up, David Edelstein on three new action films with dazzling special effects, all from Asian-born directors.

This is FRESH AIR.

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