"American" is the best way to describe Stewart O'Nan's work. The author of 14 novels, a collection of short stories, 2 works of non-fiction, and a handful of screenplays, O’Nan has returned, again and again, to certain aspects of American life. He sees America with X-ray vision and an understanding heart. O’Nan’s prodigious body of work can be read as an investigation, story by story, into what it means to be an American.
His short novel Last Night at the Lobster (2008) prefigured the economic meltdown of that same year and the effect it had on millions of Americans. In less than 200 pages, dealing with the final night of a Red Lobster franchise, he illuminates the lives of the beleaguered manager, his girlfriend and lover, the struggling waitresses, the no-show cooks and customers, and O'Nan does it with humor, pathos and, ultimately, kindness. As Ron Charles of the Washington Post says, “He seems incapable of writing a false line.”
Stewart O’Nan was born and raised in Pittsburgh, the ground zero for much of his fiction. Initially trained as an engineer ("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"), he was already writing stories as an undergraduate at Boston University. He worked for the Grumman Aerospace Corporation for four years, then went to the MFA program at Cornell, where he received his MFA in 1992.
O'Nan's collection of stories, In the Walled City (1993), won the Drue Heinz Literary Award for a first book, and his work has
twice been cited as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Granta named him one of the 20 Best Young American Novelists in 1996, and Salon magazine has called him “our best working novelist.” Along the way he has given us: indelible portraits of soldiers in Vietnam; the garrulous rants of a spree-killing, love-sick speed queen on death row; tender accounts of middle-age love and marriage; circus conflagrations; prose tone-poems about what it's like to grow old alone.
Writing is O’Nan’s foremost passion, but his other is baseball—which makes sense, as it’s the most American of sports. In Faithful (2005), a New York Times bestseller, O’Nan chronicles the 1994 season of the Boston Red Sox with his friend and fellow baseball fanatic Stephen King. O’Nan has equated writing with baseball, where, when you come up to bat, the chances are good you’re going to fail. “No one writes a great book every time out,” he says, “or even a good book (if Faulkner can’t do it, and Woolf, why should you be exempt?). You just try to be true to your characters and get them across to the reader. You just hope you’ll write a good one that people will take to heart.”
Stewart O'Nan is probably best compared to a certain type of great American songwriter—Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen. Like them he continues to update the "Old, Weird America." With humor and grace he shows us ourselves, the grit, the horror, the quotidian boredom, the loneliness, the beauty.
Pictures from top to bottom:
1. Stewart O'Nan dons a Carolina cap, to the delight of the audience, during his Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Reading. (photo by Graham Terhune)
2. Creative writing faculty member Jim Seay speaks with Stewart O'Nan (photo by Graham Terhune)
3. Distinguished Writer-in-Residence program donors Richard Hibbits (left) and his wife Ford Hibbits (right) with Weldon Thornton, Professor Emeritus of English (photo by Graham Terhune)
4. Daniel Wallace with his senior honors fiction students (photo by Graham Terhune)
5. Stewart O'Nan speaks with creative writing students (photo by Graham Terhune)
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