“’American’ is the most apt way to describe Stewart O’Nan’s work,” proclaimed Randall Kenan when he introduced O’Nan as the 2014 Distinguished Writer-in-Residence. Kenan, a writer and Creative Writing professor, observed that O’Nan “sees America with x-ray vision and an understanding heart. His prodigious body of work can be read as an investigation, story by story, into what it means to be an American.”
O’Nan shared his literary talents with the Carolina community when he visited February 23 to 28 as the 2014 Distinguished Writer-in-Residence. His interactions with students were characterized by geniality, good humor, and a focus on the young writer. In turn, our creative writing students helped O’Nan enjoy two of his loves: good writing and good sports. He read our students’ excellent writing in workshops and fielded their questions about the writing process in conversational sessions. In a break from teaching and mentoring, the sports enthusiast relished watching a Carolina basketball game with the Creative Honors Fiction students and their professor, Daniel Wallace.
Carolina’s larger literary community had several opportunities to explore O’Nan and his work. The program provided a public screening of the movie Snow Angels, based upon O’Nan’s 1994 novel, at the Varsity Theater on Franklin Street, followed by a discussion with the novelist.
Additionally, O’Nan’s great love of baseball prompted one of the week’s highlights, a panel discussion on “Baseball: The Great American Story.” O’Nan wrote Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season, along with Stephen King, which became a New York Times Bestseller. Other panel members included Mike Fox, Carolina baseball coach; William Leuchtenburg, Carolina Distinguished Professor Emeritus and enthusiastic baseball fan; and Gabby Colvocoressi, poet and creative writing faculty member, also a baseball fan. The well-attended and spirited session explored topics ranging from the cultural role of baseball to the power of the narrative of sports in our lives.
The week culminated in the 2014 Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Reading on Thursday evening, February 27. Chair Beverly Taylor warmly welcomed the audience and declared herself a new fan of O’Nan’s work. Randall Kenan’s introduction of O’Nan left no one doubting his significant place in contemporary American literature and culture. He described O’Nan’s “preoccupations” as “human beings at their best and their worst, tragedy, the quiet struggle of everyday people against the backdrop of conflagration.” O’Nan’s powerful reading followed, confirming Kenan’s accolades: “With humor and grace, he shows us ourselves, the grit, the horror, the quotidian boredom, the loneliness, the beauty.”
O’Nan is a “working writer” from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a city and people that figure centrally in much of his work. He was trained as an engineer, but after a few years in the field went to Cornell where he received his MFA in 1992.
His works include fourteen novels, a collection of short stories, two books of non-fiction, and a handful of screenplays. His short novel Last Night at the Lobster (2007) prefigured the economic meltdown of that same year and the effect it had on millions of Americans. Other novels include The Speed Queen (1997), A Prayer for the Dying (1999), Wish You Were Here (2003) and its sequel Emily, Alone (2011), Songs for the Missing (2008), and The Odds (2012). The Circus Fire: A True Story of An American Tragedy (2001) chronicles the story of over 8000 people trapped under a big tent in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944. Jonathan Evison of Salon said of O’Nan’s productivity: “Unlike anyone else, O’Nan delivers a new book every year that speaks directly to the anxieties of our fearful times.”
The Department of English and Comparative Literature thanks the generous donors who made the 2014 Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Program possible. First, it extends thanks to the late Frank Borden Hanes, Sr. (Class of 1942) and his family for their support. Mr. Hanes, himself a passionate writer, has long been a gracious supporter of Creative Writing at Carolina and has made gifts with powerful lasting impact. The Department is also grateful to the Hibbits Family for its support. Richard Hibbits (Business, Class of 1971) and his wife Ford live in Raleigh where Richard is a commercial real estate developer with Carolantic. He is a member of the Chancellor’s Working Group on Entrepreneurship, the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center Advisory Board, and a former member of the UNC Board of Visitors. These families’ generosity greatly enriches Carolina’s literary culture.