By John Freeman
Stewart O’Nan has a soft spot for the parts of America that don’t make their own postcards: death row, steel towns after the plant has shut down, the corners of suburbia not rich enough to be enviously posh, not close enough to a city to really matter.
In a little over a dozen years he’s published more than a dozen different dispatches from this shifting front, in nearly as many forms: horror, noir, pastoral epic, the short story. His new book is a novella set in a suburban Connecticut Red Lobster during a snow storm on its last night of business.
I talked to the prolific, dedicated novelist—and die-hard Boston Red Sox Fan (O’Nan also wrote a book on the Sox’s 2004 season, “Faithful,” with Stephen King)—to find out why he found himself drawn to this unglamorous, all-too-real American tableau.
I’ve been told by friends in Connecticut you could Google-map the neighborhood of your horror novel, “The Night Country.” Is “Last Night at the Lobster” as specific in setting?
Not quite. The Avon in TNC is nearly literal, while the Willow Brook Mall and the Red Lobster in my New Britain are fictional—the mall based on the failing mall in downtown Bristol and the Lobster on a real Lobster in Torrington that corporate closed overnight.
You spend a lot of time describing the actual tasks, menial, mindless, all crucial, the staff of this Red Lobster performs on the day this book takes place. Why?
To my POV character Manny, these tasks aren’t just necessary but comforting, and on this day of all days, nearly sacred. After today, he’s going to lose these cares and obligations, and so he naturally notes them, memorializes them in a vain attempt to save this already lost world.
Do you think there is a corollary between the violence which has been wrought on the American commercial landscape which you describe here—the strip malls, the acres of cement—and the lower classes?
There’s a bottom-line ugliness to it, no doubt, and yet, at a distance, with the snow falling, Manny himself sees the Lobster as a warm and welcoming place, a place he’s proud of, and a place that means a lot to him. So even in the middle of this meager stripmalldom, there’s pride—and hope.
Do you feel like work is under-represented in American fiction?
Not sure. Certainly Joshua Ferris’ “Then We Came to the End” focuses on the workplace as much as, say, “The Office” or “Dilbert” or the great “Office Space” do. There are some iconic American jobs that are probably over-represented (cowboy, soldier, policeman, private eye, writer, agent, actor, academic). What I don’t see in our fiction are people working for hourly wages with few or no better prospects, and I think they probably make up a larger percent of U.S. workers.
Something like eighty percent of our economy is service oriented—do American novelists have to start writing more about places like Red Lobster if they’re going to be “realistic?”
Not sure it has much to do with being “realistic,” or even being truthful about the way things are. Novelists have to decide what they want to show the reader—what they really consider important. It may be that I’m drawn to people and places that are overlooked because I think these are stories that no one else is telling.
I didn’t exactly keep track, but I got the feeling there is just one white character in this book—similar to your novel, “Everyday People,” which is set in the predominantly Pittsburgh neighborhood of East Liberty. You don’t seem to do this on purpose or to over-think it, but do you ever catch yourself writing and think—I can’t do this?
I didn’t keep track of how many characters were white, black or brown, but I think it’s probably an even distribution, as there is in New Britain. In the context of the Lobster, and the way Manny approaches his world, race doesn’t matter all that much, though that changes when he walks into the larger world of the mall. As a novelist, you always think “I can’t do this.” And then, if you’re truly interested in your characters (and in a world beyond your own little world), you pursue them and try to get close to them and understand their world so you can bring it back and deliver to the reader how they really feel.
I know you’re an almost encyclopedic reader—did you have any books in mind when writing this book? I got a little whiff of William Maxwell.
No Maxwell here that I know of, but I may have internalized him by now. Naturally Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” looms over the book, and—in its lone hero—“High Noon.” There may also be a little of Steinbeck’s “The Winter of Our Discontent,” in that I was discontented with his stab at how personally we take failure in America.
This book has already been published in Germany, where according to your German publisher you’re “huge.” Do you have any sense as to why your work resonates so much over there?
My first novel “Snow Angels” was featured on the TV show “The Literary Quartet” and became a bestseller. Since then I’ve had loyal readers there. I’ve also had the luxury of having a single publisher there (except for the “Lobster,” which Mare Books is doing, but which will be done in paper by my usual house, Rowohlt) whereas here I’ve been with a string of different houses. It makes a great difference in the marketing, keeping that backlist together and available.
You’ve published just about a book a year since you debuted. What’s the secret to your productivity? And what’s next?
I write slowly but steadily—a page a day. Viking just picked up my next novel, about a girl who goes missing from a small Ohio town on Lake Erie. A return to that small-town book that I like to write, with the separate yet overlapping worlds of parents and teens, like “Snow Angels” or “The Night Country.” No release date yet, but I’m thinking Spring 2009.
Finally, are these World Series victories getting less sweet?
They’re getting more believable, that’s for sure. In ’04, it felt like a dream, completely new territory. This year winning it all was possible from the beginning. We expected to make the playoffs; once there, we hoped our starters would outclass the Yankees’ staff. We didn’t count on the Tribe’s two aces blowing the Yanks away, and we didn’t count on beating those aces when we were down 3-1, but we knew it was up for grabs, and we knew we had a very good club. Looking back, I’d say that ALCS was a toss-up between us and Cleveland. We peaked at the right time, caught some breaks, and thanks to a tiebreaker we had homefield when it mattered. It feels good, and we know from ’04 that that feeling is going to stay with us, maybe forever. Thank you, Curse of A-Rod!