Stewart O’Nan’s Writing Advice

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to meet one of my favorite writers.

Stewart O’Nan was the keynote speaker for the Conversations and Connections Conference in Philadelphia. Stewart has written many excellent books, including: Last Night at the Lobster, Emily Alone, Songs for the Missing, A Prayer for the Dying, Snow Angels.

Of all the O’Nan books I’ve read, Last Night at the Lobster is my favorite. It’s an excellent novella that takes place on the final snowy night of a Red Lobster restaurant that is being closed by corporate headquarters. We follow manager Manny as he struggles to keep the restaurant up to corporate standards. He is the only staff member that cares and by the end, we care also. Manny is an every man, and he is also a hero.

I brought a copy of Last Night at the Lobster with the hope of getting it signed. Stewart showed up an hour before his scheduled talk and just hung out in the lobby. It’s always a great feeling when an artist I admire turns out to be warm and friendly. My friend Laura and I were lucky enough to chat with him about writing, his schedule, even about his “beat-up” old car which became famous when mentioned in a magazine article about Stewart. He asked us what we were working on and listened intently and offered suggestions. He was laid back and engaged. We were chatting with Stewart for so long, I felt a sense of guilt but he didn’t mind at all. Oh, and he did sign my book too.

A short time later, Barrelhouse editor Tom McAllister introduced Stewart and summed up his work with one word – empathy. This was a succinct and true statement. During Stewart’s presentation, he read from his new work, The Odds, and he talked about the craft of writing. Here are two quotes I jotted down:

“Sales don’t make your book one word better.”

“The reader’s caring is an echo of yours.”

Stewart talked about the importance of keeping the ass in the chair. He said he writes 9-5 every day, and some days that only totals 300 words. When asked about writers block, he said just sit there. He also relayed a story about Joseph Conrad. Apparently Conrad for some time used a writing space in a friend’s barn and every day he would climb up in the loft for his writing time, but every day he dreaded going to the loft. And that’s true of writing – getting started each day is the hardest part.

Stewart also explained his belief that readers like to learn “privileged information” while reading stories. An example could be knowing what really happens in the back kitchen at a Red Lobster and relaying that in the work. Stewart believes this provides the reader with a ‘non-fiction” experience, they are having something revealed they wouldn’t normally know. He also believes the reader needs to see the story through the eyes of the character who cares the most. Stewart certainly has done that in his novels, and it’s this fact that takes us back to the key word – empathy. I was heartened to see that Stewart O’Nan is as likable as his characters.

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One response to “Stewart O’Nan’s Writing Advice

  1. Stewart O’Nan is a terrific writer. I can see what you mean about his empathy; he killed off an entire town in A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, yet it never seemed cheap or exploitative. And I agree with him that getting started writing is the hardest part.

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