In Stewart O'Nan's 2002 bestseller Wish You Were Here, Emily Maxwell and her family met and squabbled at their summer lake home a year after her husband's death. O'Nan revisits Emily and her family in his latest novel, Emily, Alone, which takes place nearly a decade after Wish You Were Here. The moodily comic novel finds Emily now partially dependent on her sister-in-law Arlene for emotional and physical support — and struggling with the daily indignities of growing older.
"I was thinking about living alone," Stewart tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "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 day? Where do you find the hope and faith to endure getting through the days and what are your days like?' For Emily, that was a mystery to me because I'm married, I have children, I have a very active family life — and now here's a person living alone. How does she do it?"
O'Nan writes in detail about Emily navigating the minutia of her slowly shrinking world — the weekly trips she makes to the breakfast buffet with Arlene, her walks through her changing neighborhood — even navigating a clunky sidewalk curb.
"Mainly, [I] tried to envision what Emily's doing and what Emily's thinking," he says. "Emily likes things just so. She wants things to be perfect and she tries to think things through so everything that is out of place — everything that is a bother — kind of bothers her. Likewise, she has some very, very small joys as well — and they sometimes have to do with order."
But Emily's life turns upside down when Arlene has a "spell" at the local buffet and is hospitalized. She's forced to regain her independence and in the process, begins to examine the final years of her own life.
"There's the question that I write about a lot — there's the weight of the past but then there's the possibility of the future — is it too late for us to change?" says Stewart. "And that seems to me a very American question because it seems to me that we're so concerned with self-invention. We can get very complacent and say, 'This is the person I am' when you're always becoming something else. And Emily figures that out. She realizes everyday there's a chance to do something more and to be better."
Oddly enough, the character of Emily came to O'Nan while he was working on what he calls a "bad horror novel," about a haunted amusement park ride near Lake Erie.
"I began to write a book about this big amusement park in a small town, and then I began to write about a book about a kid in the small town, and then I began to write a book about a girl who goes missing in the small town, and then I started writing about this sheriff who's driving around town and at one point, this woman drives by in a station wagon on the way to her lake house where she was going to spend the very last week ever before she sold it," he explains. "And that was Emily. When I came up with the idea, I sort of jettisoned the horror novel and followed her."
On how he creates his characters
"As you get all of 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. 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, the rest of the time, I try to stay in that character and see the world the way that character would ... It's almost like method acting in a way — keeping the character close the way the actor keeps a script close and always tries to be in character."
On his friendship with Stephen King
"I wrote a zany book, a gallows broadside, about a woman who's about to be executed for her part in a spree killing at a Sonic restaurant 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. So Stephen King sends her a fictional questionnaire about her life and the spree killings 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.
I called the book Dear Stephen King, and his lawyers were not really happy about all of that. So we had a little correspondence about it and we discovered that we loved so many of the same things — we were crazy about people like Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson and Flannery O'Connor — and all of the cheesy horror films from the 50s and 60s. So we just clicked and one day I got a phone call and he said, 'Stu, do you want to go and see the Red Sox?' and I said, 'Hey, that sounds like a good deal to me.'"
On his original career: aerospace and mechanical engineering
"Growing up in the 60s and early 70s, with the space flight and the Apollo program, I always loved planes. I always loved rockets and I always loved space travel. I was very, very good in math ... 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.
But for some reason, I'm not sure why, I would go to my basement and write short stories. I've always been a big reader. Saul Bellow once said, 'A writer is a reader who has moved to emulation' — which I think is true. I just started writing and made that jump from reader to writer and learned how hard it was, but also how much fun it was — losing myself in these imaginary worlds."