Thursday, February 4, 2010

Meet Stewart O'Nan

Happy Birthday today to Stewart O’Nan – who comes highly recommended by my wife (a consummate reader of fiction) as a writer to read. She read his A Prayer for the Dying – in one sitting - until 3 a.m. And for my wife, who has iron poor blood in the first place, that's some feat.

O'Nan is a New England writer - so I don't know how in the world he wound up writing about Wisconsin.

Also, I would suspect with his last name being so Ostentatiously Obvious in its Obligations to the Hibernian blood that he could very well be a Catholic boy. Don’t know that for a fact, mind you, but a strong possibility – or my name isn’t – well, never mind.

Stewart O’Nan’s tip for finding time to write:

"Very simple things like keeping the manuscript with you at all times. Always keep it with you. That way you can always go back to it. Doesn't have to be the whole manuscript. Another way to do this is to bring only the very last sentence that you worked on--where you left off, basically. Bring it with you on a sheet of paper or index card. Keep it on your person so that if you're running around the building where you're working, you take that five seconds to pull it out and look at it and say, "Okay, oh, maybe I'll do this with it. Maybe I'll do something else with it. Maybe I'll fix it there.” (From, “Finding Time to Write,” Nieman Reports, Spring 2002)

Summary of A Prayer for the Dying:

When his town's sleepy summer tranquility is shattered by an outbreak of diphtheria, Jacob Hansen--constable, deacon, and undertaker--stares at an impossible dilemma: save both himself and his family or observe his many duties? Although he's nearly convinced that it's possible to do both, the inexorable and crushing horror of Stewart O'Nan's fifth novel, A Prayer for the Dying, is that evil doesn't flinch, that its insistence can obliterate goodness, corrupt humility. "When won't faith save you?" Jacob wonders; the silence soon deafens him.

An ostensibly inured Civil War veteran, Jacob watches helplessly as his neighbors in tiny Friendship, Wisconsin [a real place located in the southeastern region of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis.], are stricken with disease: simply hearing a mother say of her daughter, "She's sick," becomes chilling. Yet even as his wife and baby fall ill, Jacob patiently, dutifully tends to the helpless and buries the dead. When panic erupts, however, and he grapples with the tragedies accumulating before him, he feels the prick of spiritual doubt, even succumbs to violence. "Is this the devil's work?" Jacob asks as he struggles to discern the good in a world without order, watches those he serves turn against him, and disregards his own moral outrage. (From the Amazon review)

Excerpt from A Prayer for the Dying.

Not that you mind earning your money, but when folks have need of you it’s someone’s misfortune one way or the other. The undertaking’s easy; being a constable is hard. When you put them together I can be too much, though that’s only happened once since you’ve been back. And you got through that fine, did the Soderholms proud. With his head cocked on the pillow and his hair combed just so, you couldn’t see where his brother conked him, and Eric, for his part, went easy, even came to the funeral in irons and his Sunday suit. You led him up to the casket for his last respects.

“I didn’t mean it so hard,” he said, not really sorry, still mad at him.

It was about a dog. Arnie threw it in the river above the mill dam to see if it would drown. It didn’t but by then it was too late to save either of the Soderholm brothers. It was just a plain rock, you picked it up in one hand, weighed it like an egg….

Writing assignment inspired by A Prayer for the Dying.

Write a paragraph or two in which you show a character dealing with the tension created by having to hold multiple occupations:

a. A local politician who also serves as the town’s only school bus driver
b. An award-winning poet who also works as a plumber to make ends meet.
c. A watercolor artist who also happens to be a crime scene photographer.
d. Make up your own! Why do I have to do all the work?

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