Stewart O'Nan writes the kind of characters that stay with you. In his latest, The Odds, he brings us Art and Marion, a long-married couple visiting Niagara Falls ostensibly for a second honeymoon. They're on the verge of bankruptcy as well as divorce, but despite the baggage and old scars, their mutual affection is clear. Here, O'Nan tackles our questions about his realistic characters, the novel's structure, and some of his heroes.
Your novels tend to hinge on up-to-the-minute plotlines (e.g. home foreclosures and grim economic circumstances); do you see it as the duty of a novelist to try to define or even influence the way people see their own era?
I've been working with contemporary characters lately, in a generally realistic mode, so it's natural that I'm reflecting the world that readers know. I hope I'm taking them places and showing them people they otherwise wouldn't meet. It's a great privilege and responsibility, asking readers to focus on what I feel is important.
Where/how did you come up with the idea of opening each chapter with a statistic?
I didn't want to use chapter titles like I have in the last few novels, and I didn't want to just use numbers, so I tried to come up with something different. I thought of how I used questions as structural markers in The Speed Queen. In my notebooks I was collecting the odds on certain events, and this seemed like an opportunity to weave them into the novel. Then I saw how I could use them like the chapter subheadings in 18th century novels, leading the reader on or into scenes/sections by planting expectations. Then it was just a matter of matching the particular odds to what was going to happen.
Did you ever worry that readers would take a dislike to the female protagonist, Marion? She can be kind of prickly . . . though she clearly has her reasons.
If readers judge Marion harshly, that's their business. I think she's earned her bitterness. She wishes she could get rid of it, but at the same time she's still hurt—and will always be hurt—by what Art did.
What did it mean for you and/or for Art & Marion that their gambling honeymoons were set in Canada, rather than, say, Vegas?
Niagara Falls is so much more than a gambling destination. It's romance and wonder and history, old-timey quaintness and at the same time a kind of shabbiness. Plus you're crossing over to Canada, another country, though not truly a foreign one. So there's both a strangeness and a familiarity, also a return to the past.
Are your books generally sparked by an idea or by a character?
Usually I find a character or characters with a lot going on. I have to follow them a while to find out what's happening with them.
Among your novels so far, do you have a favorite character?
They're all my favorites, but there are some that never leave me, like Arthur in Snow Angels, Marjorie in The Speed Queen, Jacob in A Prayer for the Dying, Emily in Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone . . .
What part of writing a novel is the most difficult? and the most fun?
The most difficult part is starting—finding exactly which direction you want to take, and who you're going to follow. It's also the most fun, learning who your characters are, what they love, what they fear.
Who are your writing heroes?
William Maxwell, Alice Munro, John Gardner, Virginia Woolf—writers who care about their characters, no matter how strong or weak, how right or wrong they are.
What are you working on next?
I'm still deciding, but I'm getting excited about one possibility. I don't dare jinx it though. Sorry. Some things grow best in secret.
Read a review of The Odds.