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What It's Like To Be An Elderly Widow, All 'Alone'

Stewart O'Nan's moodily comic novel, Emily, Alone, follows an 80-year-old woman as she navigates the minutia of everyday life. O'Nan explains how he got inside Emily's head -- and why he wanted to write about the daily indignities of getting older.


Other segments from the episode on May 5, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 5, 2011: Interview with Pete Hamill; Interview with Stewart O'Nan; Review of the films "Fast Five," 13 Assassins," and "Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Pete Hamill Revisits The Newsroom In 'Tabloid City'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in today for Terry Gross.

My guest, Pete Hamill, is a veteran journalist and author who's written
20 books of fiction and nonfiction, including his 1994 memoir, "A
Drinking Life." He's traveled the world and covered war, politics and
celebrities for many publications, including The Saturday Evening Post,
the Village Voice, the New Yorker and Esquire.

But many New Yorkers remember Hamill as a columnist for the New York
Post and the New York Daily News in the heyday of tabloid journalism.
Hamill edited both papers in the 1990s. He's now a distinguished writer
in residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York

A New York tabloid struggling to survive in a digital age serves as part
of the setting for his new novel, a murder mystery called "Tabloid
City." I spoke with Pete Hamill earlier this week.

Well, Pete Hamill, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's begin with a reading from
the book. Your book, "Tabloid City" is in part about a New York City
tabloid struggling in the digital age, and there's an editor, Sam
Briscoe, and the part I wanted you to read was when he's describing one
of the characters, one of the veteran characters in the newsroom, if you
would, please.

Mr. PETE HAMILL (Author, "Tabloid City: A Novel"): (Reading) He turns
and sees Helen Loomis three empty desks to the right of Fonseca, the
youngest reporter. Briscoe has known her since each of them had brown
hair. She was shy then too, and what some fools called homely, long-
jawed, gray-eyed, bony.

Down at the old Post she sat each night with her back to the river,
smoking and typing, taking notes from street reporters and interviewing
cops on the phone, her dark pageboy bobbing in a private rhythm. She was
flanked by good people, true professionals, but most of them knew that
she was the best damned rewrite man any of them would ever know.

Later, the language cops tried to change the title to rewrite person,
butt didn't work. The rhythm was wrong. Too many syllables. Even Helen
Loomis described herself, with an ironic smile, as a rewrite man.

In her crisp, quick way, she could write anything in the newspaper,
finding the music in the pile of notes from beat reporters, the clips
from the morning papers, files from the Associated Press, and yellowing
clips from the library.

She was the master of the second-day lede, so essential to an afternoon
paper, and she often found it buried in the 13th graph of the Times
story, or in the jump of the tale in the Herald-Tribune, or, more often,
in her own sense of the story itself.

When her questions were not answered and the reporter had gone home, she
made some calls herself, to a cop, a relative, someone in a corner bar
she found in the phone company's immense old street index. Her shyness
never stopped her, even when she was calling someone at 10 after three
in the morning.

She was always courteous, she always apologized for the hour, but she
worked for an afternoon newspaper. That is, she worked according to a
clock that began ticking at midnight and finished at eight. Now,
everything has changed, even the hours.

DAVIES: Pete Hamill, great to have you. When I hear that description - I
mean, I worked at a tabloid in Philadelphia for 20 years - there's a
woman at our newsroom that I picture.

You know, for a lot of folks in parts of the country that don't read
tabloids, that grew up reading a more traditional broadsheet, they may
think of tabloids as, you know, cheap, sensational, kind of
disreputable. What are they missing about a tabloid?

Mr. HAMILL: Well, it depends on the tabloid. You know, you first make
distinctions between supermarket tabloids, which are celebrity roundups,
basically, and the old tabloids.

On the paper that I worked at, at the beginning, the New York Post, we
had Murray Kempton, who wrote like an 18th-century Restoration
dramatist. We had Nora Ephron, who was a brilliant writer when she was a
kid, walking into the city room. We had Mary McGrory in the paper. We
had William F. Buckley in the paper.

These were not people who thought the audience was stupid. They thought
the audience was smart, and they wrote up to the audience instead of
down. And I think that's the kind of paper that's rapidly fading, mainly
because a lot of editors are afraid of offending anyone, and the result
is often a bland kind of porridge.

DAVIES: One of the things I love about your description of this tabloid,
which is set in the present day, when, you know, digital media
threatened it, are the little details that tell you how the business has
changed. Did you visit tabloids that are struggling these days, or was
that all intuitive to you? What were some of the details that you saw
that really told that story?

Mr. HAMILL: Well, the first thing, which I note in reading about Helen
Loomis, the rewrite man, nobody smokes. You're not allowed to. In my
day, people smoked all the time. There was a blue nicotine fog in most
of the city rooms, and people often put out cigarettes on the floor.
That is gone forever, I think.

I also see, because of the digital access, a lot of people used to come
into the city room, for example photographers. Photographers know a lot
about the city. And you're a fool not to draw on them as a resource if
you're writing about the city.

Now they can send their photos in from the trunk of their cars. They
don't have to come in and develop film and look at it and watch it
develop in the developer. There's a different process going on.

City rooms also are quieter now. They used to have a hammering sound
when deadline came, where people assaulting typewriters trying to make
the deadline, which is four minutes away, and then they would come to
the end, cut-a-buh-bak-it-tuh-baka-da-baka-da-bop(ph), and that would be
it. It would go silence. It was too late for anything else.

More often than not, the sound of a city room now is - resembles an
insurance company or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMILL: It's not that old-raucous, bawdy, yelling-over-somebody, the
obscenities, the casual bad language, the urgency of people's speech.

You know, the new technology is not noisy. You don't hear the printing
guys now one floor down banging away on lead type on the stone, as they
used to call it, to make it fit. But I think the passion is still there.
I think people work on newspapers not to get rich, God knows, but
because they believe in the craft.

DAVIES: And of course, this newsroom, like so many, has lots of empty
desks. You've got a situation where the editor is disappointed in the
quality of the photo they have for a big story because they didn't have
a photographer, and the reporter snapped a shot with his iPhone.

Mr. HAMILL: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: And the other thing I loved was how the editor and a lot of the
old-timers in the newsroom don't even look at their own newspaper's

Mr. HAMILL: Yes. In the case of my editor, he doesn't even know much.
He's gone on it a couple of times with instruction from a different
generation and looks at it, goes hmm and then decides - and when he
decides not to accept the offer to become the head of the website, when
the publisher decides to fold the newspaper, he says: I can't. I'm a
newspaper man.

DAVIES: There's a guy in here, Freddy Wheeler(ph), who is a guy who was
fired from this tabloid and is now a celebrity blogger, works in his
one-bedroom apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, you know,
surrounded by his computer screens and caffeine and working with this
deep intensity and passion to get even with people who wronged him. Is
this somebody you know?

Mr. HAMILL: No, it's really more of a composite of a few people not that
I knew particularly but who some of the younger reporters remember. A
guy gets canned for - because there's no money left to pay him to write
another gossip column, and he goes off into a blog and decides vengeance
is mine, sayeth the lord.

There's other people like that around the Web. I mean, a lot of blogs
are, on one level, therapy for certain people. A lot of them are very
good and instructional from things that I've been cued into by others
saying take a look at this.

But journalism itself is a special kind of craft, and it demands
objectivity and clarity and the attempt to really answer questions
without taking positions on every single one of them, you know, because
in my years, I was a columnist.

And I was a columnist in a period of Kempton and Breslin and Mike Royko
and others, Jack McKinney and people like that in Philadelphia. And we
came from a tradition where we were paid to have opinions, but the
opinions were based on the reporting.

We had been there and looked at it, whether it was Vietnam, or Northern
Ireland, or the wrong part of town. And we had seen it and talked to
people and came up with something.

Now, there's - to me, there's too many columns that are just based on
reading The Washington Post that morning and not going anywhere, and
they have a different texture. It doesn't mean they're not good, but
they have a different sense, a different feel to them.

And I would hope that that would begin to change as this younger
generation really goes into a professional Internet, and we have
editing, and people get paid. It's not a hobby. And I think that day is
rapidly approaching.

DAVIES: Speaking with Pete Hamill. We'll talk more after a break. This

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is veteran journalist,
columnist and author Pete Hamill. His new book is called "Tabloid City."

You grew up in a working-class family in Brooklyn, the oldest of seven
kids, right? Both parents immigrated from Northern Ireland. And you
found reading at an early age and got a scholarship to the Regis High
School in Manhattan.

And then when you were a teenager, you dropped out and went to work in
the Brooklyn Navy Yard as an apprentice sheet-metal worker, right?

Mr. HAMILL: That's right.

DAVIES: Yeah. What did you think you were going to do with your life

Mr. HAMILL: You know, I didn't know. In that neighborhood, a lot of the
guys that came back from the war, they just wanted to marry the girl
they left behind and go off somewhere that was not a tenement. So they
took the housing benefits from the GI Bill.

My generation, the GI Bill changed everything. It was the greatest piece
of social legislation ever. So you were able to dream of alternatives. I
don't know what I might have been. I might have been a cartoonist or a
painter or an archaeologist or a cop or a fireman.

I don't know because I didn't shape a real ambition until I did the
dumbest thing of my life, which was dropping out of high school. But
dropping out of high school even then, it broke my mother's heart
because she knew that the only way out of certain kinds of poverty were
- was through education.

But that was also, in a weird way, the thing that gave me my life
because I was never satisfied. I had to keep learning every day of my
life. Reading helped me to that because I grew up before television,
when for entertainment you read books.

So for the rest of my life, I played catch-up ball. Being a journalist
was the graduate school from which you never graduate.

But last year, finally, 59 years after dropping out, Regis High School,
my high school, gave me an honorary diploma. And it was the - I got it
after I had received several honorary Ph.D.s, too, by the way, because
the Jesuits are slow at this stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMILL: You know, they believe purgatory should be prolonged.

DAVIES: Right. Regis was a Jesuit high school, right.

Mr. HAMILL: It was a Jesuit high school.

DAVIES: So you took this interesting course. I mean, you drew, and you
were interested in art and talked your way into a reporting job at the
New York Post. And you got real good at it, and you became a columnist
and did all kinds of things.

You were in Europe for the Saturday Evening Post, right?

Mr. HAMILL: Yep.

DAVIES: You wrote about sports, about movies, and you eventually
reported from Vietnam. At some point you decided to start writing
fiction. You set aside the typewriter and, at least at first, wrote in

Mr. HAMILL: No, I learned that. I had two tricks to try to get
journalism out of my skull. One was the nap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMILL: The creative uses of the nap are very much underrated. If I
would lie down, think about the story I wanted to - the fictional story
I wanted to write and passed out, the subconscious would help me make
the choices of what I was going to write. So I had energy when I woke
up, and I had forgot about the newspaper work that I had done that day.

And at the beginning, when I was writing fiction, too much of the
newspaper style was getting into the prose. So I thought: Gee, I should
write - maybe let me try writing longhand. Maybe I can tap something
that goes back to the point before I could type, which I learned in the

So that's what I did, and that's what I do now when I'm writing fiction.
I'll write five or six pages in longhand on a yellow pad and then take
it to the computer and type it out, which gives me a second draft right
away. And then if there's momentum from that, it gives me another four
or five pages, and on I go.

I couldn't imagine writing a whole novel out in longhand and then
handing it to some secretary. That wouldn't be fun.

DAVIES: We learned when you wrote your memoir, "A Drinking Life," in
1994, that you had been drinking pretty heavily and actually had quit, I
guess, when you were 37, 38 years old, just decided you were going to

Mr. HAMILL: Right.

DAVIES: You were, by any measure, a very productive writer during your
drinking years. What do you think it took away from you?

Mr. HAMILL: It took - I was a very prolific journalist because I could
always squeeze enough out of my talent to get a newspaper piece done.
What it took away from me was the courage to test the extent of whatever
my talent was.

The other thing that drinking did to me was attack one of the absolute
necessities of a writer, and that's memory. I'd say: Jeez, I had a great
time last night. What fun. I couldn't remember a minute of it. And that
was obviously not a good thing for a writer.

There were other reasons, too. I had custody of my two daughters, and I
didn't want to be a complete dumbbell in front of them. But from the
professional and personal standpoint, a lot of it was about trying to
find out what was there as a writer because my ambition was not to be
better than Faulkner or Hemingway or anything like that. It was to be
the best version of myself that I could conceivably be in the time I had
on the planet.

DAVIES: You know, so many people know that they shouldn't drink or
should drink less and struggle for years and years and go to AA meetings
and fall off the wagon. You took your last drink New Year's Eve 1972,

Mr. HAMILL: Right.

DAVIES: Why do you think you were able to just do it?

Mr. HAMILL: I think sobriety became a habit just like anything else,
which means that it probably was not something that I had to do. My
father was a hard drinker, as "A Drinking Life" talks about, and a lot
of my friends were, and I was in the Navy. You know, the idea of an
ascetic sailor is pretty ridiculous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMILL: But - and then I was in the newspaper business, where there
was a lot of drinking leftover from Prohibition days. After the first
couple of years were over, it never occurred to me again.

I go into bars, and I meet friends there, but they're used to it. It's
my weirdness. You see, he has a Diet Coke or something. Well, how the
hell can he do that? And of course, there's fewer and fewer saloons that
I want to ever go visit anymore, either.

DAVIES: They're not smoking at the tabloids, and Hamill isn't drinking
in the bars. What has the world come to?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMILL: Well, I had - and I acknowledge in the book that I had a
great, good time in them and that I learned a lot, particularly from
older newspaper men, in saloons. But at a certain point, it was the
classic point of no return.

When I sobered up, I realized I'd heard the same joke four times that
same night, as they raced around the bar. So - and meanwhile, I was much
deeper into trying to find out where the writing was going to go, and
that became the most important thing in my life.

DAVIES: Well, Pete Hamill, it's been great. Thanks so much for speaking
with us.

Mr. HAMILL: Thank you.

DAVIES: Pete Hamill's new novel is called "Tabloid City." You can read
an excerpt at our website, I'm Dave Davies, and this
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
What It's Like To Be An Elderly Widow, All 'Alone'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Our guest, writer Stewart O'Nan, is known for his bestselling novel
"Last Night at the Lobster," about the final shift at a Red Lobster
restaurant that's being shut down by headquarters. Our book critic
Maureen Corrigan described it as the best story she's ever read about
the meaning of even commonplace work in people's lives.

Maureen described O'Nan's new novel "Emily, Alone" as a moody, lightly
comic and absolutely captivating rendering of that most un-sensational
of subjects: widowhood and old age.

The main character, Emily Maxwell, was introduced in O'Nan's 2002 novel
"Wish You Were Here," which was set at a family reunion a year after the
death of Emily's husband, Henry. "Emily Alone" takes place 10 years
later when she's 80 and thinks there isn't much that remains of her

She doesn't get out often, but Tuesdays she goes with her sister-in-law
Arlene to the Eden Park with her two-for-one breakfast buffet coupon
from the Saturday paper.

Stewart O'Nan spoke with Terry Gross. They began with a reading from the
beginning of the book when Emily and Arlene are on their way to their
Tuesday breakfast. Arlene is driving. Emily thinks Arlene's driving is
atrocious but trusts herself even less.

Mr. STEWART O'NAN (Author, "Emily, Alone"): (Reading) Henry had always
done the driving in the family; it was a point of pride with him. When
he was dying, he insisted on driving to the hospital for his chemo
himself. It was only on the way home with Henry, sick and silent beside
her, bent over a plastic bowl in his lap, that Emily piloted his massive
Olds down the corkscrewing ramps of the medical center's parking garage,
terrified she'd scrape the side against the scarred concrete walls.

For several years, she used the old boat to do her solitary errands,
never venturing outside of the triangle described by the bank, the
library and the giant eagle. But after a run-in with a fire hydrant,
followed quickly by another with a Duquesne Light truck, she admitted -
bitterly, since it went against her innate thriftiness - that maybe
taking taxis was the better part of valor.

Now the Olds sat out back in the garage with her rusty golf clubs, as if
decommissioned, the windshield dusty, the tires soft. She wasn't a fan
of the bus and Arlene had made a standing offer of her Taurus, itself a
boxy, if less grand antique.

GROSS: That's Stewart O'Nan reading from the beginning of his new novel
"Emily, Alone." Why did you want to write about this 80-year-old widow?
It's neither your generation nor your gender.

Mr. O'NAN: Well, I first met Emily about 10 years ago. She sort of
sprang up in the middle of this very strange bad horror novel that I was
writing, and immediately I found her fascinating and sort of just
jettisoned the horror novel and follow. And when I first met the Maxwell
family I became fascinated in all of them, not just Emily.

And so that first book, "Wish You Were Here," which is I guess you'd
call it a prequel to this one, sort of sprawled. It was very large and
kind of Tolstoyian. But I knew that I had unfinished business with Emily
and when I came back to her I realized that I wanted to do a story about
her and her alone without any distractions and go deeper into her life.
How has she become the person that we first met in "Wish You Were Here"
and how have things changed since then.

GROSS: I remember when I was young and my upstairs neighbor's husband
died. She was probably around 50. This was so upsetting to me, not just
because she and her husband had been very close, but because now she'd
have to carry on without him. This was in the 19 - like early 1960s
probably and I thought that here's a woman whose life was over.

She had no future because in my neighborhood all the women were married.
Divorce was a rarity. Most of the women didn't work. Their lives
centered around their husband and children and no matter how awful the
marriage was, women had no place in the world without a husband. At
least, you know, with a husband you had a place, without one you were
just unmoored. There is no place for you.

You know, Emily is kind of of the same generation. I was wondering if
you were thinking about that.

Mr. O'NAN: I was thinking a lot about living alone. 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 days? Where do you find this sort of the hope and
the faith to endure getting through the days? And what are your days
like? And for Emily that was a mystery to me because, you know, I'm
married. I have children. I have sort of a very sort of active family
life. And now here's a person living alone. How does she do it?

GROSS: Well, it's not just living alone. It's living alone at the age of
80. Living alone at the age of 25 is really different.

Mr. O'NAN: Very true. And in this case, Emily is the last of the people
in her neighborhood from the old set and so she has no sort of friends
there. The only person that she has is Arlene and she and Arlene don't
always get along.

GROSS: Emily is living in a really shrinking world, as a lot of older
people do because she's not very mobile anymore. She's having trouble
navigating her husband's old Oldsmobile, which is huge. It's winter and
winter is dangerous if you are 80, and it's up north and it's slippery
and cold, so she doesn't get out much, she doesn't see many people. Her
neighborhood is becoming less familiar as it changes over time, so it's
a shrinking world, which you write about in great detail.

I just want to give an example of the kind of detail that you give in
your novel and this is, you know, Arlene, Emily's sister-in-law, is
picking up Emily so that they can go for this two-for-one breakfast. So
Arlene hadn't pulled up enough and Emily had to deal with the
treacherous slope of lawn and drop-off curve while battling the
passenger door. The reek of cigarettes that rose from the upholstery was
immediate as if Arlene had just finished one. Emily shook her umbrella
before pulling it in after her, and still she dripped all over her coat.

I think that's great. You know, it shows like the dangers of like a
curb, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like how things that you might take for granted become really
like hazardous when you're 80 and it's winter up north. And then even
that sense of how she shook her umbrella before pulling in after and she
dripped all over her coat. That happened to me just the other day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I hate it when that happens. So I mean, I just like, you know,
there's so much in the details that you put in there. Can you tell us
what goes into a paragraph like that?

Mr. O'NAN: Mainly, it's trying to sort of envision, you know, what
Emily's doing and what Emily's thinking there. I like to get close to
the characters. I like to get very intimate with them, because that's
what I like as a reader. When I can be intimate with a character I think
it brings me closer to my own life as well. It makes me think about
what's important to me and the people closest to me. Even though Emily's
days aren't terribly eventful, there is still a lot going on within her.

GROSS: There are health issues that come up in the book and 80 is a
really precarious time when something small can become something big
really quickly, when a sore throat can lead to pneumonia, when a short
fainting spell can be low blood pressure or it could be a stroke. Like,
everything has such potential danger attached to it. Did you think about
that a lot while writing the book?

Mr. O'NAN: Oh certainly, certainly. And how Emily resents that. Emily
resents being seen as fragile. All the women in her group at the club
there, I mean they all begin to sort of talk about the falls and the
terrible things that have happened to the people in their circle as if
they might be next. And Emily really, really hates that even while she
acknowledges that it maybe true.

GROSS: She thinks a lot about the past and says that memories plague her
like migraines because the past has been replaced by the diminished
present. There's always this fear that you're going to want to live in
the past when you get old, but there's also a fear that you won't
remember the past, you won't remember anything...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...when you get old. What role did you want memory to play in her

Mr. O'NAN: Well, it's - the memory is double-edged in that it soothes
us. It reminds us of all the great and good things. But it also nettles
a lot, because some of our memories is as Emily's memories are, of the
shameful moments in her life, when she failed other people. So the
question of does memory help us or does memory hurt us, because it's
always in play because this is essentially a memory book. It's her whole
life. It's not just these seasons that she goes through in Pittsburgh.
But she's trying to come to terms with her entire life.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Stewart O'Nan.
He's the author of the bestseller "Last Night at the Lobster." His new
book is called "Emily, Alone." Let's take a short break here, then we'll
talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Stewart O'Nan.
He's the author of the bestseller "Last Night at the Lobster." His new
novel is called "Emily, Alone."

Now the character of Emily first came to you when you were writing a
horror novel which you abandoned to write about Emily and her family.
What was the horror novel?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'NAN: The horror novel was called "The Ghost Ship." And originally,
it was going to be about a dark ride at an amusement park up on the
coast of Lake Erie that 50 years ago had a terrible fire and people were
killed, blah, blah, blah, and that 50 years later they were going to
sort of re-open this particular ride using pieces of the old ride, which
were wanted because they had come from a slave ship and...

Oh, it was just, no, it was goofy and silly and there was sort of a
meta-fictional frame to it as well in which the author of this
particular horror novel was writing it because he wanted to write the
great African-American horror novel because there hadn't been one
written and there needed to be one written.

And so - and I did all the research and I found all sorts of amazing
stuff because Cedar Point, which is what I was basing it on, actually
they had across the bay in Sandusky there was a graveyard of Confederate
officers there who had died of typhoid in some terrible prison camp
right up there. And also right there Sandusky where Cedar Point is was
sort of a stop, a last stop on the Underground Railroad.

So all these things sort of were fitting in place but I just couldn't
maintain interest in it and I began to write a novel about the big
amusement park in the small town. And then I began to write about the
kid in the small town. Then I began to write a book about this girl who
goes missing in the small town and that later had turned into "Songs for
the Missing," but I couldn't get into it at that point.

And so I started writing about the sheriff who's driving around town and
I don't know exactly what he was doing. And at one point this woman in a
station wagon drove by and she was on her way to this little lake house
where she was going to spend the very last week ever at the family lake
house before she sold it and that was Emily. And I became very
interested in her and once I got her to the lake house I became very
interested in everybody in the family and the books had opened up and I
became fascinated with everything and I forgot all about the horror

GROSS: I don't think I could endure what you just described, starting
book after book after book...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...and abandoning it. How discouraging is that?

Mr. O'NAN: That's the process though. And what's great is, you know,
something will come up that grabs your interest and that takes your
interest away and you're not sure exactly why you're interested in this
person, in this character to begin with what you say huh, I wonder what
they've got going on so you follow them for a while and then you realize
wow, they've got a lot going on in their lives.

And sometimes it's a very, a character that you would never have thought
you would be kind of, you know, this is an interesting character for a
novel. Sometimes it's, you know, it's like Manny in "Last Night at the
Lobster," it's a guy running a Red Lobster for the last night. I mean
who would write about that? It doesn't sound like a, you know, a subject
for a novel.

And yet when you look deeply into what the characters have going on you
realize these are like a really big, big stories. They may seem to come
from small places but they're really big stories that are shared by
millions and millions of people. And that's the excitement. That's when
you know you've got something because you say wow, here's a story
nobody's told yet.

GROSS: It seems like you think of your characters as actually existing,
as having lives that you will discover. I don't have characters like
that in my head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Which is among the many I am not a novelist. But, can you give us
a sense of how they appear in your mind, how they appear in your life?

Mr. O'NAN: Well, they seem to appear early as just fleeting. Almost as
not quite ideas but people that you don't know, strangers, people that
you might see passing on the street. And then you get a chance to get
closer to them because the more you think about them and give them a
backstory and give them a kind of language, you know, what words would
they use that you wouldn't use? What attitudes do they have that you
don't have? What do they love? Who are the people closest to them?

And as you get all 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.

I mean, I'm 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, you know, the
rest of the time, I try to stay in that character and see the world the
way that character would, because I need to be energized so that things
in the world will sort of stick to that character that I then can take
from in this world and put them into the world of the book where they'll
make sense. It's almost like method acting in a way - keeping the
character close the way the actor keeps say, the script close and always
tries to be in character. And it's a trick.

I mean I know that Emily doesn't exist and yet I've told myself, you
know, for 10 years now that she does. And when you're working in third
person, there's a nice split. There's a nice disassociation between you
and the character.

When you're working in first person and you're doing that, sometimes you
get too close and you sort of fall into the character. And then things
get a little weird, which is why I probably haven't written anything in
first or second person since "Speed Queen" and "A Prayer for the Dying,"
because both of those turned out to be very bizarre books that kind of
don't seem to me the product of a sane mind.

GROSS: Now since Emily started her origins - to this horror novel that
you abandoned, I would bring up here that you're a friend of Steven
King's, and that she collaborated on a book together about your love for
the Red Sox. So how did you get to know him?

Mr. O'NAN: Well, I wrote a zany...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'NAN: I don't know what you call this book - a gallows broadside. I
wrote this book about a woman who was about to be executed for her part
in a spree killing at a Sonic restaurant out 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. And so Stephen
King sends her a questionnaire about her life and the spree killings and
all that, 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.

And I called the book "Dear Stephen King," and his lawyers were not
really happy about all that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'NAN: And so we had a little correspondence, you know, author to
author, about it, and we discovered that we loved, you know, so many of
the same things. We were crazy about people like Ray Bradbury and
Shirley Jackson and Flannery O'Connor and Charles Beaumont, Richard
Matheson, all of the sort of cheesy horror films from the '50s and '60s
- of course, rock 'n roll. So we just clicked there.

And one day, I got a phone call and he said, you know, hey, you know,
Stew, do you want to go and see the Red Sox? And I was like, hey, that
sounds like a good deal to me. Going to see the Red Sox with Stephen
King. This is all right.

And, you know, we went to the game, and sometimes when you have a long-
distance relationship with somebody and you finally get together in
person, it doesn't click. In this case, everything clicked, and we just
had a great, great time. And so ever since then, you know, we've been
going to games together, and decided to do this book in the spring of
2004. And it just so happened that they won the World Series that year
for the first time in 86 years - so just crazy, dumb luck. And now he
reads all my stuff, and he's a great, great help.

GROSS: Now, you didn't set out to be a writer, did you?

Mr. O'NAN: No. No. At first, I was an engineer. I was trained as an
aerospace engineer and worked in the business as a mechanical engineer.

GROSS: So why did you want to do that?

Mr. O'NAN: Well, you know, growing up in the '60s and early '70s, with
all the space flight and the Apollo program, I always loved planes. I
always loved rockets. I always loved space travel, and I was very, very
good in math. And it seemed to kind of make sense, there. My father was
an engineer. His father was an engineer. My mother's dad was an
architect, rather self-taught. It seemed the right thing to do, and I
was, you know, I was happy with it, and it was a really good job, too.

But for some reason, I'm not quite sure why, I would come home after
work and go to my basement and write short stories. I've always been a
big reader. And Saul Bellow said that a writer is a reader who's moved
to emulation, which I think is true, because I didn't have any plans,
really, on being a writer. I just started writing one, and just made
that jump from reader to writer, there, and learned how hard it was, but
also, you know, how much fun it was, sort of losing myself in these
imaginary worlds and hanging out with these characters.

I mean, the next day you go back, they're still there, and you sort of
enter that world again. So it's just kind of an interesting way of sort
of living in two worlds at once.

GROSS: Well, one of the things you did as part of the transition is he
went back to college and studied writing. Was it a huge leap to jump
from the world of a probably well-paid job in the aerospace world with
benefits to going back to being a student and then facing a writing
career where few people are well compensated?

Mr. O'NAN: It was a huge jump just culturally, in that when I was at
Grumman Aerospace on the shop floor there, I was probably the youngest
and most liberal person there. And when I moved to Cornell, I mean, it
was a matter of a couple weeks, the transition. I came to Cornell. I was
the oldest person and the most conservative person here.

So it gave me sort of, you know, two sets of double consciousness. But,
yeah, I mean, we, you know, after five years out of the industry, we
were basically broke and, you know, just hadn't published anything. We
were just sort of, you know, hoping things would go well. And I've
gotten a lot of breaks, a lot of breaks that have, you know, sort of,
you know, sort of helped me out - not the least of which was, you know,
the Red Sox winning the World Series.

GROSS: Well, Stewart O'Nan, I want to thank you so much for talking with

Mr. O'NAN: Well, thank you so much.

DAVIES: Stewart O'Nan speaking with Terry Gross. O'Nan's new novel is
"Emily, Alone." You can read an excerpt on our website:

Coming up, David Edelstein on three new action films with dazzling
special effects, all from Asian-born directors.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Three New Action Movies Battle At The Box Office


"Fast Five," starring Paul Walker and Vin Diesel, opened big over the
weekend, grossing more than $83 million. It's the fifth in "The Fast and
the Furious" series, and is directed by Taiwanese-born Justin Lin. Two
other action movies now in theaters - "Legend of the Fist" and "13
Assassins" - are also made by Asian-born directors.

Our film critic David Edelstein says these films show that art and rock
'em sock, 'em crash-and-burn are not mutually exclusive.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Andrew Lau's "Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen
Zhen" stars Donnie Yen as a fictional martial-arts Chinese hero, played
at times by both Bruce Lee and Jet Li. But this isn't another disposable
B movie. Lau made "Infernal Affairs," which was superior in every way to
its Americanization, "The Departed," and he grounds his action in
historical traumas, in a legacy of oppression.

Here, Chen Zhen goes to battle for his countrymen, first, when they're
used as cannon fodder by Allied troops in World War I, then when they're
terrorized by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1925 Shanghai.

The prologue is stupendous: Yen zigzags over battlefield debris, dodging
bullets and then somersaults into a nest of German snipers. Kawabunga.
But when the film shifts to the swank Club Casablanca in Shanghai and
Yen makes like Bogie and also becomes a masked superhero, there's too
much lustrous-hued loitering and too few sustained martial-arts set

Moving to Japan, "13 Assassins" is a classical period epic in the "Seven
Samurai" mode, directed by, surprisingly, Takashi Miike, best known for
his yucky, transgressive horror films.

The solemn first half centers on the assembly of a team to kill the
shogun's psychotically cruel half-brother. And that's not an easy
decision for samurai in a culture with no tradition of taking the law
into one's own hands. Plus, they'll be outnumbered by a factor of 10 -
or maybe 20 - by a lot. But these are men who live to die well.

In the second half, the band of 13 traps the half-brother's army in an
evacuated village, which our heroes proceed to demolish, and the mixture
of bloodletting and exultation would make Sam Peckinpah sit up in his
grave and howl with joy.

Taiwan-born Justin Lin's "Fast Five" is the one that really rocks. It's
the fifth in the Hollywood series that began with "The Fast and the
Furious," and I must confess to having missed two, three and four. But I
heard rumblings five was something special and yowza, is it ever. For
one thing, it's only one part muscle-car movie. The other part is a
caper flick in the style of "Ocean's 11."

It's also easier to get oriented if you know the back story. Paul Walker
was previously an undercover cop, trying to get the goods on Vin Diesel
and his gang of car thieves/fetishists. But then Walker decided Diesel
was A-OK, and also fell for his sister, Jordana Brewster. And by the
time we get to part five, he's helping break Diesel out of prison and
high-tailing it to Brazil.

That's when they bump heads with a murderous Brazilian crime lord and
assemble a team to steal his dirty money. You've got to love Diesel's
basso profundo pur.

(Soundbite of movie, "Fast Five")

Unidentified Man #1: So what's this all about, Dom?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, man. Why'd you drag us halfway around the

Mr. VIN DIESEL (Actor): (as Dominic) 'Cause we got a job.

Unidentified Man #3: All right. So our target's name is Herndon Reyes,
and he runs the drug scene down here. And he's never been busted,
because he doesn't leave a paper trail.

Unidentified Woman: No paper trail means no bags. No bags means

Unidentified Man #3: That's right. Ten of them, to be exact, spread
throughout the city.

Mr. DIESEL: (as Dominic) And we're going to hit them all.

Unidentified Man #2: That sounds crazy. Bring us to a whole other
country so we can rob the dude who runs it? I thought this was business.
Sounds personal to me. Is that what this is? I got love for y'all, but
personal and good business. I can't do this, homie.

Mr. DIESEL: (as Dominic) So what we're talking about is $100 million.

Unidentified Man #2: You say what?

EDELSTEIN: There's a ton of plot and crisscrossing characters, but "Fast
Five" is really an exercise in kinetics - in cars that scream around
corners and up and down the streets of Rio's vertical slums and stunts
so amazing, they seem to bend time and space without the evident aid of

I saw the movie in IMAX, which I strongly recommend if you have anti-
nausea pills, the better to savor the low-angle shots of these amazing
specimens, male and female, behind the wheel as the scenery flies by -
so much tanned flesh and swollen pectorals and long legs and big, shaved
noggins. When bald Diesel faces up to a U.S. agent played by bald Dwayne
Johnson - aka The Rock, who has biceps wider than his head - you might
think you're having a testosterone-induced drug hallucination. It's
meathead-movie bliss.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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