A CONVERSATION WITH STEWART O’NAN
Q. At first glance, you wouldn’t seem to have all that much in common with Emily Maxwell, the widow in her late seventies who is the main character of Emily, Alone. How does a novelist go about thinking his way into the experiences and consciousness of someone so different from himself?
I share a great deal with Emily, in that, having previously written a six hundred-page novel about her and her family, I know the people closest to her extremely well. I also know her neighbors intimately, and her social circle, the little town she comes from, her parents, her sorority sisters, her old roommate Jocelyn. Much of it comes from my own family life, and much from just keeping my eyes open and taking notes, but some also comes from active research, location scouting, extensive interviews with people Emily’s age and in Emily’s situation. It all goes in, but finally it has to be strained through Emily’s sensibility, Emily’s feel for life, and that can only be felt or sensed. What, naturally, would Emily see, and what language would she use to describe it?
Q. Did you have a particular model or models for Emily?
When I did research for The Circus Fire, I did hundreds of interviews with survivors, most of whom were in their seventies and eighties. And when they invited me into their homes, they told me their stories not just about the fire but about their whole lives. That experience of looking back on life and appreciating where you are and how you got there comes from those survivors. In terms of personality, Emily shares much with my mother, my mother-in-law, my grandmothers, and my wife’s grandmother.