City of Secrets: Stewart O’Nan Navigates Post-War Jerusalem

City of Secrets

City of Secrets

When I began City of Secrets, all I knew about my hero, Brand, was that he’d survived the death camps and somehow come to Jerusalem and fallen in with the Haganah, the most moderate branch of the Jewish resistance. Like many survivors, he was there illegally, using false papers provided by the underground. He needed a job, so I asked myself, what kind of jobs do recent immigrants get, especially ones who don’t speak the native language? My first thought, having just been in Paris and New York, was: taxi driver.

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The Inspiration Behind West of Sunset

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As with most of my books, I came to write West of Sunset in a roundabout way. I was researching a nonfiction project, and while I was paging through a history of Golden Age Hollywood, I came across a mention of Fitzgerald’s time as a screenwriter. An abject failure, it said. A waste.

I’d known from the old biographies that at the end of his life Fitzgerald was broke and drunk much of the time, in poor health, his books fallen out of print, and had traveled west to make some money, but I had no idea that he’d worked on Gone With the Wind and shared a hallway at MGM with Dorothy Parker, Aldous Huxley and James M. Cain. He took a villa at the Garden of Allah and fell in love, wrote dozens of short stories and started The Last Tycoon, unfinished yet still regarded as one of the great Hollywood novels. And throughout he was flying back east to take strange, supposedly therapeutic family vacations with Zelda, furloughed from her sanitarium, and their daughter Scottie, off at a pricey boarding school.

Despite our view of him as a literary giant and dashing Gatsby, Fitzgerald was an outsider–a poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at private school, a Midwesterner in the East, an Easterner in the West. I’d thought of him in Hollywood as a legendary figure in a legendary place, yet the more I read, the more he struck me as someone with limited resources trying to hold together a world that’s flying apart, if not gone already. Someone who keeps working and hoping, knowing it might not be enough. And I thought: that’s who you write about.

How does it feel to be you? Unknowable, of course, but fiction, better than any other medium, comes closest to satisfying our curiosity. I hope West of Sunset brings readers closer to Scott, and that they enjoy their time with him and Bogie and Dottie and Scottie and Zelda. I did, and I wish I were still there with them. Salinger was right. Once you’re done telling a story, you start missing everybody.

– Stewart O’Nan

Emily in Kansas City Star’s Top 100; Essay in NPR Books

Emily, Alone was also named as one of the Star’s Top 100 Books of 2011:

In a sequel to “Wish You Were Here” (2003), O’Nan wonderfully captures hope and sadness as the aged Emily searches for meaning after her husband passes away.

[the full list]

 And in case you missed it, NPR Books is featuring an essay by Stewart:

Ode To The Dead: In Remembrance Of Characters Past

I first heard of Christie Hodgen way back in 2001, when I was a judge for the National Endowment for the Arts. Her story of a younger sister dealing with a troubled, possibly mentally ill brother flat knocked me out. The other judges on the panel agreed — here was a powerhouse writer. I felt privileged to read her work before the rest of the world, so why did it take me so long to discover her second novel, Elegies for the Brokenhearted, which came out last summer?

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Dreaming of Pittsburgh

pittold On the eve of the G-20 summit, a native son finds a city moving toward the future but longing for its past.

When President Obama announced that Pittsburgh would be the site of the upcoming G-20 summit, even Pittsburghers were surprised. Like a stunned and overcome beauty pageant winner, we honestly never dreamed we were in the running. pittnewSummits are held in international capitals like London or Helsinki, and while we understood that we weren’t the first choice—for some reason, New York was booked—we were still puzzled, and a little worried. Were we really big enough to handle a summit? And, far more important, how would the rest of the world see Pittsburgh?

[read more from the Wall Street Journal]

My Europe

I FIRST SET FOOT on European soil–if we include Britain as a European country, which most Americans don’t–when I was twenty-three years old.  I stayed a week, traveling around England and Scotland, visiting sites like Oxford and Coventry and Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-on-Avon, the castle of Mary Queen of Scots and Loch Ness and then Glen Coe, where my ancestors had been massacred.  I went to pubs and drank lots of beer and ate lots of awful food, I rented a car and drove in the wrong lane, and in general tried to soak up as much atmosphere as I could, like any tourist.  The book I was reading was George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, and I liked to believe it still had some significance, it had something to say about the England I was seeing.

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