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Engineering background helps O'Nan as a fiction writer

Twenty years ago, Stewart O'Nan, M.F.A. '92, left a potentially lucrative career -- as a structural engineer for the aerospace industry -- to be a writer. He entered Cornell's M.F.A. program in fiction and has since become one of the Creative Writing Program's most commercially successful authors, with several best-selling fiction and nonfiction books.

Engineering gave him an appreciation for precision and a stylistic approach to his craft, he said at a Feb. 4 Literary Luncheon at the home of Professor Robin Davisson and President David Skorton.

"In terms of style, I was breaking things down into components and seeing how they work, and analyzing things -- where do they pause? How do they move?" said O'Nan, the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell.

At the luncheon, held on his 50th birthday, the author was serenaded by his audience before he read selections from three chapters of his forthcoming novel, "Emily, Alone," to be published March 17 by Viking. A sequel to his 2002 novel "Wish You Were Here," the book finds 80-year-old Emily Maxwell reflecting unsentimentally in her old age on her undependable family, her hometown and the friends and acquaintances she has lost, through a series of holidays -- Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day and the beginning of a summer trip to Chautauqua, N.Y.

In a question-and-answer session after the reading, Skorton told O'Nan,"Your sentences are beautiful, musical works of art, with flowing dependent clauses. Does it come naturally?"

O'Nan explained that "a lot of it is rewriting, and reading other writers. I had a seminar with Jim McConkey [professor of English emeritus] where we looked at Virginia Woolf intensely. Because I came from engineering, I didn't have a lot of writer friends. My first year here, my fellow students were pushing books on me and saying, 'You've gotta read this.'"

He said that the seed of an idea for "Emily, Alone" came from interviews during research for "The Circus Fire," his 2001 nonfiction book about a disaster that struck a Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance in Hartford, Conn., in 1944.

"I was talking to a lot of people in their 70s and 80s -- they talk about how things have changed," he said.

Then, he began working on what he called "a cheesy metafictional horror novel set in Cedar Point," the Ohio amusement park.

"I started writing that book, and at one point there was a character, a woman, driving around Sandusky, Ohio, on the way to a lake cottage to close it down," O'Nan said. "Then I started to follow her, and chucked the other project completely."

O'Nan has written 12 novels, including "A Prayer for the Dying" and "Snow Angels"; several plays and two nonfiction books. He collaborated with Stephen King on "Faithful" (2005), a best-selling account of the Boston Red Sox and their fans during the season the team won the World Series.

He will read in the Creative Writing Program/Department of English Reading Series, Feb. 17 at 4:30 p.m. in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall. The reading is free and open to the public.

Media Contact

Blaine Friedlander