Stewart O'Nan

Stewart O'Nan

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 4 1999 6:30 PM

Stewart O'Nan

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An exemplary day. Took two hours to fit together a chronological list of the dead so I could pinpoint exactly which (and how many) unidentified bodies were brought to the morgue from the hospitals. The sources contradicted each other and I ended up confusing myself before backtracking and coming up with my own pretty good list.

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So by 11 I had written nothing, just revised yesterday's chapter, fitting in this man who had been to both the morgue in Boston after the Cocoanut Grove fire and the State Armory after the circus fire. His great detail: how people who are searching for loved ones move slowly, as if they're walking through water. They're reluctant to approach the cots.

Shaped that chapter up by noon, throwing in two pages of interview material and fixing the sentences (lightly, lightly; there's no reason to strip them and polish them at this point, and I'm toying with just leaving them crunchy).

The new chapter proved to be quick and easy. I'd sequenced it last night, cut and pasting my notes on the missing children and highlighting the hospital material, including the mayor's visit.

It was all there in the notes. The reporter who wrote up the mayor's visit had a wonderful eye. They get on an elevator and a nurse rolls a gurney in with a little kid wrapped up like a mummy, his lips swollen twice normal size. He's wheezing unevenly. "He's going to be operated on now," the nurse explains. She wheels him off. The mayor stays on. When they get to the next floor, the mayor walks into a room just as a little girl dies. The hospital couldn't find her mother.

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Tough stuff. It's easy when that's your raw material. Next chapter I've got to deliver the prosecutors interrogating the circus management in the office of the business next to the circus lot, which just happens to make gravestones. The yard's filled with blanks.

Six pages today, all good--though you never know till later.

Rereading John Grisham's The Street Lawyer for the review is interesting. I was surprised to see how many scenes are Q&A. Since his plots are concerned with missing or privileged information (there's always a missing file), the gambit makes sense, but he relies on it throughout the book to release information to the reader. It's exposition in dialogue, which everyone uses, but this is on a grand scale. The effect is twofold. First, it makes the book faster, since dialogue is quicker than any other form of narration. Second, and less fun, is that it feels like exposition. It's akin to those moments in big bug movies when the pretty scientist in her lab coat explains the massive ants' weaknesses to the macho army guy.

"Then what can we use?"

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"The only thing that will stop them is electricity."

"And how do you propose we do that?"

"Those power lines by the railroad tracks, we could use the current from them."

"But how do we get the ants over there?"

The key to making the device interesting is delivering information that really is privileged--things from private worlds we're curious to know more about, for whatever reason. When Mr. Grisham gives us the scoop on the lawyer biz, we're interested, because we don't know it and he does. It's a nonfiction interest, in a way.

And if you fall for the plot and want to find out--like our first-person detective-figure narrator (a lawyer, of course)--what the secret is or what's in the mystery file (the eventual disclosure of which he prolongs with a car crash, among other things), then you're invested in the dialogue, always hoping the characters our narrator bumps into will spill some clue.

It's pretty basic stuff, but to see it hit again and again is a revelation. As an author, I wouldn't have the patience to lay things out that way.

Lockjaw? What lockjaw? Solid food tonight!