Stewart O'Nan

Stewart O'Nan

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 3 1999 6:30 PM

Stewart O'Nan

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All first drafts are shit, David Bradley taught me, and today I proved him deeply correct. Fumblin', bumblin', stumblin'. And I had such great material to work with, too.

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Can't blame it on the lockjaw. The tetanus shot is kicking in, so I can at least gum my cornbread.

But damn, all day I was wrestling with the time frame. Things out of order, stories that didn't check out. The big makeshift morgue was open only two days--Thursday and Friday. I'm working with the first two hours, during which only 20 or so people are identified. I luckily came across a list that has them in sequence, but it meant that I had to pull several events back so as not to compromise the time line. I spent most of the morning resequencing instead of digging into the scenes. Then I had to restructure because the emphasis on misidentification shifted two chapters back. A story I'd never questioned proved to be an impossibility, so instead of fitting it into an escalating series of strange identifications, I made it the opening of a paragraph of tall tales, greatly reduced.

And I'm having problems with simple stuff like paragraph variation. For two pages in a row they're all the same length--probably because I don't have much dialogue to break it up. But I can't just invent dialogue or go to punchy one-sentence paragraphs just for variation; there's got to be some natural organization or meaning, otherwise it's just filigree.

I got my five pages in, regardless. Careening, veering, backtracking. You're only as good as you are on your worst day. I didn't give up, and I got a draft of the chapter finished. Have to really sweat the pages tonight, fix them again when they go in. Maybe dig through the morgue notes and see if I can give it a boost.

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Tomorrow: the missing kids, and the mayor walks into the room as the little girl dies.

Got two new assignments today, too. First, the German newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wants me to review the new translation of John Grisham's The Street Lawyer. It's interesting on two counts. First, how do you review a legal thriller? I suppose on its own merits and by its author's intent, like any work. But there's that writing teacher part of me that naturally wants to see it as a draft, look for opportunities to improve on its strengths. And second, Mr. Grisham and I share an agent. I'm not worried about a conflict of interest, since I'll just say what I think, but there will be immediate feedback from the review, which is unheard of elsewhere.

And second, I've got to put about 500 words together for Barnes & Noble online to run next month in support of A Prayer for the Dying. It's a Gothic, sunlit and creepy as hell, so I figured an essay on my love of Night of the Living Dead or Stephen King will suffice. But it's a creepy combination: thinking about that stuff and writing the circus fire book. Definitely don't want those two to cross-pollinate. I'm having weird enough dreams as it is.

Also heard that our efforts to get Richard Yates back into print might actually come to fruition. I'm psyched. His work deserves to be read.

And I shouldn't let this opportunity pass by without saying some good words about one of Richard Yates' favorite students, Andre Dubus. His stories in those old Godine editions like "The Fat Girl" and "The Bully" and "The Pretty Girl" are some of the best I've ever read. When I heard he'd died I stopped writing and sat down and read them again. Fine, fine stuff. It's a shame he's gone. Strangely enough, when Richard Yates died it was Andre Dubus who put together a memorial service for him in Cambridge. Remember him.