Stewart O'Nan

Stewart O'Nan

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 2 1999 9:30 PM

Stewart O'Nan

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The doctors have no idea what it is. Lockjaw? Sinusitis? A root canal? They gave me a tetanus shot and some anti-inflammatories (though there's no inflammation, just pain). I was hoping--like every desperate patient--for magical antibiotics. Forty-eight hours and I'd be cracking Jolly Ranchers. But no.

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Still got in seven decent pages. Hard not to, since the material's so rich. Think I might have gone too far with the grandmother and the baby fused together--or put it too early. Nuts and bolts: got to build up to your effects, otherwise it's nothing but shock value. It's there 60 pages back when the fireman finds them under a fold of canvas--complete with aghast reaction, though no staggering backward--but it shouldn't jump on the reader so suddenly.

I've got a few bodies under the blankets that the nurses slowly disclose. That's the way to go: little chips of details like a scorched shoe, a wrist with a casualty tag dangling. Get the discomfort level up, just for a warning.

But the sequence is all over the place. I've got 127 dead and about two hours to work with, and only 20 or so are identified before I've got to cut away to the school where the police have the missing children. Even then I'm traveling back in time, or making it stand still, an effect Elizabeth McCracken said she liked in the Cocoanut Grove book Holocaust! I think she's right, and I can disguise the shift back with the chapter break (also the change of location).

The key here is to choose just the best of the tough stuff and key in on the real desire of the people, which is simple--they need to find their loved ones, and the bodies they're looking at don't even look human, just blackened, abstract statues. Naturally it's melodramatic; I've got to both court it and skirt it. Can't ignore it.

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The morgue scene is a huge opportunity to lay out just what's at stake. I remember my professor at Cornell Lamar Herrin in his The Unwritten Chronicles of Robert E. Lee nailing Stonewall Jackson's death scene. I was amazed. I mean, what a pitfall it could have been. Blow that scene and you'd lose the book. We talked about it, and he said, you've got to see those big scenes as opportunities. That's where you've got to come through.

At the time, I was just cutting away, using elision to signify something much larger--the old Hemingway/Carver iceberg thing. Cheap evasion tactic. All my short stories up to then didn't get into the big emotions. I obviously didn't trust myself to do my characters' lives justice.

Now that I do, I don't have characters. The book's nonfiction, so there's little interior work. The language and detail have to carry that much more. But to rely solely on gesture in the morgue scene would be too precious. There has to be thought, emotion, something kept inside while everyone sleepwalks stunned through the cots.

When in doubt, go to the interviews.

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I've got a 97-year-old woman who helped relatives search for their loved ones. Three-hour interview at her nursing home--a strange and fascinating place, all that history there, almost like a library (OK, the metaphor turns brittle and falls apart). Plus I've got the notes of the key reporter for the Hartford Courant from her interviews of the woman eight years ago. It's incredible--a lot of it is word for word.

Don't get me started on the hours I spent transcribing my tapes.

So I've got a good anchor in her and some newspaper clips with quotes from others. An auxiliary policeman who carried bodies in and out. The state trooper who assisted the medical examiner. A radio interview from 1984 with the then mayor.

OK, so put it in the right order and don't overplay the drama. No need, right?

Looking at maybe five pages tomorrow. Hit it and quit it, then off to the school and do some tearful reunions. Don't know if I have any.

And take your pills.