What Can We Steal From Stewart O’Nan’s Emily, Alone?

Title of Work and its Form:  Emily, Alone, novel
Author: Stewart O’Nan (on Twitter @stewartonan)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The book can be purchased at all fine bookstores.  Why not give some business to a local retailer, such as Oswego, NY’s The River’s End Bookstore?  You can also buy the book online from sites such as Powell’s.

Bonuses: I am healthily jealous of Mr. O’Nan for countless reasons.  He wrote a book with Stephen King…and it was about baseball.  Faithful is excellent and anyone who loves sports can relate to it.  (I’m a Tiger fan and I loved it.)  I also enjoyed the very short but very powerful Last Night at the Lobster.  Here is an NYT piece in which Mr. O’Nan discusses the book.  Here is a Washington Post review of Emily, Alone.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Exposition

Books bring us many blessings.  In addition to the joy of “living” with Emily for a few hours, Mr. O’Nan removed me from the stress and inconvenience of a flat tire.  I heard the dreaded thumpthumpthumpthump and knew that something was wrong and immediately pulled into a safe area between houses/apartment buildings.  I hasten to point out that I tried to put the spare on myself, but the tire wasn’t coming off.  I didn’t want to kick the tire too hard, sending the car off the jack and rolling into the street, so I called for roadside service…and waited.

And waited. 

I don’t really respond well to these kinds of problems; they bum me out a lot more than they should.  Thankfully, I am the kind of guy who has a ton of books in his car.  Believe it or not, I waited so long for roadside assistance that I was able to read the whole book.

And what a book it is.  Emily Maxwell is a widow who is in that somewhat sad state of life.  Her children are grown and have their own children.  Her circle of friends is decreasing steadily.  She is surrounded with reminders of her old life.  There is certainly plenty of joy.  Emily sees her mildly disappointing kids and her grandchildren on occasion.  Living in the same place for so many decades makes a trip to the breakfast place an opportunity to see many familiar faces.  The book begins as Emily and her sister-in-law Arlene are off to have some breakfast—with a coupon, natch.  The inciting incident of the novel occurs when Arlene has a mild stroke, collapsing beside the buffet.

The rest of the book represents the craft lesson I’d like to discuss.  A lot happens in the book…and it doesn’t.  Emily thinks about giving away the matched luggage her husband Henry bought a long time ago.  Emily considers (in a pleasant way) her granddaughter’s lesbianism.  Emily wonders whether or not she should hide the ancient liquor before her daughter Margaret visits.  A hit-and-run driver collides with the giant car that Henry loved in the middle of the night.

Is this a thrill-a-minute book?  Yes and no.  Mr. O’Nan has the bravery to tell a thrilling internal story about an interesting woman.  I don’t know if you have the same tendency, but I always feel the need to MAKE THINGS HAPPEN in stories.  I’m not saying that there must always be explosions or kidnappings or alien invasions in my work, but Mr. O’Nan offers a great reminder that story is also about internal conflict and the lives of normal people.

One of the metaphors that I use for storytelling is this:

When the reader begins a story or novel, he or she should feel as though the writer has flipped a chair backwards, straddled it and said, “Okay, I have a great story to tell you.  Here we go.”

Mr. O’Nan certainly makes it clear that he’s going to tell you a great story, but I think he is saying something different after flipping the chair:

“You may remember Emily from one of my previous books.  Check it out: I’m going to immerse you in Emily’s heart and mind for three hours and allow you to understand the kind of person you might not have thought about much.”

In a way, the whole book is an EXPOSITION BOMB.  Mr. O’Nan must tell you about Emily’s family and her past and her town and her friends and her politics and her outlook on money and…gosh, so much.  In my hands, Emily, Alone would probably not be a very good book.  Why?  Well, mainly because I don’t know as much about people as Mr. O’Nan does.  But the gentleman chooses the right narrator.  The third person limited narrator is planted firmly in Emily’s mind and is usually (if not always) in her corner.

What Should We Steal?

  • Ignore the obligation to pack your story with too much action or external conflict.  Try writing a story in which the conflict is far more internal.  See what it feels like to write a story placing characterization over plot.
  • Employ a third person limited narrator to facilitate characterization and exposition.  When your story is all about an older character who is a little lonely, you might have trouble getting exposition across with a confidante.  That third person limited narrator can tell the reader anything it likes.
  • Respond to life’s little hiccups by breaking out a book instead of a sweat.  If nothing else, I had three hours of reading time forced upon me.  There are far worse things to complain about.  Emily, Alone will always be the book I read while waiting for help to come, and I’m thankful that Mr. O’Nan was responsible for making an unpleasant experience more palatable.

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