Writing

Writers Who Lunch

There are many things I could fill this blog post with, my first one in 4 months. I could tell you about the marathon writing sessions I’ve had to finish a major draft of my memoir, GUTS. I could tell you that it looks like I’m a couple of months away from having it ready to send to agents. Maybe you’d like to hear about some of the essays I’ve had published since September, here, here, and here, and about the honorable mention I got in this award. Or I could go on at length about the book proposal I’ve started writing, a business plan/grant proposal-esque document meant to convince agents and editors that, of all the projects they could take on, mine is The One.

But what I really want to talk about is my lunch last week with Stewart O’Nan.

Okay, there were other people there, 2 dozen or so, and Stewart himself didn’t actually eat anything. Instead, he spoke about writing, and read from his new book, WEST OF SUNSET. I have been an O’Nan fan for awhile now, and I was excited a few months ago when I learned he would be featured at the author luncheon series at one of my favorite local bookstores, Third Place Books in Ravenna. WEST OF SUNSET is a novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s years living and writing in Hollywood. I recently re-read THE GREAT GATSBY for a writing class, so the novel’s subject intrigued me, but I would have gone regardless. Most any subject matter becomes engrossing in a good author’s hands.

One thing that O’Nan said that stuck with me was when he talked about doing research for his nonfiction book, CIRCUS FIRE, about the Barnum & Bailey Circus fire in Hartford in 1944, when a circus tent caught fire with 8,000 people trapped inside.

“When I interviewed survivors,” O’Nan told us, “they talked about their families, their friends. Those were the stories they told me.” He repeated this later in his talk, when someone asked him about where he gets his story ideas.

“Ever since I wrote Circus Fire,” he said, “I write stories where the characters’ main concerns are the people closest to them.”

It may sound like a small thing, maybe even an obvious thing, but sitting there in the audience, on a break from writing a dry document that tries to explain a story I’ve spent the last 5 years writing, I found it really inspiring. Right, I thought to myself. The people closest to us. They are who we write about when we write nonfiction. And when we write fiction, we write about who our characters care about too.

I feel fortunate to live in such a literary-rich community, where there are plenty of opportunities to get inspiration when I step away from my writing desk. Or hobble away, as the case in these days, since I just had foot surgery.

But that’s another story.

3 thoughts on “Writers Who Lunch

  1. I’m always inspired when I have lunch (or breakfast, or dinner, or a glass of wine) with you, Janet. Can’t do that today, but your post helps tide me over until I can. I’m always inspired when I learn about friends’ publications (and you’ve had a few lately – hurray!). And then O’Nan’s reminder about the importance of stories about families and friends gave this nonfiction writer another boost. Thanks!

  2. Paul Buttenwieser

    Dear Janet, I loved this post. I’m so glad you had lunch with Stewart O’Nan, one of my favorite authors — I’ve read seven of his novels. I’m looking forward to reading his latest. You know I had a complete obsession about F.Scott Fitzgerald when I was in high school, and I still love him to death. His posthumously published Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon, somewhat based on the producer Irving Thalberg, is not one of his very greatest, but it’s good and readable and a pretty good movie was made from it. I also enjoyed Beloved Infidel, the I think intentionally trashily titled Beloved Infidel a memoir by Sheila Graham, who lived with Fitzgerald in Hollywood during the last years of his life. But then I’ve enjoyed every word Fitzgerald wrote, including his own sort-of memoir, The Crack-up. Also Budd Schulberg’s novel, The Disenchanted, a fictionalized account of his ill-fated journey to Dartmouth with Fitzgerald in hopes of writing a screenplay about Winter Carnival, also set in FSF’s declining years. Not to mention a wonderful biography of FSF, The Other Side of Paradise (a great title) by Arthur Mizener, although I read that a long time ago, there are probably some more recent biographies of him. As you can see, I’m a fan. Can’t wait to see you all next week. Love, Dad

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