Stewart O’Nan read everything F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, including his love letters to his wife, Zelda, for his new novel based on the writer’s last few years. “We think of Fitzgerald as a tragic writer, but he’s very ironic and wry,” he says. O’Nan was in town last week to read from his new novel, “West of Sunset.”
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
O’NAN: I’m reading “The Most of It” by the poet Mary Ruefle. This book is sort of prose poetry. She writes like Lydia Davis: skewed, small short stories. I’m a big Davis fan. I love Russell Edson, too, a prose poet guy in the ’70s, who’s kind of absurdist. I always go back to the surrealists, too. I like anyone who’s making something goofy and whacky.
BOOKS: Who are you favorite surrealist writers?
O’NAN: André Breton and Max Ernst, who was an artist and a writer. I consider a guy like William Burroughs absurdist or surrealist, too. I discovered the surrealists in my early 20s when I was reading a lot of French authors. I read Flaubert, Camus, Sartre, and then I latched on to the surrealists. That is how it is with reading for me. I go on jags.
BOOKS: What is your current jag?
O’NAN: Graham Greene. I never read a lot of Greene growing up. I thought I should catch up with him. I read Denis Johnson’s “The Laughing Monsters” and that has a Graham Greene taste to it, as does Robert Stone’s work. So I thought why not go back and read the master. Over Christmas break I read “The Heart of the Matter,’’ “The Power and the Glory,” and “The Third Man.” I also was on a Jim Thompson jag. I’d never read a whole lot of Thompson, a classic pulp guy. I read “A Hell of a Woman” — what a title! — and “After Dark, My Sweet.” Both have narrators who are not smart enough for what they are getting mixed up in.
BOOKS: Which author have you read the most of?
O’NAN: Probably Stephen King just because he’s written over 50 novels, and I’ve read each one, his short stories, too. When “Carrie” came out I was 13 years old. I had already loved Ray Bradbury and shows like “The Twilight Zone.’’ I loved horror movies and horror comics. “Different Seasons,” a set of four novellas, is maybe the best thing he ever wrote. One of the novellas is “The Body,” which the film “Stand By Me” was based on. He’s so good at writing kids. Those novellas aren’t what you would think of as classic Stephen King.
BOOKS: Are you a library user?
O’NAN: I’ll be going there today, to a neighborhood branch that is about two minutes away. I tend to use interlibrary loan a lot. I always have this big list of things I want the library to get. When the books come in and the library sends me the e-mail notification, it’s like fresh meat.
BOOKS: What do you think of predictions of the death of libraries?
O’NAN: That’s garbage.
BOOKS: Have you had any formative experiences as a reader?
O’NAN: In high school English class we read Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” and we had to memorize Mark Antony’s speech. I was really bored by that. I was sitting in the last row by the corner next to a bookshelf, which had all the books by Anthony Burgess. I grabbed “A Clockwork Orange” and started reading. The made-up language he comes up with, the plot lines, this was just great, great stuff. “Wow,’’ I thought, “this is what a book can do.’’ The irony of it is that in “A Clockwork Orange” the only people who know Shakespeare are the hooligans because it’s been banned by polite society.
BOOKS: You didn’t get busted for reading Burgess during a class on Shakespeare?
O’NAN: It was a big public high school in Pittsburgh. They didn’t care.
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