The Beatrice Interview

Stewart O'Nan

"We're not making a lot of world-class ballet here, okay?"

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Get Vertical!

Marjorie Standiford is on death row in Oklahoma for her participation in the murder of twelve people in a highway fast-food joint. It's her last day alive. And she's talking into a tape recorder, answering a set of questions prepared by the bestselling "King of Horror" who's bought the rights to her life story. Stewart O'Nan's The Speed Queen was, in fact, originally called Dear Stephen King until lawyers intervened. But whatever name you put to it, this is a hell of a book.

RH: What prompted the narrative device of a woman telling her life story to Stephen King?

SO'N: I knew that the book would follow a medieval form called the gallows broadside, in which a condemned killer tells his life story to a scribe of the court. Then, at the execution, the book is sold to the watching crowds. So, thinking about who the scribe of the court would be in this story, I decided that since the court was American mass culture, the scribe of that culture is Stephen King.

RH: That's a flattering role to be given, to be considered the voice of a culture. Did King see it that way?

SO'N: He originally said, when he wrote me a letter, that he didn't want his name to be used as a shorthand emblem for bad writing. I can see his reasoning, but that's not the way that I was using it. But he later sent me a copy of his most recent book, a privately printed collection of six stories, and signed it, "To Stewart, your dear Stephen King," and he said that he'd read The Speed Queen and liked it very much.

RH: Reading the story, her enthusiasm towards what he's been able to accomplish in his portrayal of American culture is so vivid, it's plain that he's struck a chord in her as a reader...

SO'N: he has with everybody else in America. She's a fan, I'm a fan...the book is as much a tribute as a fair-handed parody of some of the things he does. A lot of the story is his territory. She is one of his characters, and she recognizes that even before she starts telling him that. She's lived her life as one of his characters. That's the brunt of her problem: she takes on models from the media that aren't good for her.

RH: At first, I thought that this was extremely lurid subject matter for a writer who's been named one of Granta's twenty best young American novelists. But in looking at some of your earlier work, it seems as if you're approaching what others might call "low culture" themes with a style that could be called "high culture."

SO'N: I tend to use storylines and plot lines more than a lot of other literary writers. I think too much literary writing is based on either language or character sketches rather than an active storyline, so I'll often use genre storylines on top of the heavy language and character of literature. In this book, we have the road movie, the gallows broadside, the noir thriller; in The Names of the Dead, I put a stalker plot on top of the Vietnam oral history narrative. The genre elements connect immediately to the "average" reader -- because I don't want just university people reading my books. I want the real reader. The Stephen King reader should be able to read my books and get enough out of them to be absolutely satisfied.

RH: Were you shocked when you found out you'd been selected by Granta?

SO'N: Yes and no. Everybody on the original list of 52, and even some of the people who weren't on that list, could be put on any hit parade list like that. I was a bit surprised, but then I figured for at least some of their choices they would pick obscure people, just to lift them up and promote them, to be able to say Granta discovered these writers. If they had only picked the big guns of young American fiction, they wouldn't be telling us anything new. David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Rick Moody...all those guys should have been on the list and weren't, but then again they don't need to be on that list because they already have a readership. And I'm happy to be on the list, to be promoted in that way.

RH: I've talked to a few writers on the list, and the overwhelming theme in talking to them about the list is that it's a great honor, but that ultimately you just go back and write the way you've always written.

SO'N: I don't worry about that too much. Some of the people on that list only had one book out at the time. Or they might feel the pressure to produce a really good book to live up to the reputation. But I'm very productive. I get a book out every year easy. If people ask me if I have the work to back up the award, I can just say, "Yeah, here it is." I could see why some writers might be worrried about living up to the list, but that doesn't bother me at all.

RH: How did you start out as a writer?

SO'N: Writing short stories, mostly. Looking at people like John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, Jayne Anne Phillips, Raymond Carver, Chekhov. Once I felt comfortable with the short form, I tried to work on my chaptering, to figure out how chapters work in a novel. I think a lot of beginning writers can only handle, say, 15-20 pages at a time, and that in a novel you have to put your twenty, twenty, twenty together a bit at a time to build your novel.

Usually I get interested in a character. I want to see what their life is like, to dig into that life and see how it feels to be them. A lot of times the plot comes from the situations that they place themselves into. Marjorie calls herself a victim of circumstance, but she's always placing herself in situations that set her off. She wants to do these things, even though she says she doesn't. She's a wonderful liar. All great storytellers are wonderful liars.

RH: How far had you gotten in conceiving Marjorie's character before you came up with the list of questions she answers?

SO'N: The list came first. I picked up the voice from a collection of oral histories from Vietnam veterans. It was a guy who'd been in prison and was gleefully recounting his crime, until he realized that he should be feeling remorse, and his tone changed completely. I wanted that voice, that character, in my book.

If you look at the chapters, a lot of the questions in the first half are simple exposition questions. I get the hook in by mentioning the murders, but then I slowly build up her background, just the way that King would. You need to know where she's from, who her folks are. It was fun to play peekaboo.

RH: Did you start writing The Speed Queen on the road?

SO'N: Yeah, I was living on Route 66 at the time. I had a job at the University of New Mexico and another job at the University of Central Oklahoma, both of which happen to be on Route 66. I got interested in the cars and the roadside culture, and when I get excited about something it always ends up in my prose. I had just finished The Names of the Dead, which had been very long and difficult to research. I felt responsible to the men and women who had been in Vietnam, so I was very painstaking in getting everything right. So I wanted to write something that was a blowout, something completely irresponsible and stupid. (pauses, smiles) I think I've succeeded.

RH: Yep, it's a good pulp book, alright. (laughs)

SO'N: This is the American fantasy of getting into a bigass muscle car, getting completely fucked up on drugs, having great sex, killing a bunch of people, driving west into the night as fast as you can. We've seen that story so many times that we almost buy into the idea that it might be a fun thing to do. It's just a desire, an appetite, running unchecked, which is what the culture asks us to do. At the same time, we know it's the worst thing in the world for us... but it's fun, too!

Although this is a satire of tabloid culture, and I do poke very pointed fun at it, it's not like we aren't all implicated in it. We all love -- or I love, anyway -- fast food. I love fast cars. I love taking drugs, getting drunk, having great sex. It's fun. So I don't bring the hammer down all the way.

RH: That's what makes this effective: the honest admission that this isn't our culture's best side, but it's what we've got.

SO'N: This is our culture. This is it. We're not making a lot of world-class ballet here, okay? Our composers are Chuck Berry and Michael Stipe. The Speed Queen is like my other two books in that it's unashamedly and unapolegetic American in its concerns. It's supposed to be a carnival ride. It's fun, scary, and thrilling, then you get off and say, "Whew! That was fast. Let's do it again."

My next book's a very different ride, though. It's set in 1943, and it's a very slow and stately book. No humor in it whatsoever. It's a very beautiful book, but it's not like this at all, just like this book wasn't like my first two.

RH: How are you able to shift modes so radically?

SO'N: You have to want to. I can't see writing the same book over and over again. I want to try something different every time. In The Speed Queen, I wrote in the first-person voice of a woman for the first time, and I wrote short chapters after my last book had had chapters up to sixty pages long. Doing everything different is what keeps me interested. Otherwise I'd go nuts.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
David Shields | Karen Moline

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan