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Writers in Paradise keynote speaker Stewart O'Nan finds his themes among many influences

Stewart O'Nan has found a lot of his inspiration as a writer in "all the things my mom said weren't good for me: comic books, Stephen King, being a Red Sox fan," he says.

"TV and movies — love them, love them, love them. George Romero's Night of the Living Dead really inspired me, because it's a do-it-yourself movie.

"It's all about gulping in stories, learning to use your imagination."

O'Nan will be the keynote speaker Saturday night at Writers in Paradise, the annual writers conference at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.

O'Nan, 47, is known both for his novels — the most recent are Last Night at the Lobster and Songs for the Missing — and for nonfiction books, especially his bestselling Faithful, written with Stephen King (the same guy his mother warned him about), a chronicle of the Boston Red Sox's championship 2004 season.

O'Nan cites more traditional writerly inspirations as well — Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, William Maxwell, Anton Chekhov — but, he says, he writes often about "endurance."

"My hope slash worry for all the books is I try to write them for people in that situation, so they can read the book and say, 'That's how it was.' "

Among those situations are the employees of a Red Lobster restaurant struggling through the final night before it goes out of business (Last Night at the Lobster) and the family of a Midwestern teenager stunned by her sudden, unexplained disappearance (Songs for the Missing).

The latter novel, published in October, had its genesis in the real-life abduction of 19-year-old cashier Katie Poirier from a convenience store in Moose Lake, Minn., almost a decade ago.

"I had this image in my mind of somebody walking into this brightly lit store, a customer, and finding nobody there. It just stuck with me."

O'Nan says he wrote other books while looking for a way into the story. In 2005, a friend's mother went missing and was "unhappily discovered," he says. "I was writing about the outside stuff, the media reaction. And I realized it's really a story about the people left behind."

The result is a moving but beautifully controlled novel about what happens to the missing girl's family when the short attention span of the TV cameras is exhausted.

"The big risk in writing it was that this is a mystery, and readers want to know, 'What's the solution?' But life doesn't work that way."

O'Nan, who lives in Avon, Conn., with his family, says he looks forward to speaking at Writers in Paradise and working with students there.

Now in its fifth year, Writers in Paradise is an intensive, eight-day conference on the campus of Eckerd College. Writers who are accepted for the conference work closely with its distinguished faculty in workshops, classes and panel discussions. In the evenings, keynote speakers and faculty members give talks that are open to the public. Past keynote speakers have included King, David Simon and Richard Price.

The event was co-founded and is co-directed by writer Dennis Lehane, an Eckerd alum and bestselling author of Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Given Day and other books, and Sterling Watson, also a novelist (Sweet Dream Baby) and the director of Eckerd's creative writing program.

O'Nan says he and Lehane have been friends for years. "He's been a big, big supporter of my work. We met around the time our first books were published, at Misty Valley Books in Vermont. We really got along. We're both Red Sox fans."

O'Nan's enthusiasm for the Boston team also led to a friendship with a favorite writer from his boyhood, and to a nonfiction book. He had an e-mail relationship with King for a while, and one day King wrote that they should get together and go to a Red Sox game.

"Then in 2002 he called me up and said, 'Hey, this is Steve.' And I said, 'Steve who?' I thought it was a prank."

O'Nan says he was worried that the two might not hit it off in person. "But it was just weird. We loved all the same things — zombie movies, baseball, bad food. I pulled out a toothpick, and he pulled out a toothpick. Just weird."

They went to more games and started a Sox blog with King's novelist sons, Owen and Joe. In 2004, O'Nan's editor, a Yankees fan, challenged him to write a book about the Red Sox.

"I said only if Steve could do it with me. My editor started jumping up and down."

King at first said he didn't have much time for Faithful, given the pace of his own work, and could contribute "maybe 10 percent. Then we got going and he wrote a lot. You can't stop him."

O'Nan says he anticipated writing about "a typical year, how they struggled and struggled, a classic Red Sox season. That's what I wanted to write. God knows it wasn't easy being a Red Sox fan."

Of course, that proved to be the year the team won the World Series — its first since 1918. Once again, life didn't turn out the way we expect it to.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

If you go

Writers in Paradise features evening talks by writers on its faculty. The talks are free and open to the public; each one is preceded by a book sale and reception at 7:30 p.m., except as noted. The talks take place in Miller Auditorium on the campus of Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg.

. 8 p.m. Saturday (reception 7-7:45) — Stewart O'Nan (Songs for the Missing)

. 8 p.m. Jan. 18 — Les Standiford (The Man Who Invented Christmas) and Peter Meinke (The Shape of Poetry)

. 8 p.m. Jan. 19 — Sterling Watson (Sweet Dream Baby) and Ann Hood (Comfort: A Journey Through Grief)

. 8 p.m. Jan. 20 — Tom Perrotta

(The Abstinence Teacher) and Scott Ward (Wayward Passages)

. 8 p.m. Jan. 22 — Nahid Rachlin (Persian Girls), Jill Bialosky (The Life Room) and Helen Pruitt Wallace (Shimming the Glass House)

. 8 p.m. Jan. 23 — Michael Koryta (Envy the Night) and Laura Lippman (Hardly Knew Her: Stories)

. 8 p.m. Jan. 24 — Dennis Lehane

(The Given Day)

On the Web

writersinparadise.eckerd.edu

Writers in Paradise keynote speaker Stewart O'Nan finds his themes among many influences 01/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 10, 2009 3:31am]

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