It would be easy to imagine that an award-winning author of 17 published novels has always been a literary genius. Yet, Stewart O’Nan, the university’s 2017 Cockefair Writer-in-Residence, started out as an engineer.
The Cockefair Writer-in-Residence is one of the creative writing department’s most significant annual programs. This year, O’Nan taught a class to graduate students on Oct. 23 and followed it with an Oct. 24 reading at the Plaza Library.
“I first read one of O’Nan’s books as a graduate student in Indiana,” English professor Christie Hodgen reminisced as she introduced O’Nan at the reading. “People were passing it around like a great secret, saying, ‘You’ve got to read this.’”
This great secret has since grown to a much wider audience. Before O’Nan read to the sizeable crowd of students, faculty and community members, he shared his process and inspiration with Angela Elam, an interviewer for New Letters on the Air at KCUR.
At the beginning of this interview, O’Nan reflected on his life before writing. He recounted how he would sit in an engineering lab and secretly scribble on his manuscripts during downtime.
“I was stealing time from my work, I was stealing time from my family, I was just stealing away from everything just so I could write,” O’Nan recalled.
From there, O’Nan and his wife made a risky decision. They took their newborn child and the money from their savings account to Ithaca, N.Y., where O’Nan pursued an MFA in Creative Writing at Cornell University.
Once there, O’Nan said he read and wrote everything, asked questions and first learned what it meant to be a working writer. O’Nan values these lessons more than any piece of writing he accomplished at Cornell, including his thesis.
“It’s in the university with my papers. I’m always tempted to sneak in and burn the damn thing,” O’Nan joked.
Despite this rough start, Hodgen and many others now describe O’Nan’s work as “magic.” Elam particularly praised and focused on West of Sunset, published in 2015.
This novel sweepingly chronicles the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald prior to his Great Gatsby success, through debt, alcoholism and the breakdown of his marriage.
In a way, this mirrors O’Nan’s journey as a writer: finding success and acclaim after uncertain beginnings. In fact, even after establishing himself, O’Nan is still a self-proclaimed “bad writer.”
“Sometimes it’s god awful,” O’Nan said of his work. “I try to tell myself, ‘I wrote like crap today, but at least I wrote, and I can make it better tomorrow.’”
To learn more and browse O’Nan’s books, visit stewart-onan.com. For more information about the UMKC Creative Writing Program, check out umkc.edu/english.