Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

Stewart O'Nan, Author of "Songs for the Missing"

The summer I was 17, I worked at a camp in Northeast Ohio, on the Lake Erie shore.  I was courting the girl who would later become (and still is) my wife, and many nights we would be up late, watching the slow progress of the oreboats and gazing at the stars over the water.  I was on maintenance, and, being the only one who could drive the tractor, I had to get up at five-thirty in the morning and coax the old red Farm-All to life and hook up the homemade, plywood-sided trailer so we could collect the camp's garbage and scrub the latrines.  I didn't sleep a lot that summer, but late one night, or more exactly, early one morning while I was enjoying my two hours of rest, the state police knocked on the door of the male staff's dorm. 

There had been a bad accident a little ways down Lake Road .  A car had hit a tree.  There was blood on the seats, but the two passengers reported inside of it were missing.  The police needed us to put on our clothes, grab our flashlights and help search the woods on both sides of the road.

It wasn't a request, and we never thought of saying no.  We put on our sneakers and hauled on our sweatshirts and followed the cops down the road.

I don't remember the car — seeing it off the road, the hood crumpled against a tree trunk.   All I recall is how dark the night was, and the tall grasses and weeds passing through the circle cast by my flashlight.  I remember parting the waist-high grass with my free hand to see what might be hiding in it.  There were no streetlights, only the police car back on the road, its red-and-blue lights strobing.  We pushed farther in, skirting trees.  Around me, other flashlights probed the brush, and I was sure that with my luck I would find one of the mangled, bleeding bodies.

I didn't.  Nobody did.  The man and woman in the car were drunk.  They were found on the front steps of a nearby house, passed out, cut up but not badly hurt.  We all went back to our bunks, and in the morning the search was the talk of the whole camp.  To me, maybe because of my lack of sleep, it seemed like a dream, or a nightmare, something strange and barely understood.

It still does, and probably always will.  The search for or pursuit of a missing person underpins several of my stories and novels, including Snow Angels and Wish You Were Here.  For twenty-five years I've been circling that dark night on Lake Road .  In Songs for the Missing, I've gone back there to face it, back to the lake, and the camp, and the road, and to those people hoping (against hope) not to find what they're looking for.

Stewart O'Nan's award-winning fiction includes Snow Angels, The Speed Queen, A Prayer for the Dying, and Last Night at the Lobster. Granta named him one of America's Best Young Novelists. He lives in Connecticut. To learn more about his work, please visit his website.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Backstory.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Friday January 23rd 2009, 9:18 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I loved the description of your search for the missing occupants.
It brought to mind my own experience as Medical Examiner in a rural Michigan county at 2 a.m. one summer night.
The car was about twenty yards off of the road into the high cattails of the large flat swampy lagoon, its lights pointing crazily up at the sky.
There was no driver. It took twenty minutes of searching to find the body of its inebriated female driver thrown many yards away into the dense vegetation. I hope to be able to relate in readable fashion my own many encounters with violent death during the 15 years I served the County. Your narrative has renewed my interest in creating my own book!
Saturday January 24th 2009, 8:55 PM
Comment by: ppeffy@bigpond.com.au
We were always encouraged to stop at an accident. Being a single woman, I was always fearful of my safety. However, I remember two occasions. I stopped to help , when my friends from the Ambulance service arrived , and one observed "See you don't know what to do !!!" which was quite true as I was the doctor in charge of Emergency medicine in a large city hospital , did not have a doctor's bag, and not used to roadside medicine. However I smiled because I could observe to shock, clear airways, check vital information such as pulse, injuries and imminent danger, The second, when I corrected a dislocated thumb, and sent the patient to my hospital. I have often been told by a bustling bystander that he/she had done First Aid, and I was reminded of an orthopedic surgeon , who stopped to help a bleeding victim. asked to a tie as a tourniquet and directed the Ambulance to a certain hospital. His wife asked why he had not used his tie, and why not his hospital. His answer - she had given him the tie, and he was unlikely to get it back and that he was on duty!!!!!!
Saturday January 24th 2009, 9:52 PM
Comment by: Robert F. (Dallas, TX)
I don't see how watching oarboats with your future wife says anything about searching. Or driving a tractor for that matter. You could have started with the state police waking you up and then said more about the experience of searching. Or the disconnected state of waking in the day and at night. Night is a murky, wet time and these bodies would have been, as well. Seemed to me you missed a lot of opportunities and told me things I did not need or care to know.
Sunday January 25th 2009, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Would have to disagree with Anonymous about the background info Stewart O'Nan gave us at the beginning. His age, the courtship, the early morning duties, all contribute to the physical and mental fatigue of his day-to-day life. It lays a strong foundation upon which we can understand the resulting dreamlike nature of the search experience. If he had started with the police waking him up, we may not have understood the magnitude of the sleep interruption, weakening our understanding of the life long impact it has had on him.
Sunday January 25th 2009, 3:08 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I fully agree with Clarence W.
Besides, let's get our own misinformation corrected before we start criticizing others. I'm sure he was watching ORE boats.
Sunday January 25th 2009, 4:07 PM
Comment by: Claudia R. (Carleton Place Canada)
Coincidence is a strange thing. Today is the first time I have used this site, but I finished reading Songs for the Missing yesterday. It speaks to the constant search of every person for people we have lost, for things and experiences and chances we will never have again.
Saturday April 4th 2009, 6:49 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Coincidence. Strange and mystical thing.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.