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Area communities provide inspiration for O'Nan's latest work

July 25, 2011

A copy of "Emily, Alone," the latest novel by Pittsburgh-based author Stewart O'Nan, is currently available at the St. Marys Public Library. Photo by Becky Polaski.

Readers who pick up Pittsburgh-based author Stewart O'Nan's latest novel, "Emily, Alone" may be surprised to find that the main character, Emily Maxwell, is described as originally hailing from Kersey, Pa.
"Emily, Alone" was published in March, and a copy is available at the St. Marys Public Library.
O'Nan explained that the novel is a sequel to one of his earlier works, "Wish You Were Here." While "Wish You Were Here" is set on Lake Chautauqua and focuses on the entire Maxwell clan, "Emily, Alone" revolves solely around Emily Maxwell and the trials and tribulations she is currently facing in her life.
"'Emily, Alone' focuses solely on Emily, a widow approaching 80, living with her old dog Rufus in Pittsburgh, and how her routines and her view of life change after her sister-in-law has a stroke. It's a quiet book about family and memory," O'Nan said.
While O'Nan was born and raised in Pittsburgh, he does have ties to the area, which he said he drew on while working on the novel.
O'Nan, the son of Mary Ann Smith, formerly of Ridgway, and Lee O'Nan of Pittsburgh, explained that as he begins work on a new novel, he usually sees his characters in "initial ongoing dramatic situations" and then works backwards to fill in their histories.
"The backgrounds usually come from their personalities, and I occasionally attach those personalities to settings I know. In Emily's case, I knew she came from north-central Pennsylvania, from a small town, like my mother, who was from Ridgway," O'Nan said.
While the community described as Emily's hometown is called Kersey in O'Nan's work, he noted that the fictional town does not bear a complete resemblance to the local community.
"The Kersey in the book is an amalgam of Ridgway and Kersey," O'Nan said. "I consulted maps and GoogleEarth so I could include details like the cemetery being on Skyline Drive, just over the line from Dagus Mines, and the view of Irishtown Road heading off to St. Marys through the state forest; but some of the Main Street area, like the courthouse dome and Grace Methodist Church and the Penn Royal Theater and the Sheetz, is lifted from Ridgway. The cemetery itself is fictionalized, and owes a little to Beechwoods Cemetery in Jefferson County."

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