Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Michael O'Donnell

Michael O’Donnell is the author of the novel Above the Fire. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and other publications. O’Donnell has been a member of the National Book Critics Circle since 2005. An attorney by profession, he lives in the Chicago area, where he practices law. He earned his bachelor’s degree with distinction from Indiana University and his law degree magna cum laude from Boston College.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title Above the Fire is both literal and metaphorical. Doug and his young son, Tim, become stranded while hiking in the White Mountains when threats of war and social collapse reach the ranger station. They decide to stay where they are, "above" the disorder down below.

But the precise nature of that disorder is hard to get their hands around because Doug and Tim are miles from it. They cannot see it. Only vague snatches of information from rangers and news reports reach them before their isolation grows complete. At one point they do get word of a conflagration in a nearby town: an event that frightens the boy. But, despite this literal image, "the fire" broadly represents the uncertainty and danger that Doug and Tim avoid by staying high in the mountains.

What's in a name?

The setting of the novel is a section of the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire called the Presidential Traverse. There is a map of the Traverse after the title page of the book, showing mountain peaks, backcountry huts, trails, and elevations. The Presidential Traverse is a real trail that I have hiked. It is one tough march.

I always found the name of the trail a little bit fearsome. It comes from the various mountain peaks--Mounts Madison, Jefferson, Adams, and so on. The tallest mountain in the range, and one of the key locations of the story, is Mount Washington, the highest spot in the eastern United States. The weather on the summit is ferocious. For many years, it had the wind speed record on planet Earth, at 231 mph. All of these points conjure up a wild space where the conditions are hostile and the stakes for the novel’s characters are high.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Definitely endings. The opening chapter of the book came out as fast as I could type it. The last chapter went through several revisions, one of them pretty radical. Without spoilers, I will say that the changes affected not just the plot but the note on which the book concluded.

I think endings pose the bigger challenge in most stories. There are so many good books and movies that start out strong but the artist struggles to land the plane. I worked hard to get it right. It's not just a matter of wrapping up the storylines but also of doing so with the right tone. I'm happy with the ending of this book, and I owe a particular debt to my wonderful editor Michael Signorelli for his advice on how to make it work.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

A movie that I saw in 2020 helped inspire this novel. It is called Leave No Trace, by the director Debra Granik. The movie tells the story of a man and his teenage daughter living off the grid in the forest near Portland, Oregon. Not merely the characters and setting, but the tenor of the story--all the unspoken understandings between a parent and child--had a strong influence on the way I wanted to write Above the Fire. I only hope I have produced something half so powerful as that beautiful film.
Visit Michael O'Donnell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue