Library DrawingThe CONNector

JULY 2000Volume 2 Number 3

A Contribution from a Connecticut Author

Nancy Shader, Archivist

The Circus Fire Book Cover
The cover from Stewart O'Nan's book
Stewart O'Nan is the author of several critically acclaimed novels including Snow Angels, The Names of the Dead, and A Prayer for the Dying. After moving to Connecticut he became interested in the Hartford Circus Fire and realized that no definitive history of the fire existed. O'Nan decided to take on the challenge and write about that terrible day. The result is his new book The Circus Fire (Doubleday, ISBN 0385496842). Much of Mr. O'Nan's research was done at the State Library. Recently, I had a chance to talk with him.

What prompted you to write about the Hartford Circus Fire?
At first I was hooked by how strange and terrible of a disaster it was, really bizarre, but once I started talking with people, I realized it was much more important than that. It had (and has) a place in their personal and family history, not just in the larger history of Connecticut. That's when I saw how the public and the private connected in the circus fire. It's not simply a story of parents and children, but also of the relationship of the state or city to its people. So what began, as a fascination with the story from the outside, about the facts became a story written from the inside, about the people.

This is your first non-fiction book. How was researching/writing non-fiction different from writing fiction?
Researching and writing non-fiction seems much harder to me. Every fact has to be checked and double-checked, and often that's impossible. The goal is to tell the truth-in both the letter and spirit. It's a lot of legwork. It is also a challenge to resist the compulsion to embroider or tell stories just because they sound good. Writing fiction is lying artfully to get at the truth, writing non-fiction is artfully NOT lying.

What archival collections from CSL did you use for your book?
I used everything I could find at the State Library, mostly boxes and files from the History and Genealogy Unit. I remember being in RG161 and RG 20, which I believe are listed as Public Safety (check my slips!). Judge Henry Cohn sent me after Edward Rogin's records on the legal settlements between the circus and the survivors. And I used the City Directory from 1944, and the maps of the North End from the turn of the century up to the present. I spent hundreds of dollars photocopying pages of local papers like the Bristol Press and the Torrington Citizen-Register off the microfilm machines. And the folders in the vertical file, the old issues of Time and Reader's Digest upstairs, the trial notes on Edward Rogin's bid to be paid for his work as receiver, even the mug shots of the circus officers who went to jail-it all came from the State Library. And of course by now there's even more.

Do you plan to tackle any other "historical" topic in future projects?
I never know what I'm going to write next. I always start in one direction and then run into something that's way more interesting. When something takes me over, I just give in and follow it, so I can't rule out more historical work. My next two novels (one done, one three-quarters) are contemporary, but after that, who knows.

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