Q&A: Michael O’Donnell, Author of ‘Above The Fire’

We chat with debut author Michael O’Donnell about Above the Fire, which crystallizes the relationship between a father and son as they survive a winter of isolation and it’s perfect for fans of The Dog Stars by Peter Heller and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Hi, Michael! Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?

It’s wonderful to speak with Writers Corner here on The Nerd Daily! I live in the Chicago area with my wife and eleven-year-old son. By profession I’m an attorney, but I have also been writing for magazines and newspapers for about twenty years. I write essays and book reviews for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and other publications. Above the Fire is my first book. I enjoy running, backpacking, mechanical wristwatches, and playing the cello.

When did you first discover your love for writing and stories?

I came to writing as a reader. I was always the kid who brought a book with me, and at school would usually read between classes and through study hall. For an introvert, reading offers a reprieve in a few different ways. On a surface level, it’s a pleasure to sit in a quiet room and lose yourself in a story. But a book can also serve as armor for a shy kid: it’s always a ready friend that’s there for you. I’ve never lost that habit of turning to books and stories for escape and sustenance.

Quick lightning round! Tell us:

  • The first book you ever remember reading: Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton
  • The one that made you want to become an author: Atonement, by Ian McEwan
  • The one that you can’t stop thinking about: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Your debut novel, Above The Fire, is out now! If you could only describe it in five words, what would they be?

Mountains, snow, parenthood, survival, grace.

What can readers expect?

Above the Fire tells the story of a father and son who must survive a winter of isolation during a time of uncertainty. It aims to give equal weight to the experience of a 40-something man and a seven-year-old child. While the situation they confront in their mountain cabin is tense and filled with danger, the story unfolds in a hopeful spirit. Its abiding tone is gentleness: in confronting grief, when interacting with a child, and while moving through the mountains. If Gilead by Marilynne Robinson met The Road by Cormac McCarthy—two very different books by vastly better writers—the result might look something like Above the Fire.

Where did the inspiration for Above The Fire come from?

During the first year of the pandemic, my son and I did everything together as my wife took on a demanding new job. School was closed, playgrounds were off-limits, and the world was generally shut down. So he and I tried to stay sane together by exploring. We rode our bikes down the middle of the street. We wandered empty high school campuses. We dropped bouncing balls from the tops of buildings and took scooters down abandoned parking garages. In that season we forged a bond and I experienced all the demands and joys of being a father. I wanted to find a way to translate that intense experience into fiction.

Around the same time, I read a book and saw a movie that directly inspired Above the Fire. The book was The Eight Mountains by an Italian writer named Paolo Cognetti. It is about a friendship between two boys whose story centers around the Alps. The movie was Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik, about a father and daughter living in the forest in Oregon. Both the book and the movie used the wilderness as a setting for stories of fierce human connection in a context where the stakes are high. Yet both showed that mayhem and violence are not the only way to establish drama in wild spaces. I recommend them highly.

Were there any moments or characters you really enjoyed writing or exploring?

A favorite scene of mine in the book has the man and boy remembering his late wife—the boy’s mother—who died several years earlier. They recall her hanging Christmas ornaments at dusk with the boy when he was just a toddler. The scene has echoes of my own family’s experience. It was an important moment in the story because “Mom,” as the character is known, looms as an important presence but is rarely actually there. In this scene, a powerful memory conjures her and she appears before the reader at last.

This is your debut published novel! What was the road to becoming a published author like for you?

Exciting, fun, stressful, and very rewarding. It helps that I have a wonderful publisher, Blackstone, that has worked so hard to make this book succeed. They have made a beautiful volume and I have been thrilled to work with their smart and talented staff. The writing process itself was my favorite part of the journey. Every day I would try to hit a daily word count. One of my favorite podcasts, “Always Take Notes,” asks writers whether they are “plotters” or “plungers”—as in, do you plot it out or plunge right in? I am very much a plunger, and enjoy sitting down each day and seeing what happens. Writing is a spontaneous act in many ways for me, and I’m often just as surprised as anyone at what appears on the page.

What’s next for you?

Hilary Mantel, the author of Wolf Hall, wrote about the “post-book mope” that follows the completion of a project. I’m trying to avoid the mope by working on something new. It’s completely different from Above the Fire and in that way has felt like the turning of a page. This new project is well underway but not yet ready for public consumption. I’ll be excited to share it soon!

Lastly, are there any 2024 book releases you’re looking forward to that our readers should keep an eye out for?

I can’t wait to read Joseph O’Neill’s Godwin, which will be published next summer. O’Neill is the author of the sensation Netherland among other excellent books. Godwin tells the story of two brothers’ international search for a teenage soccer prodigy. I’ll read anything that O’Neill writes, and this one sounds particularly compelling.

Will you be picking up Above The Fire? Tell us in the comments below!


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