An Interview With Peter Orner

Peter Mountford

Since 2008 whenever I’ve taught bored teenagers and I sense I need to wake them up, or entice them to believe that literature can be exciting, I go straight to a rapturously written excerpt from Peter Orner’s extraordinary novel The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. (A taste: “Her cheeks sag off her face like grocery bags overstuffed with fruit. Her teeth, cruel, sharp, heinously white—on the days she wore them in. Without them, her mouth looked full of bloody thumbs. There was a fresh wart on her chin, not like a dead thing, but a happy thing, very much alive.”)

Despite being a fan of his, I’d never met Orner until he came to Seattle last month to do a reading at Hugo House, where I was to interview him on stage. When I finally did meet him I found Peter to be incredibly kind, soft-spoken, and thoughtful.

Interviewing him at Hugo House, he seemed to want to talk about me instead, and it wasn’t false modesty, I could see, it was in fact the thing that makes his writing, perhaps especially his new collection Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, so radiant. There’s a curiosity in his work, this need to seek out stories and lives well beyond his own sphere, and there’s a necessary humility as he does this seeking. It’s fine to step out of your skin and write someone different from yourself, but if you don’t do the full empathetic work, if you don’t respect that “other” as much as you respect yourself, the writing will fall short. Orner does not have that problem, at all, which gives his work a rare luminosity and breadth. 

What follows is our attempt to sort of recreate our conversation last month at Hugo House from memory.

Peter Orner

Peter Mountford: The new book—and your work in general—is all over the place, geographically (there’s a certain amount of Chicago, but there’s also Mexico City, all sorts of places. Your first novel was set in Africa). Also it ranges a hundred fifty years. The characters are old, young, they’re married and not, they’re poor, rich, etc. But the book feels coherent, is very much a book, not a random hodgepodge. As you were writing these pieces, did you feel the interconnectedness, the thematic commonality? Were they talking to each other for you? What do you think it is that binds them?

Peter Orner:  I lose a lot of sleep over these questions. God knows I hope at the end of the day there’s some method to my madness. Coherence? You’re kind to say. But I always get a little irritated by story collections that don’t contain stories that are different from each other. You know what I mean? The sort of collection where you always know where you are. I like to think of a collection as exactly this: a collection of individual souls who may or may not have anything to do with each other, but they’re human and have some of the same preoccupations and worries and desires and fears. Say you’re walking down the street in a city where you couldn’t possibly know everyone, and yet what if you could? What if for every different person you walked by, you got into their heads, began to understand what makes them tick – all their common expectations, all their common disillusionments?  We’re all more connected than we ever realize.

PM: The book is full of storytelling and death. There are all these stubborn attempts to memorialize a thing, or a person. But the storytelling is often hugely suspect, very dubious. In that story “Spokane,” for example, there’s a part toward the end when the woman is telling her long story to Barry, and she just goes a bit too far, or something, and I just didn’t quite believe her. Or maybe she was telling the truth? But the thing with the chess playing blind guy, and the way she introduced him into her story, I didn’t quite trust her. Many of the stories have stories being told within them. Was that a conscious thing? And if so, what are you pushing at, I guess.

PO:  All stories are inherently suspect. You know that old, dumb crafty term: Reliable narrator? Show me a truly reliable narrator…Does one exist? Tom Brokaw? We’re all unreliable all the time. And I think storytellers should always go too far. In the story “Spokane” —as you say—Stacy goes too far, and still Barry buys it. I like to think all good stories contain some point when this is the case, when the whole thing teeters. When your heart starts to wonder, in spite of everything you’re brain is telling you, holy shit, wait, this happened?

PM: I’m a really impatient reader. I have a major problem with ADD, I’m afraid, requires heroic doses of Ritalin, but I’m always impressed when an author seems more impatient with their story than I am as a reader. It’s pretty rare, almost unheard of, actually, but you seem absolutely merciless with yourself. There’s no dithering, at all. Is that a thing for you? Do you just get bored, or something? Like if you’re writing something and it just keeps going and going. Does it have something to do with your experience as a reader?

PO: I like this idea. No dithering. For me it’s less that I’m impatient (and here it gets a little pie in the sky, I apologize) than the fact that stories are a scared thing. It’s the only religion I’ve got. I’m Jewish, but believing never really took. So I have stories. So to be superfluous or to beat around and play games is almost sacrilegious. And when I do find myself screwing around, yes, I give all those unneeded words the ax.

PM: Carolyn Forché argues that good political writing erases the distinction between personal and social inquiry. Your work certainly does that, but in a very unusual way. That is, it feels deeply personal, almost confessional, but then it’s hugely political, too, very outward-looking—historical fiction, pieces that feature real historical figures. But at the core of this is a difficult issue writers deal with, which is at the root of it that old decision that writers supposedly face: write what you know, or write what you don’t know. How do you deal with writing the other: you boldly write across race and gender, you write across time.

PO:  Marquez has a variation on Forché when he says that all good writing is revolutionary. I think this is true, that good writing leads to good—and by good, I mean questioning—thinking. In terms of writing about people who aren’t your kin or your brethren or whatever, I say: do it, you got to do it, but do it carefully and with serious heart. The book set in Namibia, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongotook me twelve years to write and almost killed me. But we can’t cut ourselves off from writing about—which is another name for being intensely curious about—other people because it’s hard. And we can’t let gender or race or anything else get in the way of the work we have to do—as human beings—imagining the lives of other human beings. How could we? Sure, we’ll fail. That’s the whole point. But worse not to try. It would mean more disconnection than actually exists. This said, I think we should take that same care (and heart) when writing about our own people, or ourselves, these folks we, in theory, know so well.  True, I’m a Jewish guy from Chicago, but what makes me so sure I can write about Jewish people from Chicago just because I know some things about being a Jewish guy from Chicago? My thought is all people are, to a large extent, impenetrable, even ourselves to ourselves.

PM: You pack a lot of emotion into some incredibly short stories. There’s pain leaking out of them, it seems, which is one of the harder things to pull off in fiction of any length. How do you move toward these huge emotions without being melodramatic or, on the other hand, overly astringent or clinical? Is it just about authenticity? But even then…you’re clearly deliberately eliciting emotions out of your reader, you’re putting the screws to us.

PO: Stories put the screws…Yes. This is exactly what I’m after, I think a lot of people, myself included, walk around numb a lot of the time. Stories unumb, if they’re doing their job. I confess to wanting—trying to—to put the screws to people. If a story doesn’t startle a reader out of complacency, it’s not much of a story.

At the same time, I think we’re all a little afraid of melodrama or sentimentality. As is these things aren’t part of life, you know? But these things are as erratic and inconsistent as everything else in life. The thing is not to overly manipulate. Too often stories guide us to some emotional endpoint. I guess I try and avoid this with everything I’ve got.

PM: Part of what I really enjoy is that though the stories aren’t particularly experimental—the voice isn’t ever in your face, or anything, but the stories are in no way retrograde or old fashioned. They feel as forward-looking as it gets, but without being self-consciously so. Who would you identify as your major influences? Dybek seems like a clear precursor, but how do you seek out freshness?

PO:  Stuart Dybek I love, but I came to him late, just in the past few years. He makes it seem so simple, deceptively so. Just this voice you trust coming at you off the page. Others, too many to name but I always come back to Welty. Her power, like Dybek, comes not from her showing us how good she is but from the fact that we completely enter her world and experience her stories in real time in our minds. If a writer, even a very good writer, reminds me of how good they are then the story immediately loses a good portion of its power. This isn’t an exact science, of course. Faulkner is another big influence. One state, two giants. Welty said living in Mississippi with Faulkner was like living in the shadow of a mountain. But she’s her own mountain. And she often casts an even bigger shadow. Anyway, Faulkner (unlike Welty) always goes to the edge of showing off. But he always pulls back with a mundane real life detail—he’ll talk about the mud, for instance, and he’s right back on track. You trust a guy who writes about mud.

PM: Okay, word on the street is that you’re a volunteer firefighter. Is this true, and if so, why? I noticed that Rosalie’s description of the fire in “Herb and Rosalie at the Coconut Grove” is remarkably vivid. Maybe too vivid. What’s going on here, Peter?

PO:  I’m a volunteer firefighter in my town in west Marin. And since I’m someone with very few practical skills, the department is being very patient with me as I learn the ropes. Hose coupling, for instance, is very challenging. Fire behavior is an extraordinarily fascinating thing. As I kid I used to chase fire trucks on my bike. Now I drive in them, which I got to say is a pretty major thrill.

PM: You’re a nutty reviser, is that true? I have the galley and the finished copy of this book, and there are some serious changes, including new material. Probably apocryphal, but I’ve heard there was some artist who’d sneak into the Louvre with brushes and palette hidden in his coat so he could touch-up his paintings. Are you that kind of guy?

PO:  Who’s that painter? I want to know. Yeah, I revise and revise and revise and revise, which is why this interview took me so long to get back. Your questions are so substantive and great, I want to say all these highbrow things, and I keep saying nonsense. Wish I could cure myself of this habit of back tracking and revising everything I do, but you look at the something that could be better and you can’t help yourself. But no matter how much I revise the imperfections, the limitations, are still there. They always will be. We can’t revise away our limitations, which is a good thing. You don’t want stuff too perfect.

PM: You have an MFA from Iowa, you’ve also taught creative writing for a long time. I guess it’s a sort of standard question, but it bears examination, and I always want to know what other writers think about it: Do you feel, first of all, that you learned a great deal in workshop? And how does teaching affect or help your writing. David Foster Wallace said somewhere teaching writing taught him a lot about writing for about the first few years he was teaching, and then teaching was no longer very useful for his writing.

PO:  What I love most about teaching is teaching literature—and I do so in the context of an MFA program for writers at San Francisco State. I do it with a lot of trepidation and awe. For me, it is all about the books. And the students who aren’t really students, they’re writers, usually very good writers who teach me more than I ever teach them. The best thing about MFA programs like the one I teach in is that they consist of people who care about writing, which is nice since out here in the so-called real world, it seems like less and less people care. That’s the strength, and it’s a big strength, enough to overcome all the defects. Every time there is a story in a national magazine about the scourge of MFA programs, I wonder why they didn’t use that precious space to publish a piece of new fiction. 

PM: You’re a pretty new father. Some of these pieces were written before you had a kid, and some after, I believe. Has being a parent changed your work? I found it has for me. Changes everything about your life, of course, so it’s sort of inevitable that writing will change. How so for you?

PO:  I feel like, if anything, the stakes are higher now. Should my kid ever read this stuff (I hope not) but just in case I want it to be as good as it can be, again, in spite of the obvious and never overcomeable limitations.

PM: Finally, I don’t want to ask, but I gotta ask: I’m Peter, you’re Peter, but I don’t know a lot of Peters. My loopy Scottish uncle who sells dour paintings on the streets of Edinburgh, my namesake, is a Peter. Personally, I don’t love the name. What’s your take? Also, what about Pete?

PO: I’m Pete to one person in the world, my old friend Eddy Louiseau who has been calling me Pete since we were four years old. Weird how when he calls me Pete it’s my name, my oldest name. Other people call me it and I think: Pete who? It’s all in who calls you what I guess. But isn’t Peter unbelievably out of style now? Maybe you and I will circle back around to cool with retro name. And there’s always Peter Frampton who’s still cool, isn’t he? So what if he’s a gun nut? Wait, maybe that’s Ted Nugent? Peter Falk. Now there’s a Peter.

PM: No, one more question. Again, I hate to ask, but I have to ask: What’re you working on now?

PO: Right now I’m reading a lot, which is like writing without the pain and loneliness.

Peter Orner is the author of a new story collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, and two novels, Love and Shame and Love, a New York Times Editor’s Choice Book and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, set in Namibia, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Orner’s first book, a collection, Esther Stories was a Finalist for the Pen Hemingway Award and was re-issued in April, 2013, with a forward by Marilynne Robinson. Orner’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Granta, McSweeney’s, and Best American Stories. He also writes the Lonely Voice column for the Rumpus. Orner is also the editor of two non-fiction books, Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives (Voice of Witness) and Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (Voice of Witness), both published by McSweeney’s. Born in Chicago, Peter Orner lives in San Francisco and is a Professor at San Francisco State.

Peter Mountford is the author of A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism and upcoming novel The Dismal Science (Tin House, February 2014). His short fiction and essays have appeared in the Atlantic, Best New American Voices 2008, Conjunctions, Salon, Granta, ZYZZYVA, and the Boston Review. He’s currently a writer-in-residence at the Richard Hugo House and at Seattle Arts and Lectures. He lives in Seattle, Washington.