Sue Staats interviews Peter Orner and a surprise guest.
Peter Orner—whose upcoming Master Teacher workshop, November 10-11, should be a “can’t miss” for any writer—has been called “one of the most distinctive American voices of his generation” by the prestigious Granta magazine. His most recent novel, Love and Shame and Love, received rave reviews in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal. Similar praise came from Bay area publications: Anna Pulley of San Francisco Weekly says, in her review, “even though the narrative slaloms back and forth through time and point of view, the shotgun pace keeps you deeply wedded to the characters, their struggles, their almost triumphs…Love and Shame and Love will break your heart, but in the best possible way.”
Orner lives in San Francisco and teaches in the MFA program at San Francisco State: he’s also in demand as a guest lecturer and reader. He was appearing in Chicago when we began our e-conversation—I had sent him a few questions and, despite his busy schedule, he was giving them his full attention—when a squirrel showed up and our interview quickly became something more like performance art which, quite coincidentally, perfectly illustrated the quirky, multi-layered charm of Peter Orner’s writing.
Love and Shame and Love is, essentially, linking vignettes, four generations of a family told in a decidedly non-linear fashion. Yet it all hangs together beautifully, as a person’s collective memory of his or her family might. How do you manage this? Do you write the stories of each character, and then mix them together? Or, do you write as it appears in the book—a mixing of memories and stories, one story called up by another?
You got it, the novel is an attempt to replicate how my mind (and my memory) actually seems to work, which is that I’m generally in two or three or eight places at the same time. I mean, I’m here writing an answer to this question, but I’m also in a hotel room watching a squirrel, literally, no joke, climb up the screen outside my window. (I’m 4 floors up. God only knows what he’s doing on the building. He keeps slipping. He seems not to be the most sure footed squirrel I’ve ever seen.) See? I’m always one place and another, and add memory to this mix, and we can conjure up different times in our life at any given moment…Holy shit, the squirrel just lost his grip and fell…(Just checked on him. He seems to be okay, he’s hanging off a ledge below my window. I’d like to help him but I’m afraid I’ll scare him and then he’ll fall into Michigan Avenue.) Where was I? Oh, right, how I mix things up. That’s how I do it, I just try and make a book by following my characters wherever they happen to go and often the answer is – a great many places, literally and in their heads.
So, it sounds as if this ability to juggle several stories at the same time has essentially shaped your distinctive writing style.
Yes. I think I’m just trying to track my own brain. Add fictional characters to an already chaotic mind, and you have total mayhem. The trick is to harness the mayhem and makes some order out of it. I’ve been at this for a while now, and I think in the past I used to fight it, and try and write like a more ordinary person, with a degree of discipline and a plan. Now I just go with what I seem to do…which is just trust that at some point things just might make sense to a sympathetic reader.
Your chapters tend to be short, some no more than snippets of a character’s memory or the contents of a letter. Have you always written with such economy, or has this developed over time?
Compression has always been something I’ve striven for. I think the world talks too much. I figure if I’m going to take your time, I’m going to the best I can to do it in the least amount of words. And for me, less words often means more power.
Okay, the squirrel’s back in the saddle and yet again climbing up my screen.
Emily Dickinson, is there a more powerful writer? I love Whitman, but he sometimes talked too much. Dickinson never. And she can take your head off in under twenty words. I think prose writers should think more about this.
Give us some other good examples of the type of compressed prose you mean. Which writers do you recommend to your students?
It really depends on the student. I’d say Jane Bowles writes wonderful prose that is often compressed. Also Melville, not known for his compression maybe, but he was one of the greats, think of those breathtaking and so brief chapters in Moby Dick. My favorite is one called “Bulkington” about a character by that name who only appears in that tiny chapter. Grace Paley, of course. Andre Dubus, my teacher and old friend, used to take an 80 page story and reduce it to 20, that’s compression. Kafka, the list could go on and on. Faulkner can be very direct when he wants to be. My mother is a fish…Hrabal, a Czech writer who is also a favorite writes very intense compressed hilarious sad books..
I figured out a way to take to a picture using this computer, and I’m attaching my friend the squirrel. I think he is a guy. This squirrel is now looking at me, staring, his little chest is pulsing. What does this all mean?
(I’m really quite enchanted and distracted by the squirrel but I’m also equally fascinated by how Peter is weaving the answers to my questions together with his minute-to-minute encounter with the squirrel. But I admit it’s getting harder to stick to the interview! However, I persist.)
As a writer, you’ve clearly developed your own approach to character and plot. As a teacher, do you encourage students to begin with vignettes, bits of the story, then slowly form them into a whole? How do you deal with a student who is really tied to outline and traditional plot development?
As a teacher, or a reader, or a writer, I’d never recommend my particular method, or unmethod, really. I think storytelling as an art form that is essentially organic and comes always from the individual teller. We’ve got to find our own way to tell. Ideas of character and plot are as myraid as their people and the crazy situations people get themselves into. Of course, there’s Aristotle, who we should listen to, and even read once in a while. Though I humbly disagree with him that plot is always the most important thing. For me, there is so much drama – and story – in character.
When I teach, if I encourage anything, it’s to ask your characters tough questions. What we need are more complicated characters, politicians, and squirrels. Seriously, no writer in their right mind would push their own aesthetic on other writers. I just want a piece of fiction to move me as a reader whether it has a lot of plot or not. And yet, I love a wide range of work, and while compression is important to me personally in terms of my own writing, I tend to be drawn toward what people might consider plot-heavy writers like Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Mann…and of course Dostoevsky. I put these writers alongside my cherished Chekhov, one of the great compressors of course. But note, toward the end of his life, Chekhov kept writing longer and longer…What does this tell us? Not to be complacent, and think you write one way and not another.
Be open. Period. Don’t sum yourself and decide what kind of writer you are, ever. Because tomorrow you will be a different person. This is what I try and impart to myself and to my students.
It’s a frequently-asked question, but one I think might be good to ask you, since you’ve said your fiction draws heavily on your own life. Do you think that, given the very slippery nature of memory, that all memoir is fiction? Or, even the other way around?
This does get to the heart of the matter. Aren’t there times when you think that the life you are living and the life the people you know and love are living is actually fiction? I mean take this squirrel for instance. This is really happening. I’m sitting in this hotel room answering these questions, and again, he is climbing slowly up my screen. It sounds to me like complete fiction. Five stories up? Downtown Chicago? But it’s not. What does this tell us? Not that old dull saw that truth is stranger than fiction, but rather that very often truth actually is fiction.
So yes, I agree with some variant of the notion that all memoir is fiction. Because any time we start selecting the details we use to narrate experience, real or imagined, we are beginning to a made up story. I draw on real life because I’m trying to explain to myself just how strange this life is.
I think the squirrel just killed himself. He seemed literally to think about it and then just leap – poor soul.
No, wait, he caught the edge of the window and is up again, and again scrabbling across my screen. I’m going to open the window and see what impact this has on my sleek furry companion.
(Several exchanges of e-mails later)
Peter, I have to ask. What happened to the squirrel?
The squirrel is alive and well and living the high life in Chicago. He survived 8 falls from that window
Whew! And thanks very much for taking the time to answer my questions
Peter Orner’s column, “The Lonely Writer,” appears in The Rumpus. It’s all about short stories and writing and if you love short stories, you should read it. Here’s a link: http://therumpus.net/sections/blogs/peter-orner-blogs/. Also, there’s more information about Peter on his website, http://peterorner.net/. You can request more information about Peter’s Master Teacher Weekend Workshop at http://valeriefioravanti.com/master-teacher-workshops/
Sue Staats recently received her MFA in Fiction from Pacific University. She’s currently revising her novella, The Mitchell Boys, and working on a collection of linked short stories. Her short story “No Hero, No Sharks” was runner-up for the 2011 Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction, a finalist for the 2011 Reynolds Price Fiction Award, and was published this spring in The Farallon Review. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have also been published numerous times in Susurrus, the literary journal of Sacramento City College. Her poetry and fiction will be published soon in The Sacramento Poetry Anthology and r.kv.r.y.