Fiction Spotlight: Peter Orner

In a striking moment from the novella that caps Peter Orner’s Maggie Brown & Others (Little Brown), the main character, Walt Kaplan, hears his young daughter hovering outside the door to his study. She is watching him through the door’s keyhole. Walt goes to the door and kneels to look through the keyhole, his eye seeing, with delighted awe, that of his daughter. 

These two images—the unseen daughter peeking into the father’s private space, and the father observing, up close, his daughter’s eyeball—struck me as apt metaphors for Orner’s stories, the way they allow us intense glimpses into rooms, lives, souls. For many years now, in my fiction courses I’ve taught Orner’s very short story “The Raft” as an example of this power. (I probably shouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’m not the only devotee of “The Raft” and that a movie version, starring Ed Asner, came out in 2015.)

In addition to Maggie Brown, Orner is the author of two previous story collections—Esther Stories (2001), winner of the Rome Prize and the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Writing, and Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge (2013), finalist for the Northern California Book Award—as well as the novels The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (2006), finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Love and Shame and Love (2010), winner of the California Book Award, all published by Little, Brown. His memoir-essay collection Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Reading to Live and Living to Read (Catapult 2016) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Orner has taught for the MFA programs at Warren Wilson and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, among numerous other teaching positions, and after many years on the faculty at San Francisco State University, recently moved to the East Coast, where he is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.

One reason I love your work is your sense of humor. I often laugh—and get punched in the gut. The proximity of comedy to tragedy seems key, that the flip side of wonder is absurdity. Though we Americans have a tradition of humor, there still seems to be a sense that a “real” writer must not be too funny—which is why I was so happy when the Pulitzer committee honored Andrew Greer’s Less and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot a couple of years ago, recognizing that “funny” can take on big topics like love and death and being human. I’d love to hear your thoughts on humor and comedy.

Let me just say, Daphne, that you are an incredibly open-hearted reader. Thank you. Make a reader laugh and feel like they’re getting punched. Can I quote you on that? That’s all ever I want. I’m not sure—correct me if I’m wrong—there’s a great writer who isn’t funny. In all the thousand degrees of funny there is. Cervantes, Melville. Zora Neale Hurston. Who’s got comic timing like Hurston? Arguably the greatest chronicler of the holocaust, Primo Levi, had a remarkable nose for the absurd. Having nightmares about Nazis will do this to you. And he’s got a funny bit about prosciutto in The Periodic Table. You take comedy out of life—even the hardest things in life—and I’m not sure what you’ve got. You don’t honor tragedy by forgetting that people laugh, if not with their mouths, with their hearts. I’d say Americans are pretty funny. So are Canadians, sometimes. New Foundlanders, they’re always funny. And Richler, of course. Alice Munro could kill you with a joke. Zimbabweans are funny (Dambudzo Marechera, supremely great story writer, brutally funny.) Okay, I loved Belgium, but I didn’t find people there all that funny. I take this back, Hugo Claus, he’s funny. He wrote the Sorrow of Belgium, which is too long but there are funny parts. 

“Walt Kaplan is Broke,” the novella in Maggie Brown, turns the tragicomedy of daily life into rich chapters like hits of a drug whose effects can’t be predicted one to the next. You channel voices with seeming ease; we witness Walt’s rich inner life, the intimacy of his relationship with his wife, his friendship with Alf, until we realize we’ve developed a real affection for these people and their community. [As an aside, I was reminded of my own great aunt and uncle, Holocaust survivors who came from Budapest to West Orange, NJ and opened a lamp shop….] Knowing there’s such a desire from publishers for novels versus short stories, I’m wondering if you ever felt pressure to expand this into what your publisher could happily call a novel. Or did something (maturity? resolve? exhaustion? being Peter Orner?) exempt you from, or give you the strength to withstand, this pressure? What’s the story behind this unique work?

I’d love to have visited that lamp shop. Now there’s something. To work in all that light. And in West Orange. West Orange is, by the way, just funny on its own. On this, I’d say two things, 1. I think writers should get paid, and 2. Writers should write whatever the hell they want. These two are often—scratch often—always—in conflict. But I’ll always go with number 2 till the day I die. I’ve never been able to write what other people want me to write. Sentences just don’t come to me that way. It’s why I was a failure as a journalist. I’d go out on assignment and write a piece about the person who sold me a Snickers on the way on the way to the interview. The editor would be like, but wait, this is about the 7-11. You were supposed to go to the rally! And I’m like fuck the rally. So the idea of anybody telling me to write such and such type of book, forget it. Lot of bad books are a result of people feeling obligated to write them.  

Your beautiful story “Pacific” is an homage to Andre Dubus’ “At Night.” I realized after reading it how the act of tribute became another layer of the story; your teacher and friend is no longer here, yet your story extends from his, becoming an extension of Andre even as you write about our ephemerality and relative smallness amid the “blessed indifference” of the natural world. This conscious act of honoring a writer who has been important to you made me wonder about influences you might not consciously have been thinking of while writing. In particular, I wanted to ask about Gina Berriault, knowing you wrote a wonderful introduction to the recent reissue of her collected stories, Women in Their Beds, which has long been one of my bibles. I felt her influence in stories like “Two Lawyers,” where you marry plainspoken reality with the mysteriousness of everyday life. Could you talk a little about what her work means to you and if you sense her influence in any of these stories?

I wish Andre were still here to read what you said. He’d lean back in his wheelchair and nod. I like to think stories talk to each other this way, across years, across countries. Andre does something similar in Dancing After Hours. One of his characters, a waitress, is reading an Edna O’Brien story. I’ve always thought it was such a moving gesture, this honoring O’Brien through another fictional character. Ah, and Gina Berriault, where to begin? So happy to hear she’s important to you. Andre was a fan of hers as well. I remember seeing his name on a book jacket of hers. I called him up and said, “How come you never told me about Gina Berriault?” And he said something like, “You need me to tell you about Gina Berriault?” But it’s true. She’s almost like this secret whispered among those readers who’ve been lucky enough to find her. Proof, I think, that all you’ve got to be is good, and eventually people will find you. (Though I know there are writers out there I haven’t found yet that I need to, so we always have to keep our eyes and ears open for the voices we’ve missed.) I guess what I’d say about Berriault here is that the sentence by sentence choices she makes in her stories floor me. When I notice. The thing is you don’t notice, you fall into her world which looks like a lot like our world (It’s lonely, it’s sad, it’s funny) but she seems to see it clearer than almost anybody—I mean this in an almost mystical sense. Gina Berriault is able to see without the baggage that weighs down so many of our eyes. A certain clarity of vision emerges from flat words on a page. And so, called reality almost becomes fantastical it’s so vivid. Does this make any sense at all? Everybody should read her. I’ve been shouting this from the rooftops for a long time. But the thing is: it doesn’t matter. The people who need Berriault will find her. Trumpeting isn’t necessary. And it doesn’t suit her work. People call her quiet. She’s not quiet. Just because she doesn’t shout doesn’t mean she’s quiet. 

The wonderful Joan Wickersham visited a class I was teaching and said she wanted her fiction to read like nonfiction and her nonfiction to have the feel of fiction. I thought of this when reading your stories that have an autobiographical quality, such as “Allston” and “The Roommate.” While in some cases this feeling may seem due to the confessional first person voice, I think it also has to do with the references to memory and to the act of narration. But I also sense there’s a point at which a writer is finally able to write about the material of the world with a greater degree of emotional candor. If you don’t find this too much of a prying question: what, in your case, do you think has allowed for this as you’ve moved forward in your writing?

Wickersham’s The News From Spain. A bible right back at you. What a great and deceptive book. And she’s getting at something that I think is pretty elemental for fiction, especially when you’re writing about memory. I’m with Wickersham, I want people to think a story is true. Not in the sense that it happened to me as in me though to be honest I don’t give a damn if people think something happened to me or not. Whatever it takes to make a reader believe. Somebody asked me at a reading the other day why I kicked the drug dealer in the groin, and I was happy because she believed that it happened, that somebody kicked the drug dealer in the groin. Fiction’s a sleight of hand. A way of creating truth out of thin air. A drug dealer, yeah, in 1986, in Chicago, in an apartment building on Howard, he did, he got kicked in the groin. He didn’t deserve it, but it happened, right? 

One of my favorite stories is “Ineffectual Tribute to Len,” for the instinctive way it portrays the writer grappling with his raw material—in this case, the loss of a vibrant character from real life. I imagine all writers have a manila envelope full of notes they don’t know what to do with, including the question of whether those notes are going to be a novel, memoir, story, etc. Your piece beautifully expresses that muddle while merging elements of all three genres. Clearly this was a tough story to write, not only because of the weighty material. Could you tell me at what point in the writing you discovered that this piece was going to be about writing, and how you found your way through it?

“Ineffectual Tribute” took me almost twenty years. I’m not even sure why. Whatever it was, it just wasn’t working. You mention the word muddle. This is my favorite word. Stephen Blackpool says it in Dicken’s Hard Times. Over and over again he says, “Tis a muddle.” I’m not sure there’s ever a point when I know a story has broken through. No, this isn’t true. But it is a physical thing and not a mental thing. I’m muddling and muddling—sometimes years of muddling—and then I feel this kind of plunge in my stomach. Emotion manifesting itself physically? I don’t know—but if I can feel something after working on something for that long, I know something must be working. Often though this is just me. But to stop dodging your question… The story was painful because it was about a friend I loved. I wanted to do him some justice. When I realized that wasn’t possible, I was able to move forward with it. I used to be adamant that writing isn’t therapy. I’ve softened over the years on this. Maybe it is a kind of self-medication? 

I imagine each of these stories has gone through numerous drafts. I’m wondering how, when you’ve written a very short piece that isn’t yet working (versus a longer piece that isn’t quite there yet) you know that the revision solution isn’t to try to develop it into something longer. Do you always know which pieces are keyhole moments (as I think of them: brief intimate glimpses) versus more expansive works? 

If I can do it with less, I’m going to try. Usually I fail. But you can see a hell of a lot through a keyhole. A whole room, which is a universe, opens up. Didn’t Emily Dickinson teach us this, over and over and over? Meng Hao-jan? A brief intimate harrowing glimpse. Grace Paley? Lucia Berlin? Robert Walser? So many others. Let’s say you’re dying. Not you… but somebody. Somebody in a room is dying and they see something, some vision. It’s not their life passing before their eyes. It’s not a novel. You don’t have time to add scenes, chapters. It’s a single moment. And this moment, this glimpse, is the last thing that comes to this person. Isn’t that everything? I guess I’m often trying to capture this sort of vision. And failing—most always failing. Using more words than I need is an acknowledgment of failure. But this is okay. How many stories, how many books that I love are beautiful failures? 

Interviewer Daphne Kalotay is the author of three novels. She received her PhD in Modern & Contemporary Literature from Boston University and fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the Bogliasco Foundation, MacDowell, and Yaddo. You can read her work in Memorious here and her interview on her most recent book, Blue Hours, here.

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