Peter Orner on Being Proud and Finding the Weird

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When San Francisco-based author Peter Orner released his second novel, Love and Shame and Love, two years ago, the press marveled at how he is "overlooked by the general reading public. If he lived in Brooklyn," said ZYZZYVA managing editor Oscar Villalon, "he'd be the type of guy who'd be feted by The Paris Review, The New Yorker. His work is that good."

Mostly, it seems natural that a writer of Orner's caliber would not be embraced by the average reader; while enjoyable, his work is serious business. His sentences don't have fat on them and his stories don't so much invite participation as demand investment.

But Love and Shame and Love became a New York Times Editor's Choice Book and won the California Book Award. Orner's first novel, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, won the Bard Fiction Prize and was a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. But most of all, his debut story collection, Esther Stories, is considered a classic; about that volume, the NYT said "Orner doesn't just bring his characters to life, he gives them souls."

That may seem hyperbolic, but it does give you an idea of the stakes at hand. Orner is not playing games, and as he is set to release his second volume of stories, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, this Tuesday, the author was nice enough to answer some questions by email.

Tell me about this book. What are you proud of? What did you most enjoy?

A generous question, what am I most proud of? Hard to answer. I guess I'd say I've been trying for years to say more with less. And here maybe I take things to extremes, but this is what I'm truly after. A kind of radical compression. Lots of lives in one short book. I kind of see the world this way. All these stories that people are carrying around with them, I want to tell. I walk down the street and there are so many people, so many stories. I want to chip away at this, person by person.

Can you talk to me about some of the particular challenges of writing this collection?

Goes hand in hand with my desire to compress. The temptation to over-explain. I tend to hate stories and novels that do this, and yet, I understand why writers go this route. They worry they'll miss people. I know I probably miss people, but it's the chance I got to take because if I over-explain a story, it's over for me. I'm trying to hold on to the mystery, that's the challenge.

Is there a general way that you start a story? Do they come from different places? I know you've said you like to immerse yourself in the lives of other people -- to get out of yourself -- in a book, and I'm wondering (beyond that) what are some of the things that a story has to have for you to be satisfied? How do you know it's done?

I usually start with a place, someone in a place, a restaurant, a kitchen. A bed. That's usually my point of departure. I write something, and then I re-write, sometimes for years. I write by hand, so it's easy for me to keep track of the drafts. And if I re-write and I end up writing it again, from the top, without any changes, this is how I know it's done.

In the NYT review of your first collection, the author said "all the evidence suggests that he doesn't believe such a narrative is possible, that he is convinced that life can only be understood and represented in sidelong glances." Can you comment on this? Do you think that was an accurate statement and do you think that has changed in the years (and through the longer works of fiction) since?

I believe that review was talking about cause and effect. That I don't seem to believe in it. I'd agree with this. I don't agree with cause and effect in stories, if by cause and effect we mean that characters act according to a kind of rational set of laws. I think characters -- people -- are more complicated than this. And half the time, I got to say, my characters, like a lot of people I know, myself included, don't always know what the hell they are doing, or what they want, or all that. So stories that have real obvious cause and effects feel false to me. I think life is infinitely more messy.

How about returning to the short form after spending time on the novel? I know you've compared shorts to a punch in the gut, in contrast to bearing the tragedy of one's entire life, and it seems to me that moving from one to the other might be a good strategy... akin to exercising different muscles, or crop rotation. Are these apt analogies, do you think, and do you see yourself alternating in this way down the line?

I look at it this way. In a novel, I spend a lot of time with a certain set of characters. In a story collection, I can go wider, get out in the world more. It's nice to alternate between these two ways of seeing.

If you had to name a favorite of the new stories, what would it be? And what do you like about it?

Always weird to choose, you know? I always go for the stories people don't notice. There's a tiny story about Mary Todd Lincoln in a hotel in Chicago after Abe's death. She becomes obsessed by all those shoes lining the hotel room doors. I worked on the story for more years than I can say. And it's less than a page long. It's absurd that this stuff takes me so long to get right. It's called, "Grand Pacific Hotel, Chicago, 1875".

Speaking of a scene from Gallant in The Atlantic, you said: "Ah, so this is how you pivot a story, you unhinge someone and then just stand back and watch and listen. As a person, it made me cringe." I wonder if, since that revelation, you've been more conscious of unhinging your characters and if you ever have trouble doing so?

Every time I read Gallant I realize how much I've got to learn. There's nobody better because there's nobody weirder. She doesn't need to take the weirdness very far. There's no pyrotechnics. So yes, from reading Gallant just the other day I saw another way to do this, and I remembered, all you got to really do is watch your characters closely. Don't take your eyes off them because they might do something totally crazy that is at the same time something totally ordinary. That's what I'm always after.

You said something in your interview with TriQuarterly that really spoke to me: "What I want is for you to feel like there's a life going on beyond the page, in all that time that you didn't hear about." I sort of selfishly just want you to expand on that, if you can.

Goes back to, I think, (and god knows what the hell I was talking about) trusting the reader, not over-explaining it, and allowing the reader to imagine all that life you've let off the page. If your characters are truly alive then they can carry on beyond your story in someone else's head. This is the miracle of this, if it works.

You said recently that San Francisco hasn't yet entered your fiction in a substantial way, yet you've been here for a while and place is clearly so important for you. What is it about San Francisco that keeps you based here?

I take this one back. I've finally lived here long enough, 14 years now, I feel like I'm of this place enough to write about it. The last story I wrote for Last Car was after the galley was already printed. It's about San Francisco and set at the Fairmont Hotel. My editor and I were able to squeeze it into the book at the very last minute. It fits, I think. I hope. And it was nice to finally talk about this city that has taken me a long time to love. But it's happened now.

Orner will be in conversation with McSweeney's' Isaac Fitzgerald as part of Litquake's Epicenter series tonight at Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter St., 7 p.m. $5-$10 suggested.

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