Peter Orner: Interview

Monday, May 28, 2012

Native Chicagoan Peter Orner’s second novel, Love and Shame and Love, has been described as “a collection of beautiful moments.” Released in late 2011 , the book has a unique structure that mirrors the conscious experience of memory. Scenes shift unpredictably among fragments of time, weaving across generations of a Chicago family.

A resident of San Francisco for the last decade, Orner is an associate professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a law degree from Northeastern University. His works have received accolades such as the Rome Prize in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for Esther Stories (2001) and the Bard Fiction Prize for The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (2006). He has edited two nonfiction collections, Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives (2008), and Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (2010).

Orner spoke to TriQuarterly Online recently in his neighborhood of Precita Park to discuss Love and Shame and Love, and his approach to the craft of writing.


TriQuarterly Online: Why did you write Love and Shame and Love?

Peter Orner: I think I wrote it primarily because I wanted to go home. I last lived in Chicago when I was in my twenties, and I long for it. I wrote this book as one way of going home, in my mind—which is probably why a lot of people write. But I felt like I missed a certain part of my own life.

TQO: Is it fair to say that you drew somewhat from your family experiences in Chicago in writing the book?

PO: Sure.

TQO: Why did you decide to write a work of fiction, as opposed to a memoir?

PO: As a writer I’m not interested in memoir as a form. My own life directly doesn’t interest me. I think what interests me is the possibilities in someone’s life. I look at my life as almost like someone else’s life, and then I make stuff up out of it. The basic outlines of some of the stories may be true, but I was more interested in the things that didn’t happen than those that did.

TQO: How do you make decisions about how and when to incorporate real people and real events?

PO: I do a lot of that. In the book there are actual people whom I fictionalize for my own purposes. I have a lot of fun with that. The judge in the first scene is based on a real character, whom I knew about and heard a lot of stories about when I was a kid. I have fun with the idea of, again, manipulating real things and turning them into invention. Actually taking something real and then inventing from it is exciting to me. I don’t know necessarily why that is. If we’re limited by what really happened, it limits the scope of possibility. Fiction expands the scope of possibility, for me. I can take something real and then totally lie about it, which is kind of what I do for a living.

TQO: You don’t have the constraints that you would in a memoir or nonfiction.

PO: No. I have no constraints. The only constraint is trying to make it any good, which is a whole other story. Roberto Bolaño, whom I like a lot, said, “There are no books more deceitful than memoirs.” He didn’t say that necessarily negatively. But the idea that a memoir is true is absurd. It’s just as absurd as my book being true also—it’s not. None of what we write is true; it’s all a construct in our own minds.

TQO: You’ve written nonfiction as well—do you have a preference?

PO: I’m a fiction writer. I do nonfiction, and I do it poorly, usually. Every time I try to be a journalist I generally fail. But I do do oral histories, which are a little bit different, where it’s talking to people about their stories. In that mode I’m pretty strict. I don’t make stuff up, obviously. I’m very interested in the way that people tell stories of their own lives, through oral history. But that’s very different from the fiction that I do.

TQO: Why are oral histories important?

PO: Probably the same reason that fiction’s important. I think that stories are our lifeblood. I feel like we don’t pay enough attention to them in a deep way. As things get shorter and your online identity becomes who you are, I think we’re losing the longer-term, generational stories of where we come from. What my interest in oral history often stems from is you get to talk generationally. You get to find out what people’s grandparents did, and what their great-grandparents did, and their roots—the origins of their lives. In fiction I try to mine the same kind of territory. I’m very interested in people’s foundational stories, the stories that provide the backbone of who they are, or at least who they think they are. I think our stories do that.

TQO: Love and Shame and Love is a multigenerational story. What kind of research did you do about the context of Chicago in different eras, or about your family?

PO: It’s funny; I thought with this book I wouldn’t have to do a lot of research because I know this territory so well. I thought, I’m a fourth-generation Chicagoan, I know this place. But it turns out, when you’re writing about stuff that’s really close to you, you have as many questions as you do when you’re writing about a country you’re not from.

I wrote a book about Namibia, and I researched that like crazy. But with this book it was actually a lot of fun to research where I’m from. I read a lot of obscure books about Chicago, political history in particular. I ended up doing a lot of haphazard research. I’m not at all formulaic or organized. I pick up books here and there, and I use them in various ways.

TQO: Is the nonlinear structure of your book meant to be indicative of how memories can seem to exist in one’s consciousness?

PO: Yeah. This book was all about memory, so I wanted to explore how one memory kind of jolts you into remembering something else. I wanted to get that feeling. I’m very peripatetic in my memory. My memories flip around a lot, and so I wanted to mimic that experience. I’m not sure that I’d ever seen it done before. I thought that flipping around in memory would provide people an insight into who these people were, in a different way from a more traditional structure.

TQO: What does that structure allow for that a traditional structure might not?

PO: 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. My brother, right now, is somewhere in Washington, DC. What’s he doing? I’m not exactly sure; I could probably make some guesses. But I know he’s out there doing stuff. And I want you to have the same experience with a character. I want you to feel that they’re out there doing stuff beyond the page. That’s how they live in my own mind, and I wanted to give readers that experience.

Some books you’re walking through, and you’re with that person, and you never leave their side. I want them to float away, and come back, but always be alive. I thought that this was one way of accomplishing that.

TQO: Like a realistic way of how we interact with and think about the other people that are out there.

PO: Totally. I think it is realistic. I think a more linear book—and of course I love many linear novels—is not realistic. Mine actually tracks my own experience with people that I care about when I’m not with them.

It’s like a series of thoughts, or again, memories. Sometimes they’re full-blown scenes, sometimes they’re something completely in someone’s head, sometimes they’re letters. So they’re pieces. Puzzle pieces of lives.

Your original question—why did I write it? It was that I wanted to go home, but it’s also that I wanted to establish how we keep track of people in this weird way. Maybe you won’t talk to somebody for weeks on end, but they’re in your mind. So that’s the idea. With the grandfather character out in the boat for much of the book—I was thinking about him out there. He’s just out there. Sometimes he checks in and you know what he’s thinking, but most of the time he’s just out there in that boat. I wanted to play with that idea.

TQO: Are there specific challenges or pressures that are presented by that format?

PO: Yeah. You can definitely lose people. There’s a reason that we’re attracted to chronological stories, or at least linear stories. This book is actually fairly chronological overall, but it stops and starts, and it moves into different characters’ heads a lot.

It’s not for me to say whether it works. The pitfall is losing some people. A lot of people complain, “I don’t know what the hell’s going on.” That’s fine, because they’re not my reader. I want a reader that can roll with memory, and how weird memory is. That’s uncomfortable for some people, because that’s not what they want out of a book. I certainly got a lot of flak from readers. People say, “What the hell? I don’t know what is going on in this book.” It takes awhile.

TQO: Maybe readers clash with the fact that it doesn’t follow their expectations of what a book is or should be. It’s jarring.

PO: Definitely. It has to do with rhythm. My ideal reader is a reader that can get into the rhythm of it, that can allow for its jarringness. Because I find life awfully jarring. Maybe I’m trying to replicate how it actually feels for me to live.

TQO: You’ve mentioned your “reader” a couple of times. Do you write with a reader in mind?

PO: I have some core readers that I speak to. Here, I definitely had my family in mind-— dead family members that I wanted to talk to in this book. I was writing for people who aren’t here anymore. It was for them; it was for my grandparents, I think—to try to imagine their lives.

TQO: What was your process like for writing the book?

PO: The process mimics the structure, in the sense that I often work on many things at once. Then I try to put together what I’ve done. I would work on different scenes, different sections from all over the book, at the same time. I was dealing with generations of lives, but they’re all related. So it didn’t matter if I was in 1978 or 1955 or 2001; there is a continuum because these people are related to each other. I could keep track because they’re tethered, they’re connected. I’d simply think, what year, what character, what are they doing? And I’d go from there. If I was bored with somebody, I’d move on to another generation.

TQO: Did you do much rearranging of those pieces?

PO: Tons. The book could be arranged differently. It does follow a rough chronological order, but within that I had a lot of freedom to go in and out of space and time. The final order is not arbitrary—I did the best I could to make it relate—but it’s not absolute. You could read it out of order and that’d be fine with me; I think you might get the same experience. Again, it’s the randomness of memory. I don’t think randomness is really the right word. But our lives are built on our memories, which sometimes are more intense than other times, sometimes lengthier, often times misremembered or remembered differently. It just seems very variable. My book tries to mimic that variability.

TQO: Has San Francisco or the Bay Area been an influence on your writing?

PO: No. It’s weird. I love it here. I’ve written a few stories set here, and I write a lot of nonfiction that’s set here. But for some reason my fiction usually has to do with other places. I’m still very much getting to know this place. Since I leave a lot I’m never quite here. One day I’ll be here. I’m starting to really love it. I love my neighborhood. I love this park. I love this coffee shop. This is where I live. I don’t really live in San Francisco; I live in Precita Park, at Charlie’s Café.

TQO: In what ways have you seen your own work evolve?

PO: I think I’m getting more concise, if it’s possible. I write very short pieces, but I almost want my work to be shorter and shorter. I love Giacometti: his sculptures kept getting thinner and thinner, tighter and tighter. There’s so much intensity in those thin sculptures. I want that. Compression is something I don’t think I’ll ever give up trying for.

TQO: What books have influenced you significantly?

PO: I mention a number of them in the book. It’s a book by a reader. Definitely Evan Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge; I love those two books. One book that is really influential in the structure is by the Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo. He wrote a book called Pedro Páramo that for me is a bible on how to tell a really intense story in as few words as possible. If I could do what Juan Rulfo did in Pedro Páramo I’d die happy.

In contrast to that, I love Bleak House—Dickens. I love Eudora Welty. I love Saul Bellow. Isaac Babel is a hero. He compresses; he’s the great compressor. Paul Harding’s Tinkers—I think that’s a gorgeous book.

TQO: What are you currently working on?

PO: I have a new book of stories coming out next year. I’m working on finishing those right now. I’m back to my roots as a story writer. My first book was a story collection, and I’m really happy to be back in that space.

TQO: How does that feel to you—writing the short story versus the novel?

PO: I prefer to read short stories. I always have a novel I’m reading, but if I really need a punch in the gut, I read a short story. I think writing stories is harder than writing novels, though some people think it’s the other way around. To write a great story is such a rare and hard thing.


Photo by Traci Griffin