Peter Orner was born in Chicago and is the author of the novel, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and the story collection, Esther Stories. A book of oral histories, edited by Orner, Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, was published in 2008 by McSweeneys for the Voice of Witness Series.

Short Story Collections

Esther Stories
(Mariner Books, 2001)

reviewed by Tania Hershman

Interview with Peter Orner

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Peter Orner: I'm a pretty slow writer. I think Esther Stories took me roughly seven years. I'm also of the opinion that stories are never quite done. Even when they're published they are never done to me. For some reason this makes them live longer to me, if this makes any sense. Does it?

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

PO: Yes, I think so . I like to play stories off each other. As I'm writing one, I often have another in mind. A lot of my characters in Esther Stories re-appear in other stories. I remember once killing off the character of Walt Kaplan. I felt so bad about it, I resurrected him, much younger, in the next story.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

PO: This is always tough for me. Maybe it's kind of like making a cd - it's about how the stories work together, play off each other, create a larger effect. So I lose a lot of sleep over this - because there are always so many different possible combinations. But I'm the kind of person who wrecks all this by reading other people's books out of order - so what does this all mean? I'm not sure. I guess the beauty of story collections are that they actually can, without much damage, be read out of order. Reminds me of something Mavis Gallant said, I paraphrase: Read a story, put the book down. Don't worry about it. Stories can wait. I think that's what is so great about stories, they are always there waiting for you. Little undiscovered worlds. I think I got off topic here.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

PO: Forgive my lazy ass for quoting myself. But the below is from a column I write on the short story on the called the Lonely Voice, a title I stole from Frank O'Connor. Anyway, here's what I wrote -

"The difference between a short story and a novel is the difference between a pang in your heart compared to the tragedy of your whole life. It’s all a matter of how you feel the pain. Read a great story and there it is—right now—in your gut. A novel gives you some time between innings. A story is complete, remorseless."

Slightly cheesy to quote yourself, I apologize, but I guess it's fair game since I still feel this way about stories. I'll add that I think stories, unlike other forms (with the exception of poetry) take really intense concentration - Lately I've been reading more novels because I'm having trouble concentrating. Stories need an extreme level of reader intensity, you know what I mean? People who say they don't read stories aren't willing or able to bring the intensity. I'm not blaming them. I'm talking too much here. See how the internet destroys us, we can go and on and talking, talking, the opposite of writing and reading stories where not only every word counts but every syllable.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

PO:  Anyone willing to take a few minutes and listen.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

PO: Were the characters alive to you?

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

PO: Pretty good. Wish there were more of you out there fighting the good fight for stories.

TSR: What are you working on now?

PO: I'm superstitious about this question. My grandmother was superstitious too. She would never go out of the house the same door she went in. This posed an interesting problem when she moved into an apartment with only one door.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

PO: Norman Levine, The Ability to Forget. Wonderfully strange and unsung Canadian story writer. James Alan McPherson, Hue and Cry. The great first book by McPherson, seminal American stories. I re-read these stories all the time. Janet Frame, The Lagoon, fascinating early stories by the New Zealand writer. Juan Rulfo, The Burning Plain and Other Stories. Woops that's four.
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Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>

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