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.
with Peter Orner
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?
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
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
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
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
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
rumpus.net called the Lonely Voice, a title I stole from Frank
O'Connor. Anyway, here's what I wrote -
Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?
"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,
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.
Anyone willing to take a few minutes and listen.
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.
What are you working on now?
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.
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.