Julie Orringer is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and Cornell University, and was a Stegner Fellow in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. Her stories have appeared in The Paris Review, The Yale Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and Zoetrope: All-Story. She is thirty years old and lives in San Francisco.
Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.
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In our interview, Orringer shared some fun facts with us:
"My first exposure to writing came when I was three years old, when my father sat down with me and made me a little book out of tiny pieces of paper he'd stapled together. He was the one who taught me that a book was not just something you could read, but something you could create. Soon I began composing the stories with him. Some of our early titles were The Bowling Party, The Very Tiny Owl, The New Baby, and The Time We Went to Hollywood."
"Here are some of the jobs I had in San Francisco after I first moved here when I was 23: fertility clinic receptionist, fabric warehouse assistant, fax/copy clerk at the Park 55 hotel, office concierge at a creative consulting firm, consultant at same creative consulting firm, part-time calligrapher. Jobs I applied for in San Francisco but didn't get: greeting card writer, web site content writer, waiter, elementary school teacher, book salesperson."
"I play the violin and love to ski."
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In the winter of 2004, Julie Orringer took some time out to answer some of our questions about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
It's difficult to choose one book that most influenced my life as a writer, but if I had to choose, I might say it was Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. When I was a high school student, I found a copy in a used bookstore in Ann Arbor. It was a 1943 Random House edition with gorgeous woodcuts by Fritz Eichenberg -- Jane looked pale and determined in her plain governess' clothing; Mr. Rochester was dark-eyed, frightening, on a rearing horse. It was Jane's persistence and independence that I found exciting; I'd always loved stories about young women who struggled on through difficult circumstances, and Bronte's story seemed the archetypal example of the form.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?George Eliot's Middlemarch -- Her sense for character and place is incomparable. Perhaps it was her editor who said it best, in a letter from 1871: "It is a most wonderful study of human life and nature. You are like a great giant walking among us and fixing every one you meet upon your canvas. In all this life-like gallery that you put before us every trait in every character finds an echo or recollection in the reader's mind that tells him how true it is to Nature."
Tolstoy's War and Peace -- Who can begin to enumerate the infinite merits of this book? Anyone interested in learning to write better should read it at once. I approached it thinking it would be a great war story, and discovered that it was also a great love story, and a great story of personal struggle, and a great family epic and a great philosophical work. In the midst of his great thesis about the impossibility of attributing the success or failure of military endeavors to any one individual, Tolstoy achieves perfect understanding of each of his many characters' complicated desires, fears, and hopes.
Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway -- The blending of present and past, the confluence of many lives on one particular day, the memory of love, the impossibility of a smooth return to everyday concerns after the horrors of war, the way our hopes become altered over the years -- I've read this book again and again, and its power and beauty never cease to amaze me.
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji -- Written by a member of the Japanese imperial court in the eleventh century, this epic is the first known example of the novel form. It concerns the son of an emperor, whose changing fortunes and love affairs and artistic endeavors and friendships never lose their fascination for this reader. It's also a gorgeous portrait of court life in eleventh-century Japan.
Henry James' Portrait of a Lady -- Apart from the sheer joy of reading James, I love this book for the risk at which it places Isabel Archer: she arrives in Europe with her wealth and her inexperience, and we know we're going to see her make terrible mistakes. James does not disappoint. Nor does he leave her miserable in the end.
Nabokov's Lolita -- No one loves the English language like Nabokov. The book itself is a seducer, and makes us fall in love with Nabokov's words, images, and phrasings. The story is horrifying, tender, devious, and abjectly sad. Try reading it aloud.
Jose Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon -- This was the first Saramago book I read, and so I had no idea what I was in for. The narrator, Raimundo, is a proofreader for a publishing house in Lisbon, proofing a book on the history of the Siege of Lisbon; as he line-edits, he makes a change that changes history. At the same time, he's falling in love with the book's editor, who encourages him to write a novel that traces the new history he's created. Raimundo conducts a romance with his editor both within the novel he's writing and in real life. It's impossible to explain, impossibly beautiful. I wish I knew how Saramago did it.
Alice Munro's The Love of a Good Woman -- It would be impossible to choose a favorite among the stories in this collection, though I particularly admire "The Children Stay," "Before the Change," "My Mother's Dream," and the title story. I love the patience of Munro's narratives, and her attention to the inner lives of her characters, and the organic way in which her stories move through time.
George Saunders' Pastoralia -- Wild and lovely, heartbreaking and true, the stories in this collection may take place in worlds slightly weirder or crueler than our own, but Saunders always hits the emotional notes perfectly. I particularly love "Winky," the story of a brother and sister locked in a domestic hell.
Lynda Barry's My Perfect Life -- Is it a book of cartoons, a graphic novel, a piece of literary/visual art? Does it matter what we call it? Barry's protagonist, Maybonne, is a junior-high-schooler, still a kid in many ways, and in other ways learning too much too soon. Barry's vision of adolescent life that is at once dark and funny and lovely and miserable. I'm a huge, huge fan of her work.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you? Casablanca -- The setting, the music, the memory of Paris, that tragic farewell.
Farewell, My Concubine -- The gorgeous detail in which Chen Kaige portrays the lives of two actors in Peking opera, and the friendship/romance that develops between the boys and continues into their adulthood, with tragic consequences.
Wings of Desire -- The spiritual pain of the protagonist, an angel who longs to experience human life. The gray fractured angularity of Berlin. The sense of height and loss and the impermanence of our lives.
Crimes and Misdemeanors -- The relentlessness of Allen's narrative, the assertions of philosophy professor Louis Levy about the persistence of hope in a hopeless world, the moral ambiguity of the ending,
Manhattan -- Every line and expression of Mariel Hemingway; the city of New York; the way Allen makes you laugh and weep in equal measure.
Cinema Paradiso -- The friendship between a boy and a cinema projectionist in a small town in Italy, the dusty beauty of that town, the irrevocable change that the town and the film's protagonist both undergo as time passes.
Being John Malkovich -- Seeing this movie was not unlike taking a powerful mind-altering drug. I remember emerging from the theater with a sudden overwhelming sense of the separateness of every other human being's consciousness. The film, by the way, is hilarious. It loses none of its power upon repeat viewings.
To Kill a Mockingbird -- One of the first films I saw as a child (after Pete's Dragon and The Black Stallion). My third-grade teacher had read us Harper Lee's masterpiece, and the film was as true to the book as I could have wished. I think my first-ever crush was upon Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. And I loved Scout in her ham costume.
Lawrence of Arabia -- It took me twenty-five years to see this film; but how incredible is Peter O'Toole as the heroic and daring Lawrence? His charismatic presence fills the gorgeous void of the desert.
The Dreamlife of Angels -- A quietly moving film about two young French women living together and developing an intimate, tumultuous, and ultimately tragic friendship. The most memorable aspect of this film is probably Isa's loneliness, portrayed with great sensitivity by Elodie Bouchez.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Some favorite bands/musicians: The Shins, Bjork, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, The Pixies, Sonic Youth, Marvin Gaye, Little Jimmy Scott, Charles Mingus, Etta James, Nina Simone. I don't listen to music while I'm writing, but I like the sound of city noise outside my window.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Andy Greer's The Confessions of Max Tivoli -- I greatly admired Greer's first novel, The Path of Minor Planets; he writes gorgeous prose and his characterizations are sharp and memorable. His new novel is about a man who's born looking as though he's seventy years old, and becomes younger-looking as he gets older. He falls hopelessly in love with a woman who ages like the rest of us; and the book takes place in San Francisco during the end of the 19th century and the first four decades of the 20th.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Some books I've given as gifts recently: Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, Stuart Dybek's I Sailed With Magellan, Dave Eggers' You Shall Know Our Velocity, Sarah Stone's The True Sources of the Nile, ZZ Packer's Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Babette Hines' Photobooth.
Some books I've received recently: Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting' Caryl Phillips' A Distant Shore, Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire, Michael Byers' Long for This World.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have many photos and postcards taped to the wall above my writing desk: a painting entitled The Child Enthroned; a black-and-white photograph of a desk and chair in a dark room; a photograph of Robert Creeley; a Tenniel illustration from Alice in Wonderland; some illustrations of leaves; a painting of some Noh actors; a photograph of my parents from the early 70's, with my father wearing a polka-dot bow tie; a photograph of my husband in Golden Gate Park; a photograph of my husband as a twelve-year-old, wearing an OP shirt; a photograph of my little brother with a yellow dog; a sticker from the band Rainywood, a sticker from the band Idaho Falls, a sticker from the Sid Hillman Quartet; some Author Cards (think baseball cards, only literary) given out at readings at my local bookstore, depicting George Saunders, Lynda Barry, Charles Baxter, Jonathan Lethem, and Stuart Dybek. On my desk, along with all the random pieces of paper, are maps and books I've been using as I work on my current project, a novel that takes place in Budapest and Hungary in the late 30's and early 40's.
Many writers in the Discover program are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It took ten years from the time I began writing seriously to the publication of the short story collection. In 1994, upon graduating from college, I ignored the wise advice of my professors who had counseled me to take some time away from school, and went directly to the MFA program at the University of Iowa. There, I found myself in workshops with writers who were really doing serious work -- and funny work, and risky work, and brilliantly weird work -- and instantly saw how far I had to go with my own writing. I struggled with the craft of fiction; I began reading a great deal of contemporary short stories and began to amass a brand new list of favorites: Charles Baxter, Stuart Dybek, Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Katherine Anne Porter.
After Iowa, I moved to California, where I worked a series of terrible jobs while writing at night. I began to send out stories and amassed a fat folder of rejection letters before one story, "What We Save," was accepted at The Yale Review. After that, other stories were accepted at other magazines. Finally I was offered a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, and a lectureship thereafter. Those years of workshop and writing allowed me to finish the collection, ten years after I'd set out on this trek. I'm hoping the novel I'm writing now won't take as long.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
A Stanford classmate of mine named Angela Pneuman, who is completing a novel and a collection of short stories. Ms. Pneuman has a sharp sense of humor, a driving narrative rhythm, and rare insight into the joys and miseries of the lives of young women. Her experience growing up within a conservative Evangelical Christian community informs her fiction and leads her toward painful explorations of the relationships between human beings and their spirituality, and between children and parents. Her short story "All Saints Day," published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, will appear in the 2004 Best American Short Stories.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Read as much as possible. Make a writing schedule and stick to it. Send out your work only when it's been thoroughly revised, and be sure to read the magazines or journals you're sending it to. Get involved with a group of writers who work hard, read each other's writing, and offer constructive advice. Challenge yourself. Take risks. Don't write what you think someone else wants you to be writing; write what you want to write.
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