Amplified Existence: Peter Orner on the Necessity of Fiction

Peter Orner Am I Alone Crop

Though reading is at best low-impact exercise, we tend to describe our strongest responses to a book in physical terms. Bad books are flung against walls; thrillers have us at the edge of our seats or sitting up straight in bed; our arm muscles must be strengthened by all sorts of engaging books, unputdownable as they are.

Peter Orner isn’t nearly so demure: He’s the reading equivalent of a P90X enthusiast. In Am I Alone Here?, his new collection of essays on the writers who’ve moved him, he literally moves: He describes how a sentence by Gina Barriault “brought me to my knees” and how a Richard Bausch story was so breathtaking that “I had to lie down on the floor and just breathe.” When he finished reading Too Loud a Solitude, a collection by Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, he recalls leaping off a park bench and “running around in circles, holding the book above my head and shouting because I believed I’d experienced some religious illumination.” Even sitting still as a reader is intense for him: When his copy of To the Lighthouse got dunked during a canoe trip, he writes, he did nothing but sit and wait for the book to dry on the shore so he could get back to it.

This kind of enthusiasm is infectious across Am I Alone Here?, because though he’s upbeat about his favorite story writers — Bernard Malamud, Eudora Welty, Imre Kertesz, Isaac Babel, Breece D’J Pancake — he’s not blurbing or selling so much as locating the places where a well-made story snaps to the emotional shape of his own life. The essays in the collection typically interweave criticism and memoir, as Orner — author of two story collections (Esther Stories and Last Car over the Sagamore Bridge) and two novels (The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Love and Shame and Love) — recalls his patriarchal father, a failed marriage, and his own work as a writer against the books that kept him company all the while.

Small wonder, then, that he once longed to get his chest tattooed with a few lines from The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor’s 1962 study of the short story: When words matter that much to you, you want them as close to the skin as possible. In this edited conversation, Orner talks about that physical relationship with story, reading, teaching, and the perils of trying to squeeze in some reading while waiting at traffic lights. —Mark Athitakis

The Barnes & Noble Review: This book started out as a column about the short story that you wrote for The Rumpus, “The Lonely Voice.” What appeals to you about the short story, as distinct from the novel?

Peter Orner: Stories are this weird lifeblood. I don’t know how it happened, but I can’t live without them. I need that compressed intensity every day. The book and column were sort of a response to that, to try and figure out why I am so attracted to this form. Short stories will always be declared dead, and then suddenly they rise again. That was the impetus for my originally writing the columns in The Rumpus, which is basically just private thoughts to myself that The Rumpus published without question. I didn’t have to answer to anybody; I just kind of did it. But the initial column was a response to the idea that story has once again been “resurrected.” I resent that idea, because they’ve always been here and always will be. But they’ll always be for a certain kind of reader. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I just think it’s the truth.

BNR: Do you have a different mind-set when you’re writing a novel versus writing a short story? Your novel Love and Shame and Love has a short-story punch to it. It’s mostly written in brief chapters.

PO: I love novels that have the same level of intensity and compressed language as a story does. So I try to do that myself. I wanted to have a chapter be almost as self-contained as a story. But they’re totally different animals, completely different to me, even a novel that does have a storylike element to it.

I’m always writing stories; I’m never not writing a story. What would happen with both novels I wrote is that the story started to . . . not quite end. They just grew and they started to relate to each other and I was like, Oh, this isn’t a story. I stumble into things. I never have any idea, really, what to do.

BNR: In the book you write that Bernard Malamud can do in eight pages what it takes Dostoevsky 700 pages to do. What can Malamud do that Dostoevsky can’t?

PO: I think he can break your heart. Dostoevsky can break your heart, and The Brothers Karamazov can do a lot of other things too. But “My Son the Murderer” would touch anybody. To read that story and to see the disconnect between that father and that son and the love that can’t be, that there’s just no bridge to connect the love with the son anymore — it’s just simple and heartbreaking. And Malamud, who doesn’t get enough attention, can do it pretty much like no one else can. Except for all the other people I would say do it too.

BNR: There are numerous cases in the book where you repeat a variation on “Am I alone here?” You seem to feel some anxiety that your feelings about the short story or your enthusiasm for the short story leaves you isolated.

PO: I think it’s true. Talking to people about a short story, you often get shrugs. “Oh, yeah, I like short stories because they’re short and I don’t have a lot of time and I can read them.” But you need almost more time in your life for them. You need absolute silence for a story, I think.

BNR: It seems like every week or so I see a news story that says, “A study says that reading fiction makes us more emotionally empathetic or capable of empathy.” Do you agree?

PO: It’s a funny idea that fiction has to have some utilitarian purpose. “That’s why I’ll teach my daughter to read, because she’ll become more empathetic and that’s a good thing to have, I’ll put that in her toolbox.” That’s not why I look at a painting. I don’t think human beings learn empathy from a story. I think they, hopefully, learn it from existence. What a story does is amplify it and condense it and remind you, maybe. Remind you what you’ve forgotten. But if we need stories to teach empathy, we’re really fucked.

BNR: There are a few cases where you talk about a frustration with the limits of the short story. That Isaac Babel‘s short stories didn’t stop tyranny, didn’t save Breece Pancake‘s life. (He committed suicide in 1979, at twenty-six.) So what is its value if it can’t actually change something concrete in the world?

PO: That’s a great unanswerable question. I think we can ask it about all great art. I think it just reminds you of what you’ve forgotten about who you were. Like a look that your mother once gave. I was thinking about my mother today, her folding blankets. When you put the blanket under your chin, because you need to hold it in place to fold it — a short story is something like that, capturing those small gestures. What a beautiful thing, I thought, I should put that in a story. I’m just not sure that it tracks automatically in terms of what you gain. Even in terms of what I gain, all I know is that I need it, I need it.

BNR: You write very viscerally about the emotional impact writers have on you. Can you pinpoint the root of this very strong emotional reaction that you have to a story?

PO: I think it goes way back. I think of a book like A Cricket in Times Square, which was always my favorite book as a kid, I’ve carried that book around with me. I think I’m attracted again and again to writers who take what’s very familiar and show that it has something without making a thing about it. And what we don’t see, what we don’t have time to see. Stories slow me down, that I know, and I desperately need that, because I’m always going too fast.

I think part of writing this book is I was just coming clean about being a complete geek. I love this stuff way too much and take it way too seriously. My favorite thing in the world is to meet a writer who feels the same way, and then we have these conversations that indulge in this. I do find others, and not just writers. When you find a reader, a non-writer who needs it the same way that I do, that’s the best.

BNR: What directs your reading? There’s a lot of wandering in your reading choices.

PO: I like to read that stuff that I haven’t heard of. I’m constantly searching bookstores, used bookstores especially. I’m always looking because I think there are so many writers that have been forgotten for the wrong reasons.

Americans tend not to read as much in translation as in other countries, and I think that’s too bad. I read a lot in translation, and that’s one way especially to enter another place that I’m already interested in trying to get to. There’s no agenda. What I resent most is a book I have to read for work and teaching. I love teaching, but I always have a book that’s private to me, that I’m not discussing with anybody except in my own head. It’s just really what this book is these days, just conversations with myself about books that I don’t have with anybody else.

A few years ago I came across Gina Berriault. My teacher and mentor was Andre Dubus III, and Andre wrote a blurb on the back of one of Gina Berriault’s books saying how much he loved her work. I was working with him at the time, and I found the book in a used bookstore. I called him up and said, “Andre, how come you never mentioned Gina Berriault?” I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something to the effect of, “Because she’s somebody you find on your own.” Maybe that was a little too perfect or a little guru-ish. But because he dearly loved her, I feel I’ll always remember that idea. Sometimes, they’re not going to be the things that your mentors and your friends or the newspapers tell you about. They’re going to come to you in some other way.

BNR: What do you focus on when you teach?

PO: I’m at San Francisco State, teaching what I call literature classes for writers. The last couple years I’ve been doing big books, which is contrary what I love truly, truly. But I wanted to test that out, so we read Don Quixote together, we’ve done Moby-Dick. We’re going to do The Brothers Karamazov. One book, one class.

I had students literally weeping at the end of Don Quixote. We’d been with him so long. For so many weeks we’d been riding around with him in these circles. Moby-Dick was similar. Though we talked about how modernistic the narration is, the best thing is when you forget about all the narrative tricks or whatever [Melville’s] doing and just whether Ishmael is going to get off this boat alive. But I do think that there are moments, especially in Moby-Dick, where all of a sudden the narrator pops back, way, way back, and he’s a guy sitting at his desk looking at Mount Greylock out of his window. That was Melville. Melville’s not Ishmael, but there’s this moment when he kind of melds. I love it when he takes those crazy risks with the narrative. We would pause on moments like that.

BNR: We’re in this era where the lines between fiction and nonfiction and criticism and memoir are blurring quite a bit, and your criticism is fused very closely with autobiography. Who are your models for that kind of writing?

PO: I love reading bookish essays. I’ve been reading Roberto Bolaño’s collection of his nonfiction pieces, Between Parentheses. I’m not the biggest Bolaño fan, but his book of these tiny pieces, it’s so infectious. I imagine Bolaño waking up in the morning, he’s just read a Javier Cercas book, and he just needed to talk about it. I took a lot of solace in the way that he did that. That book was very influential throughout this. And I like writers who blur the line like Borges, where it’s an essayistic kind of fiction — I’m always looking for people that do that. Sebald. Gina Berriault. Joseph Roth — I don’t know how Joseph Roth did it. In his letters, he’s broke all the time. How is it possible that he produced these incredible novels while at the same time this beautiful nonfiction that was basically journalism to him but not really covering anything contemporary? He’s just musing about things.

BNR: Your family, and more specifically your father, is a presence in this book intermittently, you use it as a springboard a lot of time for talking about how you engage in fiction. Do you think that there’s a more dedicated memoir to be written about your family?

PO: I think this is it. The only way I could speak about these things was through reading and playing off of reading. I don’t think I’m going to go back to nonfiction after this. I just felt like this was my nonfiction book, at least for the moment. I found it painful enough to do it this way, to be honest. I felt like I went where I needed to go.

BNR: Like a lot of serious readers, you never go around without a book handy to keep you company. But you’re the first person I know who’s mentioned reading at traffic lights. How long is this been going on, and how do you do it safely? I lived in San Francisco and I know San Francisco traffic.

PO: My daughter is on my case a lot about this. I do do it, probably too much, and you’re right, it’s not safe. But I feel like there’s all that downtime. This is maybe a psychological problem I have, it’s not a good thing — I can’t sometimes just look around, I have to be reading. There’s something wrong with that, I’m not proud of it. But a long red light, there’s nothing like a few pages that or paragraphs if you can get that in. I try and be careful. One day I will be pulled over for reading and I wonder what the cops will say.