Q&A with Peter Orner: ‘Maggie Brown & Others’ and Real Life as Fiction

Peter Orner collection Maggie Brown & OthersIn an age of instant reactions and hair-trigger controversy, Peter Orner is a writer who slows things down, living up to Susan Sontag’s admonition that “the writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth…and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation.’’

Born in Chicago, he graduated from the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. A former professor and department chair at San Francisco State University, he is now a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth.

Orner’s eclectic body of work includes the novels The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Love and Shame and Love; an essay collection/memoir, Am I Alone Here? Notes on Reading to Live and Living To Read, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; and three short story collections: The Esther Stories, Last Car Over The Sagamore Bridge, and the just published Maggie Brown & Others: Stories (Little, Brown and Company).

He’s also somehow found the time to edit three non-fiction books for the Voice of Witness Series: Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (co-edited with Annie Holmes), and Lavil: Life, Love and Death in Port-Au-Prince (co-edited with Evan Lyon). If you need something done, ask a busy man.

The new book’s title story, “Maggie Brown,’’ about the narrator’s lost romance with a college girlfriend, is vintage Orner. “A few years ago I saw her at a Minneapolis airport,’’ he writes. “She looked right at me, didn’t know me from Adam, and marched onward. Maggie Brown in a business suit…You end up forgetting the people you shouldn’t and remembering the people who’ve forgotten all about you.’’

Peter Orner answered questions about Maggie Brown & Others (and other matters) via email:

ZYZZYVA: I was struck by the ambition of Maggie Brown & Other Stories. It seems like a quantum leap forward, given the five separate sections, linked by mood but not subject, and the ambitious closing novella, “Walt Kaplan Is Broke.’’ Did you feel a special urgency as you were writing the pieces, and putting them together, given the times we live in and your own sense of where you are as a writer?

PETER ORNER: Did someone once say, ‘Write each book like it’s your last?’ I’ll say it: Write each book like it’s your last. I’m not sure I was responding to our strange life and times, but maybe I was without quite knowing it. I’ve always tried to see stories as somehow floating above my present day concerns. Or maybe floating above isn’t the right phrase. Existing separate? A kind of alternate reality, one that has more to do memory than it does the present?

Though many of these stories I’ve been working on for many years, I wrote and re-wrote much of this book while living in Namibia for two years between 2016-2018. It helped to be away from the circus, and maybe this helped me concentrate a little better. If there was urgency, it was informed by a particular Namibian kind of urgency. In Namibia, when someone says they are coming now, they might come in a few hours, maybe a few days. But when they say they are coming now now, then they’ll be right there. I guess I wrote this book under the spell of now now.

Z: You dedicate the book to your family, and to the late African-American novelist and essayist James Alan McPherson (author of the short story collections Hue and Cry and Elbow Room), a writer who is too often overlooked these days. Can you talk about your relationship and his influence on you?

PO: Jim McPherson was a professor of mine at the University of Iowa. An essential American writer, and we overlook him at our peril. He was also among the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. He didn’t so much teach as guide. And he was less interested in writing than in what connects us and make us human – together.

I’ve told this before in greater detail, most recently in an essay about McPherson in The Believer, but he once taught a class that revolved around Richard Jewell, the security guard who was wrongly accused (by the FBI, I believe) of bombing the Atlanta Olympics. The theory was that he planted the bomb in order to rush in and save people because he had a hero complex. Turned out: he was just rushing in to save people. He was a goddamn actual hero. Jim was fascinated by this story, and what it said about us as a society. He couldn’t get enough of examining what makes us do humane, and inhumane, things.

Z: You’re from the Midwest, but like many self-driven exiles, you were pulled West. The epigraph to the first section of the book is from Jack Spicer, another too-neglected poet:
Come back to California, come back to California / every mapmaker, every mapmaker is pleading.’’ Now you’re back East as a professor at Dartmouth, after teaching for years at San Francisco State. But I’m wondering if you think it’s even possible to connect to this complicated state. Or is it just a state of mind?

PO: I lived nearly twenty years in California, in both San Francisco and Bolinas. Funny, I always felt like a Midwesterner misplaced in California. Now I feel like a Midwestern Californian misplaced in New England. (If I went home to Chicago again, I’d feel like a Chicagoan displaced in Chicago.) What I love about this beautiful line of Spicer’s is the idea of the mapmakers pleading for one’s return to California…

I’m not entirely sure what he means, but I love it anyway. We know that mapmakers aren’t exactly unbiased, right? Is there something about the way California looks to us on the map that pulls us there? This idea spoke to me as I was working and pining away for the Pacific.

Z: Getting back to the text: In “Fowlers Lake,’’ your narrator writes of meeting a (very) pregnant woman from Shasta City “with a flat tire and no spare’’ in a parking lot outside the National Forest Campground near McCloud.

It feels a little like a Raymond Carver story – she disappears while the narrator and her friend, Billy, take a swim. “My own small thought about the whole thing, for whatever it’s worth and it’s not worth much since it won’t help find her, wherever she is, is that when we got out of the water she was still there, still at Fowler’s. I never mentioned it at the time because what good would it have done since they were already searching the woods around the lake? What happened to her, I say, happened later.’’

It’s a portrait of rootlessness – even more so than the stories that take place in the Midwest, or Fall River. Are your characters less connected, living out on the rim? Do you think they want things that way?

PO: The Pacific Rim is the end of the line for so many people. I’ve always been drawn to characters who, one way or another, are running away from who their family or society thinks they should be. The woman in “Fowlers Lake” refuses, I believe, to be trapped. California has so many of these sorts of people, and I never get tired of imagining things about them. People who in whatever way refuse. Didn’t Turgenev say something about all stories coming out from Gogol’s “Overcoat”? I think for me, and maybe for a lot of American writers, it’s Melville’s “Bartleby.” That one way or another, we’re trying to make sense of Bartleby’s refusals. And if “Bartleby” is a Manhattan story, maybe it is also, at root, a California story?

Z: In “Above Santa Cruz” (excerpted in the most recent issue of Alta Journal), your protagonist answers an “ad on Craigslist for a cheap one-room rental in the hills near Bonny Doon.

“I remember the nights in Santa Cruz as darker than nights in other places,’’ he recalls. “I’m sure this had to do with my state of mind when I lived there. Even so, I remember that I could feel just below the surface of the town’s smug self-satisfaction an undercurrent of seething resentment. It had, I believe, to do with money. How a number of people in and around Santa Cruz had unimaginable amounts of it while everybody else, including people with good-paying job, or what used to be good paying jobs, like professors, were living paycheck to paycheck.”

It’s not a tract about income inequality, but that plays into the tale, along with the sheer madness of living in a low-rent room in a place built by Robert Montgomery, the actor whose daughter, Elizabeth, starred in Bewitched. Is this an example of synchronicity, or the opposite? Missed connections, indeed…

PO: God knows no place knows income inequality like Santa Cruz. In this story, I was thinking about all the weird places people have to live in order to live in to remain in a place they love because of the impossible economics of California. I’d say the story explores the opposite of synchronicity, if synchronicity has an opposite, which would be something along the lines of chaos, right? When you’re living in a place like Santa Cruz and you don’t have much money, you embrace a certain amount of chaos in your life in order to try and hold on.

Z: There are 44 stories in the collection, some of them quite short, but they feel like prose poems, or remembered moments caught in time, rather than “flash fiction.” Do you see a distinction between the genres? (I have a bias here; the latter seems a bit gimmicky.)

And (forgive me), do you see the collection as fiction, nonfiction, or a combination of both?

PO: I appreciate your not calling them flash fiction, a description I can’t get behind for all kinds of reasons I will not bore you with today. But I will say, because I can’t help myself: gimmicky, yes, and also stories of varying lengths have been around since the beginning of time. Not sure we needed a new term to describe them. Adam and Eve is how many lines? Would you call this flash? (This said, some of the best fiction being written today is published under this moniker; it’s not the term that is important, it is the stories. And I like the idea of lightning.) But yes, I agree: no distinction between a very short story or another story; both should move a reader, that’s all.

As for fiction and non-fiction: though the book, like a lot of fiction, has a lot of true stuff in it, for me, anytime you fictionalize any aspect of something “true,” it transforms immediately into fiction. So-called truth becomes just another weapon in the fictional arsenal, if this makes sense. So I play with what “really happened” as much as I play with what didn’t. I also think that what happens in real life is fiction. You know what I mean?

Z: The second section of the new collection, “Lighted Windows,’’ deals more directly with the complications of relationships – the estranged brother in “The Return,’’ whose only connection with his sister is on the phone, the last time before he dies. Dave, the Chicago lawyer, has a regular deli date with his buddy, Arthur, trying to keep things simple: “They were a couple of soldiers in suits reconnoitering during a pause in the action.’’

When Arthur dies unexpectedly, Dave ends up hitting on his wife, Liz. But the one-night stand in the suburban home is less revealing than listening to her complaints about her work as a therapist: “Everyone’s so bottled up, you know? I’ll be sitting there in my office and listening to someone go on and one about their relationships – that’s what most people talk to me about, of course, their relationships. Such a ding-dong word? Why ships? Why not just relations?”

In this and the next story, “Padanaram,’’ about a couple trying to get away from their problems by returning to a New Bedford fishing village they’d visited in happier times, there’s a Midwestern bluntness – “She loved him for his open-faced, full-throated hypocrisy’’ – that we see too little of in these New Age-y times. Is this something you share with, say, Saul Bellow? Or is it just hardwired into writers from Chicago?

PO: Much as I revere aspects of Bellow (though I’ll never forgive him for his patently racist and dumbass line about the Zulus not having a Proust), the writer of his generation that I admire the most is Bernard Malamud – a New Yorker who wrote about New York from Oregon. But yes, I do think Chicago, to generalize wildly, resists a certain precious way of looking at things. God knows Chicago has seen its fair share of gentrification. Still, I think it is a place where bluntness and compassion do merge. On this I’d point to Nelson Algren, if ever there was a writer who was blunt and compassionate. And Studs Terkel. And a new and wonderful discovery: Bette Howland, an essential (and temporarily forgotten) writer recently re-published by A Public Space.

Z: The longer narrative, “Ineffectual Tribute to Len,’’ recently published in The Paris Review, pays homage to a larger than life summer camp buddy, “one of those people who pop up randomly and change everything.’’ The narrator (you, I’m presumptuously assuming) is driving a Yellow Cab in Iowa City after graduate school when he gets a call from Len, who is dying of AIDS (though he calls it non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma), and drives to see him at his request. Len is so larger than life that he flies off the page, resisting the attempt to confine his life into the pages of a novel.

“There’s a line of William James I came across years ago,’’ he reflects. “I’ve never been able to find it again, but the gist of it (I think) is: If you tried to take into account all the heartbreak behind the lighted windows of a single city on a single night, your head would explode…I think of it every time I remember that night in the cab with Len. And in Chicago, even at four in the morning, there are more lighted windows than you could possibly imagine.’’

The story reminds me a bit of Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio’’ – there’s so much pain (and joy) in the world beyond our imagining. Is this part of what you were trying to say?

PO: Absolutely: There is more pain in the joy in the world beyond our imagining. And the minute we begin to suggest that human experience isn’t myriad and complex in every individual instance, no matter who one is, we’re doomed. That’s why William James’s idea is so beautiful to me. A city and all those lighted windows. Each one a story.

Z: There’s too much material in Maggie Brown to begin to do justice to it, but some stand out, even in a crowd.

“Bernard: A Character Study’’ is the tale of a youthful math whiz who drops out of Harvard after becoming an acid casualty, returning home to Fall River and a dead-end job selling ads for the Herald News. But he hasn’t lost all his smarts, and is on to his crooked businessman’s father’s hypocrisy: “Beware of any man who calls himself a philanthropist. Philanthropist isn’t a job, it’s a cover story.’’

When his body is discovered, “frozen in a rented cabin in New Hampshire,’’ the narrator eulogizes Bernard, his mother’s first cousin: “I only want to repeat what you already know. There is no limit to how far a person can fall in America.’’

Politics haunts your work, though it’s a backdrop in your fiction. You’ve also taught in Namibia and worked to help Haitians suffering the aftermath of the earthquake. How do you reconcile the two instincts? Are you able to keep writing even when immersed in trying to help others?

PO: I wish I could say I’ve helped others. I think there are better ways to do this than publishing books, but it’s about the only thing I know how to do. We try with the Voice of Witness oral histories simply to shed light on human rights issues by talking to the people most affected, like, yes, immigrants themselves.

The most recent Voice of Witness book is set in Haiti and called Lavil: Live, Love and Death in Port-Au-Prince. I co-edited the book with Dr. Evan Lyon, a physician and writer with deep ties to Haiti. Lavil is about the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and how the people of Port-au-Prince tried to survive the very difficult years between then and now. We intended the book to keep Haiti alive in the minds of American readers now that the cameras are all long gone. But the stories in that book are rough, and the suffering in Port-au-Prince is so overwhelming, I’m not sure people want to hear about it. Sad to say but the truth.

My approach to fiction and non-fiction is pretty much the same. I’m just trying to get to know people beyond the surface. The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo is set in Namibia, where I lived and worked in the early 1990’s. An exciting time to be there because Namibia had just gained its independence. I wanted to examine what happens when, after a prolonged struggle, a people achieve what they’ve long sought. Now what? What happens when you get what you’ve long fought for? Well, in Mavala Shikongo’s case, because she is woman in a patrichail society, she gets a job teaching kindergarten. This after fighting in the bush against the South African army with a machine a gun.

Z: “Walt Kaplan Is Broke: A Novella’’ (prefigured in your first book, Esther Stories) tells the tale of seemingly mundane characters, physically unappealing but finding love in marriage and within themselves regardless of circumstances. Is this a way of paying homage to those who came before us, without the signifying hipness of cellphones and technology, perhaps to your parents’ generation?

PO: Homage, yes. I’m not sure I was thinking about cellphones. I hate thinking about cellphones.

“Walt Kaplan is Broke” was written to honor my grandparents, who were working class Jews living in Fall River, Massachusetts. My grandfather sold furniture. My grandmother volunteered at the temple. My grandfather died at 59; my grandmother lived for another 30 years without him. She rarely mentioned his name. I always wondered why. A few years ago, the thought occurred to me: it was because their marriage was happy. He betrayed her by dying. I wanted to explore this idea in the novella.

Z: Skipping around a bit, “Montreal’’ paints a compelling portrait of a husband and wife, again trying to salvage their marriage with a trip away from themselves, and each other. It’s not “A Moveable Feast,’’ but things go better, “for a little while,’’ until he gradually comes to grip with his wife’s spiraling mental illness, brought into stark relief when they are stopped at the border as they return. Reminds me of Jean Rhys, and Mavis Gallant. You wrote the introduction to a re-issued Gallant novel, Green Water, Green Sky, which appears with A Fairly Good Time in a double-edition from New York Review Books. What speaks to you about her fiction, and how does it inform your own work?
PO: Nobody disappears into her characters quite like Mavis Gallant. Gallant’s Green Water, Green Sky demolished me when I first read it, and I have no doubt it impacted “Montreal” and other stories in the “Renters” sequence of Maggie Brown. Mental illness, like everything else human, is utterly individual. Of course, there are commonalities but, as a fiction writer, what someone like Gallant teaches me, over and over again, is that every character must be singular in her or his or their own way.

Peter Orner will read from Maggie Brown & Others on July 24 at Booksmith/The Bindery, 1644 Haight Street in San Francisco, and July 25 at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Boulevard in Corte Madera. (Times TK)

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