Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Alex Lanz, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Peter Orner about his book Am I Alone Here? (Catapult), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by Peter Orner contains 41 column length essays combining memoir, social observation, and literary criticism. These brief pieces are themselves broken into small sections with numerous space breaks. The essays are the vertebrae of a narrative spine covering a partnership in Eastern Europe, family life in Chicago, and reading life in San Francisco, while also touching on an incredible range of world literature, from Isaac Babel to Vaclav Havel to Eudora Welty. Insights on literature and life are delivered with a casual lightness, even abandon. While there is dejection in the solitude of a basement lined with books, solitude is necessary in the activity of reading and writing, an activity that is lonely yet undeniably social. Orner shows us that good thinking need not be formal or scholarly, and that one can speak in celebration of silence, as he does in his piece on Juan Rulfo. In criticism the motto is usually There is Always More to Say. There may always be less to say as well.
Alex Lanz: You are also the author of two novels and two short story collections. Is essay writing different in an essential way for you, more notational and on-the-fly?
Peter Orner: Yeah, totally. It's very different in the sense that I'm used to having the absolute freedom of fiction, and with essay writing there's a tether to some idea of the truth. I don't believe that there's always a Truth-truth, but essay writing has a tether that fiction doesn't have, and that can be fascinating.
AL: These pieces also sustain a narrative of your difficult relationship with your late father. Is there something unique about the form of notes that links art and life in your work?
PO: It's funny because I just got a message from somebody who worked for my father in 1973, and she said, "Your father was a difficult person to like, but an easy person to remember." And I thought, there it is right there. Took the words right out of my mouth.
I loved the idea of notes because it tricked me into thinking I wasn't writing essays. Every morning when I started work on this book, I would take some notes, and to me that's literal, I write by hand in a notebook and I take notes. The idea was that it was less formal, and that helped me generate morning after morning.
AL: These pieces appeared in The Millions, Salon, and mainly The Rumpus. Is there anything different about writing for the web?
PO: I don't take any different approach depending on where a piece might appear. Whether it is print or the web, I still try to do my best to be patient and take a sentence at a time. When it comes to non-fiction, I've always looked to Orwell's sentence clarity. And speaking of Orwell, people have returned to 1984 lately in droves which makes a lot of sense, but I've been re-reading Homage to Catalonia. And this time, as always, I've been so struck by the simple beauty of the sentences, but also by his warning: beware of yourself when you believe you are totally in the right. Not sure this has anything to do with writing for the web or for print, unless it is the point that whatever you, wherever you say it, be careful of sounding too sure of your own opinions... So maybe it does come back to this idea of being patient. Be patient enough to listen to your own doubts.
AL: The book is full of lovely illustrations, mostly paintings of vintage book covers, which I understand were done by your older brother Eric.
PO: We had a lot of fun with that. I would send him a photograph of my copy of the book and we would go from there. He's a great artist and I was lucky to nab him, a great artist with not a lot of time, and he took the time, and that was really nice of him.
AL: In a wonderful piece on To the Lighthouse, you have an anecdote of spilling yourself and your copy into Upper Moose Lake at age 22. You write that you were a better reader then: “I knew how to just exist, without any writerly la-de-da crap, deep inside a book.” What would it take to recover this way of reading, to become that person who, quoting Salinger as you do, “just reads and runs?”
PO: Some kind of youth serum? I think I have to work harder now to approach something with that kind of innocence. I think I was just reading, not having a profession, not worrying about bills the way I do now, and not writing essays. I was just purely in the book, and that's the best place to be. I certainly feel that way when I'm purely in a book now, but not as often as I used to, unfortunately—sad. Isn't that sad? Quote that: Sad! Exclamation point.
AL: Constance Garnett, whose translations of Chekhov you use, has a bad rap for translating classic Russian literature into an insipid Victorian English, but you claim that Chekhov can survive any translation, no matter how mediocre. What is it like in general for you to read in translation?
PO: I read a great deal in translation, and I thank God for those translators who bring me work that I couldn't have if I didn't learn Russian. What would I do without the long line of translators, including Constance Garnett? I mention in the book that Virginia Woolf reviewed a performance of The Cherry Orchard. Everything about the production was bad, and yet she left the play shaken. I think we worry a lot about the fidelity of translation without thinking enough about the fact that writing in general is a kind of translation. I'm so grateful for these people that bring me to other languages, because I think if I was trapped in only the languages that I know, English and Spanish, it'd be a really limited reading life. Milan Kundera says interesting things about this in his book The Curtain. He said reading in translation saved him; he had to get out of his language. I feel the same way.
AL: The book opens with an epigraph from Too Loud a Solitude, a short Czech novel by Bohumil Hrabal which you have a lot of praise for later on. It speaks of sucking on sentences like fruit drops, emphasizing the materiality of reading. But what about the materiality of writing? How do you reconcile or balance writing and reading when there is this quiet pressure to produce, produce, produce?
PO: I think the whole book speaks to that problem. I feel that reading just grounds me and makes me human. (I've had a long day, I just got out of teaching.) Reading is just like breathing for me. I gotta have it, I gotta do it, and writing is an outgrowth of that intake. Maybe it's some kind of photosynthetic relationship. You just can't have one without the other for me, but if I had my choice, I'd read. But always, when I'm reading, I then have to pick up the pen at some point. But to go back to your other question about Virginia Woolf, I wish I didn't have that inclination; I wish I could just read without picking up the pen.
AL: I was struck by several moments in the book, like in the piece on James Salter, that express a mild frustration with how idle and vapid literary discourse can be—book-chat I've heard it called. Is there something wrong with the state of our literary culture?
PO: Nothing that hasn't always existed since there's been a literary culture. I don't think it's anything specific to now. Edgar Allan Poe railed, railed against Longfellow and all his fancy friends in the literary culture of his time, and I think it's always been thus; it's always been this talking-to-itself discourse versus the stuff on the ground. I think we're living in some wonderful times for criticism as we always have been, and we've always had stuff that doesn't speak to the human heart.
AL: I'm glad you mentioned Poe because I've been reading a good deal of his work lately, and he published a book called Marginalia in which he typed out the actual marginal notes he wrote in the books in his personal library, with no particular ordering or context. In his prefaclks about notes as a path to truth via these mundane, light jottings. He imagines a new kind of relationship between reader and writer built on these notes. To me this is very close to the spirit of your book.
PO: I had no idea that book existed, thanks for lettering me know about it. That one I must have. A new relationship between reader and writer, yes. And Poe never no matter how insane and highfalutin he gets always does seem to talk to directly to us. My first collection had a story about two Edgar Allan Poe impersonators, and I had so much fun researching Poe's life and thinking about Poe because he was so brilliant. Who was the better story teller? Poe, yet not only didn't he get the credit, and not only didn't he get the money—I think it would have been nice if he had gotten both—but I think that he felt that he wasn't listened to. And his spirit of literary criticism—while he can be pretty harsh, I feel I've definitely taken some cues from the great man. People like Poe, Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Roberto Bolaño, people who were just on the ground talking about real stuff, I tend to like those guys.
AL: I'm speaking to you in the University of Namibia via web conference. What are you up to there?
PO: I'm on a Fulbright to Namibia, where my first novel was set. I've been wanting to come back here for about twenty years, and I finally made it back to research a new book of nonfiction as well as teach in the master's English program in the University of Namibia in Windhoek. It's a wonderful country.
Peter Orner is the author of two collections of stories, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge and Esther Stories, and two novels, Love and Shame and Love and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. His stories have appeared in many periodicals, including the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, Granta, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review, as well as in The Best American Short Stories 2001. He has received the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Bard Fiction Prize, and was a finalist for both the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Orner has received Guggenheim and Lannan Foundation fellowships, and two Pushcart Prizes.
Alex Lanz is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at The New School. His essays have appeared in The Seventh Wave and Entropy. He is at work on a family memoir.