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Peter Orner Comes Home
Photo by Traci Griffin
Peter Orner may no longer live in Chicago but his romance with the city rivals that of any resident. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and faculty member at San Francisco State University, Orner counts William Faulkner, Grace Paley and Chicagoan, Stuart Dybek as influences. Like Dybeck, Orner uses concrete imagery and issues of object permanence to ground his new novel, Love And Shame And Love. A rumination on memory, loss and renewal, the novel tells the story of the Popper family, but throughout Chicago exists as both supporting player and touchstone.
Our Town You went from law school to an MFA program. What provoked the switch?
Peter Orner It was actually in law school that I started to write seriously. I’d sit in a class like trusts and estates and think how sad it was that a law text book could make people fighting over a will so dull. Families arguing over money! What could be better? So, while the professors droned on, I’d be writing short stories about the people in the cases.
OT Thinking back to when you published your first novel, what surprised you most?
PO That anybody in their right mind would want to a read a novel about a remote place in a remote country, rural Namibia. To my surprise, a few people did read The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. Not that many, but I’m still surprised when I meet people who have read it, and who might have no relationship to Namibia. You sit there alone, in my case in my garage, and you imagine things, and then, after a few years, these things you imagine, other people are sometimes interested in. I guess this is what I’m most surprised about with anything I write.
OT What was the inspiration for Love and Shame and Love?
PO A desire to write about home. Namibia was tough, and though I lived there, it will never be where I am from. But I found that writing about where you think you are from can be just as hard as writing about places you aren’t from.
OT The city of Chicago seems almost a character in the book. Why?
PO Because I love the city, and though I now live in San Francisco, a part of me will always be standing on the beach by the lake. But Chicago, in my imagination, is as much a myth as a real place. Our imaginations warp real places. They become like our personal Oz. For a time I was student at Northwestern, and [I remember] looking at the city and thinking, there, there’s where want to be. Now I could have just gotten on the train. And of course I often did. But in some ways, and this may be because I’m just a kid from the suburbs, Chicago is always just a little out of reach.
OT San Francisco vs. Chicago, go.
PO San Francisco is beautiful; Chicago though, fires up my imagination in ways that San Francisco, for all its splendor, never will. There’s a scene in the novel that I think dramatizes this. Popper is heading east on Irving Park Road, and he takes a right and begins to drive south on a side street. It’s late at night, and yet in the apartment buildings are some lighted windows. He thinks about the people and their lives, all the stories that are behind those lighted windows. It’s the most autobiographical scene in the book. I’ve done this many times, driven around Chicago and thought about all the countless stories beyond late night lighted windows. Could I do this in San Francisco? Sure. But I never have. And this, I think, is the difference for me. It’s just me.
OT What are you looking forward to doing while youre here?
PO Taking my daughter to Oak Street Beach and then, if she doesn’t trash the place, to the lobby of the Drake Hotel where I once went with my own dad when I was real little. I remember crawling up those white marble steps. But maybe I miss-remember this too.
OT They say a writer’s first book often incorporates strong autobiographical elements, but later books are often less personal. Thoughts?
PO I guess I did the opposite. My first book has few direct autobiographical elements, my second more so, and my third, yes, has many. Yet I think autobiography contains some of our biggest lies. Are we really capable of telling the truth about ourselves? I’m not so sure. So I think, at least in my case, the more autobiographical, the bigger the lies.
OT Youve both studied and taught writing, does that mean you believe writing can be taught?
PO The more I think about this, the more I am sure writing can’t be taught, but I do think you can expose your fellow writers – and students are fellow writers – to work they may not be aware of. I think this is my most important role as a professor. But every day I am baffled, and every day I think I have no idea how to do this. So how can I make any claims to being able to teach something when I have no idea myself how something as mysterious as fiction actually works?
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, Herself When Shes Missing,” is forthcoming from Soft Skull, an imprint of Counterpoint Press. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicagos StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually.
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