From his first story collection, Esther Stories, on to his most recent novel, Love Shame and Love, Peter Orner has established himself as one of the most distinctive American voices of his generation. His work has appeared in Granta 111: Going Back and in the online edition, with ‘At The Kitchen Table‘. He spoke to online editor Ted Hodgkinson about memory, learning to love your characters, the importance of animals in fiction and Chicagoland.
TH: Reading this book got me thinking about the capricious way that memory often works: not necessarily in neat chronological order but associatively, moving outwards in a starburst from one image to the next. Taken together I began to see the novel as a compendium of images that were bursting from the Popper family’s memory banks. There’s actually a scene in the book when Leo Popper eats a cookie as a parody of Proust’s madelene; who is clearly another writer fixated on being truthful about how memory works, or doesn’t. Is there a truthfulness about the function of memory in this lateral structural movement of the book and did you find it a challenge to trace the lines of memory across for generations of a single family?
PO: I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I wonder if the word memory itself doesn’t somehow send the wrong message. There’s something about it that suggests truth when it is so often not even close. Scientists and criminal lawyers have been proving this for decades now. Our memories lie like a rug, as my grandmother used to say, and then laugh her head off. Or did she? See, I’m doing it again. My grandmother who we called Sally Grandma and not Grandma Sally used to say, ‘Don’t lie like a rug.’ But when she said it, she was saying don’t be a lazy meshuggener. So she wasn’t talking about memory and lying at all, but only about the fact that I was a slug. I still am a slug. Where was I? Our memories lie. And I’ve come to also believe that our own autobiographies are merely compilations of the greatest hits of our own bullshit. How often to do we actually tell the truth about ourselves? I think in this novel I was trying to trace the strange way memory operates and how it’s so tied up in fiction that it’s almost indistinguishable. It is indistinguishable. The first fiction man ever created was when – for the very fist time – a single hairy cave man began to recount something that happened yesterday. I wanted to build a book around a person that can’t stop doing this, that remembers and lies and remembers and lies . . .
Though the novel certainly has a wholeness it is constructed of lots of small moving parts: fragments of letters, brief vignettes, oblique and not exactly ‘plot driven’ chapters through which a large cast of characters move. Taken individually the sections of the book operate in a similar way to your short stories – capturing a moment or an image and distilling it down to a potent essence. Did writing this novel allow you the possibility of seeing your characters further into their lives and do you think of plot as something you have to resist in order to write fully realized people?
I’m not sure I resist plot as much as feel that the conventional definition of plot is a little cramped. For me the strange moments that make up our lives are plot. I forget but there must be some classical definition of what the word plot actually means. Hang on. I’m going to go look it up. ‘A small area of planted ground’. No. ‘An intrigue, conspiracy, What fascinates me the most about living on earth are the people I will never know. cabal’. I like that but no. Wait, ‘the main story of a literary work’. That’s it but it’s dull as hell. It isn’t that I don’t think something should happen in stories, and I hope things happen in mine, but what fascinates me the most about living on earth are the people I will never know. All the people I walk down the street and see, I will never, ever know what they are thinking, what’s gone on in their lives. So for me, character, the creation of a character on a flat page is the most exciting thing. It’s less the ‘what happened’ and more the memories they lug around, the loves, the regrets.
And as you say, I guess I try and zero in on the quieter moments of their lives in order to give characters life. This morning at the coffee shop down the street I watched a guy reading a little book. He was really into the book and he was holding it really close to his face. I wondered if this was because he was nearsighted or because he was loving the little book so much he wanted to get as close as possible to the words. It may well have been the first reason, something wrong with his eyes, but I like the second one better. And so I imagined (probably wrongly) that I had a small window in this guy’s life. I’ll bet he’s still there, reading that little book.
Some of these characters reappear, albeit in a different incarnation, from your first book of stories. The character of Seymour Popper also appears in your short story, ‘The Raft’, but he seems very different in the novel: he’s much less demonstrative in some ways. Did returning to the character prompt you to see him in a new light?
I’m sure you’re right that he’s different now. To be honest I didn’t go back and re-read the stories about Seymour before writing about him again for the new book. I think I didn’t want to be influenced by my previous imaginations of him. I do know that I missed him, whoever he is. And I wanted to bring him back to life. The difference might be that ‘The Raft’ is almost entirely from the perspective of a little kid, where in Love and Shame and Love I try and take in the totality of his life. And people Our own autobiographies are merely compilations of the greatest hits of our own bullshit. change, of course, or maybe they don’t. But our vision of the people we have loved changes, put it that way. And I love Seymour. I love the fictional guy and the the guy he’s based on too, and both never stay especially consistent in my head. I remember once I was walking to my grandparents’ house, my actual grandparents’ house, and on the way this cat started following me. I must have been ten or so. So the cat follows me to their house. They aren’t home but the back door is always open. I go inside and lock the cat in the bathroom with a little plate of dirt, you know, kind of like my own idea of kitty litter. Then I go and raid the refrigerator. My grandparents come home. By this time I’ve forgotten about the cat. My grandfather goes to the bathroom. He starts screaming. Totally freaking out. This is a guy who captained a ship in World War II. A cat in the bathroom totally unhinges him. So, our real people, as well as our fictional people, are always acting in ways they aren’t supposed to, according to what we understand about their characters. My grandfather weighed something like 265 and he was no match for that cat.
Animals and sometimes insects in the book are often creatures whose plight seems to embody the whole of the human comedy and tragedy that encircles them. The fate of a fly seems poignant and absurd in a way that recalls the Popper family’s struggle as he wanders across a desk lamp and wonders where all the other flies flew. ‘And I alone’ it thinks ‘I alone lived to . . . lived to what?’ The Popper family dog is a central character and at one point is tellingly described as being more affected by silence than by hunger. Do you think that animals, particularly family pets, can be portals into the stormy core of a family and does part of their power in the novel come from the way they seem to be often overlooked by the Poppers?
Totally totally portals, I love this idea. Funny, I was just talking about Max above and I hadn’t even read this question yet . . . I’m sitting here in my garage in San Francisco with my dog. Bud is very bored of watching me type. Her name is Daisy, which embarrasses me when I am at the dog park, so I call her Bud. She feels overlooked most days. But she knows everything about me, all the things I lie about.
The Chicago you describe here has a particular almost mythic quality to it, as if you’re hooking up with an image of the city that belongs to a deeply American, Chicagoan tradition which includes writers like Saul Bellow and Stuart Dybek. When you’re writing about the Windy City how often are you conscious of wrestling your image of it away from those writers who have come before, or are you wanting rather to engage with that literary conversation about it?
I think maybe all the places we tell ourselves we love are actually myths. Chicago is impossible for any one book or piece or prose or poem or whatever to capture. So is London. So is Cleveland. So is the state of Delaware and the country of India. And Madagascar. And yet I think this is why writers keep trying. And we keep trying in spite of – or maybe because of – the fact that we are conscious of the great writers who have come before. In my case, Bellow, Dybek, Chicago is the mythical place I grew up in. Call it Chicagoland, which is one of my favourite stupid advertising slogans. Aleksandar Hemon. We get a myth in our heads about a place and we try and convey this myth to a reader. So yes, for me, Chicago is the mythical place I grew up in. Call it Chicagoland, which is one of my favourite stupid advertising slogans. But Chicago is also a very real place where young kids are killed at the most alarming rate imaginable. I try and address how hopeless this feels in one scene in the book where Kat reads about a young girl being raped and then can’t figure out what to do about it. She feels so useless all she can do is go sit on the stoop. She’s paralyzed. She wants to act, to do something, but she doesn’t know what to do. She’s twenty-five years old and new to the city. What can she do? Raise her voice? March in the streets? Write a letter to Richie Daley? I relate to Kat’s hopelessness in that scene. You write a story about a myth, your myth, the myth you love, and then you open the Sun-Times and you fall apart. Does this make any sense? Writers, like most everyone else, see what’s wrong, but aren’t sure how to fix things. So we shed a little light maybe. But I reserve my most profound respect for those people who actually make change, and there are people in Chicago who devote their lives, every day, to making it safer place for kids.
The book is very frank and funny about the difficulties of adolescence, particularly the difficulty of talking to girls. Do you recall that period of time fondly or with a grimace?
Fondly, at least concerning those few times things worked out in this particular area. With a cringe concerning the majority of it. I’m only glib in my head, and on email.
The book itself is chock full of books, from Alexander’s reading lists at college to the Rozencrantz’s pointedly impressive library. Is this in some ways the story of how books can shape lives and how have they shaped yours?
Absolutely, Popper is, from the very first scene, obsessed with his own personal library. Or the idea of his library. Another thing we lug around.
Can you tell me what the seed for the story ‘At The Kitchen Table‘ was?
In my old aborted life as a law student (I got the degree, my mother remains very proud), I worked down in North Carolina doing investigations on the conditions inside the North Carolina prison system. One huge issue is mental health. One day I got a call from a mother whose son had killed himself. I couldn’t do a thing to help her but listen, since as you can probably imagine, it’s not easy to sue the prison system for creating suicidal conditions. Again, an ineffectual response. I couldn’t help but, years later, write a story about it.