Peter Orner introduces us to a sizable cast of characters in his latest collection, “Maggie Brown and Others.” The book contains work ranging from very short stories to novella, giving the collection — in addition to its varied populace — different tones and tempos even as the pieces are held together by shared thematic concerns.
For Orner, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, those thematic concerns are central to the endeavor, rendering the book more than merely a collection of stories.
“It’s not a collection of disparate individual things in my mind,” Orner said during a phone interview from his office at Dartmouth College. “I realized that even though I was writing about different people and different time periods and everything else, it seemed that I was kind of writing to the same themes revolving around some of the same ideas: memory, what we carry around with us, stories we can’t shake, people we can’t shake who have shaken us, you know? And I realized that even though I wasn’t sure of the exact structure, I got a sense that everything that I was doing — again, even though it was very disparate — was kind of coming from the same place. And I’ve always been very adamant that each story in a collection has to work on its own, right? And I still believe that. But I also believe now that a story collection is this entity in and of itself. That it isn’t a collection of disparate things if it’s working as well as it could. And so I thought this is a book, it’s not a collection of individual pieces, even though it is a collection.”
The book’s title, which pointedly does not include the word “stories” — as in “Maggie Brown and Other Stories” — highlights Orner’s careful thinking about the nature of collections generally, and this collection in particular.
“I’ve always felt like [the title] represented what I was after, which was that as much as it’s a collection of stories, it’s a collection of people — people who have vanished. I think almost every character in each of the stories is somebody who has vanished in one way or another. Either they’ve died or disappeared. And Maggie didn’t die, she disappeared, and I thought, well, that’s appropriate.”
This notion of vanishing has been present in Orner’s work for quite some time.
“I started to realize as I was putting the stories together that I’ve been writing for many, many years — one of the stories I started in 1999, other stories had been kicking around for many years — and I realized I had this preoccupation with one character thinking about another character who is now gone from their life. It’s a pretty basic thing, but it kept happening over and over again and I realized that’s sort of the theme that I was working in this book ... I just feel like these stories are stories that we carry around, you know, in a very profound way.”
The stories we carry around may be profound to us, but not necessarily to the subjects of those stories. For example, the narrator of the story featuring Maggie Brown can’t shake her, but it’s clear she doesn’t think about the narrator at all.
“The people we are preoccupied with in our imaginations aren’t necessarily the people who are preoccupied with us,” Orner said. “I find that interesting.”
Many of the pieces in the collection are extremely brief, but Orner argues their brevity on the page is not necessarily an accurate indicator of how their length is experienced by the reader.
“I didn’t set out to write short,” he said. “I don’t know, I think it comes from reading a lot of poetry, and I always feel like I want that power. I read an Emily Dickinson poem, I read a Larry Levis — somebody who was really on my mind while I was working on this book; both of them actually — and how you’re reading a poem and the floor drops from under you. I really find that the stories I love — Isaac Babel, Lucia Berlin — are stories that you think are holding up short but actually aren’t short. My whole argument, I guess, would be they’re not really short. If they’re working, they’re not really short. If they’re working, they go on, they go on longer. They linger in your imagination so they’re not truly short … It’s not about length. You can get a great deal of power with length, but to me I often go for it. I think, all right, if I can cut a word, I will. If I can make it short, I’ll do it.”
That said, he was eager to include a novella in the book for a variety of reason.
“I wanted, even in my own concise way, I wanted bagginess. I wanted more. I wanted it to be a maximal kind of book. People tried to talk me into publishing the novella separately and I was, like, nah, I think it goes with these stories. I hope it, by going backwards in time … I thought it ended the book on a positive note. At least I tried. It’s about a happy marriage, and I thought this book needed a happy marriage.”
Orner’s connection to Dartmouth might be thought of as a happy marriage.
“One of the nice things about Dartmouth is that the students are wonderful and make it exciting for me and so that actually inspires my work. Teaching doesn’t deplete me. It actually energizes me to, when I’m not teaching, actually work harder … It’s actually a wonderful place to work in terms of having a balance between having great students and also the time to work on my own stuff. It’s been a good fit for me.”
He says his workshops are “kind of reading heavy.”
“I have a very literature based approach ... It’s not like a factory of producing stories as much as it is learning what literature is about and why you want to contribute and make your own stuff.”
Orner is quick to credit his instructors at the Writers’ Workshop with inspiring what happens in his classroom.
“Being able to work with Marilynne Robinson and James Alan McPherson was the greatest gift that any youngish — I think I was 30 or 31 when I was at Iowa — writer could ever have had... What Marilynne and Jim were so great at was teaching literature from a writer’s perspective. So reading ‘Moby Dick’ with Marilynne, reading the Bible with Marilynne, studying Melville with James Alan McPherson was something that completely inspired me and something that very much informs my approach... They’re actually the model that I work with... I try my best to live up to what they inspired me to do.”