Talking with Peter Orner

Maggie Brown & Others contains very short stories that reveal their characters’ full potential and sorrowful limitations.

Author Peter Orner says, “I’m obsessed with the way that memory contorts what may or may not have actually happened into fiction.”
Author Peter Orner says, “I’m obsessed with the way that memory contorts what may or may not have actually happened into fiction.”

Reading Peter Orner’s work is like good people-watching. He is able to render personalities in just a few pages of precise writing, drawing readers in with the suggestion of complexity. Orner’s story collection Maggie Brown & Others is composed of petite tales with overlapping edges. Not much happens in many of them, but that’s not the point. To spend a moment with Orner’s characters is to view their possibilities and endless shortcomings. It’s a delight to be inside each of their worlds, with their unique voice and rhythms, for even a page or two. Orner writes about memory, about opportunity, and about the things we can’t let go.

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Shouts in the dark. Maybe that’s the best we can do to reach beyond ourselves,” Orner writes, and his tales are themselves a kind of urgent yawp. Story titles in Maggie Brown are universes: “Uncle Norm Reads Spinoza as His Cookie Business Collapses Due to the Rise in Sugar Prices in the Dominican Republic” and “An Old Poet Is Dying in Bolinas.” Is it appropriate to say there’s a perfect book for quarantine? Maggie Brown & Others fits the bill with delicious morsels.

Alta caught up with Peter Orner via email to ask him questions about Maggie Brown & Others.

What central question does your work ask?
How do we reconcile love with loss? 

Do you listen to anything as you write?
I write by hand to the silent chaos of my own head, but when I type, I listen to Art Tatum solo piano. Nobody better and also he makes me type faster. 

You are a master of characterization in the confined space of short fiction. What is important to you about rendering personalities within those confines?
There’s too many words. I imagine them multiplying, polluting the earth, by the hundreds of billions as every second goes by. I try not to add any more than I need to. Think of Japanese haiku. Or Emily Dickinson, how she could take your head off with a line. You can go pretty deep into any psyche, I believe, with less. 

What makes good short fiction? Which authors were formative influences for you?
I’d have a different answer to this tomorrow, or the day after. But it would be a variation on this: Fiction, any fiction, needs blood in it. As in the blood that runs through our veins. I have to feel the energy in it; if it’s flat, lifeless, I’m on to the next thing. Sadly, too often I feel this, that a piece of fiction may have a lot of things going for it—but it still lacks this essential, intangible thing. Andre Dubus and Marilynne Robinson were my teachers, and I revere their work. As I do James Alan McPherson, who was also a teacher. Maggie Brown & Others is dedicated to him. Also stories by Bernard Malamud, Edna O’Brien, Bessie Head, Juan Rulfo, Eudora Welty, Dambudzo Marechera, Gina Berriault, Grace Paley, Mavis Gallant, Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg, Maupassant. I could go on and on…


“Horizons can’t ever be reached no matter how many words you lard on a novel. The attempt at closure is inherently dishonest. But a story! One that ends but doesn’t end, that’s infinity, immortality, right there.”

What obsessions, coincidences, or connections made it into this book?
I’m obsessed with the way that memory contorts what may or may not have actually happened into fiction. In Maggie Brown, this is what, I think, links multiple generations of characters. Maybe the weirdly similar ways we remember are the one real common denominator, the thing that could, if we wanted it to, actually unite us.

Were the connections and overlap between the stories in Maggie Brown planned, or did they happen organically? Can you talk about your process a little bit?
I’m not much of a planner; I wait for a story to come to me. Or else I rewrite it enough times so that it has no choice but to at least try and come to me. My process is haphazard but daily. Every day, I’ve got to do something, even if it is only a few sentences. 

What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
I’d be dead if not for poetry, and the less I understand, the better. 

What’s on your to-be-read list?
Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. It’s sitting right here. It’s 480 pages. The wonderful first paragraph goes like this: 

My father’s father was a Methodist minister. He was a tall, handsome, noble-looking man; he had a deep, beautiful voice. My father was an ardent atheist and admirer of Clarence Darrow. He skipped grades the way other boys skipped class, he lectured my grandfather’s flock on Carbon 14 and the origin of species…

Give us the elevator pitch for your book.
Is taking the stairs an option?



  • By Peter Orner
  • Little, Brown and Company, 336 pages, $27

    Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic.
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