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2013-01-24

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January 23, 2013 - 9:43pm

Alumni Profile: Peter Orner

BY KAITLIN ZURDOSKY

Peter Orner is a fiction author and a faculty member at the graduate writing program at San Francisco State University. His works include Love and Shame and Love and Esther Stories, a collection of short stories. Orner graduated from the University in 1990. He later received a law degree from Northeastern University and an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

What did you study at the University?

At Michigan, I have to admit I was a less than stellar student. I was an English major with a concentration in creative writing, which means I took a few literature courses and about 500 creative writing courses. In hindsight, I wish I'd studied more literature, but at the time I loved it. I went to college and made up stories. What could have been better? Two Michigan professors I can never thank enough are Tish O'Dowd, who encouraged me very early — I'm very grateful for her kindness and her sense of humor — and Charles Baxter, who took me on as independent study, and once wrote me a generous note, saying my sentence, "The closet smelled like potato chips" wasn't a bad line. I still have the note. He wrote it on a typewriter.

What piqued your interest in writing novels?

I've always loved stories — to read and to try to write them. I think I may have first become interested in writing novels when I read Tim O'Brien's “The Things They Carried” in a class with Nick Delbanco at Michigan. I love novels that expand the definition of what a novel is. We also read the great Jamaica Kincaid in that class as well. The book was Annie John. Kincaid too gave me a new angle on how to structure this thing we call a novel.

What are you doing in Haiti?

I recently returned from a trip to Port-au-Prince where I was interviewing survivors of the earthquake for an oral history that will be published next year by McSweeney's. My second trip this year, I was there for two weeks this time.

If you had to describe your writing style in one word, what would it be?

I try to keep things short and essential. If I can pare something down, I will — i.e. I don't need the second sentence here or this one either.

What do you do in your free time?

I read. Sometimes I run with a notebook in case I see something I want to remember.