When Peter Orner was a teenager in Chicago, he stole a pair of his father’s gloves. He never wore them, but he took the gloves everywhere he moved—to college, Namibia, San Francisco and Bolinas—never telling his father. Mr. Orner, a fiction writer who has lived in Bolinas for years, often twists and warps elements of his own life to craft his fiction, but the story of the gloves could not be fictionalized; every time he tried to do so, his attempts fell flat.
Though he doesn’t typically write books about himself, the tale of the gloves made its way into his new book, “Am I Alone Here?,” which was recently named a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award in criticism. The book was spurred by an inability to compose fiction after his father died, and is what one might call a reluctant memoir by a man for whom reading is living. It’s organized into chapters focusing on the numerous stories or novels—by authors ranging from Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera to Eudora Welty—that shaped, moved or unsettled him. From this vantage point, Mr. Orner shares the details of a strained relationship with his father and his first marriage, which came unseamed in Prague.
One of the final chapters of the book describes a short story by a Japanese author in which the narrator is moved more by reflected images of a woman’s eye or the passing landscape than the appearance of the things themselves. Perhaps in the same way, Mr. Orner’s writing about other people’s writing—a kind of ekphrasis, or art about art, he notes—refracts and reflects his own story.
Mr. Orner, who is spending the next year in Namibia on a Fulbright, spoke with the Light this month.
Samantha Kimmey: How did this book—this mixture of personal narrative and meditations on so many different stories you’ve read in your life—come about?
Peter Orner: I’m a fiction writer. I was having trouble for a lot of reasons. For one, my father had just died. I would sit down to work, and it wasn’t coming out. I was having trouble not being myself. So I started just taking notes on what I was reading. As long as I keep the pen moving, I’m okay, and this was a way to do that.
I would take these little notes in the morning and it was a way of getting my thoughts together. I started to think about the stories in the books that have meant a lot to me, and it grew from there.
Samantha: Had you done that before, taken notes on what you were reading as a way to process what you read?
Peter: I had been teaching for many years, but that wasn’t personal. This was about my own thoughts. It wasn’t academic, it was personal. I hadn’t ever done that before.
Samantha: Have you written any literary criticism?
Peter: I’m a very bad journalist. I was a reporter in high school and college; I’ve written a handful of book reviews. Every time I get assigned one, I freeze up and it takes me a long time to do it. I’ve done a few for the New York Times—only for books I love—but even that’s hard, because I was writing for somebody else. Trying to review a book is a delicate thing to do, and I’m not great at it, but this I could do. I could bond personally to a story, so there were no stakes for me.
Samantha: So it started as a personal writing practice?
Peter: Yes, just reminding myself why I loved what I loved. It was interesting to articulate what is often very hard to articulate.
Samantha: When did you realize there was a thread running through your notes, that they could take the form of a book?
Peter: It took four or five years. I was publishing individual pieces. I had this column called “The Lonely Voice.” I could become this persona, this lonely voice sitting in the dark in the morning, writing notes on stories I liked. It grew out of that. People seemed to take to that. [The stories] started to speak to each other and build on each other.
There are some books I love that are in this tradition, and I was following those footsteps. Not literary criticism, but personal takes on books.
Samantha: The New York Times said your book was “...too irresponsible to be literary criticism,” yet it’s not quite a memoir. Do you find your book is in a liminal space between genres?
Peter: I love that idea that’s it in some liminal space. It doesn’t quite fit: it’s not a traditional memoir, but it is memoir in the sense that it’s a memoir of reading and what reading reflects back on our lives. I guess I was using reading to try to explain some personal things I had experienced, which is what reading can do.
I’m bored by most memoirs, frankly. I have a friend here who calls them “me-moirs,” meaning, “Me! Me! Me!” I guess I wrote a memoir that wasn’t about me, but about preoccupations I had.
Samantha: What drew you to include these particular stories?
Peter: The foundation—and I went all over the place—was stories I felt were important to reread to figure out why they meant so much to me. It was really an exploration of rereading and why certain books stick with us all these years.
I always found that interesting: we carry around stories that we read 10 or 15 years ago. Why did they become so important to us? I started to look back at those kinds of stories. That was the beginning of the book.
Samantha: I was thinking about stories I’d read and read again later in different points in my life, and how they—the stories—change over time. I was thinking about “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” I read that when I was younger, and I thought it was amazing. Then I read it later and thought, “What a pompous asshole!” I’m sure if I read it again, it would change again.
Peter: I bet it would. That’s a beautiful book with all kinds of problems. But I think a good book is re-readable. You see it in a different light. Probably the third reading would be more complicated.
Samantha: Were there stories in this collection that you reacted differently to upon rereading?
Peter: I talk about reading “To The Lighthouse,” which is a novel that completely blew my head off when I read it. I remembered very distinctly what it felt like to finish that book for the first time. I was in a canoe, and the book fell out of the canoe and all that stuff. I think, “Who was that guy that fell in love with that book so much?”
When I reread it, it simply didn’t have that kind of impact on me. But it did remind me of the impact it had had. Like for you with “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”: the second time you read that book, you still had the first time you read that book. I think about that a lot. It doesn’t change the impact the book had in the beginning, it doesn’t mean the book isn’t great. It isn’t so great now, but it was then and that means it has a certain level of greatness.
That’s how I felt about “To The Lighthouse.” I thought I was trying to capture some younger spirit that I no longer had, but I could get it back a little by revisiting.
Samantha: Then there are books you read for the first time and think, “What’s the big deal?,” but when you reread them you finally get something out of it.
Peter: I talk about Kundera in the book because there is this other Czech writer that I really love, Bohumil Hrabal, and I start the book with a quote from him and sort of move from Kundera to that guy. That was a huge thing for me to find Hrabal: it was in opposition to Kundera. There aren’t that many Czech writers translated into English, and here was this one.
When I lived in Prague, there was this great English language bookstore called The Globe, that had all the Czech writers who were translated. I found “Too Loud a Solitude” and it was just a mind-blowing thing. I reread that book about once a year. It’s not a famous book, but it should be. It’s a book about reading and what physical books can mean to somebody.
Samantha: I spent some time in Prague and when I was reading that chapter in your book, I realized I had read that book. It made me want to read it again. The section on “Too Loud a Solitude” emphasizes a kinship you have with the author. Both of you are surrounded by books; his apartment and your garage seem like they’re on the same wavelength.
Peter: I never even made that connection, but I think that was what I was trying to say.
Samantha: Do you feel that working surrounded by books helps you get into some zone?
Peter: I just love them. Murakami wrote an essay where he describes how he works, in a completely empty room, without any books at all. I’ve always wanted to try that, but I can’t even get there. I need them.
I think sometimes it can be a crutch. When it comes down to it, it’s hard to produce new work, and I find inspiration by reading a little every morning. That’s how it starts.
Samantha: Your book made me want to read more. Were you trying to encourage reading?
Peter: I always wonder why people beat themselves up for not reading enough, including myself. It’s a very interesting thing. It’s almost like reading is medicine, like reading is supposed to be good for you. I think that’s bogus. Reading doesn’t have to be good for you.
Reading calms me down. It actually connects me with people, even though I’m silent. I just want silence. That’s what reading does for me: it gives me a little silence. I think a lot of people desperately need that.
But this idea that reading is something you must do to be a better person… Or you hear that reading makes us empathetic. If we’re reading to make ourselves empathetic, then we’re in real trouble. I hope this book doesn’t make people feel that they must read. I hear it a lot: “Oh I have to read this, this and this.” I want people to think about what is important to them in the history of their reading lives. To look back and say, “Without that book, I probably wouldn’t be who I am.”
I really think I can define myself through the stories that I love. I think everyone can do that. That’s the best outcome: this sends you back to the books you love.
Samantha: I think you mention somewhere that books aren’t meant to teach us lessons like, “This is right and this is wrong.” It’s not a morality guide.
Peter: At the end of the day, people, myself included, have a craving for stories about people that never existed. There are enough people that exist, but some of my best friends are fictional characters. Both of my kids are named after fictional characters. I know I’m not alone with that. I think there are a lot of people that feel this way: that without their fictional characters, they would be less whole.
Samantha: What is it that makes these particular stories so important? Is it that they let you see part of yourself? Is it just that they are beautiful and that’s all they need to be to be appreciated and become part of your life?
Peter: Right. At the end of “To the Lighthouse,” Lily is trying to paint this picture and she’s just not doing a very good job. I think that’s such a beautiful thing; that gives me so much solace. It doesn’t have to be perfect. That scene and those kind of scenes help me, not in an instructive way, but I feel like other people are dealing with failure just like I am.
In that scene, the painter is trying to paint herself back into the summer she spent with the Ramsay family. She can’t do it; her picture fails. The message in that seems to be: it’s all the attempt. A failure to capture the vision—that’s the best we’ll ever do. I take so much comfort in that. That’s what reading can do. It can show you that other people are out there, struggling like you are. I think that’s what it comes down to.
Samantha: One chapter is about gloves you took from your father. It’s a story you try to fictionalize, and it never quite works. I’m curious about the tension between using elements of your life and the point where that stops working.
Peter: I do use a lot of autobiography, and then I twist it and contort it. People who know the [true] story are weirded out. I’m like, “Yeah, that’s because I’m a fiction writer and I twist.” But sometimes it doesn’t work, like you said. A lot of the pieces of this book grew out of a kind of a failure to make fiction, and the gloves are a really good example.
It turned out that what I’d actually done with my dad’s gloves was kind of compelling in and of itself. I didn’t need to push it. I’d done something weird and by being a little bit honest, it seemed to make sense that I stumbled on that.
Samantha: Did it make you feel more vulnerable to have these stories that were true?
Peter: Yes! This whole book makes me very uncomfortable. I dread it. I like talking about books and I’m happy to. [But in this book] I talk about things people don’t know, and a lot of things my parents didn’t know. That part of it, I’m still uncomfortable with.
That’s the price of writing it, I guess. I feel a little like, “What have I done?”
Samantha: Did you have any hesitancy, like, “Do I really want to publish this book?”
Peter: There were lots of times where I thought I should hold it up. What I did then was I rewrote it almost completely. I wanted it to be respectful of the people I was writing about, and I made sure of that. So it took some rewriting. The very personal stuff got rewritten to the very end. With my father and my ex-wife, that stuff was reworked and reworked because I wanted to make sure I was doing them justice as best I could.
Samantha: It’s a balance: you’re trying to be fair, but also true to yourself.
Peter: With non-fiction, you know, that’s what it’s about. If something has any power, it’s because you took a risk. I think readers can sense that. I think they appreciate that you’re trying to be as honest as you can. That’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction. I realized that being honest had its own sort of torque.
Samantha: You wrote about people asking you if certain stories you’ve written are true or not, and you said, “Yeah, it’s true, but what does that even matter?” Maybe you’re saying that it does.
Peter: If I, as a fiction writer, can make you believe what you’re reading, then I’ve got you. In non-fiction, I don’t have to worry about that, but you have to be interested. It comes down to the same thing: is the story grabbing people? Does it move somebody’s soul?
Samantha: This is kind of the opposite of that, but I like the scene where you describe throwing a book [“The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes] out the window.
Peter: Because I felt like I was being manipulated. I felt like the book was manipulating me. Which is what fiction does, but you don’t want it to be so fucking apparent.
There was this one review I got that really said it right: “The book was so literary, it bothered me.” There was something “literary,” in quotes, that bugged me about that particular book.
Samantha: Do you feel that this book is literary?
Peter: I hope not. I hope it’s not literary in quotes. I love literature and I love being literary, but I hope it’s not literary in quotes. Literature is best when it’s about day-to-day life and day-to-day struggles. If I succeeded at all—who knows? But that’s what I was after. I did not want it to be rarefied, but touched with an everydayness.
Samantha: Have you gotten a good response?
Peter: Things have been good. There’s a small audience, but the book sold out in it’s first printing, which is a first for me. And it just got a nice review from the New Yorker, which I’ve never had before. So things with this book have been different. I just want to get a book out into the world; it’s got to do its thing on its own. And this book seems to be doing a little of something, so I’m happy about that.
Samantha: Do you find yourself wanting to get back to fiction writing?
Peter: Yeah, I’m working on about three books at the same time. A short story collection, a longer piece of fiction, and then a non-fiction. Plus this Haiti book that I have coming out, so there’s a lot. I like to do a lot of things at once, but fiction is always what I’m doing.
I’ll say this: I’m never doing this again.
Samantha: Never doing what?
Peter: I’m never doing a thing about my own life again. I just think I said what I needed to say. I’ll write criticism or my version of it, but I am never going to kind of…I’m done.
Samantha: Why is that?
Peter: I felt like I needed to say certain things. Part of the “uncomfort” that you suggested. I did it once and that’s it and that’s enough. I want to hide behind fiction again, basically. It’s weird not be able to hide behind it. That’s the honest truth.