A Writer’s Insight: Peter Orner

Peter Orner’s story, “A Grave,” appears in the summer 2022 issue of The Southern Review. Here, he discusses the process of writing very short fiction, current projects, and the power of fiction to turn the obvious on its head.

Jake Zawlacki, Editorial Assistant: I’m still struck by how much is contained in such a short piece. When you started writing this, did you know how long you wanted it to be?

Peter Orner: Some stories I carry around for years. I can’t remember when I first wrote a draft of this one but it resurfaced in my mind not long ago and I went back to an old notebook and found it and reworked it a little. I never know how long a story is going to be but if a line strikes me as some kind of end point, an end point that’s doesn’t so much end a story but somehow allows it to keep going . . . that’s what I’m after.

JZ: In that same vein, but a bit more generally, when do you know a story is finished?

PO: Maybe we worry too much about when something’s finished? You know what I mean? I think I stopped making this a priority years ago. I guess I want something to have some impact, to move you somehow, but to finish—not necessarily.

JZ: There are so many powerful moments that all seem to arise from very specific word choices. I’m thinking of “It wasn’t as though she hadn’t had other men” and that word “had” in particular. If it’s changed to “love,” “been with,” “romanced,” etc., the tone shifts to something considerably different. (343) When you’re making these decisions, is there a lot of deliberation on the right word at the right moment? Or is it more intuitive?

PO: Appreciate this close reading! I wish I could say it was a deliberate choice. But I think you are right, if she’d loved these other men I would have said that or thought that. And when it came to her I guess I felt that “had” was the right word. The only word. But I say this after the fact, as if I’ve any idea what I was thinking . . .

JZ: The theme of recognition works throughout: physical, memorial, and emotional. The question “Who knows anybody?” even gets its own line. By the end of the piece, however, this lack of recognition doesn’t really resolve. So, to put it bluntly, can we really know anybody?

PO: Hmmm. Yeah, I’d be hard pressed to say it is possible to know everything there is to know about someone.

JZ: Thinking more about recognition and aging, there’s this idea in the story of our physical reality betraying how we think and feel. Do you think there’s any way to eliminate or at least narrow this betrayal? It sounds as though Lorraine’s thought about it quite a bit.

PO: I love that notion, our physical reality betraying how we think and feel. I think your question asks it better than I can answer it. There must be ways to narrow the betrayal? Love better? But ultimately, maybe being alive when someone you know has died, will always be a betrayal of some sort?

JZ: Building on that, the story inverts the common trope of “elderly people are lonely.” In fact, it’s this opposite experience of Lorraine that brings her guilt. From that, I recognized a lot of subversions in the single memory being one of alienation and not familiarity, the small but strong hands of her late husband, and the lack of loneliness as a betrayal. On a craft level, how do you see subversion working in storytelling?

PO: I’m not sure its conscious but I do think that when a piece of fiction turns the obvious on its head, that’s more faithful to my own experience walking around in the world. That to and fro thing from Job. I think once you observe people, talk to them, live among them, there are subversions everywhere.

JZ: I really enjoyed this piece and look forward to your future work. Any projects coming through the pipeline?

PO: You’re very kind, Jake, and such thoughtful questions. My new book of essays came out in October, Still No Word from You: Notes in the Margin. I hope it has a lot of subversion in it, but not for to say . . .

Peter Orner’s latest book is Still No Word from You. His memoir, Am I Alone Here?, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright to Namibia.
Jake Zawlacki is an editorial assistant at The Southern Review and a current MFA candidate at Louisiana State University. He holds degrees from the University of San Diego and Stanford University and has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. His creative work investigates questions of mortality, connection, and meaning.
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