Peter Orner is always on the go, and wherever he goes, he’s writing. Namibia, Mexico, and the Czech Republic are just some of the places he’s written—and collected material for more writing. His work, equally unbounded, includes novels, stories, essays, criticism, and oral histories. He writes on the fly: in cars, on napkins, in life’s in-between moments. Even this interview happened on the go. When I called he was en route to his writing studio after dropping off his child at school.
PART I: In the car
Are you driving? Is this a bad time?
I can’t find the keys to my studio. I’m going home to look for them.
Do you want to call me back when you get settled?
No, it’s okay. I can talk while I look.
All right, then. You’re originally from Chicago but you’ve lived all over the world. What are some places you’ve lived, in connection with your writing?
In the early nineties I spent nearly two years teaching at a rural school in Namibia right after it gained independence. In 2016 I went back with my family and spent another two years researching a book I’m working on about the Namibian genocide.
I lived in Prague on two separate occasions, writing and also teaching at Charles University. I lived in Mexico. I lived in Brussels. I lived in Bolinas, California—that’s another country, for sure. And I was in Italy for a year and a half at the American Academy in Rome. That’s where I wrote my first Namibia book, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. I tend to go somewhere else to write about a place. I wrote about Namibia in Italy, and I wrote about Chicago from California. I need to see a place from a distance to mythologize it.
PART II: At his house, the sounds of drawers opening and closing, bags being zipped and unzipped.
Would you rather go to ten different countries for one week each, or one country for ten weeks?
The first choice sounds like a nightmare. What I like to do is live in places. I like to know where people buy their bread. In Rome, I spent a lot of time in the grocery store. Except in Rome, you don’t go to the grocery store; you go to individual shops. You get your prosciutto here, you get your bread there. It’s an old way of doing things, and I just loved that.
Do you usually try to live in a neighborhood and be part of a community?
As much as I can. The first time I went to Namibia, because I was an American, they put me in separate housing from the local teachers. I lasted about three days. It was a Catholic school, so I went to the priest, and I said, “Father, I want to live with the other teachers.” He told me the conditions were bad, that there was no toilet, this and that. But I just wanted to be with everybody and do the same things they were doing.
Do you try to learn the language when you go to a new place?
I’m very bad at languages. But also, I like not being able to understand people because it helps me concentrate. Because I’m such an eavesdropper. Being out of my element helps me work. All I want to do when I go somewhere—and I’m completely mercenary about this—is work.
I found my keys.
PART III: Driving to his studio
How much of your writing do you do when you’re out and about, versus at your desk?
The last thing I want to do is type. Of course, a lot happens in the revision process, so I have to do that on the computer. But most of my thinking and planning happens outside, usually when I’m moving.
Are you physically active by nature?
I get restless being in one place. I don’t even like sitting in a restaurant and being waited on.
What would you rather do?
Anything. I don’t like being trapped. I have to move around or take a walk. My companions don’t always love it, but I just don’t enjoy being sedentary. And that’s hard because my work really depends on me sitting down. So, if I have to be sedentary, I guess I like to travel somewhere and be sedentary there.
In your essay Winter in September you mention searching your bookshelf for a story to read that would slow you down. What did you mean by that?
Exactly that. I want to read something to help me catch my breath. I don’t need a lot to happen in my reading because I’m always in motion. Being in motion means you miss a lot. I want to be slowed down so I don’t miss stuff.
Do stories ever come to you as a result of being in motion?
Yeah, for sure. I run with a notebook, and I always have my notebook when I’m on the bike because I might see something as I’m passing by.
You’re driving down the highway and you get a story idea. What do you do?
I definitely write while I’m driving, with my notebook on the steering wheel. Or if I’ve really got something I’ll pull over.
Do you ever take a voice memo on your phone?
Yeah, but it doesn’t help because I never, ever listen to it.
What are some other things you might jot notes on, if you don’t have a notebook handy?
Napkins, the insides of books I’m reading. Parking tickets, twenty-dollar bills, leaves. The wall.
Do you ever lose your notes?
Yeah. I once spent a couple days at a dump looking for a notebook. So now I keep my name and number in my notebooks, and often people call me when they find them.
Wait. Often? How frequently does this happen?
A few times a year. It just happened recently. Somebody called me and said, “Hey, I found your notebook.” I lose notebooks all the time. But the way I work now is, as I develop a story, I recopy things. I always have multiple notebooks going at the same time. So now, if I lose a notebook, it’s okay because the stuff is usually repeated somewhere else. The only thing is finding it. I’m walking into my studio right now, and I’m surrounded by notebooks. I have literally hundreds and hundreds of notebooks.
PART IV: In his studio
What type of notebook do you carry?
It has to be graph paper. It has to be hardcover.
So no spiral notebooks for you.
I could never. I can’t even look at a spiral notebook.
And what is it about the graph paper?
It feels organized to me. If there was no graph paper left in the world and I had to write on regular, lined notebook paper, I would die. One of the reasons I like going to Europe is because they have such good notebooks. Mexico has really good notebooks.
You’re in a town in the middle of nowhere and you can only spend one hour. Would you rather go to the local bar or dig through the archives at city hall?
I know I’m supposed to say the bar, but I’ll pick the archives because I’ll find something there that’s completely singular. In the bar I might just get the same old stories from the bar flies.
Say more about that singular find.
That’s the thing I’m after. It can be very mundane. My story Padanaram came from these broken chairs on a beach near New Bedford. Another time, I was driving along the Mississippi River in Iowa and there was this really weird tree that looked like it got hit by lightning. I imagined this horrible thing had happened to the tree, and that became the story Thumbs. Something real—often the tactile nature of something physical—will usually lead to something fictional.
What would happen if you had to stay in the same place for twenty-five years? Would you run out of stories?
No, because you can never fully know a place. The idea that you could run out stories is crazy, even in a small town. Also, I think my biggest currency is memory, which is an infinite well.
Is that why, even though you write about so many different places, there are certain ones you keep coming back to?
Yeah. Those are my roots, my touchstones. I’m from Chicago. My mom’s from Massachusetts. My childhood was in those places. In the pandemic, when I had to cancel my travel plans, I turned to memory to get me through.
My new book, Still No Word from You, was written during lockdown, which forced me to be a lot more still. I couldn’t wander around and eavesdrop on people because there wasn’t anybody around. I work in an old railroad hotel in White River Junction and for months on end, I was pretty much the only person in the building. That’s when I realized I could eavesdrop on myself, on my own memories. I started to tell real stories about my family as a way to keep myself going. No matter where I go in the world, those places are always with me.
Peter Orner is the author of two novels, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Love and Shame and Love, as well as three story collections: Esther Stories, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, and Maggie Brown & Others. His essay collection Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Reading to Live and Living to Read was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has edited three non-fiction books for the Voice of Witness Series: Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, Hope Deferred: Narratives Of Zimbabwean Lives, and Lavil: Life, Love and Death in Port-au-Prince. His work has been translated into French, Italian, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, and Japanese. He currently holds the Professorship of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College and lives with his family in Norwich, Vermont, where he volunteers on the fire department. His latest work, Still No Word from You: Notes in the Margin, was published by Catapult in October 2022.
Join Peter in conversation with Asako Serizawa at the Harvard Bookstore this Friday, November 18.