Daniel Orozco: Stories are about experience, not themes

Daniel Orozco’s first book has been a long time coming – he says he once thought it would never actually make it into existence. The dark and funny title story, “Orientation,” was selected for Best American Short Stories in 1995, and the nine stories in the volume were written over nearly two decades.

Daniel Orozco

But Orientation and Other Stories is landing with a big splash. Over the course of the long wait for publication, Orozco has built a following, one beautifully crafted story at a time. Now the book is getting glowing reviews all over the place; Julie Orringer wrote, “This may be Orozco’s first collection, but he’s nothing short of a master.” Here’s the review from New West.

His stories have appeared in Harper’s, Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, Ecotone and StoryQuarterly, and been picked for the Pushcart Prize anthology, Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories and others. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, he teaches at the University of Idaho.

He graciously agreed to answer these questions by e-mail.

You’ve described yourself as a slow writer, and the stories in Orientation were written over many years. How long do you work on stories, and do you work on them in a continuous stretch? Or do you start and stop, pick them up and put them down, etc.?

I started one story and put it down and picked it up seventeen years later and finished it, but that’s the only time that’s happened. I finished another story in about eight weeks, but that’s rare too. And so my rate of story production falls somewhere between those two extremes. Typically, each story is a discrete, singular project, finished more or less in one stretch.  Each project may be interrupted by life–work-related stuff, personal crises, acts of God, etc.–but never by another story. I’m not a very good multi-tasker.

You’ve had lots of publishing success – from being selected for Best American Short Stories to lots of prestigious fellowships and residencies – but is there something particularly satisfying about having your first book appear?

It never stops being satisfying. I see a story of mine typeset and in print in a magazine or journal, and I still do a little dance. The book is satisfying, yes, but the feeling I have is mostly relief. There was a time when I thought I’d never get a collection published, frankly. I was so slow that I didn’t think I’d get enough stories for a collection. And when I finally did, I was being told that story collections don’t sell. Nobody wanted to publish it for the longest time. So: here it is!

Your title story has a narrator, but also operates with a kind of collective voice. It struck me as both a great reflection of a manager’s presumption and a rich territory for a writer to move around in – between the individual and the collective. How hard was it to strike the right balance in that voice?

It took a long time to nail that voice. When I start a story I’ll linger over the first few pages or so for weeks, noodling and tinkering–often reading aloud–until I feel I’ve got a storyteller that serves the story being told. The way you describe the voice in “Orientation” is very astute, and spot-on, but when I was working on it I was just . . . working on it, listening to what I was writing until it just sounded right, working to achieve the effect I couldn’t have articulated that I was listening for, if that makes sense.

What do you find are your recurring preoccupations as a writer? And are they in the forefront of your mind as you work, or do you find them emerging unbidden?

When I teach a fiction writing class the one unit/topic I skip is “theme.” I went to Catholic school when I was a boy, taught by nuns who would teach theme. They’d walk around the room and ask “What’s this story about?” and you’d answer and they’d say “No, wrong.” So you’d offer another answer and they’d say “Close!  But no.” And so, theme was a like this one key they held in their hand, and if you guessed the right theme, you would have the key to unlocking the story.

I’ll tell a student that story is experiential, not thematic, that story engages via human action and reaction, not via idea. I’ll tell her not to write about, say, the plight of the elderly on America, but to write instead about the summer her grandfather fell down the stairs and broke his hip and had to move in with her family. I’m belaboring this point, I guess: that for me, what a story is about arises from what happens in it. A writer works on a story every day for months, with the primary goal of telling a human story that engages emotively. Doing just that–immersively, ongoingly, daily–the preoccupation or theme or worldview will emerge unbidden.

Although–and here I undercut my argument, I guess–I do sometimes look for an epigraph for a story I’m working on, some quote from another text that somehow distills or speaks to the story I want to tell. After writing the story, I’ll get rid of the epigraph. Sometimes I’ll keep it though, as in “Hunger Tales,” with this quote from the Book of Palms: “And so they did eat, and were well filled; for he gave them their own desire. . . .”

Are you working on a novel or a longer work? How has that shift gone?

I started a novel about five years ago. I didn’t want to but the demands of the market seemed to require that I write one. This far along, though, I’m actually enjoying the challenge of writing a longer, multi-stranded narrative, mapping out a chronology, shaping and structuring chapters, creating a story on a much larger canvas than I’m used to. But it’s so immersive and consuming being inside a novel, and so I had to set it aside a few years ago, and I took a break from it to write a story.  But no more breaks now, I don’t think.

How do you see the relationship between teaching writing and writing? Does teaching dilute the energy to write or restore it?

When I’m working on a project I am always in my head, and everything about teaching–prepping for class, going to office hours, reading/grading exercises, etc.–gets me out of my head. What feels at first like an interruption of the creative process actually becomes a necessary respite from it. Also: teaching writing re-acquaints me with the nuts-and-bolts of narrative technique. I think it’s always good to not forget the basics.

Not to boil things down to catch-phrases, but what are the main pieces of advice you find yourself giving to students repeatedly?

I tell my students two things over and over and over again until they are probably sick of hearing it, but these things must be told! First: Read. A lot. Reading is the flipside of writing; you can’t be a good writer if you are not a good reader, and both take practice.  Reading like a writer means not asking  “Do I like–or not like–this story?” but rather “How does this story work?” Students balk at the idea of reading analytically: “It’s not fun!” But analysis doesn’t preclude pleasure–you can do both. That’s the practice of reading like a writer.

Second: Commit to writing at least twenty minutes a day. If you go longer, that’s fine, go longer if it’s going well. But sit down and do nothing but your writing for twenty minutes. You must always be going back to the world of the story; you can’t abandon it for Spring break, and you can’t write it two days before it’s due. Twenty minutes a day is a do-able, feasible way to establish the habit of writing.

Which writers have been most important to you?

I tend to organize influential writers by particular books that have influenced-affected-inspired me, and so: Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones; Back in the World by Tobias Wolff; Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro; Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos; The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker; That Night by Alice McDermott; Neuromancer by William Gibson; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen; and two books that are–sadly–out of print, Backbone by Carol Bly and Squandering the Blue by Kate Braverman.

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You can order a copy of Orientation and Other Stories here.

You can listen to Daniel read the title story on a 1996 episode of This American Life here.

To see past interviews in this series, go here.

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