Interview with Daniel Orozco, Fall 2014 Fiction Faculty

Daniel Orozco photo

Daniel Orozco. Photo Courtesy of High Country News.

March 19, 2014

Daniel Orozco was a Visiting Professor of Fiction at the Writers’ Workshop for the Fall, 2013 semester. He is the author of the short story collection, Orientation and Other Stories, published in 2011 by Faber & Faber. He earned an MFA from the University of Washington and was both a Stegner fellow and a Jones lecturer at Stanford University. Additionally, he won a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and was a recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award in 2011.

Orozco’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Harper’s Magazine, StoryQuarterly, and Zoetrope. Additionally, his work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, and the Pushcart Prize anthology.

Interview by Workshop alumna and fiction writer Christa Fraser. Originally published in the Winter, 2014 Workshop Alumni Newsletter.

Your story collection begins with “Orientation,” which takes place when a new employee is given an office tour, and ends with “Shakers,” which takes place in an earthquake. In what ways are both of those stories about orientation and disorientation?

Even though “Orientation” and “Shakers” bookend the collection, and seem to begin and end a particular journey from orientation to disorientation, both of the stories, for me as a writer, began with same impulse. The phrase that I hang onto whenever I do any work is: figure out how to render the familiar unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar familiar. For me, that tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar is paramount, and essential, even at the level of the sentence.

The first story, “Orientation,” is a kind of disorientation. It is set in an office, the most mundane and safest of work environments, and so the challenge was in how to make that place dangerous—perhaps literally, but mostly emotionally. So, these are the jobs that can kill you: longshoreman, fireman, and these office jobs that I’m writing about, which kill you in a different way.

“Shakers” is a story that has this omniscient, god-like perspective. Having the power and the authority to take the reader with you, to juxtapose what cannot possibly be juxtaposed —that’s a powerful point of view. That story was a kind of exercise in extremity. I knew, as I was working on “Shakers,” that I didn’t just want to use omniscient perspective: I wanted to go everywhere. I wanted to go in the mud below the San Francisco Bay. I wanted to go in the woods to find the bones of a lost hiker. I really wanted to go far.

That sense of extremity seems to be working alongside a sort of intimacy in the way you render place and character. How do those qualities come together for you, while you write?

I love landscapes, landscape paintings. I love looking at stuff from a promontory somewhere. For me, getting an overall sense of a place, and selecting the details that give a sense of what the landscape looks like, is not just a writerly challenge but a way of pinning down the tone and mood that I want.

I’m always thinking in terms of pictures. When I’m writing, the story is always in my head being blocked out precisely. Part of the precision and the concrete detail in the writing comes from my tendency to be that visual. That said, while I see the landscape, I don’t see the whole thing at once. I see it enough to find the details that I want on the page.

Whenever I begin a story, in the early stages, it usually begins as an effort to engage some kind of narrative exercise, something that I want to try and do, or pull off. I work on either finding inherent in that exercise some kind of situation or scenario, or on coming up with one. Then I start developing a character who can be taken through that situation.

I tend to work with a character from the outside in. I don’t know anything about that character until I start writing the story. I have a general picture of sex, age, and socioeconomic class but I start discovering the specific details when I’m writing it. I think that’s where those details come from and how they arise from the story. Hopefully, the process of discovering these characters has some of the same kind of vibrancy and energy for the reader as it did for me discovering them as a writer.

In some stories, we never learn the names of your characters. Sometimes only the peripheral figures get names. What informs these decisions?

It seems to be an intuitive choice on my part. In “Shakers,” I think I get away with leaving characters unnamed because the point of view is going everywhere so you don’t get a chance to know anybody. In “The Bridge,” the decisions around names came from research. The workers actually give each other nicknames. If you work on the Golden Gate Bridge and you get a nickname, you're stuck with it for as long as you work on that bridge. And that is kind of who you are.

With Clarissa Snow [in “Temporary Stories”], using both of her names felt important. Saying a name over and over again makes the character not just a character, but someone iconic, like Jesus Christ, or Charlie Brown. He’s never called Charlie in the Peanuts comic strips but is always Charlie Brown.

How much of a story’s style is intrinsic to the story and its workings, for you, and how much is the result of an experiment?

Style is intrinsic. It’s essential to the story and the structure.  Style and structure are kind of the same thing for me. I move forward in that way. “Officers Weep” wouldn’t have become a story if I hadn’t had the model of a police blotter. I wondered if a story could arise out of police blotters, which are a series of discrete events, both important and unimportant. If you read a police blotter, a story doesn’t arise out of a police blotter. It’s just a record of events, period. There is, though, especially at the beginning of that story, a sense of accrual and accretion. That was the impetus there, but that story also has a blatant dramatic throughline because of the love story.

In “Orientation,” the question was: can you tell a story in real time? I wanted to have elements of a story accreting and accruing, simply by piling up one element after another. I was questioning whether or not I could use juxtaposition to figure out what the pace and movement of a story could be, and how to have these things peak and rise by moving elements of the story around.

For “Shakers,” a lot of the choices in the story felt intuitive. How can I stop, use second person, and then move and use second person again. But you can’t just keep piling things up: a story can’t just accrete and accrete and accrete without turning into something. Maybe I was testing the limits of how I could overlay that episodic accretion with what’s necessary for a story to have—profluence of movement and arrival.

You don’t seem to be a regional writer and yet it’s difficult to escape how definitively and iconically rooted in California and the West Coast, in general, some of your stories feel.

These stories were written over fifteen years before they were published, so each story was a discrete project. There really wasn’t any intent to create anything regionally, at all. “Orientation” takes place in the most abstract of settings and environments. It could happen everywhere, and anywhere. That’s my first story.

My second story in the collection, though, “The Bridge,” is very specific to San Francisco. I also have a story set in the Northwest, “Only Connect.” “Temporary Stories” is set somewhere really generic, and “Officer’s Weep” is also fairly generic, but that was actually a problem editing it. My editors asked me, “Where is this? I don’t think these trees grow on the California coast.” But it wasn’t the California coast. It’s an imaginary place—the editors were fact-checking a fiction story!

I’ve never considered myself to be a regional writer, and in many ways, I do purposefully make the settings generic. But you can’t help who you are, or where you’re from. My stories have gotten more and more specific with regard to place, particularly the later stories I’ve written. I would argue that all stories are autobiographical; whether you intend them to be or not, they’re all revealing something of you. For me, the autobiographical revelation has to do with place, this notion of a particular place that resonates. For me, it’s the West Coast. It really does come up a lot.

I’m also struck by the deep and close perspective of several of the stories. For example, “The Bridge” takes place on the structure of the Golden Gate bridge, but the perspective hews so close to the men working on the bridge that it becomes almost an abstract construct, just a series of wires, and bolts, and enormous pieces of steel.

I wanted to de-romanticize, de-sentimentalize, de-melodramatize this phenomenon of people killing themselves on that bridge. (The bridge in the story is never called the Golden Gate Bridge but everybody knows which bridge it is.) I figured the best way to do it is to have the story told from the perspective of people who work on it every day, for whom it’s just a workplace, because, if you worked on the bridge, you’d have to find a way to be able to deal with the suicides. Otherwise, you’d have to just quit. These guys have figured out how to work on it. That’s what holds them together.

The bridge workers, besides the revelation that they occasionally talk down and witness suicides, in a sense are just steel workers. They work on the bridge in small pieces. It gets repainted every seven years. It must be repainted forever to keep it from corroding. So, the bridge is just pieces of bolts and metal that they protect from the elements.

It seems like you’re committed to avoiding sentimentality and nostalgia in your stories.

In the novel I’m working on, there are these very charged, intense moments. It’s interesting to write them in a way that doesn’t render them melodramatic. That is going to be a real challenge. I don’t think they will be melodramatic, though. The problem may be the reverse. They may, if anything, be undercooked because I tend to avoid melodrama and sentimentality.

I have no nostalgia, to a great extent. Nostalgia is looking back at a past that never existed, the Good Old Days. Remember those? We don’t have those anymore. Except, there were no Good Old Days. The Good Old Days were really just a series of things that happened but aren’t happening anymore. This other stuff is happening now.

If it were interesting for drama or character, though, I’d include something nostalgic or sentimental. And if I did, I would put it in there as a kind of flaw, something ironic. But I don’t have a whole heck of a lot of a sense of nostalgia or sentimentality myself.

Much of your work is rooted in ideas about solitude, the solitary state of existing as a human being. You have mentioned that you use Rilke as a touchstone when writing, and in the story, “I Run Every Day,” the main character invokes Rilke: “I’m alone but I’m not lonely. There’s loneliness and then there’s solitude, which is a positive. It’s good to be solitary because solitude is difficult. Rilke said that. I know him because I read books. I know who I am.”

“I Run Every Day” was my experiment in unreliable narration. The character doesn’t know who he is. He is avoiding who he is throughout the story. (There’s also a reference to Rilke in “Only Connect,” where the woman had read somewhere that solitude was preparatory for love.)

Rilke says that we are inevitably alone, but you don’t have to be lonely when you’re alone. Solitude is a good thing. You can still engage the world in a particular way and be alone, even though it's going to be sad sometimes. He’s talking about it as a healthy part of growth toward something else. And this guy gets it wrong. He is only reading the parts that he needs in order to get him to believe that he needs no one, that nobody needs anybody.

One of the last things I did with that story was include the Rilke quote. I was never going to include Rilke or mention him. It was just going to be my epigraph for working on the story. But I decided that it needed to be there. Number one, because I love that phrase, “It’s good to be solitary because solitude is difficult.” I also wanted it to sound a little off-kilter for this guy to have read Rilke. It’s odd that he would know Rilke and that he would have read him. I wanted it to be odd. I am glad that I finally got to include it in that story.

Do Rilke’s notions of solitude inform your writing life?

Well, writing is a solitary endeavor. You need to be alone to get your writing done. That said, the writing life doesn’t have to be solitary, and it really shouldn’t be. I think it’s vital to enter and leave the solitary endeavor of writing: always go back to it but always be able to set it aside for a time. You kind of live in a story when you’re writing it, but you have to live in the real world, too. I tend to stay in the story, in my head, even when I’m in the world.  It’s something I kind of struggle with, still. Perhaps I need a hobby, or a dog.

“Somoza’s Dream,” which is about the assassination of the man who was formerly the president of Nicaragua in the 1960s and 70s, but is, in the moment of the story, in exile in Paraguay, is a story that defines a different type of solitude. He senses that other people around him have an inner life but he is completely unable to access one for himself.

Yes, with Somoza, there’s no “there” there. He was truly in exile in Paraguay. General Stroessner, the then-president of Paraguay and longest-living dictator of a South American country, invited Somoza to stay there in exile. (Stroessner got paid for it, of course.) While there, Somoza was assassinated in the name of the Sandinistas by Argentine guerillas.

But other than his presidency, exile, and assassination, there’s nothing interesting about Somoza. He’s not self-aware, he’s not aware, period. I didn’t want him to be an interesting character. That was the conundrum. I wanted his situation to be interesting, I wanted the circumstances that were moving around him to be interesting, but I didn’t want him to be interesting at all. I didn’t want him to be torn about anything, to have a conscience, or an inner life. That was kind of the goal there.

I did research on Somoza, and there was nothing about him that made him interesting as a figure, as a dictator, as opposed to somebody like Mussolini, who was interesting. Hitler was interesting. Pol Pot was interesting. Monstrous, yes but—you’ve got to admit—interesting at the level of character. Somoza is not interesting. It was just all about money for him. There was no fanatical vision. He was just a mobster.

You wrote about food, and hunger by extension, in your four-part story, “Hunger Tales.” Why write about hunger in such a literal way?

The challenge for my story “Hunger Tales” was that I wanted to start with hunger, not as just a metaphor, but as a literal engagement with hunger, and to basically just see what came of that. I wanted to write stories that begin and end with this physical desire, this physiological desire to eat.

But writing isn’t just representational. It starts turning into something else. I wanted to see how these different scenarios resonated off each other under a common title, how the simple juxtaposition of experiences can render a kind of new experience by the time you’ve read the last scenario.

When I was re-writing it, I was trying to avoid putting revelatory moments at the ends of the individual stories. I wanted to hide the revelatory moment behind a curtain, where it’s not really representing anything else but the sensation of being really full, or being really embarrassed, or whatever.

You have mentioned that you spend a lot of time looking for the exact right word, which extends to the most precise image or character depiction. Given your tendency toward exactness, what is the timeline for you to get a story just right?

The timeline varies, but the process is kind of the same. I always attempt to try and write the final draft on my first try. That’s the way I approach it. It never is the final draft, of course. But I can’t just bang something out and then have something to work with and then go back. I’m always trying to make it the last draft. That’s why it takes so long.

I might take a month working on the first couple of pages. Once I get a sense of voice, and mood, and stuff like that, once those feel right, then I’ll move on from there. I do tend to go really slow and go paragraph by paragraph, but I’m not just in that paragraph—I’m always thinking about where it's going to go.

How do you know when you should abandon a story?

I haven’t abandoned a story in a long time. If I’m going to work on something, it’s going to be something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I will think about something for six to eight months before I start writing it down. It’s a real commitment for me to write a story.

I spent about six months thinking about the novel before I started mapping it, then I spent another six months just mapping it out, not writing anything. Then, I started writing it. With me, a story gestates, composts, ferments, whatever you want to call it—“composts” is probably the most accurate word.

What would you like to say about the novel you are currently working on?

I started writing a novel because I had to, not because I wanted to. Now, I want to write it, and it’s fraught and problematic, but I know what I need to do, and where it needs to go. I mapped it out, so, structurally, it’s fairly tight—maybe too tight.

It’s not introspective; there are guns, and people get hurt and stuff like that. I wanted things to happen. I wanted it to move. Novels are long, so they had better move.

Your debut collection, which took fifteen years to write, came out in 2011. What were you doing before you began to write in earnest?

Before I started writing, I wasn’t doing anything. I was an undergraduate at Stanford University and, when I graduated, I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to go back to school because I hated school. I hated writing. There was no way in hell you were going to make me go back to school.

Then I got an office job. I did that for about ten or eleven years and then I thought, “Hey, I want to go back to school.” I don’t know what compelled me to work on a story before that desire to return to school. I had written in grammar school and high school, but I wasn’t a writer. I was just somebody who wrote stuff.

I think I was fairly unhappy. I was angry. For some reason, though, when working on a story, I felt a kind of contentment being inside a narrative, in putting it together. I think it goes beyond simply the feeling of having control. It was something else. I think that’s kind of what drew me to writing and to decide to study it.

So I took some classes at San Francisco State University and then I applied to University of Washington and got in. It was 1992. I was 35 when I started the MFA program at UW. I was a late bloomer. Then I was at Stanford for the Stegner in my early forties.

What were your experiences at the University of Washington and Stanford like?

I think the level of discourse at both of those places was critical, as were the way that story and narrative are taken seriously. In the faculty at Washington, there was a kind of intelligence and sobriety about what stories do and aren’t supposed to do and I think that was a really good experience to have. It wasn’t touchy-feely at all. It was about crafting stuff.

With the Stegner program, you’re pretty much on your own, in terms of what you’re doing with your work. Very often, the most illuminating conversations there weren’t necessarily the ones about my story. They were kind of these lessons on narrative in general that you’re getting as they talk about anybody’s story.

I thought that was really important; to hear these teachers and colleagues, particularly the teachers, speak so eloquently about what needs to work.

I learned a lot at Stegner about form and structure, how crucial they are, and how the emotions that arise off a page of text aren’t actually there. They are illusory. They are just words on a page. You make the emotional resonance happen—it really is still remarkable to me.

Going back even further, your parents are from Nicaragua. You and your brother were born in the US and grew up in Daly City, California. How did the particular household you grew up in shape you as a writer?

My mom didn’t finish grammar school, while my dad didn’t finish high school. My dad liked books but he didn’t read them very often. We always had the Audubon Nature Encyclopedia and the Time Life books, and dictionaries, though. I think he kind of instilled this idea in us that it’s good to sit down and read, so that appreciation of reading was there.

I remember my father always holding books, thumbing through them and then putting them back, and then coming back to them. He seemed to enjoy having them in the house. I do remember, when I was a kid, reading a lot, as most writers did when they were kids. I wasn’t committed to being a writer, but I did love to read.

The other thing they taught us was how to be Americans. They believed that, if you live in this country, you speak English. They believed that they were the foreigners and we were not. I didn’t have very much of a divided consciousness as a first-generation Latino because they said, basically, and I’m paraphrasing, you have no divided consciousness: You're American.

They really instilled that idea of being American. They probably regretted it because we’ve lost the traditions and don’t speak Spanish anymore.

As a writing teacher, what do you think is most useful to teach your students?

The first thing I want to teach them is that nothing is negligible, or dismissible. Everything matters. Be the kind of person upon whom nothing is lost. That’s something I try to impress upon undergraduates—graduates are a different story.

I also tell undergraduates to bring their third draft to class—never a first draft—because I want them to understand that it is a work-in-progress. We don’t want to see the first thing you wrote. I reassure them that first drafts are always bad so they shouldn’t feel bad about that. Third drafts are better.

I also tell them to write every day. I tell them twenty minutes a day and if it goes longer than that, that’s fine, but at least twenty minutes a day. You need to keep going back to it and committing to going back to it. Just go back to it every day and if nothing’s happening, then stop.

This is really, really simple stuff but they don’t think it’s that simple. They think they’ll write something when they’re inspired. They really believe in inspiration. It’s not inspiration, it’s getting your ass in that chair and looking at the story and thinking about it.

Additionally, I tell them to read, because reading is the flipside of writing. You can’t write if you haven’t read. Twenty year olds haven’t experienced anything yet, but when you read something, and you love it, you are in a sense, experiencing something. It opens up your imagination.

Graduate students, on the other hand, tend to know who they are as writers. They generally have a worldview. They have a stylistic approach and they have a project that they’re working on, and with which they are struggling. They are much more engaged with precise and specific narrative problems. And they are very often surprised that a general narrative principle can help resolve a specific narrative problem.

As a teacher, going back to basics reminds you that this is how you surmount a particular problem. Sometimes graduate students can lose sight of that, through no fault of their own, because they are inside of what they’re working on. That’s what workshop is for, though, to get those other eyes and those other ears on your work.

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(This interview was conducted in person and via email during the fall, 2013 semester)