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'Maggie Brown & Others': Peter Orner On the Power Of The Short Story

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Peter Orner is the author of "Maggie Brown & Others," a collection of short stories, which he released during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
Peter Orner is the author of "Maggie Brown & Others," a collection of short stories, which he released during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Peter Orner has been called a “writer’s writer.” His latest short story collection, "Maggie Brown & Others," helps us understand the truth of this statement and Orner’s profound love for the short story.

Highlights from the interview with Peter Orner:

On the release of the paperback edition of Maggie Brown & Others during the pandemic

It’s my sixth book, so it's not my first go-around, but this is certainly the strangest time for me, as it is for most anybody. So it was sort of almost like a reminder of what I do and what I have been doing — when it showed up at my door — in a way that I'd almost sort of forgotten about. And in a sense, I sort of let it go. The book was sort of out there and got a very good response, but to see it sort of reemerging in this sort of ordinary way, moving on to paperback is usually quite thrilling to see that. It didn't have quite that feeling this time.

Maggie Brown.jpg

I think I have noticed this, that people have a need — I know I have myself — for things to slow down, and I think that that’s true that stories do that better than almost anything, you know? And so, I think when we're all sort of in our houses and having a little more time to think, stories are really becoming a more important to some people. I've seen that.

On the connection between loving to read stories and loving to write them.

I spent all morning today rereading a little tiny Kafka story called “First Sorrow.” It's about a trapeze artist who doesn't want to get off the trapeze. He only wants to be on the trapeze all the time, either practicing or resting. The problem is, you know, because he works in a circus, you gotta go from town to town. So they have to figure out how to get the trapeze artist to the next venue. And that becomes a real, incredibly enormous existential… that sounds a little haughty... He becomes a real logistical problem. I spent literally all morning sort of musing on him, thinking about it. Like, what is going on in this story? I had the impulse, like you suggest, I had an impulse to try and say something as baffling as that myself… There is something about [stories] that just always reels me in.

On the influence of Gina Berriault on his writing

She not only influences everything I do, but certainly the stories in Maggie Brown… I looked to her to sort of, again. Show me what I can do. You know, people often describe her as a quiet writer. I don't find that, but I also find she's not shouting either. She doesn't need to. And those stories are so strong and delicate at the same time, I think. And that's sort of what, you know, again, what she can do. All these people, they all have this in common — with what they can do in a small space. It proves again and again how much power you can get in seven pages, and Berriault, to me, she's at the very, very top.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.