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An Interview with Zell Visiting Writer Peter Orner
Since the reopening of UMMA in 2009, we have been delighted to be the home of the Zell Visiting Writers Series that hosts emerging and established authors. Olivia Postelli (OP), an LSA senior from St. Joseph, Michigan, studying English and creative writing, interviewed U-M alum and fall 2013 visiting writer Peter Orner (PO) about his experiences at U-M as an undergraduate.
OP: How did your experiences at UM or in Ann Arbor influence your work? Particularly your early work in Esther Stories and Love and Shame and Love.
PO: I loved my years in Ann Arbor though I was nobody's definition of a model student. I remember being lost a lot, in more ways than one. I think over the years I've tried to revisit the feeling of being an undergraduate in a place as vast and imposing as Michigan. Love and Shame and Love is partly set in Ann Arbor and is about a girl and a guy, two sophomores, Kat and Popper, who are trying out their new found freedom, on campus and off. Kat is less mystified by freedom than Popper. In the novel I was trying to capture what it felt like when so much was changing so fast, which is why I now think back on that time with a kind of awe. You - crossing the diag - you don't know how lucky you are. I was lucky to be let loose and befuddled in Ann Arbor in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Writing a book was a way of going back.
OP: Your most recent story collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, is primarily composed of very short pieces. How does that form lend itself to writing through the lens of memory or nostalgia as a specific kind of portraiture? As a snapshot?
PO: Memory and the weirdness of it, how it's always changing, is never far from my mind and forms the basis of much of what I do. I'm not sure length has anything to do with how much impact a story has, which is the only thing I really care about. A story needs however many words a story needs. This said I often think you can do more with little, rather than more with more. You know what I mean? I think I first learned this from reading Emily Dickinson - it's what she doesn't say inside what she does say that always knocks me flat.
OP: What advice would you give to undergraduate writers interested in pursuing creative writing? What was the best advice someone at U-M gave you?
PO: Read what you want to read, not what people tell you to read. And love the books you love, not the books people tell you to love. The novelist and UM professor Tish O'Dowd who I can't thank enough was my first and most generous teacher. I think what she instilled in me, and I'm sure many many others, is don't take yourself so seriously. In fact, don't take yourself seriously at all. I think of how often she laughed in class. I mean really laughed. That's a great teacher and writer who loves literature, right there.
Peter Orner, a graduate of UM in 1990 is the author of four books, most recently Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, a New York Times Editor's Choice book and a Wall Street Journal Favorite book of 2013. Orner received a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction in 2006. He lives in Bolinas, California.
In turn, we talked with Olivia (OP) about what the relationship between UMMA and the Zell Visiting Writers Series means to her as a U-M undergrad:
UMMA: What does it mean to you as an undergraduate studying writing to have the Zell Visiting Writers series on campus?
OP: I think the Zell Visiting Writers Series is important because it helps to create and encourage Ann Arbor's literary community. As an undergraduate interested in pursuing writing at the graduate level, I think the presence of others engaged in craft is helpful for envisioning what a creative and/or academic writing life looks like. It's also a really great way to stay up-to-date with the kind of work people are producing, the types of stories people are telling.
UMMA: What does it mean to you to have it hosted in an art museum?
OP: Physically, UMMA is a beautiful space. I think that hosting the ZVWS in the museum fosters a relationship between two different kinds of art and two different parts of the University. It speaks to the importance of collaboration for any kind of artistic project. It also feels like a very cosmopolitan space which I think provides the readings with the right kind of atmosphere.
UMMA: In your interview with Peter Orner you talked about memory and nostalgia as a specific kind of portraiture? This feels like a connection you're making between writing and visual art. Can you say more about that and/or other connections you've made?
OP: I think that memory, and more specifically, nostalgia often serve as lenses through which to create and view fiction. I'm not well-versed in photography or other kinds of visual art, but I know that in my workshops, we often discuss writing using visual terms like "frames" or "scenic spaces." Any kind of storytelling—from fiction to painting to film—is a way to take a snapshot of life. I think the best stories, the best art, show us lives that appear to be nothing like ours but that we can still intimately connect with.
UMMA is pleased to be the site for the Zell Visiting Writers Series, which brings outstanding writers each semester. The Series is made possible through a generous gift from U-M alumna Helen Zell (’64). For more information, please see visit the Zell website.