Orientation and Other StoriesBook |
You are not your job.
In his debut short story collection Orientation, Daniel Orozco slips beneath his characters' skins with the ease of a surgeon, seeking out their hurts, longings, and fears and transforming what he discovers into something enlightening if not always redemptive. Work figures prominently in this book, with jobs ranging from blue- to white-collar—cops and criminals, office temps and supervisors, bridge painters and warehouse workers—but no matter the milieu, Orozco is primarily interested in revealing the sad truths and motivations of the lonely souls that inhabit his short stories. One of the best examples, "Temporary Stories," chronicles the muted life of office temp Clarissa Snow through a gig that tests her personal boundaries as well as her sense of loyalty; in its conclusion, Orozco tacitly posits why Clarissa might prefer the impersonal side of temp work in a sleight-of-hand gesture that's both lyrical and heartbreaking. However, there's a great risk in toying with sentimentality and, at times, Orozco crosses the line. There are also instances in which form trumps substance, such as in "Officer Weeps," a tale of budding love between two cops expressed in mannered entries from a police blotter. Regardless, Orientation is written with an impressive blend of carefully wrought detail, lived experience, and deep compassion making Orozoco a welcome new voice in contemporary fiction.
Critical Questions for Daniel Orozco (from our 8/2011 newsletter)
Daniel Orozco's fantastic debut short story collection Orientation contains prose with a high degree of polish, stories with innovative structures, and a compelling cast of characters drawn with sensitivity and humor. On summer break from his teaching gig, he generously answered some questions for us about writing, the upside of temping, and his next project. —Damian Van Denburgh, Senior Books Editor
CM: The stories in Orientation are filled with unexpected and often disturbing events. Do such things generally spark your idea for a story, or do they come as a surprise during writing?
DO: Flannery O'Connor has said that you can't expect to shock or surprise your reader unless you shock or surprise yourself as a writer. And Flannery O'Connor is always right. So I generally come upon things while I'm writing. I knew, for instance, that the office tour in "Orientation" would have to unfold in real time—it's a dramatic monolog, a character speaking to another character—and I knew it'd have to begin and end at the new employee's cubicle. What kind of drama can unfold within those constraints? I decided that things would have to somehow cross a line, from the mundane into the fantastic, and so the narrator's revelations had to tip into extremity. The rest was discovery—ghosts, stigmata, serial killers. The great pleasure of writing this particular story was finding out how far I could go, how much I could get away with and still make the story work.
You've stated in other interviews that you've done temp work yourself just as some of your characters have. Can you talk a bit about some of your experiences? Was there anything that you liked about temping?
I liked that I didn't have to get to know anybody because I knew I was moving on. I liked projects, and was often assigned to tasks that had a completion date—input all these files into this database, stuff these ten thousand notices into these ten thousand envelopes. There was something Zen-ish about tedious, repetitive tasks that I enjoyed. I loved being put in some derelict cubicle or office and being told, Here, do this for the next three weeks until it's done, and then being left alone to do it. I liked going off on my own for breaks or lunch, eating alone, and reading. I remember one particular temp job where I finished Moby-Dick. That's all I remember about that particular assignment, though—sitting in the sun reading Melville. I hated phone work, or front desk work, hated "dealing with" people. You can see what kind of person I was back then.
Of all the jobs you had before becoming a writer and teacher, was there one that had the potential to pull you away from the career you have now?
Nope. Going back to school in my early thirties—to study writing, to become a teaching assistant and learn how to teach—was a Hail Mary pass of sorts, a last chance. I cannot imagine my life—I wouldn't want to—if this writing thing didn't work out.
The popularity of Mike Judge's film Office Space; the British and US versions of The Office; and books such as Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End would seem to suggest that there's a large audience interested in work about "work." What do you think makes people want to watch or read about work in addition to already devoting huge portions of their lives to it?
The office is a very rich arena for human drama precisely because it is so structured, quotidian, routine. A good day at the office is when it passes just as every other day before it has passed. The late Jerome Stern said that in such Day-In-The-Life stories, tension derives from the anticipation of disrupted routine, from the unasked question: "How will this day be different from any other day?" Dramas in this most mundane and recognizable of settings are much more profoundly felt. Weeping over the body of a fallen comrade in a foxhole is one thing; weeping over a jammed photocopier in an office is another thing entirely. There's something absurdly profound in the latter that—I'd argue—elicits much more pathos.
In the story "Only Connect," the omniscient narrator functions not unlike a camera, tracking one character until contact with a new character in a new context is made and then tracking that new character. Are films a big influence on your writing?
When I teach writing, I talk about narrative perspective as a "camera," wired into one character and engaging that character's experience, then detaching and wiring into another character if doing so serves the story. This metaphor is pretty second-nature to any discussions I have about omniscient narration. And so "Only Connect" didn't come about from any filmic influence. For a while I'd been fascinated with the idea of structuring a story as a kind of "narrative relay," wherein one character hands off the drama to another, and that one to another. I wanted to see if I could tell a story that way. I do think I write a lot of landscapes, though—vistas, views, panoramas—that may arise from my love of film, particularly the establishing shot that reveals the world, sets the mood, and then transitions—zooms in—to the particular players in the drama.
Clarissa Snow in "Temporary Stories" and the narrator of "I Run Every Day" both seem to be hiding some psychic or emotional wound that, despite their efforts, is interfering with the way they currently live. Did you develop backstories for these characters and if so, was it difficult to withhold that information about them?
The kind of absolute knowledge derived from a character backstory would be problematic for me because I wouldn't know what to leave in or leave out when I put the character in situation. I tend to write character "outside in," by having a general idea of what kind of character I need for a story, then putting her in a situation, acting and reacting to events, and finding out about her that way. In my writing process, character is in service to story. Clarissa Snow's home life? Her childhood and relationship history? I have no idea. My hope is that the reader intuits the entire life from the fragment of life in the story, just as I intuited it when I wrote it.
"Shakers," from its multiple points of view, beautifully captures the way in which an entire landscape and the people in it are affected by an earthquake. How important is it to you to have experienced something before you write about it?
It's not important at all to me. I'm from California, and I've been in earthquakes, but what drew me to write "Shakers" was the narrative challenge of telling a story that spans only a few seconds, yet expands and slows time and experience via the manipulation of absolute omniscience. (Angela Carter's story "The Fall River Axe Murders" was an explicit model for what I wanted to try to do.) However. That's not to say that being from California and having been in earthquakes had no effect on how the story dramatizes and engages experience. But I still did a ton of research on the story. You have to get the details right. Whether you've experienced what you're writing about or not, you still have to craft the experience.
Do you foresee any of the characters in Orientation having a continued existence in any of your future work?
I can't imagine my life before I was born, or after I'm dead. This world is pretty much it, I think, and the same goes for the characters in the world(s) of Orientation.
Gilbert Sorrentino, one of your early teachers, is quoted as saying, "Form not only determines content, but form invents content." Would you agree with this as far as your work is concerned?
Yes. He waved his arms around, giddy with this notion, and I was wary of it back then, but he was absolutely right. Just about everything I write begins with some kind of narrative constraint, some arbitrary decision about narrative form, from which everything else derives. Can I tell a story in the form of a police blotter? A story as a 20-minute office tour? Can several separate stories (in "Temporary Stories," "Hunger Tales," and—kind of—"Shakers" and "Only Connect") hang together as one story? Ultimately, "story" is just words on a page, and I think Gil Sorrentino still marveled at how narrative craft could elicit the experiential and the emotional and the felt from words on a page! That's why he was waving his arms around.
You're currently working on a novel. Can you talk a bit about it and how the process of writing a novel is different for you from writing a short story?
I think the narrative challenge in short story and novel is the same—sustaining profluence, John Gardner's wonderful term for dramatic forward movement, that sense that the story is moving ineffably yet unerringly toward some ending. The problem for me is that novels are … well, longer than short stories. Profluently speaking, if a short story is a sprint, then a novel is a marathon that has to feel like a sprint. And so my initial approach was to spend about a year simply structuring the thing, mapping out five or six sections, and determining whose drama gets told where, and what happens in each, and how it leads to the next. It sounds very rigorously schematic, I know, but I had to at least begin this way. So far, this structural framework has held—I'm not afraid of the novel anymore—and it's freed me up to develop each section, and the characters and interactions therein, allowing for discovery and surprise that feels true to character.