Daniel Orozco's work has appeared in the Best American Essays, Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies, and in Harper's Magazine, McSweeney's, and Zoetrope All-Story. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Idaho.
Sara Scoville, student Fiction Editor, provides an entertaining and informative interview with contributor Daniel Orozco for Superstition Review. Sara writes, "I was first introduced to Mr. Orozco's work through a story of his 'Orientation': Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French during one of my early creative writing courses. This story appealed to my sense of humor, and I could relate it to my own experiences in the corporate world. This interview posed an opportunity to track down more of his work and learn more about him as a writer. In doing so, I found three more of his stories online: Officers Weep, Somoza's Dream, and I Run Every Day, which aided in the development of some of my questions. I find his work fascinating, and the online interview I conducted with Mr. Orozco will hopefully attract others to his writing."
Superstition Review: Who have you studied under, and who has had a major influence on your work?
Daniel Orozco: I've been in a few writing programs so this reads like a list, but it's The List: Molly Giles, Frances Mayes, David Bosworth, David Shields, Maya Sonenberg, Tobias Wolff, John L'Heureux, Elizabeth Tallent, Gil Sorrentino. They've all been major; there are no minors. Each was essential to my progress and development. Each was an influence, and I owe them all. Giles, for instance, was the first to teach me—very early on—how stories are constructed, how they don't just happen. Mayes convinced me that my desire to write was not frivolous, that my wanting to write somehow mattered. The Bosworth-Shields-Sonenberg triumvirate taught me rigor. And so on.
SR: What made you realize that you wanted to write?
DO: Every writer has an origin story. Mine might not be a very inspiring one, I'm afraid. I wrote stories in grammar school and high school when they were assigned. In my youth I never entertained the idea of being a writer. And I hated college; I was an indifferent student, on academic probation for a time. I was introverted and kind of angry. When I graduated I never wanted to go back to school, never wanted to write a goddamn thing as long as I lived. But after ten or so years in the workforce, I started tinkering with a story idea. It's a mystery to me, still. I spent months working on that story—I kept going back to it; I didn't leave it alone—and when I finished it I used it to get into the writing program at San Francisco State University. I guess I enjoyed writing it, but I still never thought of myself as "wanting" to write. What arrogance, after all, to want to be a writer! But I worked on that story until it was done. It felt like an act of desperation. Maybe it was the last chance? A Hail Mary pass? I was in my early thirties. I remember a vaguely dissatisfied and self-conscious man, always inside his head, who seemed to enjoy nothing, but who found—in the work of imagining and constructing lives in narrative—some kind of contentment or satisfaction or joy, or whatever you want to call it.
SR: What is your most memorable writing first?
DO: They all still feel like firsts, a little bit. So, the most memorable for me would be the first one—my first story publication in a college journal, almost twenty years ago. To see what you wrote, typeset and bound, your work in a book, moving out into the world of books to find an audience—that's pretty memorable, I think.
SR: You are a former Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer, as well as MacDowell Colony fellow. How have these experiences defined you as a writer? As a teacher?
DO: As a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, I sat around a table for two years with the most perceptive readers you can imagine. Listening to them engage stories, I learned to listen, to hone my own critical sense, so that I could go off and engage my own stories. A writer must be alone to write, but a writer does not develop alone. There's the tradition—the stories of all the writers who were writing before you came along. And there's the community—the teachers and colleagues, the mentors and benefactors who've taken an interest in what you do, and who offer their time and their space—a place at the table—for you to keep doing it.
The MacDowell Colony is a blessed retreat in southwest New Hampshire, and solitude is privileged there. You are undisturbed in your studio in the woods; a lunch basket is brought to you on tiptoe. But there are thirty studios spread all over those woods, and all the artists in them come together every evening for dinner. I'm getting a bit romantic and dewy-eyed here, but sometimes you feel all alone writing, and the value of places like this is to remind you that you are a part of something bigger, that you don't toil alone.
SR: Why do you teach? Is it something you've always wanted to do?
DO: I'd done employee training and orientations during my office work days, and I kind of liked showing people the ropes, answering questions, initiating the uninitiated. I felt like I was helping, and it felt good to help. Why do I teach now? The short answer is that teaching is how I earn a living. But it also gets me out of the house, out of my head, out of my stories and into the stories of others. I don't think I can be one of those writers who just writes. Writing is a solitary endeavor, a closing down of the outside world in order to sound and echo the inside world. Maybe I don't have enough friends. Perhaps I should get a dog, or a hobby. But I need to get out, and teaching engages me enough to get me out.
Also, the truism that teaching is the best way to learn is applicable here—reading student stories keeps my critical faculties honed and sharp. It's still practice for me; reading stories and figuring out how they work is critical exercise, and exercise is good for you, isn't it? Sometimes, though, it wears me down. Every spring semester I can't wait for my summer off. But by the end of summer, I'm looking forward to autumn for classes to begin. I think when it stops engaging me like that, that's when I'll stop teaching.
SR: I read in another interview that you are a self-proclaimed "slow writer." Could you expound on this statement? What is your process? What are you working on currently?
DO: I can spend a week on a paragraph. I've spent a month on the first page, pondering and noodling until I nail the voice, after which things go a little faster. I spend hours poring over a thesaurus and a dictionary, making lists of words, crossing them out until I find the right one. I'll read passages aloud, again and again and again, and again. Some writers bang out a fifty-page draft, then pare it down to the twenty pages they were looking for. My stories accrete like oysters—two pages, two-and-a-half, three, four, four-and-a-half, until I get my twenty pages. My slowness used to drive me crazy, but I've embraced it in the last few years, and since I've done that, I've actually gotten faster, or rather, more efficient at writing short stories. I don't agonize over every sentence quite so much as I used to. I wrote my last story in four months, which is fast for me. But I'm working on a novel now—I'm walking a marathon—and so the days of fastness are over.
SR: In "Orientation," you exploit the politics, bureaucracy, and mundane nature of the office environment. It reminds me of the movie, "Office Space." What inspired you to write it? Have you ever resided in cubicle life, or does this piece mirror your perceptions of what it might be like?
DO: I've worked in offices for about eleven years, mostly in Human Resources, and I've also worked as a temp. So "Orientation" reflects a kind of life lived in offices. In the early stages of the story I'd set out to write a romance between two co-workers; the office was to have been just the setting for a drama. But I couldn't manage the romance, and I soon became intrigued with the office as drama. And the drama is large in an office, huge and momentous, and manifested in the most mundane things—the jammed photocopier, the misplaced (or, stolen!) stapler, the yen for a longer job title on your nameplate. The coffee pool is a binding blood oath. The fifteen-minute break is a sacrament. There's pathos in all of that, something both ridiculous and profound, and that's what I wanted to write about.
Also: You hear a little bit about everybody in an office—more than you ever want to know. And if you work there long enough, you can know everything about somebody, without ever meeting their family or being invited to their home, without ever seeing what they wear when they're not at work. That's the paradox of intimacy in office life—knowing so much about people you don't know at all—that I wanted to try to dramatize in a story.
SR:The main character in "I Run Every Day" conveys a sense of separation from society; he's essentially a loner that merely coexists with the outside world without connecting with others or forming relationships. Much like Rilke, which he references throughout the story, he sees human beings as spectators of life. What were you trying to accomplish with this character? What views of yours does he stay true to, if any?
DO: I wanted to see if I could tell a story about absolute solitude. It's the challenge of overcoming the pathetic fallacy: can you tell a story about complete emotional disengagement in a way that engages the reader emotionally? In terms of solitude, Rilke's Letters to A Young Poet seemed a rich source for the story. In fact, the original working title was from Rilke: "It Is Good to Be Solitary, for Solitude Is Difficult." The main character reads Rilke and quotes from him, but he misinterprets him completely. He gets it so wrong. Rilke believed that solitude was a transformative phase, a kind of preparation for something greater. The protagonist in "I Run Every Day" reads Rilke selectively; the Letters are for him an instruction manual on how not to need anybody. But just a few lines down from the above quote that was my working title, Rilke writes: "To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation." My runner doesn't read this part; or rather, he does read it, but it doesn't mean anything to him. My runner is an incipient sociopath. But even monsters are human, or were once. I think the tragedy of this character is that he is offered a chance to recognize the human—in himself, in another—and he rejects it completely.
SR: There is an apparent cadence in your writing coupled with a sardonic tone, and I've read in another interview that you listen to music while you write. How much is your writing influenced by music? What do you listen to?
DO: I couldn't say how the music I listen to influences what I write. I know that it plays little or no role in the cadences and rhythms of voice or speech in whatever I'm working on. For that I stop the music and read lines and passages aloud, over and over again, until it simply "sounds" right.
I listen to music through headphones. It keeps out the incidental noises of my apartment, of the building I live in, of the street and the city. It keeps me inside my head, and my head inside the story. I used to listen exclusively to techno music, particularly trance and dance mixes by various DJs. I liked and needed the sensation of being immersed in music that was loud and repetitive and hypnotic. But my playlist these days is much more varied; that sensation of being held under is not that necessary anymore.
The music I listen to generally has no connection with what I'm writing. I don't think about the connection, anyway. I'll listen to loud music while working on a quiet passage, or quiet music while working out a complex action sequence. When I started my novel I listened to Patty Griffin's Impossible Dream CD over and over again, for about two or three weeks. I don't know why; maybe it was some quality of her voice—both fragile and powerful—that I was tapping into for the opening section of the book.
SR: Your stories tend to explore the dynamics, politics, and sexual tension among coworkers. Why is that?
DO: I think the workplace is an ideal arena for crisis and revelation, and a very rich sub-textual dramatic space for a writer. You don't talk about who you love or hate at work (not where I've worked, anyway). At work you go along to get along, and so you avoid explicit expressions of fear or need or desire. You avoid conflict, but conflicts arise. In the smallest and most insignificant ways, you reveal all, whether taking minutes at a meeting, firing a subordinate, or poking through the lunch bags in the fridge. The surreptitious glance, the brush of an elbow, the ambivalent compliment or the inadvertent insult—everything about emotions and relationships is present just beneath the tenuous and permeable surfaces of work routine. Everything is allusive, with implication and meaning seeping from the most mundane engagements. This, of course, is my workplace—fraught with secrecy, all shadowy and troubled and barely contained. And thus, ripe for tension and drama.
SR: "Officers Weep" reads like a policeman's log, and "Orientation" like an employee handbook. How much does form play a role in your writing process? Is it a conscious effort?
DO: "Officers Weep" began during a daily train ride from home to work and back when I was teaching at Stanford. I read the police blotters that appeared in the local dailies. I started clipping these entries and kept a file of them. One student burned another with a penny. Karate instructor suspected of injuring domestic partner. Four large women suspected of stealing from a beauty supply store. These sentences read like protean stories to me, tantalizing and brief and elliptical, and in their brevity elicited a tone that was comic and absurd. So there was something about the voice, but also—and ultimately—something about the structure. This was the question in my head: Can I tell a story—sustain a drama—via the episodic structure and movement of a police blotter? Once I identified the puzzle, I started writing drafts, figuring the puzzle out until more questions arose. What kind of drama can work in tension against that flat and absurd voice? What kind of story arc can cut across all the individual blotter incidents? That's when the love story materialized—a romance between two cops.
I would say that just about every story I've written develops in this way, as a formal challenge, most often as some kind of exercise in narrative structure. I spent a year just thinking about the novel I'm working on now, and didn't start writing a word of it until I had mapped out its structure—the time frame; the number of sections; the placement among those sections of the 20-year flashback sequence; even an estimate of the number of pages, so I can get a sense of narrative pace and movement. Once form and structure are in place—what Jerome Stern has called the "shape" of the story—I then begin to "fill" it with characters in situation. This is a distillation of my process, and in practice it's really not as bloodless and schematic as it sounds. It's not just about solving a puzzle. Stories are not cold equations. In practice there is passion, and zeal! And I do, of course, have characters in mind when I'm figuring out the structural puzzle; stories are about people, but I just don't start with them.
SR: How do you think technology has impacted the literary community? What does the future of literature look like?
DO: Fewer people read books than ever before. They read blogs, USA Today, text messages. There is no patience for the extended narrative, I don't think, for the story that moves forward page by page. People generally don't immerse themselves in fiction anymore. They're too distracted to stay inside what John Gardner has called "the vivid and continuous dream" of stories and novels. Most students read only what's assigned in class and no more; reading is work for many of them, not pleasure. There will always be readers, of course, and there will always be books, but in my bleak little Luddite vision, there will be less and less of both.
SR: Although some of your characters are given names, others are given labels or are put into categories. In "Officers Weep" for example, there's Shield #'s 647 and 325, and State Patrol; Presidente-in-Exile and Cook in "Somoza's Dream." Even the Voicemail System, IN and OUT boxes, and Mr. Coffee in "Orientation" seem almost personified. What are your intentions behind this, and how do they contribute to the story?
DO: The police officers in "Officers Weep" are referred to by shield number in order to resolve a narrative problem: there are no names in a police blotter. I wanted to retain that voice of official anonymity, but I had to identify my officers, distinguish them one from the other, and "he" and "she" sounded too generic, too flat and untextured. So I decided on shield numbers, which seemed in keeping with the tone and purpose of an official log, but I also liked how unwieldy this naming became during the course of the story, rendering a comic effect to some of the deepest intimacies: Officer [Shield #647] loves how the two of them can be quiet together; officer [Shield #647] ascertains incipient boner; officer [Shield #325] gets all goose-bumpy and flustered; and so on.
In "Somoza's Dream," the naming arose from my discomfort in writing about a real-life historical figure from the recent past, one whose contemporaries are probably still alive; I simply felt . . . well, "funny" using Somoza's name over and over. So I gave him a title instead—Presidente-in-Exile—and that choice not only set me at ease, but also worked for the story in a couple of ways. It essentializes him as a character; in the world of the story, that is who he is. It brings to mind the cultural stereotypes we hold of a particular kind of petty tyrant—the banana republic dictator—that I wanted the story to play with and, hopefully, against as well. But most importantly, I think, its repetition throughout the story—the Presidente-in-Exile is peeved; the Presidente-in-Exile is taking a leak; the Presidente-in-Exile's egg is boiling—renders the Presidente-in-Exile himself a comic figure, via the ridiculous contrast between the self-importance of his title, and its frequent use in describing the mundane and boring details of a life in exile. He seems ridiculous, and that's kind of sad, and that's the emotion I hope to elicit from the reader. It's all about pathos again—compelling the reader toward compassion or pity for your character in unexpected ways.
SR: What I love about your writing is your ability to interweave humor and sarcasm within the narrative just when the reader least expects it—I like to call them "zings." How do you develop these zings? Do they form organically, or do you have a stockpiling of them just waiting to be called upon?
DO: I like that term. Zing sounds sudden and unexpected, and I think that's precisely the effect I'm reaching for when I work on particular scenes or passages—a surprising alteration in tone, generally comic, and ranging from a tiny shift away from serious intent, to a big drop—a trapdoor-ish plummet that closes off or completes a passage in some way. There is no stockpile of them, no; they arise out of the writing process, in the context of what I'm working on.
Sometimes I worry about being too "serious," and coming off as overly earnest in my writing, and so sometimes I'll undercut the seriousness, laugh at it before anybody else does. A zing—in its suddenness and surprise—also keeps a story dynamic and interesting. My other worry is boring a reader. You can not like what I write, but just don't be bored by it, please.